Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Author Spotlight Series: Mameve Medwed

Posted by Hannah Roveto

Mameve Medwed’s books are known for their strong sense of setting, fully-drawn characters, and plots that build on comedies of manners in the issues that matter most day-to-day: love, children, parents, career, self. Of her first novel, 1997’s Mail, Publishers Weekly noted that “Medwed’s talent is in the details,” and her books have been praised by the likes of Arthur Golden, Tom Perrotta, Gregory Maguire and Anita Shreve. Her new book, Of Men and Their Mothers, is a BookSense “Notable Book” for May. She graciously agreed to be interviewed for The Writers’ Group blog, and offers insights into her path through and take on the literary life.

Hannah Roveto: Thank you for sharing your time with us. I’ve read your first four books, already bought the fifth, and the fact that you are known for humor is of particular interest to me. First off, Mail came out in 1997. What was your background to that point? You were writing already?

Mameve Medwed
: Thank you, too! Yes, I was writing short stories and had published a lot. Mail started as a short story published in The Missouri Review. I thought I was a short story writer. Elinor Lipman called and said, you know, you need to write a novel. I told her I didn’t know how, and she said, “Nobody does. Take Mail and turn it into one.” So I did it, kicking and screaming. Then it finds an agent, results in a bidding war, and I thought, this isn’t so bad! I felt I never wanted to write short stories again. I love the luxury of working on something for a matter of years. I always panic at the end of a story, worry where the story will go, and will I ever get another idea. Novel writing delays that panic.

HR: How did you meet Elinor Lipman?

MM: I met Elinor almost thirty years ago in a writing class at Brandeis, adult ed, twelve weeks for forty bucks. We hit it off and became fast friends right away, especially since we were the only ones writing funny stuff and we were considered not “serious!”

HR: What did you learn as you grew into a novel writer?

MM: I don’t know what I learned, in that I did it by the seat of my pants. I’d always keep one paragraph ahead of myself. I was so certain I couldn’t do it, that nobody would want it, I didn’t set any limits on myself. I let my imagination spin, went on tangents, moved back and forth in time. I took classes, of course, at the Cambridge Center and at Radcliffe, which were tremendously helpful. I was quite sure nothing would come of it, though. I still feel that way with every novel, that I’m reinventing the wheel for myself.

HR: Did you have a writers group in those early days?

MM: I’ve certainly been sustained by writers groups and seminars, but all the groups petered out over time. They’d work for a while, then they didn’t. I have one reader over the years, Elinor, who’s been a constant. I read her work and she reads mine. Sometimes my agent reads before I’m done, sometimes someone else.

HR: Do you have a formal process or rules any longer?

MM: No. (Laughs.) Ellie send stories chapter by chapter, very polished. I send her big messy manuscripts I’ve certainly gone over a number of times, but I think she has the harder end of that deal. I don’t want to be stopped too early on.

HR: If you are asking someone else to read, are there any guidelines you suggest to them?

MM: I’m very careful whom I ask to read. I have to know the person, know they know me. I want brutal honesty wrapped in encouragement. I don’t want to feel like I’m going to go home and fall on my sword; I want a certain professionalism. You need to know if the story works, the characters are real, whether there are any confusions. Is it too long, and so forth.

HR: You’ve said Mail took about three years to write, and your other books have come out at about two year intervals. Can you talk a bit to your process while you write? Do you outline, or know where your stories are headed, and do you have any thoughts on those “messy middles?”

MM: I’ve been told I’m “so prolific.” Of course, between the time you have a book accepted and when it is published is about eighteen months, so there’s been an additional six months or so of time nobody sees. I have very bad habits, or at least, a horrible time starting a new book. First, I’m often in the whole publication-touring-promotion phase for another book, so it’s hard to switch heads. I haven’t given birth to the old book yet, fully. Nothing flows, and that is torture. It’s an exquisite and delightful torture.

I never know the story when I start to write it out. That’s what makes it interesting to me. If I know, then to me the process feels too mechanical. I like the surprises along the way; they keep me going. If I felt I had to analyze or intellectualize the elements, I’d be paralyzed. I used to feel dumb, but I’ve learned to trust the subconscious when I’m in the zone. The first draft, I try not to overthink. E.L. Doctorow had a quote about writing a novel: “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I keep that over my computer.

