Linda Rigel: Tell us about your book tour for The Real Minerva.
Mary Sharratt: It was fantastic. I was gone for nearly three weeks and toured the Twin Cities, San Francisco Bay Area, Portland, and Seattle. When I’m on tour, I feel like I’m bringing my book home. I love the excitement and buzz. For me, the readings and signings complete the process that had its genesis in all those solitary hours of writing. I finally get to meet my readers face-to-face and hear how the book has touched them.
LR: Many of your short stories, as well as Summit Avenue, your first novel, draw on the world of fairy tales. The new book has several mythical allusions. What are your thoughts about myths and fairy tales?
MS: I passionately adore both myth and fairy tales. As a writer, I consider myself first and foremost a storyteller. I’ve studied the art of oral storytelling and my desire is to put that craft into my writing. I aim to spin a yarn that draws the reader right in and transports them to another world.
Myths and folk tales are the ur-stories that human beings have been telling each other since the dawn of time. These tales have endured so long because we need them. Storytelling is a fundamental human urge. Our religious texts, from the Bible to the Koran, are made up of stories and characters with whom we identify. Storytellers are the keepers of wisdom. According to British writer Roselle Angwin, in Old Welsh the same word is used for both storytelling and guidance or instruction.
Fairy tales interest me particularly because they nearly always have women at their center. As anyone who has read the original Grimm’s tales knows, traditional fairy tales are not cute kids stories but very adult and often very dark tales that don’t always have happy endings. Many of the tales present awesomely powerful female characters deemed unacceptable by mainstream culture: the witch and the hag. And it is to these forbidden women that the young maiden goes to learn the secret that will save her. In Russian folklore, Wassalissa is a bullied orphan until she braves the dark woods where she meets the terrifying sorceress Baba Yaga who first tests her and then gives her the flaming torch that empowers her and sends her on her way. This tale is the axis around which my first novel, Summit Avenue, revolves as my young heroine experiences her coming of age and sexual awakening.
In The Real Minerva, I turned to the Greek myths. I wanted to retell the classic hero’s journey from a female perspective. What shape does the journey take if the hero is a woman? Where would my protagonist, Penelope Niebeck, a small town girl with an eighth grade education, learn about great heroines? What role models existed for girls like her? When she gets her hands on a copy of Homer’s Odyssey, her whole world changes. The Odyssey is an epic story, which is so moving and so full of wisdom about the human condition that it has survived for 3,000 years. There’s a sense of the weight of eternity in it. As Penny reads and becomes caught up in the story, she suddenly starts living her life on a larger canvas. She realizes she can wed her deepest dreams and longings to the figure of Athena/Minerva, the goddess who gave her town its name. This is the goddess of the intellect, of civilization and learning, yet she is also a warrior. She emboldens Penny to stick up for herself, fight for her rights. Penny also learns the secret power of her own name as she comes to unravel the real significance of Homer’s Penelope and her weaving and remembering.
As the great anthropologist Mircea Eliade has written, “To know the myths is to learn the secret of the origins of things, . . . not only how things came into existence but also where to find them and how to make them reappear when they disappear.”
The myths transform lonely, neglected Penny into a heroine, the real Minerva of Minerva.
LR: In The Real Minerva the relationships among the three women are deeply felt. I thought you perfectly captured the poignancy of a mother/daughter relationship where the daughter is oblivious to the mother’s devotion. Where did you get the inspiration for that tension between Penny and Barbara?
MS: Although I’m not a mother, the intense, complicated symbiosis between mothers and daughters fascinates me and has been a continuing focal point for my fiction. I have been very close to my friends as they have gone through pregnancy, childbirth, and the passionate but difficult journey that is motherhood. Ironically, I think because I am not a mother and because I strive to be a non-judgmental listener, mothers have felt freer to divulge their experiences to me, especially the darker, non-Kodak moments.
Although I’m not a mother, I am a daughter. The older I get, the more I can empathize with what my mother had to go through with me. As Jung has observed, every woman’s past reaches back into her mother, and every mother sees her future stretching out into her daughter. Often daughters find themselves living out their mothers’ unrealized dreams.
Penny begins her journey as a resentful adolescent, unwilling to recognize the extraordinary lengths that her mother, who as a teenager was raped by her own father, went through just to keep her. Only after running away from her mother and becoming a second mother to Cora’s daughter does Penny at last come to recognize her mother’s incredible bravery and strength.
LR: Women’s loves and friendship comprise an enduring theme in your work. Do your own relationships with women ever find their way into your stories?
MS: My fiction isn’t consciously autobiographical and my characters are wholly fictional. However, the deep bonds I have had with other women have informed my writing.
I believe that these bonds between women, whether between friends, sisters, lovers, or mentor have been both trivialized and underrepresented in contemporary women’s fiction, which often seems to focus too narrowly on romance, defined as snaring a man.
I was a little concerned how my own mother would react to The Real Minerva in its warts-and-all depiction of the mother and daughter relationship. But my mother loved the book, and that made me very happy.
LR: Both your novels are historical. How did you choose the time and setting, and how do you approach research?
MS: Historical fiction is one of the most exciting things happening in today’s writing scene. In recent years the historical novel has transcended the constraints of genre and hit the literary mainstream with cutting edge work by writers like Madison Smartt Bell (All Souls Rising), and even Philip Roth’s alternate history, The Plot Against America. Historical fiction has also become a literary frontier, allowing innovative writers an opportunity to explore aspects of history that textbooks often ignore such as black history and women’s history.
