Hello everybody! Today I am very happy to welcome Myra McLarey, author of “The Last Will and Testament of Rosetta Sugars Tramble” to Coffee and a Keyboard. Thank you so much for being here!
When and why did you begin writing?
I was in my mid thirties and saw a brochure on the Bread Loaf School of English. They had money from the Rockefeller Foundation which was to be used to bring rural teachers to the mountain for their summer program. They required a written sample, so I decided to write a poem or two. I did, sent them in—got the grant, and that summer I took a poetry writing course taught by Laurence Raab. He was a tough taskmaster—but I learned so much about language and making each word count. I left there thinking I’d write more poetry. I had a sabbatical, was living in Australia and had time to indulge myself, so I sat down and started a poem which became a short story. I sent it off to a writer friend who encouraged me to “slide from poetry to fiction.” So I sat down to write another short story and that became a novel—which is still in the drawer. A few years later, when I first began teaching at Harvard (in 1989), I was living with Richard Marius and his wife, Lanier. After dinner, Richard would go to his office and type away on his novel. Lanier, a draftsperson, would go to her room and work an architectural drawing. I would go to my room and read student papers. One night, with all the papers read–and with the sound of typing coming from the Richard’s room–I decided I liked that sound, so I started yet another short story. By the time I finished it, I knew I wanted it to be part of a novel about place with each chapter centered on an event that took place in that community. That novel was Water from the Well.
What inspired you to write your latest book?
Believe it or not, I started this novel right after I got back from the thirty-five day book tour my publisher sent me on when Water from the Well was released. I was at the MacDowell Colony in the dead of winter. It’s gone through many, many visions and revisions—to borrow from T. S. Eliot. I have added to and thrown away enough paper to fill the back end of a pick-up truck—or so it seems. I always knew I would return to the communities of Sugars Spring and Bethel to see what else it has to tell me—because somehow, a story begins to talk to the writer—in a manner of speaking. In between the start and finish though, I co-wrote a children’s book with my daughter (When You Take a Pig to a Party) and co-wrote a country music love story with Linda Weeks, under the pen name of M.L. Rose. (The Road to Eden’s Ridge. It was optioned by United Artists before it folded—so it languished a while but is now under option again.) Finally, I returned to this novel and it felt fresh again and I loved revising it and seeing it take the shape I wanted.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Actually, I always leave that to the reader to say what they think the book is about. It’s not my place to tell them—except I do want them to think about the role of stories in their lives. This book is about a lot of things, but it’s certainly about the stories that are told and not told.
What books have most influenced your life most?
Probably the Bible—I grew up on the language and cadences of the King James Version. Others: Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Eudora Welty’s short stories. But there are writers who are so good that I learn by reading them: Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Jessica Treedway, Ron Hanson…and then there are the poets who influence me as well—but it would take a book. I might write one someday on what I learned from other writers.
What book are you reading now?
The books my four classes are reading (I’m re-reading)—All Quiet on the Western Front, The life of Pi, One Day in the Life of Ivan Densiovich—and the poetry of Billy Collins. On my own, I read a lot of non-fiction (history largely). And the New Yorker is always beside my bed. I just finished Jessica Treadway’s recent book which won the Flannery O’Connor Award. And now I’m getting ready to read Alexander Solzhentysin’s new book of (Postmodern) short stories.)
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Finding long chunks of time. I am not one who can sit down and write for two hours and then go about my business. I need several hours ahead of me so that I can get on a roll. Sometimes, I’ll sit down and before I know it, five hours have passed. I love those times.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Find what works for you—early morning, evening, weekends. Carve that space somehow. And always know what your next sentence will be when you stop. (I think that was Hemingway’s practice and it’s certainly mine.)
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I am a full time teacher and in 2003, I moved from the Boston area to Tennessee to be the English Chair and help start a new high school. We opened the doors in 2004, and I’m still here. So when I’m not writing, I’m teaching writing. I also have produced a show called “The Festival of Story and Song” that brings professional songwriters (among them Amy Grant and Vince Gill) students, teachers, and parents together to celebrate the spoken and written word. That is a huge undertaking so I haven’t had time to get started on my next novel, but I’m researching the early history of Iowa for it.
Where can we find more information about you and your current projects?
At http://www.myramclarey.com/ or on my Facebook fan page (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Myra-McLarey/266961326648542 )
And of course, last but not least…do you have a favorite brand, flavor, type of coffee?
I am really not a coffee drinker as I am hyped enough without caffeine—but I lived in Sweden so when I drink coffee, I like it strong, which is how the Swedes drink it. But if you read Water from the Well, there’s a “coffee” story in the chapter, “The Choosing of Little Jewel” which, in fact, is my mother’s story—so to me, strangely, drinking coffee always meant striving for independence.