In April-May of 2015, John Wisniewski of Urban Graffiti Magazine sent me a series of questions, one at a time, answered over several weeks.
Here they are:
1) When did you begin writing, Marie? What were your first published stories about?
I read a lot as a child, and on my own, felt the desire to write and then wrote my first piece of creative fiction at around age 9 or 10. As an adult, I only allowed myself to begin to write seriously once I made plans to leave the US to live as an expatriate in Asia. The writing came once I allowed it to. In Japan, I found myself writing long journal entries that seemed to be of substance beyond daily entries. My writing expanded further into short stories and poetry during the year I spent in India. Then, on to Hong Kong where I lived for two years and wrote a novel about Hong Kong and another about my experiences in India based on my journal writings and the poetry and short stories I’d written during my year there.
As a child, I spent a lot of time in libraries and at home with books. ( I also spent every Saturday, from age 7 / 8 up into my teenage years, inside the Toledo Museum of Art looking at art and in kids art classes in basement classrooms there.) I don’t know at what age I read Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe, but many of those stories were important to me. I submerged myself in books to escape my family life. I’d finish one book in 2 or 3 days and immediately start another. I have a clear and very positive recollection of sitting on my bed, at around age 9 or 10, feeling the urge to write my own stories, my own sentences and descriptions like in the books I read, only about my life. I did try. I sat on my bed and with pen and paper wrote a fictionalized account of my child-self walking to school kicking through autumn leaves on a sidewalk, describing my pleated wool skirt, shoes, the temperature of the air—the whole thing, I thought quite beautiful. But then I felt that big dilemma—what do I reveal? Do I tell my inner thoughts? What would happen if I did? No one in my life did, not really, as I recall. Everyone led such secretive internal lives. I let a girl my age read my first written piece. She said it was good. That brought another difficult question. Who was I writing for? When older, as a teenager in high school, I routinely achieved perfect scores on my papers. One year, the prim 20-something English teacher gave our class the assignment to write a paper on someone we admired and to quote that person. I found some Janis Joplin magazine interviews and chose to write about her life, quoting her — expletives not deleted. (Apparently Janis used the word “fuck” quite a lot). I sincerely thought that I had to be honest about Janis. Her profanity was necessary for her story to make sense. I thought about that and came to the only possible decision— I couldn’t edit the profanity out of her quotes. My presumed lack of culpability in using the f-word in my paper, my lack of acknowledgement of social etiquette for a girl my age by matter-of-factly using that word, caused a dilemma for the English teacher. But it was a perfect paper so she had to grade accordingly. She never said a word to me about it—perhaps I frightened her—as I watched her whisper to another teacher and their shocked expressions. (Later, I realized that I’d found a loophole—a way to use the word fuck at school.) I assumed I’d outgrow those issues, but they remained with me and my writing. Those were just the first instances I’d had to deal with them. The same sort of things continued into adulthood. The use of certain words to describe the hard lives I observed in the San Francisco Tenderloin, and then reading those words at bookstores and other venues brought those same sort of reactions.
What were your first published stories about?
My first published story was about a car trip in tropical south India. It was an old car, no air conditioning, owned by an Indian man everyone called the Director. Four men sat up-front— the Director, two Indian bank executives, and the Director’s chauffeur. All the women sat in back— me, the only American in the car (wearing black silk pants and a black silk blouse) packed side-by-side with some of the Director’s many secretaries (who wore saris and wedding rings on their toe), one had her young son with her. It was unbearably hot and I suffered in the tropical heat more than the others. We stopped to buy coconuts to drink. The Director had the bankers along to look at properties he was considering buying with a bank loan. We traveled slowly over gravel roads for a long time to get to a famous beach temple on the Bay of Bengal. At the beach, Indian men wearing only dotis swarmed me trying to sell me carved stone figures of gods. One offered me a cast bronze sculpture of the Shiva Nataraja (aka The Dancing Shiva) which has much symbolism associated with it. I think the story was about 50 pages long. It placed 3rd in a writing competition and won a cash prize and published. After that I submitted a lot of my writing to many Small Press publications. Much of what I sent out appeared in limited edition zines and literary journals.
