A confession: I get really nervous at Q&A sessions. Dallas has this super series called Arts and Letters Live. I love attending; I cringe during Q&A—it’s agony. (I also switch off NPR when they open it up to callers.)
So I was super squirmy when Amy Jo Cousins interviewed me. And I’m even squirmier interviewing Mary Ann Rivers. Because. Wow. Eeep. And all the squee.
Speaking of all the squee—I share cover space with some incredible writers in SUMMER RAIN: Ruthie Knox, Molly O’Keefe, Cecilia Tan, Charlotte Stein, Mary Ann Rivers, Amy Jo Cousins, Audra North, and Shari Slade. But I am even prouder to say that 100% of all proceeds from this volume of Love In The Rain go to benefit RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual assault organization.
So, without further ado…my interview with Mary Ann Rivers.
AH: I really enjoyed Rainy Season—though “enjoyed” seems so tepid. And, honestly, your Dear Reader letter grabbed me by the heart. I confess to re-reading it several times, putting it down, walking away from my eReader, and coming back to it.
You’re so generous with your readers, in all your stories, and, ultimately, your characters learn to be generous with themselves. This is powerful to me. And very much appreciated.
You are so smart. I like your brain. I love reading your stories because I always learn something. Like, I had to google cumulonimbus (and the image results: wowza!). I know cumulous; I know nimbus; I didn’t know cumulonimbus.
And Mark explains math in a way that made so much visceral sense, I called my math-teacher friend and read her the passage aloud. We marveled. (Had someone explained math to me that way, way back yonder, it’s possible I could have conquered the world by now!)
Um….I guess I don’t really have a question about that. Maybe this “interview” is really just me gushing and fangirling.
So, um, Ms. Rivers, do you have anything you’d like to share with me/us about that non-question?
MAR: I am so pleased you felt moved to share the math parts with your math-teacher friend. My experiences with math teachers have been overwhelmingly positive.
I have always enjoyed math, and have been lucky to have an affinity for it, and to have had work where I use different kinds of math on a regular basis, and have had the chance to teach a theoretical math course, myself. I am oriented to narrative, so when I've thought about math and explaining it, I find I always tell myself, or others, little stories. Math is a kind of language, of course, and the math teacher character in my story has very strong feelings about math's ability to explain things. When I write characters, I think a lot about how their jobs and their obsessions direct their behavior and speech and choices, so when this character wants to talk about life, he's going to talk about math, and what's more, how he talks about it will also reveal his great interests and passions for living. All of that, all of it, is mixed up together, for us and for characters, experiences are cumulative. So even though this story is a tiny slice of life, it should reveal the cumulative experiences of the lives in the story.
I feel that way whenever I am thinking about characterization, and always feel it's important to understand the essential questions a character is asking or is answering with their work or behavior. It's important to me that characters feel live, and human. It does mean I do a lot of research (much of which I may not even use directly in the story, but only to understand the character). If I am doing my job, my readers will learn something, reading the story, as often as I did, writing the story. I think that readers who enjoy my stories are often readers who want stories to feel human and true, possibly as their first priority for what they are reading. If it feels true, then the story, regardless of the diverse experiences of the characters will intersect with the readers' lives, too.
AH: I think I just sat through a master class with you. See, I told you you were generous. Can you tell me a little bit about the last chapter, “Front”?
MAR: The last chapter is very relavatory of where I am, as a woman creator, as a writer. This short is the end-point of a much longer journey for the woman protagonist, and when we find her, we feel the total weight of what she feels are her failures, and see her addressing the needs of everyone else but herself. In this story, the happy ending has to be where she has fallen in love with herself -- the love she has encountered with the hero contributes to her happiness, but she, herself, is the happy ending. She is the force, like a weather front, that will confront the next big change in her life.
AH: Yes! This chapter was so vital to the story. And it is important to me as a reader, and a writer, to acknowledge that the hero is only part of the HEA. The heroine must find it within herself, too. (Plus, it reminded me so much of kintsukuroi—and how beautiful it can be to not just acknowledge the flaws but celebrate them.)
You write short so well. We fell in love with your voice in your shorter works The Story Guy and Snowfall. And your readers love the super-shorts you post on your website. But your Burnsides are a little longer, 70-85k.
