Dispatches | August 30, 2013

Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com

Today’s Working Writer is Nora Maynard. 

NoraRagdale

Tell us a little bit about yourself. 

I’m a writer and a runner. A latecomer to both, and mostly self-taught. I was born and raised in London (not the city in England, but the one in Ontario, Canada–think Alice Munro, Labatt Blue beer, and curling) and now live in NYC. My recent work’s appeared in Salon, Drunken Boat, and The Millions. I’m currently a monthly contributor to the Ploughshares blog and was a weekly columnist for Apartment Therapy’s The Kitchen from 2006-2011. I’ve just completed my first novel.

I wanted to be a writer since I was eight, but it took me a long time to get to a place where I could dedicate myself to the practice and take the necessary risks. After I graduated from the University of Toronto, I became curious about MFA programs. I think I even sent away for a few brochures, but never applied.

I was in my early 20s and had a lot to sort out. I’d just gotten married and my mother had just died. My husband was about to enter a five-year doctoral program in music composition. Since graduating, I’d done a disastrously clumsy stint as a waiter, and then a short, dermatitis-inducing one as a hairdresser’s assistant. I’d finally settled into something in retail, but dreamed of a job that would connect me to the world of writing.

I found the next best thing: a position as an editorial assistant for a legal publisher in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto. It was a bone-grinding commute (bus, subway, subway, bus), but there were a lot of other recent English grads proofreading and fact-checking the Canadian Franchise Guide and Business Law Reports alongside me and I made a lot of like-minded friends.

Evenings I started writing book reviews and doing author interviews for a couple of local lit mags. I also took a few nighttime fiction-writing classes and slowly earned a certificate in publishing. I eventually landed a job at Penguin Canada as a publicist. It was high-pressure work, and a probably not the best fit for someone as shy and driving-phobic as myself (many of my days were spent ferrying authors to interviews–trying to parallel park while making nervous conversation with luminaries like Roger Ebert), but I had some memorable adventures and got to meet a lot of great people along the way.

In the last year of my husband’s program, we began thinking about what to do next. We’d always wanted to move to NYC and I had dual citizenship through my parents. I started browsing the New York Times classifieds online (the Internet seemed so impossibly high-tech and futuristic then) and was amazed to see how many ads there were for publishing jobs (again, very different times). I sent out some applications, got called in for some interviews, and received three offers in one day! I accepted one from W.H. Freeman, and later moved on to the publicity dept. at HarperCollins.

But I hadn’t written in years. I’d been the breadwinner while my husband was in school, so he offered to take over that responsibility in order to give me time for my own creative work. I quit my job, but still didn’t want to apply to an MFA program. Instead, I hunkered down and read, chronologically, the complete works of Alice Munro.

Since then I’ve taken many individual workshops (Bread Loaf, Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd St. Y, Kenyon) and have been a resident at several artist’s colonies (Ucross, Blue Mountain Center, Ragdale, Millay, I-Park). That’s where I found my community–something I’m eternally grateful for. I can’t stress the importance of community to artists enough. I recently joined the Board of Trustees for the Millay Colony as a way of giving back.

I’m a painfully slow writer, something I’ve struggled with since high school, but am now coming to simply accept. I’ve learned I can’t change this fact any more than I can change being left-handed, 5’5″, or an alto. The best I can do is to write anyway. Just write. At whatever pace I can.

I’ve been working on a novel for 11 years and finished what I hoped was a final draft while in residence at Ragdale last fall. The first chapter won the Bronx Council on the Arts’ Chapter One competition and I’ve published a couple of excerpts, one of which attracted the attention of an agent a few months ago. Another agent also expressed interest, but both ultimately passed on the manuscript. So, right now, I’m revising and reassessing before sending it out into the world again.

One of the things that keeps me going is running. I came to it in my early thirties and am by no means fast, but it’s become a real anchor in my life. I’ve finished eight marathons and am now preparing for my ninth. Training gives my week structure, gets me out of my apartment and into Central Park, and helps me think more clearly. I’ve solved a lot of plotting problems in my novel while out on a run.

When I run races, I know there isn’t even the remotest chance I’m going to win, but that’s beside the point. What matters is that I’m in the moment, giving the task my best effort. I try to bring some of that attitude to my writing.

Can you tell us a bit about how you got a job as a publicist and what experiences you had in that capacity?

I spent four years with the law book publisher, working my way up to senior production editor, and during that time kept searching for an editorial position at a house that published books for general readers. But those doors seemed to be closing. For anything above the assistant level, trade publishers all seemed to want to hire editors with trade experience. I was well on my way on a different–though parallel–path.

But there seemed to be more fluidity and flexibility in publicity. More turnover generally.

And when the publicist position opened up at Penguin Canada, the stars seemed to suddenly align. All that extra work I’d been doing in my evening hours paid off: the book reviews and author interviews for lit mags, the publishing certificate coursework, my service on the board for a publishing organization. The hiring manager was impressed I was doing all those things. He gave me some galleys and asked me to write a press release. Soon after I faxed it in, he called to offer me the job.

