Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Mary Hannah Terzino’s fiction piece, The Arc of the Birch
Sommer: What a beautiful tree that was! It’s a testament to your writing that I was very sad to realize that it would go. The narrator would make a bowl out of it, though, and you also fashioned this poignant short story from it. How does writing help you deal with or understand the fleetingness of life?
MHT: That tree was a real tree, and instead of ceaselessly berating my husband for cutting it down, I wrote a piece of short fiction about it, including a (purely fictional!) troubled marriage. I write a lot about the impact of death on the living, one of the universal experiences we have as human beings. In my life, every important death has carried the memories of other deaths, a chain of ghosts, as if inviting me to make some sense of them as a collective. Writing fiction has been the opposite of an escape from such thoughts – it has plunged me deeper into them. A typical reaction to the fleetingness of life is to say, “Well, then, we need to make every moment count.” But most people don’t live up to that resolve. Which isn’t to say that someone’s or something’s death doesn’t affect them. I’m interested in other reactions to death. In this story, for example, the protagonist grappled with conflicting notions of preservation and disposal.
As a latecomer to this writing business, I can’t help but think you are perhaps a bit wiser or more honest—more readily able to find and access your voice. Do you think this is true? What inspired you to start writing creatively after thirty years of practicing law?
It’s true that I know myself now in a way I didn’t when I was in my thirties and forties. I feel in my sixties that I am writing for my life! I often write crap, of course, but I don’t waste additional time on things that I feel instinctively won’t progress to good pieces. I’m not going to beat something into submission that resists being tamed.
I’m not sure why I didn’t get going earlier with fiction. I suppose I spent so much time on my career that I didn’t have energy left over. And I didn’t think I’d be very good at it. You have to unlearn a lot of legal writing in order to tackle fiction in the right way. That said, I sometimes wrote humor pieces for friends that were well-received. But when I attended my first writing workshop at age 57, after I retired from full-time lawyering, I found that the stories pouring out of me were kind of dark. That’s what interests me although I still get wistful comments from friends who want me to write humor. I should add that I especially valued the support of writer-friends when I started out. And recently I’ve connected with a mentor who has provided tremendous feedback and encouragement to keep going on my current path. I still have so very much to learn.
And on that note, which authors have and continue to inspire you?
My favorite novel is probably Middlemarch by George Eliot: everything you need to know about relationships, right there. In contemporary fiction I am a big fan of Elizabeth Strout; George Saunders; Ann Patchett; Edith Pearlman, who had her big commercial breakthrough at age 78; and more recently, the novel The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, which rocked. Living in Michigan I’ve had the privilege of meeting and reading some fine Michigan writers, including Desiree Cooper (we don’t hold it against her that she moved to Virginia) and Bonnie Jo Campbell. I said I was writing for my life – I’m also reading for my life!
Do you have any advice for writers in trying to find publication and to stay motivated?
As a novice at finding publication, I could use some advice myself. I am awash in form email rejections. In such circumstances, motivation obviously has to exist independent of external reward. What motivates me initially is the fresh white page. It is a heady experience to put the first words down, to fill that page with ideas that come solely from one’s own brain. Sharing work with other writers you trust can help. Writing needs readers, and if you aren’t being published, you need to find other ways to get your work read. I’m also a fan of renewal –a good writing workshop will do that. It’s like going to a writing spa. That doesn’t mean we should forget about trying to find a home for our work. But it’s critical to find a way to love the work itself. If you don’t love it, don’t do it.
What are you working on these days, and do you have any upcoming publications we should know about?
For the past year I’ve been working on a collection of short fiction focused on the theme I mentioned previously: how the living experience the death of others. It’s a diverse collection, including, for example, a hoarder who attends funerals as a hobby; a flash piece about the survivors of a murder; a teenager at a graduation party where a classmate drowns; an elderly former athlete with dementia who experiences what I think of as a good death; and of course, The Arc of the Birch. The murder piece has been published, and I’ve submitted others for publication in various journals. Fingers crossed and publishers welcome.
Thank you for doing this interview with me, and congratulations on being a finalist for the Forge Fellowship!
Thank you, Sommer. I am a great admirer of the Forge Literary Magazine and hope I will be able to publish with you again in the future.