Mary Vensel White’s debut novel The Qualities of Wood is part of a very exciting venture by HarperCollins into a digital-first imprint in conjunction with the HarperCollins slushpile website Authonomy. Mary’s book came out on January 31st at a special introductory rate, leading as an e-book and will eventually have a print run as well. Not only is the cover of this book visually stunning, but the book itself deals very much with the idea of art and visual perception – both in the way that it is written – so very lush with detail, and in the way that the characters grapple with their life circumstances. Things are not always what they seem in this stunning world that Mary’s created….or are they? Read this wonderfully rich debut novel to find out.
Mary – you have written a novel that is rich in atmospheric detail. Did you grow up in similar surroundings or have a country house somewhere in the woods?
In short, no! I grew up in the high desert of California. Sagebrush, Joshua trees, lots of dirt. A very sparse landscape. We used to travel to West Virginia to visit my grandparents in the summer, and the difference in scenery was always stunning to me. There were hills and lush trees and grass everywhere. I dreamed of living somewhere green. Many people find the desert quite beautiful, but I think part of us always aspires to something different than what we know.
I find that every writer has a starting point. Something that inspired them to write that first word. What inspired you to commit your first word to the page of this novel?
The initial inspiration was just that—the setting, the countryside. I had just moved to Chicago, my first experience in an urban surround, and as much as I loved the city, I sometimes craved open land and nature. The first image became the first scene of the book, Vivian’s small airplane touching down amidst fields of green.
I was bothered by Vivian’s relationship with her husband Nowell. I think that author-spouse relationship is inherently problematic, but in their relationship it feels like something more. As a writer, I sympathized with Nowell, as a woman, he infuriated me. Was that your intention?
I would rather write a character that inspires a reaction, even if it’s fury! Married couples start out as two individuals but soon, they play off each other and their paths become tangled with the other’s, as it should be. The novel takes place after they’ve been at it for some time, this fusing of paths, and it’s hard to say what the nature of their relationship was in the beginning. But it has veered and they must decide the path for the future. I wouldn’t say I wanted Nowell to be infuriating, but I’m glad he inspired feeling. In the end, I wanted characters that were flawed and multi-layered, as people are.
One of the other major issues in the novel that Vivian grapples with is finding her place within the creative spectrum – figuring out what is “special” about her. I personally think that everyone has a creative space inside of them, much like Dot says, but Vivian seems content for much of the novel to just “be average.” What are your thoughts on this?
For me, the specialness or purpose in life is related to happiness. Because all human wants and needs are basically in service to a pursuit of happiness—the quest for knowledge, engaging in relationships, and creating art, we do all of this to find happiness. For some people, simply taking care of a family makes them happy and they don’t want much else. Others need to travel or learn; artists need to create. Vivian grew up in the shadow of two people who were very fulfilled in their pursuits, and Nowell has been distracted working on his writing. She has no idea what she might like to do, where she wants her life to go. This is a basic part of growing up, I think, and just being human.
There is so much art in your novel. Not just in the way that you paint pictures for us with your words, but also all of the paintings that keep popping up in Vivian’s mind. Do you yourself have a background in Art History?
I have a meager background, which consists of several courses in college, but I do consider myself a visually-influenced writer. Colors, layout, impressions of things—these are all important to me when considering how to “paint” a story on the page. And I’ve always felt that different art forms only enrich each other.
Well. Enough about the novel. Tell me something about you. I’m always interested in hearing about what books and authors inspired someone as I often find new reads that way myself! What books would you say had a significant impact on your life and work?
I’ve always been a huge reader. As a child, I loved the author Ruth Chew. She wrote what we’d call fantasy now, stories about kids coming into contact with some sort of supernatural force. A lot of them had witches. Through these stories, I learned that books can really do just about anything you want them to. Little Women was a lesson in characterization and structure, and as a young adult, Lolita just blew my mind. I read it every few years and it still has that effect. It’s not really a matter of the subject matter, although it is shocking, but it’s more the style of it, the verve, the voice. Life-changing, that book. Also a work of history called Imagined Communities, the basic premise of which is that nations were formed, in part, because people started to imagine themselves as a community. This is a very simplified statement of the book, but this idea—that our very history could be altered by our thoughts (again a simplification of my thinking)—this had a huge impact on my writing and still does. Lastly, The Qualities of Wood was very influenced by Winesburg, Ohio, a novel that employs a direct, simple style to relay universal truths and longings.
Do you write like Nowell? Secreted behind a sheet-curtain? What is your writing space like?
Well, I’m writing this as three men are sawing and hammering in our bathroom about ten feet away. I have four children. If I expected seclusion or quiet to write, I would probably never write a thing. I have an open desk, crowded with papers and empty mugs, with photos of my kids and husband all around, school calendars, coupons, etc., etc. I use two monitors for one computer and usually have a second computer on too. This speaks mostly to my organization and the fact that I have things on both hard drives and am always going back and forth to see where something is. My oldest son says “Why do you have so many computer screens? You don’t have that much to do.” Kids always keep it real.
I’ve read a few chapters of another novel of yours, “Fortress For One,” is that your next project? Or is there something else in the pipeline?
I finished the second half of Fortress in November of last year. I’m letting it stew for a while but am just about ready to dive back into it. I wrote notes on that book for over ten years, so once I sat down to write, it felt fully formed in some ways. I’m also working on a collection of interrelated stories, an experimental sort of project called Human Stories. The idea is that all stories are based on certain archetypal outlines (i.e. Boy Meets Girl, Boy Grows Up, etc.), but in modern times, these archetypes can be upended. I began the first story after reading the collected stories of Lydia Davis, who really is an innovator of form, a maverick. Oh, and I’ve got an idea for another novel brewing…