It’s the third Monday of the month, we’re zooming towards spring, and Martha Engber is here to share her writing life with you.
Martha’s second novel, Winter Light, was published in October 2020 by Vine Leaves Press. She’s also the author of The Wind Thief, a novel, and Growing Great Characters From the Ground Up. She’s had a full-length play produced in Hollywood and over a dozen short stories, essays and poems published in anthologies and literary magazines such as the Aurorean, Watchword and the Berkeley Fiction Review. A Chicago native, she now lives in Northern California with her husband, bike and surfboard.
Welcome to the Fountain Pen, Martha! Tell us a little more about yourself.
On Christmas morning when I was four, I glanced up from where I sat on the floor to see my grandma come through the kitchen door. My eyes went from her huge smile, to the hangar she held high to keep the clear plastic garment bag from dragging on the floor. Inside I could see a pink sequined ballerina tutu and knew that sparkling costume was for me. My heart and body leapt around like a 4-year-old on a stage too small for her dancing passion.
I’ve been moving and writing ever since, with the goal of capturing those brilliant moments in which a person’s life forever changes from nothing much to everything.
How did your writing career begin?
My parents told my two sisters and I we had to choose professions in which we could support ourselves. My oldest sister became a speech pathologist. My middle sister became a nurse. Faced with the two impractical loves of dance and writing, I chose the latter, and journalism in specific, since that seemed the only form of writing that paid, at least a little.
Though I graduated in broadcast, I mostly freelanced for newspapers, where I initially earned $25 a story. I moved my way up to freelancing for the Chicago Tribune, a journey that taught me how to hustle in every way, from finding stories to researching and writing them on deadline. Most importantly, journalism taught me to look at all sides of a story and persevere to its conclusion, skills I use every day.
I’d grown up journaling and writing poetry, but it wasn’t until I signed up for a fiction-writing workshop in my late twenties that I pushed my writing to a whole new level. I quickly learned making up stories is a much different animal than reporting. Humbled, I started at the bottom and worked my way up. Ever since, my career has been based on this simple rule: never hurts to try.
What do you hope your readers take away from your work? What are you trying to achieve?
Every time I read a story where the character faces her worst fear — and finally crushes it! — that gives me personally the courage to do likewise. That’s the inspiration I want to give readers, the belief they, can overcome the fears that hold them back, and that once conquered, will improve their lives.
How do you approach a new project? Are you a plotter or a pantser, or somewhere in between? Where you do get your ideas?
As a reader, the term “bestseller” when applied to a book means nothing unless I love the character. If I don’t, I close the book.
The same is true for me as a writer. I might start with a basic plot setup, or even just the challenge of writing a new format, as I did for my play. But the journey doesn’t really begin until my protagonist presents me with a burning puzzle to solve on their behalf. I have to know the character so well, and be so invested in her, that despite her flaws, that she haunts me and baits me into pushing forward until I truly understand their her dilemma.
That’s been true of every protagonist I’ve written, but especially 15-year-old Mary Donahue of Winter Light, published in October by VLP
Honestly, that level of passion is the only thing that’s pulled me through the years of rejection.
Have you considered how Covid-19 will affect your writing? Has it already?
I can spot a cliche from a hundred miles away. That sensitivity makes me suspicious of tackling huge societal issues, unless I do so in an essay that introduces an angle I haven’t seen before, which is unlikely when written about by so many people. It’s possible Covid will work its way into future stories, simply as a fact of the era in which my story takes place.
In terms of publicity, as a small press author, most of my promotion has been online. Virtual events have offered me far more author reading opportunities that I would have otherwise had. I’ve also found that teaching workshops online, while not ideal, is very efficient and has improved my ability to hone my course material into visually-stimulating presentations, rather than rely on my physical performance.
Lastly, as a freelancer, I’ve been working from home for so long, and love my office to such a degree, being told I had to stay home — typically something I could only do on the weekends — was strange, but nice. During the week I work as a personal trainer and fitness instructor. While the latter dropped off during gym closures, I still meet with clients virtually, and if they’re close, in-person at the park.
That said, I feel terrible for those who are not in my position. I hate the idea of so many people out of work and who are worried about paying bills or rent. What an awful time in that regard.
Tell us about your most recent publication.
Winter Light was published in October 2020, and not surprisingly given my previous mention regarding the importance of characters, began with Mary Donahue. She’s based on my suburban Chicago high school of the 1970s and the “burnout” kids in who seemed to invite failure. Smoking, cutting class, talking back, never striving. I remember looking at them, thinking, What’s their problem? Why don’t they try harder?
Mary Donahue stared back at me from my judgmental, privileged youth with a look of disgust that clearly conveyed, You have no idea what you’re talking about.
And she was right. I wrote draft after draft with Mary looking over my shoulder, saying, “Still not right,” until the point I truly understanding she laboured beneath dozens more obstacles than I did.
Wow, it sounds like Mary taught you a lot while you were writing the book!
How did your relationship with Vine Leaves Press begin? Was it a conscious decision to work with a small press rather than a Big 5 or self-publishing route?
In the 1990s I had a literary agent on two occasions. Neither could sell my books to the big houses. After that, the publishing industry changed so dramatically — an emphasis on blockbusters, much like the movie industry — that I had little motivation to try for another agent. That and even if I somehow got a contract from a big house, I’d still have to do a lot of promotion.
So I started submitting to small publishers and VLP extended me a contract. To me, VLP reflects the future of publishing: houses that promote books mostly online; focus on certain niches; and often publish authors from around the world, thus responding to increased demand by readers for stories from around the world.
VLP is unusual in the vibrant community of authors who regularly consult one another regarding promotion and who actively support one another.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently writing a memoir. I never thought I would, simply because memoirs used to be reserved for famous people or those who went through flashy, dramatic life events. Memoir-writing has since become a place where the common person can tell a startlingly unique tale that transports readers into a tiny, but vital slice of the universe.
I’m incredibly lucky to have beta read your memoir, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how the project evolves. I think it will speak to a lot of people. Thank you so much for being part of my interview series, Martha.