Another short story I sent out had the title Stunned Coyote Raygun Romance, and came from my experiences working a temp job in an office of scientists who had government weapons contracts. An editor of one publication that I submitted the story to, rejected it, but lifted my title and used it on one of his own short stories published in an e-zine. My title had nothing to do with the subject matter of his story. Apparently he thought that was arty to have a title that didn’t match the story in any way. But that’s how I found out that titles cannot be copyrighted. He took my title legally, but ethically, no. Some other publication did accept and publish my story Stunned Coyote Raygun Romance. I also have stories in what might be considered dark or horror genre publications. But I prefer the literary. I have a closet full of Small Press publications containing my writing. I’m kind of hoping someone will come along and put it all into a book one day, before I accidentally burn the house down and it’s all gone.
2) Who are some of your favorite authors?
Favorite authors—Probably no one would guess that for years I preferred to read Victorian era novels. Charles Dickens started with me early because I had an elementary school teacher who read a chapter or two of Dickens to our class every day. I guess I really got stuck in that era—George Eliot, Henry James, Kate Chopin, Thomas Hardy, Thackeray, Trollope, Dostoyevsky, and the published letters of Vincent Van Gogh. Earlier writings—the Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, early Melville, Stendhal, Defoe. Later writers: Colette, Proust, D. H Lawrence, Anais Nin, Bataille, Jean Genet, Henry Miller. From the 1960s Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and from the 1970’s the novel Almost Transparent Blue by Japanese novelist Ryu Murakami—there are so many— I probably left out someone important. Of course Bukowski brought a huge freedom to written words and I read all of his books published while he had his hand in them, but I stopped reading the posthumous collections.
I do recognize that I am transgressive in my writing. Even my short story about the car trip in South India is transgressive in that a white woman travels alone in a car full of Indians and exhibits even more unconventional behaviors along the way. The transgressive does interest me, as well as the authentic. I have a faith that the authentic exists out there somewhere. That it’s possible to find in a human world where nothing is what it seems.The Transgressive, as a genre of writing, and in film, and in the visual arts, has been identified within the past couple of decades. And in identifying my own writing as Transgressive there is also the implication that my intention is to shock. There is something to that. There is an aspect of that within me, my underlying motivation, and in my use of shock as a device to reveal.More than ten years ago, my writing was called Confessional. But that designation is incorrect. Confessional implies a dark underlying motivation, when in fact, as a writer, I am transparent. Perhaps that sort of transparency is difficult to understand or accept. When I write I bring things to light. And yes, I have revealed things that others prefer remain hidden.
In some of my writing I’ve contrasted cultures—an unconventional American woman in India, an unconventional American woman in China, conventional life roles verses unconventional behavior, the lives of the rich verses the lives of the poor, encountering drug addicts and the mentally ill, dealing with the double-standards of male freedoms verses restrictions on females. But, also, I am not a documentarian. I fictionalize in my writing and I use metaphor. Most do not recognize my metaphor. For instance, I personally see the title of my book of poetry Erratic Sleep In A Cold Hotel as a metaphor for the life I live each day. While no reviewer, or any other writer I’ve known has ever recognized it as such.
4) What makes you wish to write, Marie. How do you keep the reader interested in what you are writing?
What makes you wish to write, Marie.
My writing and motivation to write comes from within. Lines and sentences form in my head and haunt me until I get them down. If I ignore a line it will persistently return until I give in and write it down. One line forms in my head, then another. More come. I write to get things out of my head. I work on my writing in my sleep. With my eyes closed I see words and sentencing form in my dreams. I wake in the morning with lines at the front of my thoughts and immediately need to write them out.
How do you keep the reader interested in what you are writing?
I ignore my feelings. Distance myself and write the words that need to be written to tell the story.
Since the1990’s I’ve published online quite a bit, as well as in Small Press print publications. Right now, I’m working on getting some of my unpublished short stories online so they can be read on iPhones and iPad etc. I’m active on social media and share links to my writing regularly in Tweets, on Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, LinkedIN, Tumblr. I write articles for a couple of online art magazines. I’ve also recently began editing my very lengthy India novel. I plan to make my India e-novel available for sale online. I already have cover art for it, but it’s going to take months to finish. So I may find ways to e-publish portions of the story as I go.
