Interview: Nancy Means Wright

I’m a sucker for a great writer, and even better if that person has a sense of humor. You’ll find both with Nancy Means Wright. Her latest book is one of the most interesting plots I’ve heard in a while, and all the better because it’s based on a real person. Enjoy this interview!

I’ve read the bio on your website, and you seem to have a fabulous sense of humor. Have you always had this view of life or has it developed over the years?

I don’t know how fabulous—but I think it’s innate. My older brother, in particular, was always clowning around, and my sister had a contagious giggle. I recall writing silly verse when I was a kid, and in a N.J. boarding school (after my father died and my mother planted me in one for 5 years) I used to post a story daily about an imaginary character called Big Bertha on the bulletin board, and would peek around the corner to observe the reactions as classmates read her latest foolish adventure. Did they laugh? Or just smile…or walk away in disgust? I don’t know. Then I did a two-book mystery series based on my own kids’ nutty childhood spy club adventures, which won an Agatha award and Agatha finalist, respectively—so I guess humor can pay off. It offers an escape. And I think we need a sense of the absurd to survive the daily news, don’t we?

You have a diverse writing career, with poems, short stories, nonfiction and fiction. I’m exhausted just reading about all the work you’ve done. Tell us about your favorite work thus far. What inspired you to write it?

I guess my favorite is always my latest one. But I’ll be addressing that later, so for now, I’ll choose Harvest of Bones, second in the Willmarth mystery series from St Martin’s Press (‘98). I dedicated the novel to my great aunt Evelyn, who was born on a Vermont farm, and in her forties married a NY Times proofreader named “Mac” McGregor; they lived together for five hellish, scotch-swilling years, until one day he left and never came back. Family legend said she did him in. And maybe she did—she had a full-bodied temper. So in HARVEST OF BONES a rented greyhound digs up a skeleton with a Scots bonnet on his skull, and everyone, including herself, thinks it’s Mac—and that she killed him. The book is now back in print and an ebook from Belgrave House.

It’s wonderful that you got to pen Vermonters at Their Craft with your daughter. Tell us how this project came about?

For about a decade, after teaching in an all boy’s school (think locker room), I ran a craft shop in our barn called Cornwall Crafts. I sold pottery, weavings, and other crafts, and hired someone to run the shop mornings while I wrote in my garret. Great aunt Evelyn loved to run the shop, and one day sold a rocking horse that happened to have one green and one blue eye: “So? It had two fathers,” she told the suspicious buyer. I put all the crazy shop stories into a memoir called Make Your Own Change. I was also on the board of the state sponsored Frog Hollow Craft Center, so with the help of my daughter, just out of grad school, interviewed 30 Vermont craftspeople to describe their work and creative process. Fun to work with one’s daughter! I’ve since used a weaver, potter, and an Abenaki Indian basketmaker from that book as characters. A story of mine in Redbook, for example, featured a woman who made batiks—a great metaphor for character in the way, like personality traits, one layers color over color over color.

You’ve been published for over thirty years now. How have you seen the publishing industry change over the years?

I wrote my first two novels on a typewriter with black carbon paper stuck between pages to make copies. I recall retyping a YA novel, Down The Strings, some twenty times till I got it right—and then my editor asked me to cut it by 10,000 words! So I excised about 400 words out of each chapter and had to retype all over again. Then came the Selectric, and in 1985 I got my first computer—deleting with abandon—whee-ee! Next the internet, e-mail, and now ebooks for my out-of-print books, and more and more marketing for the author and here I am on a blog tour—something undreamt of back in the seventies when my first novel was published. A regular roller coaster.

How did the Ruth Willmarth series come about?