Can you talk a little bit about your writing process? Do some stories dictate their length before you begin? Do you write 100k and then pare back to the delicate heart of the story?
MAR: Thank you, Alexandra.
I'm a writer who is always interested in structure. I like the structure of anything I write to be somehow married to the other elements of the piece, which means, to me, there are different kinds of short stories. "Rainy Season," for example, is a kind of meditation story. The first person protagonist is located, in every way, in the present, but she is preoccupied with the past. In this way, I have a structure that suggests elements concerned with the past need to be putting pressure on action in the present, and that there should be action in the present, so that we are inevitably moving forward. Puzzles like this are what I work on before I start writing, and as I am writing a short. Also, in a short story, I have to decide what will remain dead simple, and what I will permit to be more convoluted, decorated, or complex. A short is like a sculpture -- your reader will be able to see it all at once, see how it's made, look all around it -- so it needs to be solid and interesting to look at.
A novel might be something more like a painting, with many complex elements that make sense standing back, as a whole, but have the most focus when each element is looked at one at a time. There is more room for layers, and chaos, and different elements stand out more to different viewers. There is more to sink into, more things to discover in time. It's a lot of permission, as a writer.
AH: I think all of the authors involved in the LOVE IN THE RAIN series have a very specific reason for participating. Is yours one you can/would like to share?
MAR: I am a woman who has used the RAINN organization and found their assistance intelligent, sensitive, and generous.
AH: Yes, for me it all comes back to that central tenant of our anthology: love and hope. Everyone I’ve interacted with at a RAINN affiliate has acted with compassion and offered hope.
Okay, onto the non-book related…
On your mixtape bio, you share that you’re into textiles and sewing. ME, TOO. What’s the last thing you made? Are there any fabric lines you’re totally into right now? Do you collect fabric and wait for the perfect project to reveal itself to you, or do you buy/repurpose textiles with a plan in mind?
MAR: I just made a shirt! I made it from a Liberty of London seersucker I bought in London twenty years ago, and when I bought it, it was twenty years old. So possibly this answers your question.
AH: Ahhhhh! I’m dying to see a picture. Or, better yet, dying to see the top in person. We can talk offline about our mutual affection for Liberty of London. (Because how many people want to just fall down weeping at the perfection of this new Tana Lawn--named ALEXANDRA!?)
You play the cello. The cello is…well, there are no words to convey just how much I love the cello. My favorite piece is Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan” from The Carnival of Animals. I’ve been known to say I could listen to it, on repeat, all day, every day. What is your favorite piece to play? And did you pick the cello or did the cello pick you?
MAR: Oh! I love "The Swan."
I still love playing the Brandenburg concertos in ensemble. They are pure fun to play, in every way, and a little stodgy, but stodgy in a "is that banker winking at me?" kind of way.
The cello decided I belonged to it when I was nine years old.
AH: Perfection. Thank you so much, Mary Ann. I’ve had a lot of fun with this. But I have one more question for you. Because I’m not sure it’s possible to have an interview without a little something of the Proust Questionnaire…
AH: Your idea of happiness…
AH: Your idea of misery…
MAR: scarcity thinking.
AH: What is your present state of mind…
AH: Your motto…
MAR: inspiration is efficient.
Behind the Book
Summer Rain, like so many projects, started out as nothing more than a simple feeling: a desire to make a positive difference in the world. So often, making a difference begins with giving something. It might be money, time, or both, or something else altogether…but most importantly, it is about giving, and giving vibrantly—with a focused mind, a full heart, and an understanding spirit.
Giving vibrantly leads to vibrant change. Powerful, positive change. Through the incredible generosity of eight other talented authors and one talented editor, that starting point—that desire to make a positive difference—turned into an act of vibrant giving. Summer Rain is a collection of powerful stories about love, written with the hope of making a positive change.
Each year, nearly a quarter of a million sexual assaults are committed in the US, nearly half of them against victims under the age of eighteen. RAINN assists so many of these survivors, not only by operating telephone and online hotlines for victims of sexual abuse, but also by working in partnership with rape crisis centers in the United States of America, providing programs to prevent sexual abuse, and helping to bring abusers to justice.