Monday, November 1, 2010

Meet a Real Writer Babe Guest Blogger Mary Maddox

The Book Boost welcomes author Mary Maddox to the blog!

Here's what she had to say...

How the Writer Babes Saved Me

I spent two years at the Iowa Writers' Workshop where I was privileged to learn from writers such as Raymond Carver, John Irving, Gail Godwin, and Mary Lee Settle. My knowledge of my craft grew tremendously at the Workshop. Among my classmate were Tracy Kidder, Alan Gurganis, Stuart Dybek, and T.C. Boyle. One thing I learned is that even the best writers – especially the best – depend on feedback. Though they might not always appreciate the criticism, they need it. Writers' groups and workshops satisfy this need.

Soon afterward my husband accepted a position as an associate professor at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, a town of 20,000 people, half of them students. For a few years I wrote with very little feedback except from agents and editors whose comments usually came with a rejection slip. Then I began teaching in the university’s English department, and a colleague invited me to join a writers’ group. The novel that eventually became my thriller Talion was born through this group. Unfortunately the group didn’t last. Friction between personalities became so intense that we stopped meeting.

I finished my novel – the tale of two girls pursued by a sadistic psychopath – and titled it Secret Father. I found an agent through contacts I’d made at Iowa. A reader commissioned by the agent to evaluate my manuscript gave it a positive review that began, “Ms. Maddox’s book might serve as an example to writing students of the perfect crime thriller . . . . [She] has taken a very hackneyed formula and come up with something original and entirely absorbing.” I was euphoric. I felt validated. Someone with credentials thought my novel was good.

Unfortunately my agent couldn’t sell it for the large advance he wanted. Editors worried that Secret Father bent the rules of the genre too far. According to the reader, this bending kept the book from being hackneyed, but editors doubted enough readers would pay $25.99 for something too original. The agent urged me to rewrite. So I did, replacing the teenage protagonist with a journalist – the kind of adult, middle-class protagonist readers expect to find in a thriller.

The revision, Rad’s Kiss, was a worse book, unfocused and too long. In the end I couldn’t bring myself to abandon my teenage protagonist. Two-thirds through the story Lu seizes the reins from the journalist, leaving him with nothing to do. The same reader reported on Rad’s Kiss and concluded: “The pressure your agency, and the pressure I gather Ms. Maddox’s potential publisher, have leveled on her, have resulted in a book whose dark, uncompromising vision has been blurred – without a compelling performance by a new character to bring matters back into focus.”

Rad’s Kiss didn’t sell, and my agent and I parted ways.

For a while I was too dispirited to think about looking for another agent or doing anything with Secret Father. I worked sporadically on stories and novels but thought little about publication. I was once again writing in a vacuum. I joined an online writing group but found most of their comments unhelpful. Then four of my colleagues in the English departments invited me to join a writers’ group. Together we became the Writer Babes. The group brought me back to life as a writer.

Thanks to the Babes I became more energized about writing fiction than I’d been for a long time. I began thinking about Secret Father again. An inspiration came to me: Suppose an aspect of Lu‘s psyche became a separate character, an ambiguous being capable of both good and evil, whose conflict with Lu would dramatize her inner turmoil. I named the new character Talion, a word derived from lex talionis, the concept of justice in which retaliation is dealt out in proportion to the offense – like the Biblical law of an eye for an eye. Talion would offer retribution for the abuse Lu has suffered. But as I wrote, he grew beyond my conception of him.

The Writer Babes critiqued every chapter as I revised, explaining how and why my writing needed to grow. Their strengths helped me see and correct the weaknesses. The Babes noticed when plot contrivances became too obvious and characters drifted out of focus. They caught the clunky transitions and bits of awkward dialogue that found their way into my new draft. They flagged the sentences that sounded flat or strained or just plain wrong. I like to think control of tone is one of my strengths, but my writing suffered from years of getting no feedback. Now I had readers sensitive to language who were willing to lavish my writing with attention.

The Babes are gifted fiction writers, poets, and memoirists as well as teachers. I couldn’t have finished Talion without the help of Letitia Moffitt, Angela Vietto, Miho Nonaka and Daiva Markelis. They encouraged me to do my best writing and to keep going when I felt hopeless about the book’s prospects. I owe my friends more than I can hope to repay. Though Miho has gone, three more impressive writers have joined us – Ruth Hoberman, Lania Knight and Roxane Gay. The Babes just keep getting better, and each time we meet to talk about one another’s writing, I try to give back some of what they’ve given me.

A Note from the Book Boost: How wonderful that you've found such a supportive a knowledgeable group of writers to help you reach your goals. I'm very impressed by your story of hard work and diligence in getting your story in the right hands for publication. Please tell us more about your book!


