10 Questions With Jack Marshall Maness
image via Wooden Stake Press
If you're like me, historical fiction serves to remind you of what a sieve your memory is, or perhaps just how much sleeping you did in history class. It's work that makes me feel bad about myself. Why didn't I pay better attention? This self-flagellation was subdued when I attended a book reading by author Jack Marshall Maness, who dove into the complex world of 1850's Kansas, the setting of his Songs of the Jayhawk trilogy. Maness used his family tree, historical maps, and other ephemera to flesh out the hardscrabble narrative of pioneers who came to Kansas only to find the life so much harder than the pamphlets suggested. It also became ground zero for the grand argument that would lead to the Civil War. Maness brings these issues down to a personal level and looks at the effect taking sides has on individuals living in a sparsely populated frontier. The land is as much a character as his imagined ancestors, beautiful and unforgiving. This is a Kansas I never would have learned about in history class, and one that will stay with me for a long time to come.
Maness won the Colorado Book Award for Historical Fiction for his first novel, Song of the Jayhawk: Or, The Squatter Sovereign. He just released the second Songs of the Jayhawk novel, Where Waters Converge.
What was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
Wow, that’s a great question. When I was five years old, I started writing a book that was simultaneously a scientific treatise and a long poem dedicated to the wonders of the human eye. I remember sitting, watching PBS at a TV tray, and writing it on a yellow notepad with a red pencil. So it would have been this terrible irony of straining your eye while trying to read this thing. I think I got about three-quarters through one page and I remember drawing a diagram of the eye and it was part non-fiction – here’s what the eye does – and part poem, and then it was lost to the ether.
When you sold your first piece of writing, how did you celebrate?
I think that would have been a poem. I won this competition for a Florida writers guild. I’ve never lived in Florida but I just submitted it. My son was one or so, and so I got the letter and my wife came home from work, and I showed it to her and we just took care of the baby and we went to bed! It was about him. I probably read it to my wife, but she had probably read it before. We were just raising a kid.
Tell us about your process: Pen, paper, word processor, human blood when the moon is full... how do you write?
I write on a laptop, mostly in the morning, often on a bus, sometimes at home. I have a little home office. My home is a late 19th century house in Denver, and I think the office would have been a nursery, so it’s kind of the size of a modern closet. I write on a word processor and I am pretty linear about it. I start from the beginning and move forward. As things start not working very well I end up taking chunks and moving them around. I’m part of a writers group, which just destroys the linear plan. A big part of my process is leaving off in the middle of a paragraph. I never finish a chapter or a section because I find when I do, I have to reread the whole section and take time to get a sense of it. I never write for more than 30 or 45 minutes a day - pretty much ever - unless it’s a vacation or a dedicated time. Like this weekend I’m going to spend Friday night, maybe Saturday night just writing because I have a book talk in the mountains and I’ll be alone in a hotel.
I’ve been involved with a writing group four or five years now. It’s been critical to me. Even though I published some things early on, I was terrified of actually sharing my writing with other human beings who might have opinions! It’s been critical to my process, seeing what other people think, starting to lose the insecurity and sensitivity to it. I’m pretty thick-skinned at this point. We have a few people who are really good with their critiques, and I’ve been told things are not so good, and I’m used to that now.
What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
I’ll give you two. One is: I think there have been times I probably should have removed a subplot or a character and I didn’t because I was stubborn about it.
The second is: I sometimes fall into the frame of mind that there’s a certain path to writing well that goes through the major publishers. The librarian part of me wants that gate-keeping, vetting process – I think of peer review – and it includes the agent, editor, and New York City or San Francisco publisher. But it’s a little dated and becoming more dated. One of my biggest mistakes was being really stubborn early on that I needed some publisher to validate my work. So I signed a contract with a small press. They had a wonderful editor and he really helped me massage the manuscript and it got better as a result. But nothing else after that was beneficial to me, so I backed out and my writers group formed a small publisher, kind of an artist co-op in Denver. We edit one another’s works and provide that gate-keeping service to each other and it has rectified that mistake for me. I’ll say, though, that it’s very difficult to raise awareness of your work. The thing that big publishers do pretty well for some of their titles is generate awareness of it and market it. But they don’t do that for all their titles.
What kind of catharsis did you achieve from your latest work?
