In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing author and they choose their own interview by handpicking the questions (and how many!) they want to answer. Martha Woodroof is the author of Small Blessings. Here is what Martha had to say about reading, writing, and making a bucket list helped her publish her novel.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
I got my first rejection letter at the age of twelve from the poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly. As it was a personal letter asking me to send in more stuff, I took that as encouragement. I’m both a college dropout (Mount Holyoke) and a grad school dropout (the University of Virginia). My first real job was as a teacher’s aide in a pilot Head Start program in Greensboro, North Carolina. Since the turn of the century, I’ve been attached to WMRA, the Little Public Radio Station that Can, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and actively freelanced for the NPR Culture Desk and for npr.org.
Before that – among a lot of other things, I co-owned restaurants, did a bit of acting, was fired as a magazine editor, hosted local TV talk shows and anchored the news, wrote a book called How to Stop Screwing Up: 12 Steps to a Real Life and a Pretty Good Time, cooked for an artist’s colony, was a country music disc jockey and a psychiatric occupational therapy aide, taught preschool, published a bunch of essays, was a morning drive-time personality on a tiny AM radio station, ran a college bookstore coffee shop, directed a college’s co-curricular programming, and failed to sell cars.
I finished an early draft of Small Blessings a couple of years ago and then put it away to work on some radio and non-fiction projects.
I’ve never been all that frightened of failing (which is lucky, as I have failed a lot). It seems to me we are each responsible for living our own lives kindly, productively and well; figuring out what we need and want to do with our time and our talents, and then going after those things full-tilt. With this in mind, when I hit my early sixties, I made a bucket list. As I’ve done (and failed to do) a lot of very different things, my bucket list had one item on it: Publish Small Blessings! I’d recently reread the novel, re-fallen in love with its people, and the one thing I really wanted was to land them a better gig than life in a cardboard box in my home office.
How Small Blessings came to St. Martin’s is a long, funny story involving some more major non-shyness on my part and (as any first novelist will tell you) a giant helping hand from the serendipity gods. One auction later, Small Blessings and I had fetched up at St. Martin’s, which is publishing heaven as far as I’m concerned.
As to the stories I want to tell: I want to explore the lives of ordinary people who have ordinary problems and somehow things happen that bring out the best in them. I am, and have always been, an optimist!
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you through the writing process?
My process is not very mysterious; it’s what I think of as the Just Do It school of writing. I get up every morning and write for a couple of hours before I do anything other than give my email a cursory look. As soon as I start to interact with the outside world, the inside of my head turns a pinball machine and I lose my ability to hang out in my imaginary worlds.
As to rituals and food: Coffee. Brought to me in continuous supply by my husband, Charlie, who is bucking for sainthood.
Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it.
Q: Is writing fiction fun?
What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?
I’m a long-term sober alcoholic/addict (hallelujah!). Sobriety has taught me that there’s always another chance. Or conversely, as the Doobie Brothers once put it: “You always have a chance to give up. So why do it now?”
If I had to be stuck on a desert island with only one book, it would be The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald. In one particular letter, someone asks Ms. O’Connor (who was a seriously devout Catholic) what our duty in prayer is. Ms. O’Connor replies something to the effect that our duty is to figure out what we want and ask for it. The italics are mine, as I read this at a point in my life when I was not yet sober and so was really floundering. And even though I wasn’t even a person of faith at the time, I remember those words hitting me like a blow. Our duty is to figure out what we want…
At the time, I was clueless about who I was, let alone what I wanted. That moment with Ms. O’Connor began an ongoing process of learning to accept myself exactly as I am in the world as it actually is. This has been both challenging and, at times, very scary. But – yowza! – it’s also, in my opinion, the most alive way to live. How can we possibly be happy without first being our real selves? So – back to Small Blessings – in general, I think I’m interested in writing about nice, well-meaning people who are willing to face the extreme challenge of accepting themselves as they really are and, in the process, learning what it is they really, truly want.
What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
My mother read aloud to me way past the age when I could read on my own. She was an English professor who loved literature, and she made Dickens and Shakespeare and Jane Austen as real to me as second grade. I think that’s when I fell in love with words and their power to tell other people’s stories.
Long years reporting in the NPR system only fueled this love. Stories allow us to inhabit the lives of people we will never meet (or who will never exist, in the case of fiction), try on their viewpoints, experience their struggles and triumphs, feel their emotions. I can truthfully never remember not wanting to be a story teller in some form or other.
Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?
I love all my characters, and I was surprised by how much I missed their company once Small Blessings was finished. Writing Agnes Tattle (Tom Putnam’s mother-in-law) was a real blast, because she is so no-nonsense and straightforward.
About the Author: Martha Woodroof was born in the South, went to boarding school and college in New England, ran away to Texas for a while, then fetched up in Virginia. She has written for NPR, npr.org, Marketplace and Weekend America, and for the Virginia Foundation for Humanities Radio Feature Bureau. Her print essays have appeared in such newspapers as the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Small Blessings is her debut novel. She lives with her husband in the Shenandoah Valley. Their closest neighbors are cows.