“Books let me go anywhere I wanted.”
In Joyce Mandeville’s novel A Twist of Light, two young girls who find their alcoholic mother dead decide to bury her and leave town before the authorities find out and possibly separate them. By her makeshift grave on the bank of the Kings River in California, beneath a canopy of cottonwoods where the sisters feel their departed mother will stay safe and out of trouble, they stage an impromptu funeral.
The elder, less creative Ellie suggests a prosaic tune, a prayer, or a list of their mother’s few accomplishments to mark the solemn occasion, while the brilliant Lizzy, who’d have preferred a fiery Viking farewell, disappointedly recalls how she had interred dead birds and road kill with more flair and feeling, with song and interpretive dance. In the end, they say a simple goodbye and acknowledge that at least now they have and can take care of one another, a job their mother did poorly.
How we take care of one another – through the ties that bind and occasionally chafe – while remaining true to our inner callings and creative natures are threads that run through much of Mandeville’s work. Tall and vibrant, with a ready smile and an insightful wit that matches the frequent humor – sometimes gritty and black – found in her novels, the East Hardwick resident is the author of three published novels and many short stories.
This year, as Little, Brown brings out e-book versions of A Twist of Light, Careful Mistakes, and Glory Days, Mandeville, a daily hiker, devoted Golden Retriever owner, and doting grandmother to two precocious girls, has returned to writing full-time. She’s now at work on a trilogy of novels set in Vermont.
Tell us about your background.
I was born in Fresno California to a family that was distinctly non-bookish. My father was the son of Swedish immigrants who grew grapes and he stayed in the wine biz for his whole career. My mother's family, from what I can gather, seemed to be something like professional pioneers. They always seemed to be amongst the first families to settle an area. Although my mother's family had several generations of doctors in it, by the time my mother came along, two generations of divorces, including that of her parents, had plunged them into something very like genteel poverty.
My parents had what my mother considered to be a great romance and that was a nice thing to grow up in, a great romance. We didn't live in a child-centered home, which was perfect for me. I've always liked to be a little below the radar anyway.
My love of books: I can still remember the first story hour at the library I ever went to. I was four and the book was Bartholomew something or other and I was hooked. Later that day, to my utter delight, I picked out the word 'the' while my father was reading his newspaper and I thought I had it all. As it turned out, I did. I learned to read very quickly and books became and remained, the center my life.
They showed me worlds far beyond the dusty valley I'd always felt stuck in and the books let me go anywhere I wanted. As a small child, it took me a few years to understand that everything I read wasn't true so I developed an odd overview of life that I think has served me well. I've never given a lot of energy to what's real and what isn't.
I married very young to a lovely man who is still my husband and we had two children. We moved around a bit between California and New York for his work and in the early 90's we moved to the Sussex area of England.
I've always been an Anglophile so I was thrilled, but it turned out to be excellent for my career as well. I'd written a book for which I hadn't been able to find an agent or publisher in the States, but in England, I suppose because in the first time in my life I was exotic and foreign, I had several offers of representation and Little, Brown UK gave me a three-book deal almost immediately.
Living abroad isn't always easy, but I think it gave us, and certainly our two children, who were teenagers by this time, a world view that has enriched out lives.
My husband had been saying for years that when it was time to go back to the States, the choice would be mine. There had never been any doubt in my mind about where I wanted to land and that landing place would be Vermont. I'd never been here, but something in me knew this was the place.
When we left England, all our worldly goods were on a container ship and we had three weeks to figure out where those worldly goods were going to go. Our daughter had returned to the States a few months before us and was working as a reporter for the Hardwick Gazette, so that was the first place we looked. We found a fairly beat up Victorian house in East Hardwick, but it was a divorce situation so the owners were already packed and ready to move out.
That beat up Victorian has become a wonderful home for us and we've never regretted our move here.
You’ve been writing for more than twenty years, but you’ve also enjoyed success as an interior designer and manager of an art gallery. Now you’re writing full time. Do you have a daily writing routine?
I do. I start every morning with a hike or a snowshoe with my dog. Once we get back home I get nicely dressed (I'm much vainer that I should be) and I go upstairs to my office with a cup of licorice tea and light the candles. My office is a small bedroom with almost no natural light, which is perfect for my needs. All the light is at the computer with a little bit of glow from the candles. It helps to focus my mind.
Oh, and then I play backgammon on-line for a game or two. I only write on the upstairs computer because it has a big screen and an excellent keyboard. I never write longhand since I can't read my own writing and I'm a terrible speller. If it weren't for spell-check I'd be asking if you wanted fries with that.
I'm usually done by noon unless I'm doing heavy editing. The actual process of fresh writing rarely goes beyond about two hours. There are rare occasions where I'm able to get into some sort of head space and words just rush onto the screen, but those days are few and far between. If the morning has been productive, I will give myself a few hours and then read what I've written that morning later in the day to see it I was indeed productive. I try to think about the next days writing just before I fall asleep. I don't know if this is really effective, but I think it might somehow prime my subconscious.
