California Literary Review

An Interview With Nancy Means Wright

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April 3rd, 2007 at 7:48 pm

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Nancy Means Wright

St. Martin’s Press has just released Nancy Means Wright’s fifth mystery in her Ruth Willmarth series, Mad Cow Nightmare. Willmarth, a single mother who operates a dairy farm, is an amateur sleuth. As have Wright’s previous four mysteries, this centers on an issue of importance to the agricultural community of Vermont, mad cow disease. A strong sense of place and strong female characters are two of Wright’s trademarks.

How long have you lived in Vermont – and why did you come here?
I’ve been here summers since I was seven and my mother brought me to a camp where she was counselor. She always said Vermont reminded her of the Scottish highlands–though she’d never been to the Highlands. But her ancestors lived there. She finally moved here from New Jersey when I was eighteen, and I called Vermont home, even though I spent winters at college in Poughkeepsie, NY.
Have you ever lived on a farm – I know you live near several.
Only on a tree farm that I helped run. My former husband, a native Vermonter who was a paragon of civil disobedience, started it. But his dairy farming cousins surrounded us, and when I read in the Burlington Free Press about two elderly farmers who were brutally assaulted one night and their hidden money stolen that reeked of barn–I knew I had to learn more about farming and write a novel. A mystery novel. (This turned into her first Ruth Willmarth mystery, Mad Season.)
Where did you get the idea for the character of Ruth Willmarth?
I turned the real life farmers into a husband and wife farm team and had the wife die from the assault. But I had to have a sleuth, and who better than the woman next door, who would also be a farmer? She would be a 40ish single mother of three because her husband has run off with an actress from a local film, shot in her town. Her young son is teased in school because he has manure on his shoes after morning chores, and now her neighbor is dead. She is angry and gets involved. Ruth is an entirely fictional character, but has something of myself and my own two daughters in her as well. She is much gutsier than I am! I don’t know how she ever survived the kidnapping of her young son in Mad Season – I died a hundred deaths with her. I might add that I chose an amateur sleuth rather than, for example, a PI, because the amateur is like the author herself: fumbling, bumbling, trying to find out whodunit and why. Isn’t this really why we write? To restore order out of the chaos of our lives? It’s why we read, too…
I believe you’ve been writing for 30 or so years — or, rather,
publishing for that long. You said you’ve been writing since you were very young.
Publishing books since ’73, although there were stories and poems in the lit mags before that. Yes, like so many young girls, I was addicted to Nancy Drew. In fourth grade I wrote a mystery novel–I don’t recall how long, it was probably quite short–about an obnoxious older brother. My mother found it, thought she had a juvenile delinquent in her house, and tore it up. That was my first rejection. But I was always walking to school muttering dialogue, telling stories. Telling lies, too, I admit–but then, we writers are always telling lies, aren’t we? Embellishing ‘truth’? With, I hope, the real truth buried deep inside those lies. At least that’s what I tell my kids when they say, “It didn’t really happen that way, Mothe
How has your job as writer changed over those 30 years? More marketing, more book signings?
Oh yes, much, much more. I didn’t go near a bookstore to sign with my earlier books. It’s only since I began writing mysteries that I’ve had to heavily promote. St. Martin’s is a wonderful publisher, but unless you’re a bestseller, which I’m not, they blow a kiss and push you out the window of the 16th floor of the NYC Flat Iron building. These days marketing a new book is a part-time plus job. Oh, Jane Austen, how I envy you! Oh, Charlotte Bronte! Neither of those sainted writers had to sit for long hours in a bookstore where the only person who came up wanted only to know the whereabouts of the ladies’ room!
Why do you think everyone loves a mystery? Do you agree that mystery novels seem to be increasingly popular these days? And if so, why?
I don’t know that everyone does. When I was at Vassar, mystery novels were shunned–except perhaps for academic mysteries like Gaudy Night. Or stories by our granddaddy, Edgar Allen Poe. We’re still considered “genre”, not quite “comme il faut.” But thousands do love mysteries. I go to a huge mystery conference like Bouchercon and find fans sitting in groups discussing one’s characters as if they were neighbors. Mystery groupies, yes! That’s kind of neat. One octogenarian fan emailed to ask WHEN my dairy farmer Ruth would finally get in bed with her sidekick, Colm. She finally did, thanks to that dear woman. Sometimes fans are in control. I guess liking mysteries goes back to Aristotle, who said we read or watch tragedy because the bad stuff happens to someone else and we feel relieved that we’re still alive, and the perpetrator takes the blame for what happened. It’s a catharsis. And of course we want the bad guys to have their just punishment. That makes one feel good too–now we can sleep at night. In mysteries, good nearly always triumphs over evil. A moment of illusion, sleight of hand. Although in my new mystery novel, Mad Cow Nightmare, it doesn’t happen that way. My fans might not like the ending. Neither do I, but it’s life.

