Author of the Month
Marlena Thompson [February 2005]
Chosen by reviewer Carolyn Howard-Johnson, MyShelf.Com
Of Books, Compassion, Ireland and More
Marlena Thompson is a fortunate author. She has the luxury of living alone (imagine! no unwanted noise!) in a lovely village near Washington D.C. called Falls Church. American history walks the streets there; one sees names like “George Mason” and “Lee” on the directionals at each corner, the trees are ancient (by American standards) and its shopping area has maintained a Colonial quality--brick and shutters abound. Her home is small by contemporary standards but, she says, large enough for her. She once lived in Salt Lake City, the city where my This is the Place is set (small world isn’t it?), where she acquired her writing desk. It holds memories of her loved and deceased husband, Steve. Marlena and I agree that so much of good writing--whether an author is writing nonfiction or fiction--hinges on memories. You will see, when you have read her new book and this interview, how important the view from that desk-- whether it is snowfall, or emerging leaves in spring--are to her writing.
Carolyn: Marlena, I don't read many mysteries so I don't know if your A Rare & Deadly Issue is the norm but it seemed there was just so much to learn from it; you must have a background in antique books, and more. What aspects of the book did you draw from your own history and your own interests?
Marlena: Yes, I do collect books. I write in what I call my “library” because it is filled, top to bottom, with books. Many are those I reviewed during the past five years, or collected during the past two decades. The rest are those I think imperative for research I 'might do' for future projects.
Carolyn: You travel some, so I know that of the "Irish Influence" in Deadly Issue has something to do with your background. Tell us all about your interest in that country and your travels there.
Marlena: I discovered Ireland in my university days, 1000 years ago or so. I studied at the University of Leeds, in Yorkshire -- but felt very much an 'outlander.' At that time, friends introduced me to Ireland. I traveled to the north first. The atmosphere there was very, very tense at the time, because of the renewal of what is known as The Troubles, i.e., the conflict between Protestants and Catholics. But regardless of The Troubles, the people I encountered were so welcoming and accepting, I fell in love immediately with the country. Also, it suited me personally. I am a singer as well as a writer, and music and storytelling are two of Ireland's greatest gifts to western civilization. I knew Ireland would become a spiritual sanctuary for me for the rest of my life and it has. I've spent a lot of time there, both in the North and South, over the years. I lived and breathed Irish culture -- literature, music, history, etc., for years, so it is only natural that should be reflected in the novel.
Carolyn: I was also intrigued by the aspect of a young woman who was half one religion and half another. That is one of the narrative threads running through my first novel, This is the Place. Can you elaborate on that?
Marlena: Intermarriage is alive and well in my family as well. Although my parents were Jewish, my maternal grandmother has Catholic antecedents. My late husband of almost 25 years was Episcopalian (although his mother was born a Mormon and his father, a Quaker -- and as a child, Steve attended the Presbyterian Church), and my nieces and nephews are all intermarried and raising children who are 'religiously integrated.' It seemed very natural that my protagonist should come from a mixed background. That fact made it easier for me to know her.
Carolyn: You have a handicapped daughter whom you love dearly. I know that loving her has been an amazing trek for you and that it is the subject of your next book, A Portrait of Jenny. Do you mind sharing some of that story?
Marlena: I would be happy to share some of her story. Raising Jenny has changed my life -- and made me believe that she was given to me for a reason. She is autistic -- that is, communicatively handicapped -- and because I communicate easily, if I'm not careful, I can be glib and communicatively superficial. Living with Jenny has made that impossible. I have become more aware of words, their weight, significance -- and limitations.
I am familiar with many narratives by parents of autistic children and found that most fell into two categories-- the ones in which the parents, after searching long and hard, finally discover a "cure" for autism -- a particular diet, therapy, or mechanism -- or the ones that described the trials and tribulations of raising an autistic child. In truth, autism has no cure, although some interventions can help. Children who are truly autistic remain that way for their lives because it is a lifelong affliction. So I wrote a book about Jenny's gifts and strengths -- her creativity, and her love of travel, her special relationship to animals, and her tremendous capacity for enjoying life. Although I am writing about the particular, I think the book offers assurance to other parents of autistic children who have not found "the cure" -- that autism notwithstanding, their children can live happy, fulfilled, and productive lives.
Carolyn: I understand that you are looking for a publisher for this new book. What means are using to find one?
Marlena: Old fashioned ones. I am sending out manuscripts --first to agents and publishers. Several agents are still considering the book -- but they take an age to review so I have gone directly to publishers.
It is a hard search. But I am prepared to search out smaller presses -- and do what I can to get this book in print because I think it is a worthy story -- Jenny's story.
Carolyn: Obviously A Portrait of Jenny is nonfiction. Do you consider it a biography? A memoir? A cross-genre? Once published, what do you feel readers will gain from it?
Marlena: I suppose technically it's a memoir -- I would call it 'creative nonfiction,' as it includes both dialogue and narrative. In my response to the question immediately preceding this, I described how I think parents of other autistic children -- especially young children - could benefit from this book. But parents of any child deemed 'special" especially those who are attention deficit, have Tourette's Syndrome, or any other severe learning or communication disability, would also be able to identify with Jenny's -- and my -- story. I think professionals who work with special kids could also benefit But because autism has become so prevalent and has been depicted often (if incorrectly) in the popular media -- in films such as Rain Man and others, I think many people in the general population would be interested in the story of a 'true' autistic person. It might help to dispel many of the myths that still abound today.
Carolyn: I have this theory that though fiction writers like to tell a good story, there is nothing that is written that is "pure fiction," just as there is nothing ever written that is "pure truth." Everything gets filtered through the writer and the reader with, possibly, a few layers of interpretation between the two. Bookselling is part of your life, just as it is part an important part of your protagonist's, life. What do you see as the similarities and differences between your protagonist and yourself?
Marlena: Jenny, my protagonist, has a lot of 'me' in her. But she has more confidence than I have. Although she was orphaned as a child, her family -- her grandparents and uncles -- were very caring and protective. She was not neglected. I believe confidence is created in the very early years of childhood. My own childhood was a different affair and so although I may seem confident, I am not. Jenny is how I am perceived -- but am not.
We are both naive in that we believe that somehow, justice will prevail. Even though I know it does not, on some level, I have never relinquished this belief.
Carolyn: If you could tell your boss (a bookseller) one thing about writers or books that you think he or she doesn't know, what would it be?
Marlena: There are likely more worthy books that haven't been accepted for publication by mainstream publishers than all those sold by all the main book companies put together.
Carolyn: If you had only 25 words to advise a young writer, what would you tell her?
Marlena: Write about those things for which you have a passion.
Carolyn: What advice would you give women about choosing writing as a career?
Marlena: I would say to try and use rejection letters to one's benefit rather than to allow them to crush the spirit. As a young woman, I was often devastated by callous or cold rejection letters. If an editor takes time to be specific -- after I spend a day or so fuming and pouting, etc., I re-read the letter and pay attention to the critique -- sometimes I'm able to use it to improve my writing.
2005's Honorary List