I was divorced back in 1990 and feeling like a pariah in my home town, went down to Poughkeepsie, NY to teach in a small college. Back in Vermont for a weekend I read a piece in the local Free Press about two elderly farmers who were assaulted one night and robbed of the money they kept in barn rafters and barncoat pockets. The cops found the guys when they threw the money around in the bars—and it reeked of barn! I’d never thought of writing a mystery till then, but now I had to. Since I was no Sam Spade, I made my sleuth an amateur sleuth—myself, partly, and cast as a single mother dairy farmer. I sold Mad Season, to St. Martin’s Press and wrote four more after that. The series ended when my Ruth’s cows were quarantined for mad cow disease, and taken away. Ruth wept and I wept and—where could I go after that?

Midnight Fires, your latest book, out next month (April 2010), fictionalizes the fascinating real life 18th century Mary Wollstonecraft. Her life is an interesting one indeed! How did you become interested in her and what can readers expect from Midnight Fires?

I first read about her in a circle of Unitarian women, and then taught her in a college course called “Women and Literature.” In 1792 she wrote the groundbreaking A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a work that people either loved or loathed.”). She advocated divorce, breastfeeding, and coeducational schools in which females could receive the same broad education as males. She later set off waves of scandal through her endorsement of the French Revolution, the illegitimate child engendered during the Great Terror, and her suicide attempts when the cad abandoned her. Her short life was a continual struggle between her rational principles and her own sexuality. Sadly, she died ten days after giving birth to a second, legitimate daughter, Mary, who was to marry the poet Shelley and become the author of Frankenstein.

Midnight Fires is set in Ireland—in Mitchelstown Castle, home of the notorious Anglo-Irish Kingsboroughs, where she went to be a governess to three of Milady’s twelve unruly children. I’ve made the novel a mystery because Mary was so strong minded and charismatic, so intolerant of injustice, that in my opinion she makes an terrific sleuth. Many of the books’ characters are real, like Mary, and I’ve tried to remain true to their time, place, and characters. But I’ve also added a fictional aristocrat who is stabbed with a butcher’s knife during a pagan festival, and a family of rebel peasants—one of whom is falsely accused of that murder.

Mary was far from perfect and made some crazy mistakes in her life (as I have), but always owned up to them and vowed to improve. I’m still learning about her, and hope readers will check out my Facebook fan page: “Becoming Mary Wollstonecraft,” and add their thoughts about women’s education, rights, conflicts.

Share some of your writing goals. What’s next for you?

In 2011 a sequel, The Nightmare, will be out from Perseverance Press. In this, Mary is back in London after being fired from her governess position). “The Nightmare” is a celebrated, erotic painting by 18th century artist Henry Fuseli, for whom Mary had an unrequited passion (she offered to move in with him and his wife, and of course the latter threw her out). In my novel the painting is stolen, and a dead woman trussed up to look like the painting. The third in the series will be set during the French Revolution when Mary was in real danger: France was at war with England, and there was English Mary, in love and pregnant, and wandering blithely about the bloody city as if she were immortal. I’ve also a group of poems about her life on my website.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read? Favorite authors?

My favorite authors are Shakespeare (he constantly surprises and thrills), Dickens (ditto)—and I especially love his Tale of Two Cities for the writing, the intrigue, the insight into the French Revolution: he puts me right there. I love all the Brontës (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights…), Jane Austen (everything) Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kate Atkinson (her PI Jackson series), and a long list of other writers! I read several books a week, along with a ton of research.

In your opinion, what’s the measure of a successful writer?

Good question! In a money sense, maybe, the best seller list. Or starred reviews, prizes, and general acclaim. But to me, personally, it’s something else. Can I relate to the characters? Are they well drawn, believable? Does the writing continue to astonish me on every page? Do I finish the book and still hold it in my lap and let the story keep winding and unwinding itself in my head? This for me, is the measure of a successful writer.

Advice for other writers?

If you’re looking for a publisher, check out my website on how I used my husband to snag an agent. If you plan to write—you must read, read, and write, write, and then network. It’s a tough, crazy, gyrating, narcissistic world out there. A little luck can’t hurt either, along with a good supply of Tylenol in the bathroom closet.

Where can we learn more about you?

From my website. Or my family. But please don’t ask! I’d be afraid to hear what they say.

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