5) Can you give us a look into your next book, Marie?
Working on putting together two short stories into e-book form—since my short stories tend to be 25-50 pages in length, two together will make a book. Though very different, the two relate in that they both occur while traveling on remote roads. The first is titled Hitchhiker. It starts with a dream that is finally experienced, detail by detail, in an unexpected place. The 2nd story, The Nameless, is set in Mexico, where the protagonist experiences some intense mystical / spiritual experiences walking along a remote newly grated road though a mountain forest and arriving at a newly excavated ancient pyramid.
I’m also working on my 500 page novel manuscript, as yet untitled, about India. Plus I have hundreds of pages of related materials—notes, journals etc. I’ve read portions of my rough draft India MS at public readings and have received some positive responses—here are some short scenes lifted from different parts of my Ms:
(Excerpt 1: flooded street rain in Madras)
End of the day—I stood on the roof-covered elevated walkway looking down on the dirt road at the crazy Indian traffic. Street vendors under the Sleeping Tree—their framed images of gods and goddesses hanging on the tree trunk. I’d watch the movement each evening amid the noise and dust. The slowly closing finger leaves of the Sleeping Tree folding, pulling up arm-like branches in a self-hug. Then I heard drums and chanting, loud, coming closer— the funeral procession appeared below—passing on the way to the cremation grounds. Orange cloth that covered the body strewn with flowers—eyes closed face exposed—on a stretcher held high above the heads of the singers, shouting, dancers all around drumming though the dusty streets.
Then suddenly, rain. Amazing. The first I’d seen in tropical South India—pouring rain—I held my hand out–so fabulous and cooling. Yet the crazy Indian traffic continued, slowing a little. More and more umbrellas opened—the dusty black ones ladies in saris carried to protect themselves from the sun– now washed with rain. The quick pace of walkers underneath the umbrellas barely changed, though now they waded through ankle-deep water. The dusty street quickly filling with muddy water—the wheeled traffic slowed—it had to—now the water must have been two feet deep. The wheels of bicycles and pedal rickshaw—half seen—showed the depth. But still they pedaled, streaming trails behind them. Shirt backs, once wet with perspiration, now soaked with pure clean rain.
The Director’s servant opened one side the antique wood door so the Director could step out of his office. He emerged smiling. “Come. We will go. I must buy a fish,” he told me.
His chauffeur drove slowly through the flooded streets, rain pouring down the car windows, making seeing out and driving difficult. On a market street near the beach he pulled up close to a fish vendor’s stall. Some Tamil chatter as the vendor handed the Director a fish through the rolled down car window. The Director examining the fish held in his hands– turning it over and over—obviously pleased and enjoying the experience. He turned to me excited—“life is an adventure,” he said, “if you want to buy a fish, you buy a fish! Rain, sun, or whatever!” I laughed. I understood what he meant and felt—jubilance in the air on this now cool evening drive in the rain through the streets of Madras.
( Excerpt 2: a Pure Vegitarian)
Even my favorite Indian woman, Suddha, told me—
“you have to start eating meat again.”
“I can’t eat meat in India. I’m afraid to. I see those goats that frolic in the streets and then all those chopped up goat carcasses hanging from the ceilings of mutton stalls—their face left on or the fuzzy end of their tails still attached—no refrigeration. Flies all over the skinned flesh, hanging right next to the road with buses blasting past blowing powdery dust…”
Suddha and another woman laughing throughout my description.
“How can you tell if the meat is good or bad?” I asked.
“You have meat all packaged and clean in America?” Suddha asked, as if she’d heard that already.
I said, “yes,” knowing that in reality my body was just accustomed to a different kind of filth. I thought of the chemicals and hormones injected into the animals that became our meat back home. It’s all so repulsive. I’d rather not eat any meat anywhere.
(Excerpt 3: Housewarming)
Friday, April 24th—Today the Director invited me to a Housewarming Party
The chauffeur pulled the car up for us to get out near the entrance—the Director, his wife, who didn’t speak one word of English and had kept leaning forward in the car to look past the Director at me and mutely smile—and so the three of us stood there, a bit awkwardly, in front of this nice new concrete slab apartment building—a ghetto housing project by US standards.
