Interview by Susan Allison
Recently, I have been in conversation with WNBA member, Marylee MacDonald, award winning author, writing coach, and caregiver advocate. I’ve been most impressed by Marylee’s refreshing honesty. Whether she is talking about her personal life, her writing career, or the current state of the publishing industry, she tells the truth.
Marylee grew up as an only child living with four adults—her parents and grandparents. Her mom was 41 when she adopted her, so that meant her grandparents were in their seventies. Because of this, Marylee says her role was “to be seen and not heard.” If she wanted to ask a question at the dinner table, she needed to raise her hand.
Once a week Marylee biked to the Redwood City Library and checked out a bike-basket’s worth of books, “loving the experience of getting lost in worlds and families other than my own. Reading was my salvation.” The Redwood City Tribune published a story she wrote from a school assignment when she was in fourth grade. “This experience did show me that a story of mine could eventually make its way into print.”
As an undergraduate at Stanford, Marylee majored in English, yet didn’t think to enroll in Creative Writing, even though Wallace Stegner and Nancy Packer taught there. She says she knew she wanted to write, but didn’t realize that universities could be places to learn the craft. She changed her mind when her high school friend Tom Cuthbertson got his Master’s degree in Creative Writing at San Francisco State.
Tragically, before she could enroll, her husband was killed in a car accident in Germany when Marylee was pregnant with her fifth child. It was the insurance money from the accident that allowed her to enroll in graduate school. In the midst of this crisis and while raising five children, Marylee still pursued her dream of becoming a writer. She studied with Kay Boyle, Wright Morris and Ray West, knowing her passion was for fiction, yet working many years as a journalist for Sunset and other magazines.
Between 1971, the year of her husband’s death, and when her youngest child graduated from college, she wrote very little, but never gave up. During these years, she was raising children, running a construction company, switching jobs to work at the University of Illinois, and eventually following her second husband to his new job at Northwestern University. This move allowed her to stop working for a paycheck and pursue her writing career. “I had just turned fifty and threw myself back into fiction. I was eager to make up for lost time.”
She attended a weekly short story workshop with Fred Shafer, who mentored many Chicago writers. With his support, Marylee began to write and publish short stories for literary magazines, and she began winning prizes for her work. Eventually, she published her stories in an anthology, Bonds of Love & Blood. Her short stories have won the Barry Hannah Price, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, the American Literary Review Fiction Award, the Matt Clark Prize, the Ron Rash Award, an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Fiction, and multiple awards in the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition. (If you love short stories and would like a free digital copy of Bonds of Love & Blood, you can download it from this BookShout link.)
Just when her writing was going well, her son-in-law was diagnosed with ALS, and she became his caregiver. Marylee was determined this time not to give up her writing, and though sleepless and exhausted, she wrote her first novel, Montpelier Tomorrow. She realized that she was too close to the story and had to do about thirty rewrites until “what really happened became what might have been.” Her novel portrays a family under extreme stress, immersing readers in “what it is like to be a caregiver, sleep-deprived for months, while caring for a patient who isn’t especially noble or grateful.” In 2014 an independent press in New England published Montpelier Tomorrow. Her first novel won the Gold Medal for Drama from the Readers’ Favorites International Book Awards. It was also a finalist for the Bellwether Price, the Eric Hoffer Award and the Indie Next Generation Book Awards.
Marylee is currently writing The Vermillion Sea. This latest work is a historical novel set in 1769 about a young French artist who follows a famous astronomer to Baja California for that year’s Transit of Venus observation. For the past few years Marylee has spent hours doing research in the French Archives, holding ancient books and letters in her hands. Like all her stories, what the main character finds is not at all what he expected or deserved. “At the heart of this novel is the question of the lenses through which we view the world.” She hopes to finish her next draft by the end of January. She says, “I love revision because it forces me to ‘re-vision’ the action, to look for deeper meanings and to tie together the threads of plot.”
In terms of authenticity, Marylee is the most forthcoming about being a woman writer, especially past midlife, trying to publish her work. She says, “The hardest thing for any writer or any woman, for that matter, is juggling the desire to write with the need to earn a living and be there as a parent. For many years I beat myself up because I couldn’t do everything. I wasn’t writing enough, earning enough money, or spending as much time with my children as I might have wanted. However, I took inspiration from anthropologist Margaret Mead who said that women in their fifties would suddenly find their time unencumbered. She believed that women had a different life pattern from men. Women experienced a surge of energy and career focus in their fifties and sixties, and that’s often the time men are winding down their careers.”
I especially appreciate what Marylee shares about getting an agent and publisher in today’s market: “Finding an agent and publisher has never been harder. That’s because there’s been so much consolidation in the industry. It’s especially hard for women over fifty to get an agent. I’ve had well known agents tell me to my face that I’m too old. They want to ‘take on’ someone in their twenties or thirties. These young writers can help ‘fund my retirement’ one agent told me. At an Arizona writers’ conference, an agent bragged that he’d signed one writer who had just turned seventy. That writer had already published nine books. The agent’s idea was that the author could be repackaged—have his website spiffed up, have new covers put on his books—and that might make the agent’s investment of time worthwhile.”
Marylee asks, “Who is getting published?” And answers, “Sports personalities. Movie stars or late-night TV hosts such as Trevor Noah. Past presidents, such as Bill Clinton, especially when he’s collaborating with James Patterson.” “Can books by late-life authors outsell books by celebrities who already have built-in fanbases, aka ‘author platforms’?” “Very unlikely. Traditional publishing is all about who can sell books by the truckload. For a perspective on the industry changes that have gotten us to where we are now, I highly recommend Brooke Warner’s Green Light Your Book: How Writers Can Succeed in the New Era of Publishing. The author is one of the founders of SheWrites Press, and she tells it straight.”
As you can tell, Marylee is a veteran writer with years of experience who wants to assist other writers through her blog posts and coaching: “My blog posts strike a balance between craft issues — meaning how to deal with plot or character — and marketing issues. Marketing is so important. Writers don’t like to push themselves forward, but marketing is not ‘being pushy.’ The real goal is to find readers who will enjoy our books. Knowing readers are out there increases a writer’s motivation to finish the next one.”
Marylee is hard at work finishing her next book, The Vermillion Sea, and getting in great shape to hike Yosemite. Let her be an inspiration for us all, that we may lose people we love, find ourselves caring for family, or working hard to make a living, while at the same time, determined to write our next poem, our next story, our next book.
The many ways to get in touch with or find out more of Marylee’s fascinating life are:
Email: mm at maryleemacdonald dot org
Her anthology of award-winning short stories: http://bit.ly/BONDSOFLOVEANDBLOOD
Her award-winning novel: http://bit.ly/MONTPELIERTOMORROW