How an unconventional childhood prepared Marissa Stapley for life as a writer
Marissa Stapley is the bestselling author of the novel Mating for Life. Her latest, Things To Do When It's Raining, follows New Yorker Mae Summers as she returns to her childhood home after her fiancé disappears with all their money.
Below, Stapley takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight questions from eight fellow authors.
1. Sharon Butala asks, "What is the main question that you wish somebody would ask you, although nobody ever has?"
I'm always pleasantly surprised by the thoughtful questions interviewers ask — and I honestly can't think of a single question I haven't been asked yet that I wish people would (aside from, "How does it feel to have Helen Mirren playing the lead role in the film adaptation of your novel?" of course!). The author life involves so many phases, on repeat. There's the "writing cave" phase, during which time I become socially awkward and find the idea of being asked questions about my fledgling work terrifying; the revising and editing phase, when I tend to commune with author friends as much as possible because they're the only ones who understand why I'm talking to myself; and then, all at once, it's time to release the book out into the world and everything feels possible. Ask me anything! That's how I feel right now. (It's a brief window: I'll be back into writing my third novel soon, at which point the fear of questions will set in again.)
2. Jane Urquhart asks, "If you were forced at gunpoint to give up either reading or writing, which would it be?"
What a horrible thought. My answer has to be reading, even though the very idea of giving up reading is gutting. But the idea of giving up writing is worse. And at least if I could still write I could entertain myself with my own stories — and maybe even copy out by memory some of those favourite stories I've read over and over again. (But then I wonder how my writing would suffer if I couldn't read? This question is going to keep me up tonight.)
3. Kate Pullinger asks, "What relationship does your writing have to your own childhood, both in terms of where you grew up as well as whether or not you were a happy child?"
Hemingway said the best training for becoming a writer is an unhappy childhood, didn't he? My childhood wasn't necessarily unhappy, but it was complicated. I think all of the things I have experienced have made me the person I am, and the writer I am. I think there are stories I'd like to write that have a closer relationship to my childhood, but I'm not ready yet. The idea that love is a choice and family can be a choice, though — so far that has been an important concept in all my books. And I know exactly where this comes from in my own past. I have no idea what it's like to be a part of a conventional family, and sometimes as I child it was all I wanted. I never felt normal! (Sorry, family. Love you.) But now I see how my upbringing gave me a deep understanding of the complexities of life and relationships. I'm grateful for it. The harder path is always better for the writing life. At least that's what I tell myself when the going gets tough.
4. Ausma Zehanat Khan asks, "If you discovered a terrible secret about someone that you knew would make for an exceptional story, would you make use of it? Would you tweak it to protect the person's identity if you knew that weakened the story?"
It would depend on whose secret it was. If it belonged to a friend or family member, absolutely not. (Okay: I'd probably ask for permission and pray he or she said yes.) If I'd overheard it from a stranger, I would likely use it, I'll admit. All authors are are guilty (but is it a sin?) of stealing the shiny, interesting tidbits of information, interaction, emotional insight they witness while out in the world — and these don't necessarily have to be secrets. It's amazing what people will say out loud in coffee shops, restaurants or on the streetcar. But stories take on a life of their own once they're on the page. I always find that by the time a story that may have been inspired by something I overheard has been through a few drafts, the reality that inspired it is as small as a grain of sand.
5. Adam Sternbergh asks, "Do you plot your novels in advance and, if so, how?"
It depends on the book I'm writing, but a pattern seems to be emerging: I tend to fly blind for the first draft because sticking to an outline when you're still trying to get to know your characters is so limiting. If you don't know them yet, how can you know precisely what they're going to do and when? But once the first draft is out, I write an outline I use as a roadmap. There may be detours, and I may throw it away altogether eventually, but it's nice to know it's there.
6. JJ Lee asks, "What kind of food do you eat during a writing day?"
I often wake up quite early to write, and have a giant mug (think Lorelai Gilmore) I fill with coffee so I don't have to get up and refill — but I still do. I'm already over-caffeinated by mid-morning, so I switch to tea: a pot of it I bring to my desk and keep warm with my late grandmother's tea cozy (is there anything nicer than a tea cozy? It makes me happy every time I use it). But food? If I'm really into a draft, I eat whatever my husband brings me. He works from home too, and is afraid of me when I'm hungry. I think I need a snack drawer in my office, filled with healthy, mind-stimulating, mood-balancing snacks. Now to research what those are …
7. Sharon Bala asks, "Have you ever published anything you wish you could take back?"
Not yet. Unless you're talking about Twitter.
8. Louise Bernice Halfe asks, "Where does the story come from?"
The story comes from every emotion I have ever felt, every word I have ever said or heard, every person walking past me on the street, every sad story or happy story anyone has ever told me. They seem to come from nowhere, but they have to come from somewhere. I love that what feels like magic is really quite basic: our experiences of the world. I was recently on holiday with my family in Jamaica and I thought of a book idea on the bus on the way back to the airport. I wrote it down when I got home and saved it in a document folder I keep called "Ideas." The fact that it's full makes me feel very secure. I live in fear of running out of ideas, but it's a silly thing to fear. Life is full of inspiration.