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Conclusion of Interview with Margaret Hermes
When did you realize that you wanted to write?
As a child I was much read to and then evolved into a voracious reader. It helped that I had no sisters, four athletic brothers, and myopia that went undiagnosed until I’d become a hopeless bookworm. But I also inherited my aspiration.
My mother grew up with a passion for books in a small coal-mining town. Having no library and no wherewithal to purchase books, she began writing her own in grade school. Mostly tales of adventure in the American West. They were written on butcher paper and shared with friends and their families. Instead of becoming an author, she turned herself into a full-time housewife and mother, so somebody had to take up the pen.
Do you plan out the entire book before you begin writing? Or do you just sit down and write?
Neither. I’ve never outlined a story or a novel, though sometimes what I start with is an image or an idea of the ending and the writing becomes a way of getting there. Sometimes a story develops and I write the bones of it over a continuous period; other times it has to be teased out in fits and starts. Usually what occurs is a sort of brewing process. I have an artist friend who complains that his wife does not appreciate that he is working when he is sitting and doing nothing as far as she can see. He tells her that his apparent idleness is part of the creative process. While I don’t believe in waiting around for “inspiration,” I do think that ideas, events, snatches of overheard conversation percolate over time to emerge as scenes or character or bits of dialogue.
How long did it take you to complete this book?
Some of the stories were written years ago. The collection contains my first published short story, “Sorting,” as well as stories finished recently. There have been many more in between, but I chose the particular stories that fit the theme I’d envisioned for the collection.
How much research, if any, did you have to do for this book?
For some stories, like “Meet Me,” none. For “The Bee Queen” I had planned to write about a vivid incident involving wasps that had troubled me since childhood. I decided to spend an afternoon at the library familiarizing myself a bit with stinging insects. That research stretched not only over time but into my main character. The facts that fascinated me gave rise to Bette who also found them fascinating, even if most of those facts didn’t make it into the story. For “Without Windows” I read up on Japanese teahouses. It varies tremendously from story to story.
How did you choose the names for your characters?
My friend Linda was not pleased when she found her first name attached to the “other woman” in “Sorting.” I explained that I had written that story before I knew her, but I might have chosen it anyway because I was seeking something that sounded neutral to me. Sometimes I enjoy giving the full names of friends to minor characters. I bestowed the name of a neighbor and good friend on the pharmacist in “The Bee Queen.” But when it comes to christening characters that make more than a cameo appearance, naming is vital to me (I’ve written a story – a finalist in Glimmer Train’s short-short fiction contest – about the unintended significance in selecting names and another, “Little Girl’s Point,” forthcoming in The Laurel Review in which my heroine reflects on the characters’ names). I have a sort of superstition about names shaping people in life, so of course I think they shape people on the page.
Are you working on another book now? If so, what is it about? When can we expect it to be published?
I’m working on a novel about three generations of women in a Slovak-American family. One of them, as a child, wrote her own novels on butcher paper.
I’m also putting together another collection of stories. Thematically, these are tied together since, despite radically different circumstances, the main characters all find themselves at a crossroads, usually literal and figurative.
I’ve come to the conclusion that expectation and publication have little in common except a sort of rhyming quality.
What kind of books do you like to read?
Well, fiction mostly. That being said, my tastes are fairly catholic. I’d just come off a stack of short stories, so the last five books I’ve read have all been novels: Beauties by Mary Troy, set in a seedy neighborhood in St. Louis (where I live), that had its first incarnation as a short story; One Fell Swoop, told in stories about a murder-suicide in a small southern town, by Virginia Boyd; The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – you can’t go wrong with a Man Booker Prize winner; and two dystopias back to back -- Julianna Baggott’s Pure and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.
How do you manage to balance your time between family, friends, and writing?
I don’t. I find guilt often trumps writing.
If you could spend one hour with just one person, whom would you choose?
I’m cheating: a half hour with my father, a half hour with my mother, both long deceased.
Do you have any advice for writers who are striving to be published?
Don’t give up.
Thank you, Margaret Hermes, for such an interesting and informative interview.
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