They led me up into the second floor to leave my shoes in a pile of men’s and women’s sandals in the narrow passageway outside the party door. In the main room of the apartment, the floor covered with squares of spotted linoleum tiles, but no furniture. The low-light room filled with smoke. A circular three-tier stack of bricks in the center of the floor held the burning stuff—heavily smoking whole coconuts, mangos, pieces of fabric, flowers—all smoldering. Three priests of a sort, sat on the floor around the burning pyre, dressed in white dhotis, their bare chests painted with gray-white ash in dots and lines that continued down along their arms. On their foreheads, tilak V symbols representing Braham bull horns, each with a dot inside, right between their eyebrows. The three priests chanted and passed around a brass tray containing small bananas, flowers, and little piles of colored powers for guests to apply tilaks to their foreheads.
One of the priests has risen to place a braid of white jasmine flowers around the neck of an Indian woman standing beside an Indian man— the couple moving into this apartment. Excited by the good luck of having a foreigner attend her house warming—with much bowing, kneeling, and squinting from the smoke— the smiling woman insists that I take a banana that has been part of the offerings there amid bits of colored paper and dried flower petals. I asked her what was burning—the center of the fire has many round fruit-like objects tied up in red cloth—all partially blackened emitting white smoke. The hostess said, “everything—ghee, fruits, fabrics.” I got the general idea—symbolic items for their future prosperity and happiness.
Next she opened wrapped gifts—all fruits and fabrics—gold edged cloth amid Madras common plaid, as the priests drew white chalky symmetrical designs and circular patterns on the floor—chanting in chorus and performing many small ritual acts, tossing handfuls of grain, as they presided over the fire.
After the chanting stopped and the smoke clears I was invited into the back kitchen—no stove or refrigerator—just empty countertops and shelves, to meet one of the priests now on break. He’s now wearing a pair of modern eyeglasses over the ashen tilak V symbol. We’re introduced and I’m told that he’s an accountant at a computer company. But the entire time that I’m hearing the words spoken my eyes are taking in the white dhoti with gold borders, those long strings of brown seed beads around his neck that hang over his bare chest—then the tilak V of Braham horns again, the eyeglasses. I’d just watched him in there–throwing grain onto a smoldering fire in the center of a linoleum floor in the apartment living room, and now we’re conversing about computer company managers and discussing ideas.
I was just about to say something out-loud about how bizarre these contrasts appeared to me, when I realize children are gathering nearby to stare at my bizarre Western style. My clothes—a woman wearing a navy-blue skirt suit and stockings, all things they’d never seen before. This bizarre scene was looking back at me and no doubt seeing something equally bizarre.
6) In your writing the narrator seems to journey, searching for meaning. Do you find this to be true?
Yes, the narrators in my stories are often on a journey. The search may be for meaning, in a sense, for the unknown, and definitely seeking new experiences. Perhaps simply wishing to find and understand different ways of living. The quest, the search, the heroic journey, the pilgrimage, the road, taking a trip—movement bringing a flow of words. Sometimes the quest is to escape the roles and expectations back home. Sometimes the search feels led, as if by the spiritual.
7) What kind of reaction do you receive about your writing, from the press, and readers?
Well, I only ever hear from those who like my writing. The Transgressive genre, in all media, seems to be growing. My perception is that it all went deeper underground after 9/11 and now it’s re-emerging stronger than ever. The negative stuff has only come from people of past generations, who weren’t judging my writing, but me, based on values I’ve never known. And that’s how I took it.
In 2011, editors Janie Hextall and Barbara McNaught of Lautus Press, UK, tracked me down for permission to include one of my poems in their (now sold out) anthology,Washing Lines. And recently, again, for permission to include my poem in their 2015 expanded, reprint version of the anthology, with a planned print run of between 1,000 and 2,000 copies. Amazing, that the first edition sold out, at the price of ninety-three GB Pounds per copy on Amazon.
Lautus Press http://www.lautuspress.co.uk