At Penguin I worked with Roger Ebert, Umberto Eco, Dick Francis, and the anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott, as well as many others. I wrote press releases and made pitches to journalists, reviewers, and producers by phone. I drove authors to interviews and events all around Toronto, booked their travel, and coordinated tour stops in other cities.

It was exciting work, but there were often fires–big, strange, blazing ones–to put out. Like the time I took a certain Canadian politician to a radio interview and watched in horror as he tripped into a puddle in the parking lot on the way out. He didn’t just stumble. He was down. Fortunately he wasn’t hurt, but was covered in mud and we still had many appointments to make before evening. That day my job involved finding a dry cleaner with one-hour service.

When I moved to HarperCollins in NYC, things were even bigger, even busier. I got to work with authors such as Abraham Verghese and Russell Banks, but time seemed to be accelerating with every passing week. I realized if I was ever going to get back to my own writing, something was going to have to change.

David Rakoff had the office next to mine. Still a newcomer to the city, I was feeling a little homesick and was happy to have a fellow countryman to talk to. He showed me an essay he’d written for The New York Times about being a Canadian in the U.S., and I remember at some point scatting a duet of the theme to “Hockey Night in Canada” with him. He was funny and kind, and everyone enjoyed having him around in the office. Back then, he was doing a fair bit of writing and acting, but felt frustrated he wasn’t doing more. I can still picture the way he made the “loser” sign, his thumb and forefinger forming an L across his forehead. He quit his job to write. A few months later, I did the same.

Why was it that you chose to read Alice Munro in lieu of an MFA?

After all those years being “on” all the time–escorting authors, pitching to the media, participating in marketing meetings–I craved solitude and silence. I wanted to work independently and from the quiet of home.

I was also painfully aware how creaky and out of shape I was when it came to writing. I think my most recent short story at that point was already over six years old. I knew I wasn’t ready for academic life, for externally imposed deadlines or critiques and letter-grades. I needed to work in my own way and at my own pace.

Reading Alice Munro chronologically seemed like a good (and very enjoyable) way to begin a self-directed “program.” She was my favorite living writer, although, ironically enough, I’d disliked her work back when I’d first read it in high school English (maybe it was all a little too close to home with its un-exotic-to-me rural Ontario settings), but when I’d revisited it in my twenties, I was astonished and humbled, and fell completely in love.

And so, starting with Dance of the Happy Shades, I read her straight through. I saw how, over the years, she moved from concise, linear stories to longer, and more complex and layered ones. I was startled by the way, in Open Secrets and “The Albanian Virgin,” she veered from her usual realism into a subtle and mind-bending kind of metafiction. To me, she was the ideal writer–a true artist–because, even after decades of success and accolades, she never stopped growing and experimenting. By the end of my reading project, I had the eerie and satisfying feeling (whether justified or not) that I’d studied with her by studying her work.

After my Munro immersion, I got back to writing. It was like turning on the kitchen tap in a house that’d been uninhabited for some time. Nothing but cloudy, rusty water. But after a while, it started to run clear. I still didn’t want to commit to a full-time program (or the tuition expenses that came with one), but I started taking evening workshops. I applied to conferences and colonies. I kept working at my own pace towards my own goals.

Are there any topics/themes that obsess you as a writer?

I’ve always been interested in creating a subtle sense of otherworldliness inside the ordinary. Not outright magical realism, but something quieter–and mostly hidden–like an underground stream.

I think that’s why I found Munro’s collection Open Secrets so exciting. Around that time, I also read José Saramago’s All The Names, and later, Blindness, and The Cave. I also went on a major Haruki Murakami kick. Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities are longstanding favorites too. My own work’s never gotten as slipstream-y as that, though; I tend to tread a much finer line. I aim for something closer to the beauty and strangeness–but ultimate realism–of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I’m a great admirer of Carole Maso as well.

Another one of my obsessions is time, on both the micro and macro level. In my earlier work, I tended to focus on the micro: on small moments, and the changes in perception that could take place in a matter of seconds. But, these days, especially with my novel, I’ve been tackling larger swaths of time–decades, lifetimes, generations–while still trying to stay conscious of all that can happen in the blink of an eye.

Living in New York’s been good for that. Yes, there really are “eight million stories in the naked city” and they’re all going on right now, but there are also countless millions that came long before. And while the exuberant busyness of the streets here usually keeps me alertly in the moment, I’m also always getting little glimpses of the past. Not so much in monuments and brass plaques and landmark buildings, but in old terracotta chimneystacks, trees that have grown around rusty fences, and brick walls bearing traces of painted advertisements that are now as pale and faded as Roman frescos. I think there’s a lot of beauty and poignancy in that.

 You can find Nora Maynard on Twitter @noramaynard and at her website: www.noramaynard.com.

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