Having had the pleasure of being a guest in your home and at your table, I can attest to how the beauty of place and the comforts of family life show themselves in both your life and your writing. Are you conscious of creating a sensual world for your readers?
That's an interesting question. I'm really more interested in what's inside my characters than where they are standing. Very often I have to go back to make the physical surroundings clearer, but that's because when I'm writing I've got such clear pictures in my mind that I sometimes forget that this is all going on just in my head.
As to a sense of place, I'm always very aware of how a place can shape a character and a story. Since I'm more attracted to the small places in the world, that's where my stories take place. I don't believe I've ever set a story in a city or even a good-sized town. I love the intimacy of living in a small town and really getting to know people and as a writer I find it easier to form characters and stories in these small settings.
Your novels, while rich and multilayered, often showcase female characters struggling through difficult domestic situations, and you have attracted many admiring male readers. What do you think of the label “women’s fiction”? Have you avoided falling under it?
I dislike the term, because I find it demeaning in our still chauvinistic society. I love women who love to read and they deserve wonderful things to read. My issue is that within the industry there is often a formula that seems to define women's fiction. There are clear guidelines that some publishers expect for women's fiction as to point of view, length of the book, at what point in the story the main character is introduced, at what point the conflict comes in and what sort of ending is required. I don't believe that the people I have in mind when I write are looking for a formula to play out. Years ago I tried writing to some of these constraints and after a week or so I hit the delete button and proceeded to write something I could be proud of. Since I don't have an Adam's apple, I don't think I can completely escape the 'Women's Fiction' label, but I certainly don't think about it while I'm working.
Currently I'm published under Little, Brown's Sphere, which is their mainstream fiction imprint. I'm still not sure how these categories are determined by editors, but I'm assuming this means that my work will be attractive to a more diverse audience.
My hope is that there will always be good fiction for people of to read and good publishers who are willing to take risks to make this happen.
The paranormal plays a key role in your work as well. Why is that?
Well, I've been seeing things out of the corner of my eyes for as long as I can recall. I've lived in a haunted house, which I found to be very interesting and not really scary at all. I've had a letter fall on my head that had been written by a late, great friend, who I had just been thinking about. When I was a little kid I knew if my mother was sad before I walked in the door. If I ignore these things in my work, I'm not giving my readers all they deserve. I'm not going to write some nasty vampire thing, but I want readers to consider a reality beyond the conventional.
I've found it useful for my characters to question their five senses and find an alternate explanation. I've also found that after the second glass of wine around the table at dinner parties, most of the people there will admit to an experience that could be considered paranormal. I believe it's part of the human experience, but I try to keep it subtle in my work. I don't have spooks jumping out of the closet, but I do have a child who can sometimes read auras. I have two children who think they've seen the Virgin Mary, but there are no ghouls.
Your books are also laced with humor, some of it quite dark, with comedy often underscoring the tragic.
I love to laugh and I can find humor in some very unlikely places, but I think most people can when they feel free to do so. I think my favorite movie scene ever is in Monty Python's The Life of Brian, the crucifixion scene. The one where Brian starts singing 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life'? First Brian starts singing and moving his nailed feet to the music and then all the other men on crosses join in. It sums up my most closely held belief that isn't what happens to you, it's how you deal with it.
Tell us a bit about your current work, your Vermont trilogy.
I've got the first two of the trilogy completed. The Luck of Opposites and Summerland are not yet available, but I hope my publisher, Little Brown, will pick them up. The Luck of Opposites is set in a tiny village in the NEK in the 1950's, back when there were just a handful of paved roads. Summerland is about a family from Connecticut who have had a camp on Lake Champlain for over a hundred years. It's a family saga set in the 1960's with some strong elements of magic realism.
I'm working on the Madness of Angels, also set in Vermont and roughly based on the Spiritualist shows that the Eddy brothers used to put on about 150 years ago in Chittenden. I'm going over to the Lily Dale Spiritualist colony in New York later this month for research.
I'm quite certain I will continue to write about Vermont, loving the state and its people as I do, but this will complete the Vermont trilogy. I've been reading a lot about transgender people lately, and I've got an idea about Queen Elizabeth I. Sometimes I think there are just too many ideas.
Wall Street crashed in far away New York, the Midwest is swirling with dust, and nobody has bothered with painting houses or planting flowers for at least three years. Then Glory and her best friend Pammy see something in the woods, and people start talking about miracles and the Virgin Mary. Soon the whole town seems to catch Mary fever, but the bad days aren't over yet.
From green and pleasant Sussex, Liz slowly reveals the story of her early life as a 'ditch-bank Okie Viking' and her struggle to overcome the mayhem and murder that marred her childhood. The story unfolds as young Lizzy and the adult Liz share the tale of of one woman's life and death.
Jilly, a 40-something widow, finds herself facing a barrage of crises: she is going to be visited by a mother-in-law from hell, while her beloved father, a retired bishop, is terminally ill and she is sitting his death watch. Then on the day she rushes off to collect her college-age daughter Chloe from the airport, the bishop dies and -bang- Chloe reveals she's pregnant.
This column appears in the August 2014 issue of The North Star Monthly. Check out their site: