Reliance, Illinois
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A Potpourri of Interview Questions

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Mary | 33 comments I find interviews a great deal of fun. They allow me to reconsider, and put into words, the decisions (conscious and unconscious) that go into writing a book. And, odd as it sounds, with every interview I learn something about the writing process, and about my book, that I didn’t know before.

Rather than provide a complete interview, I’ve cobbled together a collection of some of my favorite questions and offered links to the interviews from which they came. If you prefer radio/podcasts, check out my interview with the insightful David Wilk on Writers Cast: The Voice of Writing ( I’ve also excerpted interview questions from Shelf-Unbound, from pages twelve and thirteen of the magazine. Feel free to ask me about anything else you feel is missing in the discussion. Enjoy!


1. Your books, Crown of Dust and Reliance Illinois, explore the history of strong women. How did you come to be interested in these two topics: Women in the gold rush era and women suffragettes? (Robin Rice Martinez - Explorations)

MV: I love the term “strong women!” I imagine the athletes I grew up with on the basketball, court. Tall, muscular, swaggering. In fiction I think the term means something else. By “strong women” we mean complicated and fully conceived characters who are not simply pawns, but actors in a story. Actors in their own story. Women with opinions and passions. Women who assume roles that don’t merely compliment men but influence a community. Outcasts who don’t (or can’t) embrace the functions they’re meant to fill. Women who, in an effort to survive, discover their strength. Women who wish to exert their will and who find ways of doing so, not always with noble intentions or happy ends. I’m drawn to these personalities, in fiction and in history. There are women like this in every historical period, really. I happened to look first at the Gold Rush and then to Reconstruction era suffragists.

(2) How did you come up with the name of the imaginary town, Reliance, Illinois? (Margaret Brown - Shelf Unbound Magazine)

MV: I titled the book and named the town after Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance. I remember loving the essay in college. It still moves me. The problem is that the premise of the essay presupposes that all people are born with the freedom to take responsibility for their circumstances, which isn’t true. Slavery wasn’t abolished until decades after the essay was published, and for most of the nineteenth century (and well into the twentieth) a woman’s body, her belongings, even her children, became property of her husband upon marriage. She might have wished for self-reliance but barred from most professions and without the means to better herself, she was reduced to an ornament if she were rich, and a laborer if she were not.

The story explores these realities. Some female characters strive for, and some achieve, a measure of autonomy. To others, self-reliance remains a fantasy. All characters, men and women, rely in some way on one another and on their communities...

(3) Why did you choose to make your character Madelyn disfigured? (Margaret Brown - Shelf Unbound Magazine)

MV: I first imagined Madelyn as a grown woman, a suffragette in Oakland, whose birthmark and appearance enhanced her fame. Then I wondered what kind of childhood she would have had to endure to prepare her for such a role? How did this woman come to be and would she trade her fame for an anonymous beauty?

The questions became part of the main story line of the book. How will Madelyn come to terms with her appearance? Does she? What hardships does it impose? What assumptions will people have about her? How will she find love, or a husband? Marriage is, after all, one of few “careers” open to her. What effect will romance stories and women’s magazines have on a girl so hopelessly beyond the ideal? What hardships do women, like Madelyn’s mother, endure because of their beauty?

In the book, these questions played out with a dramatic urgency that wouldn’t have translated if Madelyn had merely been plain or ugly. I had fun playing with masculine ideals, too. Mr. Dryfus’s limp and physical limitations and Hanley’s size affect the way they are perceived and how they encounter the world. In each case there is a difference between how a character is judged based on their appearance and who they are inside.

(4)There is much misfortune in the novel, yet you end on a note of optimism, with the last line in which Maddy says: "And I am filled again with a familiar, stubborn, and obligatory hope." Why choose this ending?  (Margaret Brown - Shelf Unbound Magazine)

MV: There is misfortune in the book, but it was always a story about hope and optimism. When you’re young, you hope for yourself. It’s naïve and fragile and easily lost. The sturdier kind is the obligatory hope you maintain for the next generation. Young Madelyn is the vessel into which Miss Rose and Mrs. French pour their hopes. Later, Madelyn hopes for her daughters. This naïve and obligatory hope lives side by side, and allows for a generational resilience, without which these slow social changes would not be impossible. It’s a powerful and necessary combination.

The books ends in 1908, years before the passage of the nineteenth amendment. The narrator, an older Maddy, doesn’t know if her efforts to gain the vote will be successful in her lifetime. But we know better. We know the law did, finally, change. The optimism we feel at the end of the book should be our own.

(5) How do you research the historical periods? (Marianne Lonsdale – Literary Mama)

MV: I take it in stages. After I become obsessed with a time period and place, I start with a global view. I find out what was going on in the world. Even if my characters are not fully aware of these events, their lives will be, to various degrees, affected. Then I narrow my focus. Much of my research begins online, then I head to libraries. I would be lost without libraries and librarians. I read period newspapers, novels, and magazines. I read journals and firsthand accounts and biographies. I look at maps and draw (I love maps). For my second novel, I covered one wall with Civil War portraits and sketches and used them as models for characters.

Research trips to locations are helpful, too, though you can't return to a time. I first thought the story would take place in St. Louis and traveled to that city. But, on a whim, I went across the river to Illinois and was drawn to the bluffs and prairie and to the volatile, untold history of the place.

(6) While you are writing, having your research easily accessible must be critical. How do you organize your materials? (Marianne Lonsdale – Literary Mama)

MV: As an ugly mess at first! I'm not sure what I'm looking for or what I'll need at the beginning. I use a crate of hanging files and start adding tabs. For Reliance, Illinois, some of the tabs were Obscenity Laws, Marital Law, Contraceptives Law, Mississippi Flora and Fauna. Oh, and Clothes. I don't care about clothes, in general, but there's a lot of drama and social history wrapped up in women's clothing. I needed to know about bust lines and bustles because my characters would be judged by them. I needed to know just how many inches those bustles took up on dresses.

(7) I'm always interested in the different approaches authors use to develop their books. How do you construct a novel? (Marianne Lonsdale – Literary Mama)

MV: I handwrite notes on yellow legal pads: character notes and story notes that make their way to three-ring binders. Once I know what notes will be important to the story, I type them up and keep them as files on my computer so I can find them easily as I write and revise.

My first novel, Crown of Dust, was pretty straightforward, written in present tense and taking place over just a few months. The second novel was more complicated. I had great difficulty determining the structure and the voice. I needed a retrospective narrator, capable of looking back at herself with humor but who was still very much subject to the drama and emotion of the scene she was recounting. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Lynn Freed's Home Ground, and Dickens’s Great Expectations were my models. I took those books with me wherever I went, along with Twain's Life on the Mississippi. And Ivan Doig's Whistling Season. A bookstore owner near Seattle recommended this book for its narrator, and I adore it.

I had great difficulty determining the structure of the second novel. I read plays to get a better sense of how scenes build on one another and ended up adapting a three-act structure for the novel. Reading plays, I learned to visualize the emotional arc of each act and craft scenes to fit the arc.

(8) A common refrain in writing is to write what you know. I'm not sure how that applies to historical fiction. (Marianne Lonsdale – Literary Mama)

MV: The majority of what I write about is not bound or limited by a time period. The real story is in the relationships between people. How communities respond to crisis. The nature of love and loss. The complicated bonds between mothers and daughters, between friends and lovers. The dynamics of power in small towns. All of these concerns are timeless. They can be observed every day. The rest, I can learn.

Find more interviews here:

Mary | 33 comments To enter a raffle to win a copy of Reliance, Illinois write me at with "I want to win Reliance, Illinois!" in the subject line.

To enter a raffle to win a copy of Crown of Dust write me at with "I want to win Crown of Dust!" in the subject line.

Beverly Mary wrote: "I find interviews a great deal of fun. They allow me to reconsider, and put into words, the decisions (conscious and unconscious) that go into writing a book. And, odd as it sounds, with every inte..."
Fascinating questions posed in these interviews. I wanted to comment on the discussion of strong women. I love reading historical fiction about strong women, defined as you suggested because they have been so overlooked in our history. We learn about strong men who are accomplished, successful and admirable when we study history in school. Yet we seldom learn about strong women who are accomplished, successful and admirable.

Mary | 33 comments Beverly wrote: "Mary wrote: "I find interviews a great deal of fun. They allow me to reconsider, and put into words, the decisions (conscious and unconscious) that go into writing a book. And, odd as it sounds, wi..."

I agree Beverly. There's a wonderful phrase coined by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: Well behaved women seldom make history. She wrote a fascinating book by the same title. One of the things I took away from the book, and from my research, is that women have always been held to higher (perhaps impossible) moral standard than men. Some of the most venerated men in history were terribly flawed. Yet their moral failings were forgiven because of their gifts. We have not been as willing to celebrate women, gifted or not, who fail or refuse to adhere (as men do) to moral codes of conduct.

Victoria Woodhull, one of the women I researched for the character Miss Rose, is one such example. In 1872, she was the first woman to run for president of the United States. Her reputation is growing, but I'm still shocked how few people know her name.

She was not a moral paragon by the standards of the day (perhaps even the standards of today). She was a spiritualist, a stock broker, a publisher... but she was also terribly contentious and challenged ideals of womanhood and held important and powerful men (like Henry Beecher) accountable for their hypocrisy. For this she had been written out of history. I don't exactly find her admirable, but I find her fascinating and very much worth remembering!

For more on Victoria Woodhull try: Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith.

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