MARY SOJOURNER and I have worked alongside each other for nearly three years. Together, we’ve mentored countless students through the MatadorU writing program. I always thought that we were an interesting pair. When I began at MatadorU, I was 25. My journalism degree was fresh, it’s still fresh, and I had limited experience in the field. Mary is five decades older than me, she’s lived a long life of successes — and disappointments — through her creativity and her activism.
Mary became a mentor to me. Her presence offered me a glimmer of the future — of what I might have a chance at if I remained unafraid of my craft. It’s easy to not write, to become distracted, to keep your thoughts and your observations to yourself, eventually forgetting them. It’s easy to just do something else. Mary is one of the brave ones — she’s never allowed silence to be an option for her. She writes and writes — and feels less alive when she isn’t writing.
Although we represent two very different generations of women, Mary and I have found each other in similar situations, proving that there are still places left where time hasn’t changed. We’ve both lived in decrepit cabins in the middle of what outsiders would call “nowhere.” Those nowhere places have brought nowhere characters into our lives — the ones whom you can only meet in the deserts, in the woods, in the suffering dead-end towns where no one else wants to go. You’ll meet many of these characters in Mary’s recent short story collection, The Talker, and maybe they’ll be like no one else you’ve ever come across. Or maybe, like me, they’ll remind you of your family, an old friend you rarely see, a stranger crammed in next to you in the front seat of your truck, or a teacher who once came into your life and told you to keep going. You’ll have to see for yourself.
I felt privileged to interview Mary in celebration of The Talker. Our conversation touches on the book, but I couldn’t just leave it at that. I needed to take this opportunity to learn a little more from Mary — about writing, about her characters, and about how she continues to do it all with such passion. These questions were asked in an effort to keep myself going, with my own writing.
And it worked. Our interview is below.
Emma Thieme: Every main character in The Talker seems to be dealing with loss in one form or another. What is the importance of loss and hardship in writing? Is a character worth writing about if they haven’t gone through a significant suffering?
Mary Sojourner: I write about loss and hardship because much of my early life was filled with loss and hardship. Readers can find the details in my memoir: Solace: rituals of loss and desire. I grew up in a little farm town in the ’40’s. Most of my neighbors were scrabbling to make ends meet. We did have the country around us — rolling hills, creeks, and Lake Ontario to the north. I hiked every day I could, played in the creeks, knew patches of woodland better than I knew our side-yard. When I was around ten, the expanding Kodak and Xerox industries needed housing for their workers — and much of the countryside was developed and, consequently destroyed. The creeks, the rolling hills, the wildlife habitat were gone. I became a child without most of her home. At the same time, my mother was suffering periodic bi-polar psychotic episodes. She tried to kill herself at least four times in my childhood. I turned to reading. And I became a careful observer of my mother’s moods. All of this was training in finding the stories under the pain and the details that made up the stories.
I don’t determine whether or not a character deserves his or her story told. The people and their stories come to me and I write them. Perhaps even more than peoples’ stories, the land informs what I write. My novels, short stories, and essays have first emerged as I was in a place, a Place that touched me — not just a pristine canyon or stretch of desert (With global warming, those don’t exist anymore), but a ravaged city street, acres of suburban cookie-cutter sprawl.
Emma Thieme: The Talker is a collection of fictitious stories, but you often write personal nonfiction as well. Two of your books, Solace and She Bets Her Life, are memoirs. Which comes easier to you — memoir or fiction? Why?
Mary Sojourner: Both fiction and memoir are easy for me — when they are easy. I’ve been asked about how I write. I move through the world as a detail collector: Conversations; a moment when a man stands up from a patio table, slams his hands down and walks away; the way sunset gilds the tops of dark pines. I’ll do that for months, maybe a year, then I start to feel really edgy. Nothing works to calm me down. And, suddenly I find myself at my notebook or computer and a new story pours out.
Emma Thieme: I related to so many of your characters — Mollie from “Great Blue” and Jenn from “Kashmir,” especially. What do you see in young women like these characters and the young women of today? What do you hope shows through in writing them?
Mary Sojourner: Through my teaching (at writing conferences, university classes, private writing circles, Matador U), I meet many women younger than I am — thirty years younger, forty, fifty. When we meet authentically — face to face — they teach me about their lives, lives often wildly different from mine, and not so different. I write their stories in hope of defying contemporary stereotypes about teens and millennials and in writing their deeper stories, I find threads of my own girl and young womanhood. I continue to be disheartened that many of these young women are fighting the same battles for respect that I fought in the early days of Feminism.
Emma Thieme: There are a ton of characters in The Talker and it makes me wonder how you keep track of them all. I’ve heard writers describe the time before they began their stories as a time spent hanging out with their characters. Do you relate to that? How do you organize your characters?
Mary Sojourner: My characters refuse to be organized. Because they just show up, I don’t have to create them. Most of the people in my stories and their conversations are based on women and men I’ve met when I’m moving through my life. If I get sloppy and don’t keep track of them, they let me know!
Emma Thieme: Throughout The Talker, the setting of the American Southwest is always alive in the background. You’ve also spent a great deal of time in upstate New York, which also pops up a little bit. What is it about the Southwest that attracts you?
Mary Sojourner: I particularly love the Mojave Desert. I love that there is nowhere to hide. I love that I can walk for miles and not see another human being. I love that the small towns are full of people who don’t fit any stereotypes. I lived on a little Mesa near Yucca Valley. Every month for twelve months, I walked out to a fallen Joshua Tree that looked like a seated Buddha and watched the full moon rise. In that place and that light, I was granted healing from years of pain and struggle. My southwest is full of places that feel like the best kind of medicine. It has broken my heart again and again to see those places destroyed by development and greed.
Emma Thieme: Most of your main characters are women but you’ve got some men in there too. How is writing men different from women? Do you ever ask for outside input?
Mary Sojourner: I’ve always had great men friends, but again, the detail-collecting process is most of my being able to write men. When a man’s story comes to me, I seem to be able to step aside from my judgments and stereotypes. That’s not to say that I haven’t written some nasty guys. To paraphrase 16th-century poet, George Herbert: Writing well is the best revenge.
Emma Thieme: You’re 77 years old. You’ve published 13 books and countless essays and short stories. You seem to be constantly teaching at a writing conference or mentoring a new writer. At 27, with no published books, your achievements seem so out of reach to me. Can you talk a little bit about publishing your first significant work? How did you do it? Why did you do it?
Mary Sojourner:I began writing seriously in 1985 when I moved from Rochester, NY to Flagstaff, AZ. At that time, there was a clear path a writer could follow. I sent stories to literary magazines and competitions and kept track of my submissions in a journal. When a piece was rejected, I drew a black line through the entry; when one was accepted, I highlighted the entry in red. After a while, most of the entries were red. I retired the journal at that point, though I still have it. I wrote my first novel, Sisters of the Dream, in the mid-eighties, submitted it to a local publisher and it was accepted. Bit by bit, I developed a track record.
All of this was much easier thirty years ago. I teach people your age and I tell them that no matter how the outside world reacts to their writing, their job is to bring the stories through and to fine-tune their craft. Of course, the presence of the internet is both a blessing and a curse for writers — whether they are beginners or established in their work. I’m hugely grateful that my publisher, Torrey House Press, picked up The Talker — at a time when the industry wisdom is that short story collections don’t sell. Every time I hold The Talker in my hands, I feel the astonishing joy of knowing that I kept my promise to the people I’ve met along the road and the places that have touched my spirit.
Emma, just keep writing. I don’t say that easily. I know how hard it can be.