Marjorie Maddox brings her life-long love of words to her writing and her position as a creative writing instructor at Lock Haven University in central Pennsylvania. Maddox has published several poetry collections for both children and adults. These volumes have won multiple awards including the Yellowglen Prize for Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation and the Illumination Book Award Medalist for True, False, None of the Above. In addition, When The Wood Clacks Out Your Name: Baseball Poems was the 2001 Redgreene Press Chapbook Winner, and How to Fit God into a Poem was the 1993 Painted Bride Chapbook Winner. Her most recent work, What She Was Saying, is a collection of short stories, flash fiction, and creative nonfiction. The stories in the book provide voices for a variety of women in different situations. Literary Mama contributor Rhonda Havig talked with Marjorie Maddox about inspiration for her stories, faith, and balancing different roles in life.
Rhonda Havig: The stories in What She Was Saying feature a variety of women including a 93-year-old woman collecting birthday cakes, a young girl forced to move frequently, and a mother constantly concerned with her daughter’s medical condition. Where did you find inspiration for the different pieces in this collection?
Marjorie Maddox: As it so happens, ideas for the three stories referenced above—”Birthday Cake,” “Crowned,” and “For Real”—as is often the case with fiction, began with a real experience that sparked my interest, then veered into a series of what-ifs as each story unfolded. For instance, when I was growing up, one of my older relatives was taken every year to the restaurant Bill Knapp’s for her birthday because the restaurant gave free cakes to those celebrating. I later learned that my relative kept these for years in her freezer. And so, I started wondering, why would she do this? What was her real reason for going with her family to the restaurant each year? For preserving the cakes uneaten? To find out, read “Birthday Cake.”
The idea for “Crowned” began with my experiences of traveling to small-town festivals in Ohio (where I grew up) and later in Pennsylvania (where I live now): the Pumpkin Festival, which boasts the world’s largest pumpkin pie; the Apple Festival, ditto; and on and on: Sorghum Festival, Apple and Cheese Festival, Coalmining Festival, Strawberry Festival, Maple Syrup Festival, etc. Again, I often discover a story’s theme and plot by following where the what-ifs lead me. In this case, I wondered what might happen to the daughter of an itinerant preacher as she moved from small town to small town, often winning the title of festival queen. The story kept turning in new and unexpected ways, surprising even me. To give your readers a hint, “Crowned” was first published in an anthology entitled Dirt, as in “dirty little secrets.”
My “research” for “For Real” came from the many, many hours I sat watching my two children play Original Little League Baseball in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. In addition, I grew up with my father’s severe heart condition. (He had his first heart attack at the age of 39; he died at the age of 65 after an unsuccessful heart transplant. In all, he suffered ten cardiac arrests.) The story “For Real” is the story of a mother watching a daughter with a heart murmur play baseball—but in a new community where the mother is an outsider. I think this story speaks to the joys and fears we have as parents and how such universal connections can bring us together despite dissimilar backgrounds.
A more direct answer to your initial question (about the catalyst for these stories) is life—the simple process of living gave me these ideas, this and a keen interest in the voices of diverse women: how they are silenced, why their voices are raised, what they have to tell us all, why we so desperately need to listen.
RH: The stories were written over several years but fit together as though they were written in a much closer timeframe. Please share with us your process for selecting the stories and assembling the collection.
MM: I’m very glad to hear you say that they fit together as if they were written in a much closer timeframe. The actual writing spans 20 or 25 years.
I find myself returning to similar themes, issues, struggles, tensions—whatever you want to call them—throughout my writing. (Interestingly enough, just yesterday someone asked me how I write about so many different topics and ideas.) It’s true that I write about a lot of topics and in several different genres—poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, children’s literature—but it occurs to me that, throughout, I continue to grapple with and discover more about recurring topics by approaching such from different angles. So, in this collection of flash fiction, creative nonfiction, and more traditional short stories, you’ll again find works that explore child/parent relationships, power and silences in women’s voices, the relationship of body and spirit, the struggles of living in an unsafe world, and baseball. Many of the stories address more than one of these because, well, that’s what life does.
I actually really enjoy the process of assembling a collection of work, figuring out which piece goes where. It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle, which I literally lay out on the floor and rearrange. What I hope happens is that each story resonates with the ones before and after, so that each piece informs and strengthens the collection as a whole.
In putting together this particular collection, I was most aware of the women, how their voices spoke to me, and how they also might speak to others. During this year of #MeToo, their stories seem strikingly relevant.
RH: Faith and religion are integral parts of several stories in What She Was Saying, including “Crowned,” “Communion of the Saints,” and “A Wave Rushed Over.” How do you feel your faith has influenced your writing throughout your career?
MM: I am a person of faith and so, naturally, I write out of this tradition and point-of-view. In addition, as a writer, I am called to address the world honestly, including tough questions for which there are no easy answers. Thus, the above-mentioned stories grapple with living in a flawed world: “Crowned” with its suggestion of incest and “Communion of the Saints,” with its recognition of both the desire for the Divine and daily confrontations with our own failings.