Once I have about fifty pages, though, I have a place to go. Then I’m really good, have exemplary habits. I can work for eight or ten hours a day and will do at least two pages each day, which accumulates. I let myself write badly; everything including the kitchen sink goes in, what I read in the newspapers, everything. I don’t worry about the middle, because I know I’m going to revise. In revising, I cut huge swathes through it, connect the dots, address continuity. If you allow yourself to write badly the first time through, you use some of it, not other parts, but it’s all there on paper.

HR: So you never know the endings, even in a book like The End of An Error (re-released in paperback in April)?

MM: No. I didn’t. And I don’t know that afterward she sticks with that choice or regrets it, either.

HR: Humor is tricky. What do you think makes it work, if it is something that can be quantified at all? Any tips for someone working in this category?

MM: I don’t think I’m funny. I’m dead serious when I’m writing. That it was funny was a surprise, that people laughed. I suppose it’s my voice, my style. I’ve been on panels, talked about it a lot, and I’ll say that when you’re going to write anything, even humor, it still has to be serious. I do write serious books, about life, love and loss. Robert Stone said it’s the great thing about literature: it makes the world less lonely.

To write it, I know the characters have to be real, layered; they can’t be caricatures. The biggest danger in comedy is to have cardboard characters. You need a real person with an inner life. Trollope says that easy reading takes hard writing. You have to go over it a million times to make it seamless, make sure it flows.

HR: When you are ready to start a novel, what sets it off: a moment, a story you hear, a character idea? What inspired your newest book, Of Men and Their Mothers, for example?

MM: I always like writing about mothers and sons; there were certainly experiences with my own mother-in-law that prompt thoughts, and stories I hear. Although then you need to take it and bring it to another level. And class – that’s something we dare not name in our society. For the new book, I’d had some thoughts. Then a somewhat scruffy man was looking for some neighbors, who were out. I told the woman later about him, and she asked me to come over. She pulled a bag from the freezer: breast milk that had been in there for three years or so. Her husband was a lawyer who’d done a pro bono case for DSS and his client asked him to store the milk. The idea of someone’s breast milk in a stranger’s freezer for years… well, that clicked right away with what I was thinking!

HR: What do you like best about the literary life?

MM: I like that I am the god of my domain. I can do whatever I want. And I do love the torture of writing, which gives me the clay to do revision. I like the big feeling of having a book in me, no matter where I go, carrying it inside of me. I don’t like giving up that control once it’s done, when it depends on so many other people, on budgets, reviews and sales. It’s hard to give up the story to that. Most of us are shy, find it hard, worrying about what another person will think even though you know it’s only one opinion; but will it make or break the book? The lovely part, then in turn, is to have a book in your hands, in bookstores and libraries. You get that connection with readers.

When you start writing, all you want is to have a book. Then you say, okay, all I want is another book. You’re never satisfied, and each time the anxiety gets ratcheted up, and then the book comes out and that alone doesn’t fulfill you. In the end, it always goes back to the joy and torture of writing your world. Every single time, you have to go back to the writing.

Information on Mameve Medwed’s books, from those above to How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life and Host Family, as well as essays and public appearance dates are at


Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

I am a HUGE fan of Mameve Medwed! This is fantastic, Hannah. I, too, have read all of her books and now have Men & Mothers waiting for me. I'm thrilled she's here with us and hope each of you love her novels as much as we do. My suggestion? Start with MAIL. As writers, you'll completely identify.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your wisdom and I love the title. I also can relate to your comments about letting others read works in progress. It's sometimes tough to find the right people to do that.

All the best.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Mameve is lovely, isn't she? I had so much fun writing up my notes and rereading all those bits of wisdom and insights. Since talking with her, I have started Of Men and Their Mothers, and if you don't have it yet, run out quick!


Larramie said...

I adore Mameve Medwed and Elinor Lipman, but who knew they were such good friends and each other's readers?

Lisa said...

This is a great interview. I was especially encouraged by this:

"Elinor Lipman called and said, you know, you need to write a novel. I told her I didn’t know how, and she said, 'Nobody does. Take Mail and turn it into one.'"

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Glad you enjoyed as much as I did! The conversation was virtually as you see it. I loved, too, when she spoke about the "exquisite and delightful torture" of writing, and at the end, came back to that as the driving force. That really sums it all up, yes?