I felt the second novel was better than the first novel, so it was cathartic in that respect. It made me believe that I’m continuing to get better with the craft. I try to look at it as a really long process. As I said, I kind of started when I was five in some ways, and I wrote some stuff in my juvenile years that was really terrible. I’m feeling close to competence in my 40’s! And give me another 20 years and maybe I’ll write something really good.
Which fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
I just started reading Go Set a Watchman, the companion to To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s good; it’s very different. It gives a whole new view to the characters and to Harper Lee and her genius. I would love to have a drink with Atticus Finch, but he doesn’t drink. So maybe that’s another reason to do it. Other than that, any character that William Faulkner ever created I would love to have a drink with. Maybe with some of them I’d have to have a body guard in the room.
Where do you buy your books?
Mostly Tattered Cover in Denver. It’s a great independent bookstore that’s been there since the 1970’s. When I say “there,” I should say that the original Tattered Cover is no longer there, but they have two or three locations. One that I really love is in lower downtown Denver. It’s between my buses on the way to work. I used to work at the old location in Cherry Creek in college, and my Mom used to take me to that location when was a little kid. We’d go to the library, we’d go to Tattered Cover. So I pretty much exclusively buy from Tattered Cover, but I’ll buy something from Amazon if I’m in a pinch. Also sometimes I don’t buy, I use libraries.
How do you handle a bad review of your work?
I try to read it only once and then never read it again. I think the worst review I got of the first novel had a lot of valid points. So I try to not dwell on it, not focus on it, but learn from it. I also try to understand my readers. This is new to me, having a novel published and people reading it and responding to it and reacting to it in some way. I feel like it’s a wonderful opportunity for me to learn about who’s reading my book, what they like, what they don’t like. One review in particular – I read it once, put it aside, then took this one kernel of something I agreed with and tried to get better in the second book.
What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
Write what you know is true on one level, but I’ve never lived in 1850’s Kansas, so I can’t write what I know in historical fiction. That’s a dilemma of writing historical fiction! I think a little distance can be good. Some of my worst stuff as a teenager and in my 20’s and 30’s was too close, too autobiographical. It became overly sentimental and the best reader of it would have been me, and so it was just self-indulgent.
One bit of advice I’ve received is to continue to work with your manuscript and make it as wonderful as it can be and don’t move on to something else. I feel like that leads to perfectionist obsession, and progress becomes significantly delayed. I could never stop perfecting a manuscript. Even with the first novel, every time I pick up sections of it or am reading it aloud at a book reading, I want to change words. Sometimes I do, on the fly. I think you’ve got to balance getting what you want it to be with fighting that perfectionist demon.
Your day job is working as a library administrator. Do you find that a career in libraries complements your writing career? What advice would you give to aspiring writers as they make their living doing other things?
They totally complement each other and use different parts of my brain. As a manager and a supervisor you’ve got to be thinking analytically. When I write, I’m able to turn all that off and tap into the more creative and intuitive part of my brain. One energizes the other. There’s this huge human piece to what we do as librarians. I don’t write about libraries or librarians, but it gives me insight into how people interact with one another and how they interact in large organizational structures. That can be inspiring. The writing really energizes me because it gives me space from work and it allows me to refresh other parts of myself. I don’t have to “find time” to write or “find time” to do other things. I’ll write a little bit in a day and feel good about it and look forward to going to work.
Don’t see the day job as detracting from your writing. I thought I was going to have to do one or the other someday. In graduate school, I was talking about writing, and my advisor recognized that I had some talent for it, and she took me aside and said maybe you need to focus on a career in creative writing. I had a baby at home and rent and I didn’t see myself as being able to make enough money as a writer to take care of my son, so I didn’t want to do that. I realized when she asked me that question that being a librarian helps me be a better writer and vice versa. I never forgot that feeling that I can do both. That moment reminded me of a professor I had in undergrad who was a humanist. He had this story that he was once a mathematician. He was in an accident and then in a coma for a long time. When he woke up he wanted to be a humanist. He told me this when I was 18: “Never let anyone tell you that you can only do one thing well. Human beings are infinitely capable.” You can be a librarian, you can be an engineer, you can be a doctor, a mother, a father, a son, a husband, a wife, a daughter, and a writer.
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