“A Wave Rushed Over” was important to write on a personal level. The story explores the emotionally complicated issues of infertility, abortion, and familial roles and expectations. Here is another instance where the what-ifs I mentioned earlier helped shape the story. What if you came from a large Catholic family but were unable to have children? Or what if you were desperately trying to conceive and someone you loved was weighing the difficult decision of abortion. Although my sister is not Catholic, because she is unable to have children, I had been thinking about such issues. How, I wondered, would someone who grew up in a large Catholic family respond to infertility. Interestingly to me, despite the controversial topic, this story won US Catholic magazine’s fiction contest. Perhaps, that is because stories help us better understand ourselves and those unlike ourselves. This is the gift of literature.
RH: At the beginning of your life-long career as a writer, one of your poems was published in a Campfire Girl magazine. How does the thrill of writing and publication then compare to now?
MM: Ha! Yes, that was when I was around eight. It was a terrible poem, but I was happy about my first publication.
I’m not sure that the thrill of publication ever subsides. Because writing is such a solitary act, it can be invigorating to find an audience through readings, which I thoroughly enjoy, or through publication. Of course, just because a work is published doesn’t mean that it is necessarily being read, but one can always hope. And yes, it is exciting to see your story, poem, or essay in a literary journal. It is even more satisfying to discover your book well-worn on someone’s shelf or nightstand.
I particularly delight in readings and the opportunity to interact with an audience where you immediately see and hear responses. For one who spends a lot of time alone in a room staring at a computer screen, such interactions are energizing.
RH: Even though your most recent publication is mostly short stories and flash fiction, your first love seems to be poetry. What do you enjoy most about writing poetry and how does it compare to writing short stories and essays?
MM: To me, poetry is about precision—exactly the right word in the right place—and perspective—seeing the world from a slightly different angle. These qualities are true for fiction and creative nonfiction as well, and I do see a lot of overlap in the genres. However, because I dwell in the compact world of poetry and focus on image and sound, it is harder for me to develop a sustained plot of more than 30 pages. Maybe someday . . . I admire those able to write novels.
I find that I access a different part of my brain when writing prose; I’m not sure why, but it is a different process with less stream of consciousness involved. Also, once I have a story or essay started, it is easier for me to continue. I’m already on a roll. I’m not looking so often at the blank screen—as when I begin a new poem.
However, sometimes I can achieve this “I’m continuing what I already began” feeling by writing poetic series, as in my chapbooks Wives’ Tales (twisted fairy tales and poems told from the points of view of the wives of famous men named Peter) and Body Parts (poems on kidney, spleens, lungs—you get the idea), as well as the children’s books Rules of the Game (poems on baseball terminology), A Crossing of Zebras: Animal Packs in Poetry (poems on collective nouns), and Inside Out: Poems on Writing and Reading Poems + Insider Exercises.
I’ve also found it easier to write about a particular topic in an essay or a story than in a poem—or vice versa. An essay may help me explain more directly an experience. A story may help me explore more fully a relationship or possible situation. For me, switching back and forth between genres enhances my ability to write in each. I also love blurring the lines between genres. Change can open up new perspectives. It gets the gears moving in different and sometimes surprising directions.
RH: How do you balance writing, having a full-time job, and being a wife and mother? What advice do you have for someone who is trying to do the same?
MM: How do I balance all these things? I’m not sure that I do. Some days all seems to work well, while other days all seems off-balance. Teaching, a creative activity in its own right, can feed my writing; I get to talk about literature after all. However, it also can be exhausting and leave little energy for my own work. Only late in my teaching career have I started to choose for myself writing conferences and my own readings elsewhere, instead of worrying about fitting in one more assignment on my syllabi. In short, I’ve had to let some things go and pay more attention to what nurtures me as a writer. I’ve had to be a little bit selfish, but a type of selfish that is probably better for my students as well.
Before I had children, though, I did try to write every day. After having children, such a schedule—for me—was impossible. I instead wrote over winter and summer breaks. Strangely enough, I think I got just as much written. It’s as if the writing was still going on in the back of my brain and poured out once I had larger spaces of time.
During the summers when our children were young, my husband and I took turns taking the kids on day-trips, so the other person could write. My advice, though: do more living and less worrying about the writing. Experiences and relationships feed the stories. Time will open up. And when it doesn’t—when crises overtake your days as they have ours—all you can do is pull together and try to survive—perhaps at some point writing will be a part of that process. In the meantime, do whatever works for you: taking notes for ideas on your smartphone, brainstorming stories with your children, writing early in the morning or late at night, creating “writing dates” at a coffee house with a friend, or simply recognizing that right now you are needed elsewhere.
But if possible, do make time for writing friends—be they local or online. Their understanding and support can remind you why you write even when you aren’t writing at the moment.
This year, my husband and I are empty nesters, and my last sabbatical is about to begin. Time is spreading out before me. I hope to be ready with pen in hand. And if not, I’ll have an extra cup of coffee or two hundred while I wait.
RH: What are you working on now?
MM: My newest book project focuses on the loss and limitations of memory in daughter/mother relationships, as well as my own shifting role as mother and daughter. The manuscript also will explore issues of memory on a national level, particularly in the ways that we distort or preserve memory, define or alter reality, and see or don’t see those around us. That’s the plan, but, as always, I’ll see where the writing takes me.