Can you talk about your writing process? Do you outline first or do you just jump in and see where it takes you?
Many mystery writers outline the book ahead but I can’t seem to do this. In order to send my editor a synopsis of my fourth mystery, I had to write the whole book! I find that a book tells me what it’s really about as I write, and the characters constantly surprise me. Of course you can’t let them take over entirely, you have to maintain some kind of control. But I do believe that a writer should stay open and ignorant. Let the plot come out of a character (his or her flaw or bad luck), and in an organic way. I tend to think in scenes, seeing the characters as if on a stage: their gestures, actions, the way they use their props. One scene leads to the next and the characters take it there. Writing in scenes makes writing a novel less daunting! And I do make notes for the scenes that follow. There are drawbacks to this method: one must go back and replant clues and sometimes trash entire scenes – scenes you’ve written lovingly. I write from several points of view in order to deepen characterization, and this can lead to subplots that distract from the main plot. But Dickens did it, and though I’m no Dickens, I love to try. And I do make the subplots connect to the main plot.
You’ve written several other books – poetry, short fiction and nonfiction. Do you see any similarities in subject matter and/or themes within all three types of writing?
Yes, I’m a published poet and short story writer as well. I’ve had a young adult novel published, a mainstream novel and two non- fiction books. I constantly recycle characters from fiction and non-fiction into poems and back again. One of my poems is about the birth of a cow: “Her waters break/in a rush that brightens the air/an ivory hoof kicks toward breath.” My poems tend to be narrative; like novels, they tell a story, come to climax, a moment of epiphany.
I know that you are generous to younger, less experienced writers, and have a strong writing network. Is this important to you — and does it help inform your work at all?
Yes, it’s important. I guess it’s the teacher in me. I’ve taught school much of my life–secondary and then college–not to mention my four offspring, one of whom is writing a literary novel. We writers need each other, we need to keep each other working and staying above water. Other writers have helped me in the past–especially years ago when I was a Bread Loaf Scholar and poet Anne Sexton cheered me up when I was down–I wish I could have helped her when she decided to end the good fight. And now I want to give back. You give and you get, it’s that simple.In that way it informs one’s work. All those other writers suffering before me.
What are you working on now?
I’m 50 pages into a sixth Ruth Willmarth mystery. I can only say that it involves goats and foster children. My agent has just begun to submit a novel in which I use, in part, the persona of 18th century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the revolutionary Vindication of the Rights of Woman. They called her a hyena in petticoats–her life reads like a soap opera. She had a child out of wedlock during the Reign of Terror in Paris, and later died after giving birth to a (legitimate) daughter who would become Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.
  • Carole Spearin McCauley

    Dear Nancy, Hello from Carole and the night of Norwich Libray reading. I didn’t get your phone number and your Say Hello message site doesn’t seem to work. So I’m trying this.this. I am planning a mystery evening of brief readings and questions at a coming meeting of Women’s Network of Upper Valley at Howe Library in Hanover. I don’t have an exact date yet, but the programming meeting will be August 19. Of course, I will ask about selling books there. Cindy Davis wants to come, and I can read from my latest Hilliard&Harris mystery. I also lack Sarah Stewart Taylor’s phone number, but probably her new baby is keeping her busy? Good wishes from Carole Spearin McCauley, 53 Lyme Rd., #26, Hanover, NH 03755 603-643-4411.

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