Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Interview with Author Mary DeMuth

It's my pleasure to interview Mary DeMuth, critically acclaimed author of fiction and nonfiction, teacher, and freelance writer on the blog today. It's a long one, but full of great information for those of us who write autobiographical fiction. So, pour yourself a cup of something strong, and enjoy!

Marilyn: First, thank you for stopping by my blog. Congratulations on the attention given your novel Watching the Tree Limbs by reaching Christian Fiction Review's top ten books of 2006!

Mary: Thanks so much; it’s great to be here. And the top ten thing was a huge surprise!

Marilyn: You've said that this book is somewhat autobiographical. Knowing that many writers write "what we know," I'd like to talk with you about creating fiction from personal experience.

Mary: Great. I’m all ears.

Marilyn: Okay! First, what do we mean when we say "autobiographical"? Does it mean what we have experienced first-hand, or can it include stories or incidents we hear or see that happen to other people? In other words, how many layers of separation must occur before it's no longer an autobiographical--or our--story?

Mary: Both. Autobiographical simply means that some of the characters experience some of the things the author has either experienced or watched others experience. You can’t write a book and call it a novel if it’s completely autobiographical, though. Then, it’s a memoir. A novel has to have plot, characters, etc.

Marilyn: Do you think it's possible for a writer not to write autobiographically to some extent? In other words, do you believe that everything we write holds some element of personal experience?

Mary: Yes, most everything we write has hints and pieces of ourselves. That’s why writers should also be impeccable observers. I watch and record everything. You just never know when you’ll use it. Yesterday I learned about an amazing southern name. You can bet I’ll use that in my next novel.

Marilyn: In your opinion, what are some reasons people write fiction from personal experience?

Mary: They’re usually afraid to write a memoir because the people they may write about might not like what they have to say. To insulate themselves, they fictionalize instead. A word of caution: I wrote both. In Building the Christian Family You Never Had, I told the painful story of my upbringing. In Watching the Tree Limbs, I used elements of my story in the storyline. Guess which one was harder to have out there? It was the novel. It actually felt far more personal to me than the nonfiction.

Marilyn: Then, how can a writer fictionalize personal experience?

Mary: Take a feeling you had from an experience and build upon it. In my first novel, I took my own personal struggle to connect deeply with my children and use that as fodder to flesh out a young widow.

Marilyn: When you began writing Watching the Tree Limbs, did you set out to write from personal experience, or did it emerge from a story idea? Or did some other process take place?

Mary: It started first from story. I saw a little girl on the sweltering pavement of East Texas with a boy approaching her. I sat down and wrote the book in four months.

Marilyn: So, once you knew it was going to be--or was--a book based on your experience, did you take measures to hide the identities of real people? If so, what were they? And what else did you consider as you developed the story?

Mary: The story is such that nothing would seem like I named people. The characters took over (as they should), showing no resemblance to real life characters.

Marilyn: Mary, what advice, suggestions, or cautions can you give people who are writing stories based on something that happened to them?

Mary: First, write a story. Be sure there’s enough tension and conflict. If you find you’re writing snippets of little stories strung together loosely, you may as well write a memoir. Be sure you’ve written an inciting incident, rising action, climax and denouement.

Marilyn: Sounds like great advice. As you can tell from my blog, it's all about writing your life story. Do you keep a diary or journal? If you do, how much of your writing comes from what you journal? Have you ever gotten a seed of an idea from something you journaled? Have you ever used family documents or family stories in your books or other writing?

Mary: I do keep a journal. I’ve done it for years and years. A lot of my nonfiction comes from my journal entries or my blog ramblings. My first novel, yet unpublished, deals with a widow who lost her husband during the Great Depression. She is based on my great grandmother. I had oodles of research to flesh out that book, all from her estate, a local historical society, etc. It is my sincere hope that Crushing Stone (working title) finds a publishing home someday.

Marilyn: Finally, do you have any advice for writers about diary-keeping or journaling?

Mary: Don’t make rules. Just write when you feel the urge. And consider keeping an art journal. I’ve learned so much and gained so much from my illustration of the Bible. For a great resource, go to

Marilyn: Thanks so much, Mary! I've learned a lot here, and I'm sure our readers have, too.

To find out more about Mary and her writing and teaching, visit

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