For The Real Minerva, I chose the form of a historical novel set in the 1920s to present three heroines struggling against the kind of overwhelming social strictures many contemporary women would have a hard time imagining. The Real Minerva poses a question: can you leave your past behind and become someone wholly different? What if you are a woman living on the fringes of society in a claustrophobic small town? I wanted to take the great Twenties myth of the Self-Made Man, a la The Great Gatsby, and recast it through a female lens. How would my three heroines attempt to re-invent themselves?
The 1920s were such a pivotal period in history, especially for women. The age of Victorian repressiveness was officially over. Women had won the right to vote. A new generation of women raised their hemlines, bobbed their hair, and earned their living outside the home. Yet despite living in the midst of a sexual revolution of sorts, birth control was extremely difficult to obtain, especially for unmarried and rural women. Unwed mothers and their illegitimate children were shunned by respectable society, as were women who had the temerity to run away from bad marriages, such as my character Cora.
In my first novel, Summit Avenue, I chose the period of 1911-1919 to document my heroine’s journey from innocence and naiveté to self-knowledge. A young German immigrant, she falls profoundly in love with another woman. Living in this historical time period, however, she has no word or label to name her experience. Only the dark fairy tales she translates can help her make sense of her situation. Obviously this plot would not have worked in a contemporary setting.
One of the most compulsively pleasurable aspects of writing historical fiction is doing the research. For The Real Minerva, I started by reading two great novels of the period: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis. I also steeped myself in Willa Cather, whose novels illuminate the lives of midwestern women. Careful readers will see that some of the details in The Real Minerva reference the harsh realities presented in Cather’s My Antonia, such as mean-spirited relatives wanting to drown a bastard baby in the rain barrel. In portraying rural life, I also drew on my mother’s and grandmother’s stories of farm life in the early twentieth century. My mother recounted in graphic detail how my grandmother used to butcher chickens and then wash them with Dreft soap.
For insights into popular culture of the day, I researched Emile Coue, the first self-improvement guru of the twentieth century and the man who coined the phrase, “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” Old photographs helped shine some light on a lost era. The Minnesota Historical Society’s photographic archive is a goldmine. A photo of a small town creamery and soda pop factory, housed in a former brewery, became the model for Laurence Hamilton’s business. I also found great photographs of Twenties farm machinery and of migrant workers riding across the country on the top of boxcars.
A friend explained in great depth how to load and shoot a Winchester rifle. I also visited a lot of antique shops, because I like to see and touch exactly the sort of physical objects my characters would have around them.
LR: How has living outside the United States affected your writing?
MS: Nearly all my adult life, I have lived as a foreigner in someone else’s country. Being foreign is an indelible part of my experience. This has allowed me to view my own country with fresh eyes.
From this distance, my home state of Minnesota has come alive to me with a vividness that would never have been possible had I stayed home. Each time I visit, I notice things I’ve never noticed before. The sky over the upper Midwest is unlike any other sky: the depth of it, that deep stark blue, and the towering, flat-bottomed prairie clouds that I described in Summit Avenue as resembling galleons. I’ve become sensitive to speech patterns, the wide open aspect of the countryside, the violent drama of the fall colors, which is more spectacular than in any other place I have lived, and the haunting cries of wild geese as they sail overhead. I believe that a part of your soul resides forever in your birthplace. I carry the soul of that place with me and let it breathe life into my writing, which is about place as much as it is about people.
Having said that, however, I must now confess that my third novel is set in England and the Chesapeake, and has no Minnesota connection at all.
LR: When did you know you were going to be a writer? How have you balanced the demands of writing with the other demands of life?
MS: I didn’t choose writing. It chose me. I have always had a story playing somewhere at the back of my head. I’m happy to have grown up in an era innocent of computer games and not overly influenced by television. My friends and I played elaborate games in the backyard, inventing characters and long, convoluted stories, some of which I wrote down.
However, I didn’t start writing fiction seriously until I was living in Innsbruck, Austria in 1988. I had gone over to teach English at a Catholic girls’ boarding school as part of the American-Austrian Fulbright Commission. I didn’t have a television and soon ran out of books. To unwind after work, I started writing a story that had been lingering in my imagination for quite some time. This was the first draft of what would become my first novel, Summit Avenue.
As far as balancing writing and real life obligations, my writing habit began as a luxury, an escape, a secret indulgence. In Austria, I was living in a rented room where the heating didn’t work properly. There was mildew on the walls. I wrote in the empty evenings, in longhand, in a spiral notebook, sitting in bed with the down comforter drawn up against the cold. In the next room, my housemate’s television blared. Writing was my sanctuary. I experienced the act of writing as a very real enchantment I could step into at will, in which my outer life and mundane problems fell away.
I took my writing habit with me when I moved to Munich and began a long series of rather tedious jobs teaching English to adults at different companies and language schools. My writing allowed me to transcend the monotony and the long commutes. Soon my writing spiraled into an overwhelming addiction that took over my life, monopolizing the time I was not at work. For most of my life, I have not owned a television. I didn’t get Internet access until the year 2000. Eventually my first publishing successes allowed me to ditch English teaching and teach writing instead, something I absolutely love.