The dying body has a thousand voices and all of them speak to Conrad (Rad) Sanders. Fifteen-year-old Lisa Duncan has no idea she has attracted Rad’s interest. At an isolated resort in Utah, he watches as vivacious Lisa begins an unlikely friendship with Lu Jakes, the strange and introverted daughter of employees there. Lu enters his fantasies as well. He learns she is being abused by her stepmother and toys with the notion of freeing her from her sad life and keeping her awhile as his captive. Lu seems like an easy conquest who could be persuaded to act out his fantasy by turning against her new friend. But something else is watching Lu . . . .


Her mother died because of her. When he got drunk enough, Daddy told her how smart and beautiful Joanie was, how she’d won a scholarship to the University of Utah right before she accidentally got pregnant with Lu. “She could’ve had an abortion,” he said. “She wanted you, she wanted a sweet little baby to love.” He was lying as usual, to himself and Lu both. How could Joanie want something that ruined her life? After that she must have quit caring about anything. Why else would she keep on boozing until she got pneumonia and died? No way around it. If Lu hadn’t been born her mother would still be alive.

She remembers a photo of herself as a baby cradled in her mother’s arms. Or maybe she has it confused with another photo, glimpsed along ago, of someone else. Was the blurred face really Joanie’s? Was the expression love or desperation? Lu can’t be sure anymore since Norlene burned all the photos. They were Lu’s inheritance, the proof her mother had existed.

“You’re not my mother!”

She used to talk that way before she learned to watch her tongue.

“Your mama’s dead, dumbshit!” Norlene screamed so loud her voice shredded. “Time for the funeral!” Furiously she shook the old shoe box of photos. No telling when she’d found them, but that day she went straight to their hiding place in Lu’s closet. “Time for the fucking funeral!” She plucked Daddy’s lighter from the table and stormed outside. The door slammed against the trailer’s siding and left a dent. Daddy hollered, “What the hell!” from the sofa where he was watching TV.

Lu stumbled across the playground, its grass worn bald and littered with dog poop, to the row of dumpsters behind the trailer court. Norlene was dumping the photos into a rusty barrel used for burning. Crowing with triumph, she caught the cardboard box on fire and dropped it in. She shoved Lu back, screaming, “Burn, baby, burn!” Lu charged again and got shoved harder. She fell. A jolt exploded in her tail bone and up her spine and rang the bell inside her head. Somehow she lurched to her feet. Like climbing a wall.

Norlene was stoking the fire with a bent curtain rod she’d picked up off the ground or fished out of the dumpster. Strange how it was right there at hand, right when it was needed. Lu stood with her mouth hanging open, a stupid child. It was too late to save the photos. Smoke hung around her stepmother in a grimy halo. Norlene dropped the rod in the barrel and backed off. “Be my guest, Lu.” Now her voice was hollow, empty of rage. Lu had to look. Ashes were better than imagining what she could have saved.

The barrel stank of smoldering paper and chemicals mingled with the faded smells of old burning. Scraps of the photos lay at the bottom, fused together, their pictures melted. It was like she imagined amnesia would be – silvery blurs and burned-out spaces.

The pain started. Nothing bad at first. Just scrapes on her arm and hands, soreness where she bit herself in the mouth when she fell. But pretty soon pain bolted through her leg whenever she took a step, and her head was throbbing so hard she had to lie down.

She huddled in bed with ice packs listening to them fight. Norlene spit out her contempt for his bitch of a first wife and their retard of a daughter. Daddy kept saying, “Now hold on a damn minute,” more scared than mad. Nothing they said really mattered. Their fights always ended the same. Before long she heard them panting, grunting, and thumping on the livingroom floor, Norlene howling dirty words and Daddy yelping her name over and over. Afterward they smoked cigarettes and whispered, like they’d suddenly worked it out Lu could hear.

She’d almost gone to sleep when Daddy stroked her cheek and asked if she was alright. “You feel hot,” he said. “You got a fever?” His moist, red-rimmed eyes peered sheepishly at Lu. “Your mama’s real sorry. She’s been stressed out, what with her new job.”

Norlene always had a new job. She worked dozens of places, mostly bars, never longer than a month or so.

“Your mama wants to apologize, but she’s scared. She thinks you’re mad at her. I told her, Lu ain’t the type to hold a grudge.” He paused so Lu could say everything was fine now, no hard feelings. When she didn’t, he squeezed her arm reassuringly to show he didn’t blame her any.

“Promise you’ll accept her apology.”

Lu would never forgive Norlene, but she wanted to be left alone.

Flushed and solemn, Daddy attended the apology like Norlene was his daughter starring in the school play. She kept glancing toward him while she stumbled through her lines. “God I’m sorry, Lu, I don’t know what come over me. Maybe we can go shopping tomorrow. Would you like that?”

Lu can’t remember if they went shopping. Not that it mattered. Norlene’s promises were usually worse when she kept them.

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