Walker's English Department Chair Catherine Reed recently interviewed alumna Mary Fleming '75 and shares these thoughts: "I had a wonderful exchange with Mary Fleming about her life as a writer. We have Paris and Simsbury in common, which was fun, but it was even more thrilling to hear about her work and process."
Watch for Mary's forthcoming novel, The Art of Regret (She Writes Press) in October. It will join her first novel, Someone Else, for purchase in Diddle's Depot, Walker's campus store.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
As a child I always felt a need to imagine other worlds. In the one I remember best, I lived on a ranch with lots of dogs and horses and many adventures. That required quite a bit of imagination, since I grew up on the 9th floor of an apartment building in Chicago. In those days the stories stayed in my head. It wasn't until my late teens that the need to express myself on paper became important. Even then it remained mostly a private matter for many years.
Were you a writer when you were at Walker's?
Not when I arrived. But my first year, at the encouragement of a teacher, I started writing a journal, a practice that I continue to this day. It was also at Walker's that I learned to write critically in an organized way, to structure my thoughts and to be rigorous with words. In those days, besides the diary, my writing was contained to essays for class and articles in the school paper.
Did you read anything in high school that made you interested in writing?
When I think of books I first read at Walker's, such a slew of titles comes to mind, I can't pick out one in particular. The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Faulkner, Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, Malcolm X. I remember reading my first Dostoyevsky and Camus (struggling badly with the French). What the ensemble of books did was transform me from a person who liked reading into a lover of literature. They laid a foundation. You could say Walker's is where I learned to write and to read.
Who are the writers you admire now?
I still love the classics, such as those mentioned above, and often re-read them. Among contemporary writers, it's an eclectic group. Alice Munro, Rohinton Mistry and JM Coetzee come to mind. Early Jane Smiley had a huge impact on me. I recently enjoyed the Naples novels by Elena Ferrante. I like the Chilean writer Roberto Bolano too. Generally I am attracted to writers with a clear and economical prose style and an ability to get inside the heads of the characters. For that I think Anna Karenina still tops the list. But every piece of fiction, good or bad, is a lesson for a writer, a mini-course in creative writing. You can learn quite a bit from what doesn't work as well as from what does.
How does living abroad influence your work?
There are some people who feel at home in the land of their birth and others who feel more at home elsewhere. I fall into the latter category. I write from that perspective, the outsider looking in, a person sitting at the edge. By now of course, having lived more than half of my life in Paris, it feels more like home than the US. But I remain something of an outsider everywhere and I hope this perspective gives me some critical distance but also empathy.
What do you remember most from your time at Walker's?
I remember being busy with a million things. If it wasn't reading all those books mentioned above, it was playing sports, joining clubs, walking in the wood. The opportunities seemed endless. Also—and I'm not just saying this because I'm being asked by one — I had so many teachers who were fundamental in my development, as a person and a student.
What advice, if any, do you have for aspiring writers?
First thing, develop a routine. Writing is not unlike a factory job. You need to clock in every day at about the same time. Somehow the brain knows where you are and the cogs start turning. Next, get something down on paper, even if it seems really, really awful. It's always easier to work with something than with nothing. And sometimes what looks bad one day looks much better the next. Thirdly, keep at it. Writing takes time. Texts need to mature. Even Kurt Vonnegut found it hard: "When I write I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth." Finally, buy Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It helped me over many a rough patch while I was writing my first novel.
If you could tell your teenage self something that you now understand, but did not then, what would it be?
A quote from James Thurber is posted above my desk: "You might as well fall flat on your face as lean too far backwards." As a teenager—and well into my 20s—I was very afraid of failure. My lack of self-confidence held me back in many ways but the one I regret most now is not starting to write fiction seriously sooner. What I wish I had said to myself, and what I'll say to you now is: don't hold back because you're afraid. Have faith in yourself.