1/ Why did you become interested in the 1790s? In the 60s I went with my husband to live in a boys’ school but couldn’t teach English because the headmaster said it was “a man’s subject.” (!!zz**) Then in a consciousness-raising group, I discovered Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In a day when women were considered “grown children,” she declared that girls should have equal education and think for themselves (they called her a “hyena in petticoats).” This was the age of Enlightenment and Revolution; her short life (she died after giving birth to Mary Shelley–think Frankenstein) was filled with action, rebellion! I felt she’d make a credible sleuth because of her hunger for social justice. Wanting to write about her and her era, I began with Midnight Fires, in which she’s a headstrong young governess in Mitchelstown Castle, Ireland—and I was off!
2/ Tell us about your latest book. The Nightmare, a sequel, is set in London, just as Mary publishes her Vindication. Yet she’s too obsessed with the rogue painter, Henry Fuseli, to worry about bad reviews. She offers to move in with him and wife—“platonic,” she says, but the door slams in her face. (This ménage à trois happened—I’ve simply fictionalized it!) When someone steals Fuseli’s erotic painting, “The Nightmare,” he sends a young critic to Newgate prison; and soon a beautiful but dead female is trussed up to resemble the painting. Filled with the injustice of it all, Mary hunts down the real killer thief. Fuseli’s painting is on the cover!
3/ How did you research the period to make setting, clothing, food, mannerisms, true to the 1700s? I walked in Mary’s footsteps in Ireland, London, and Paris; I found places she lived in, and visited—even an orphanage where she took in a foster child. I’ve read five biographies and a memoir by her husband Wm Godwin, written after her death. Her collected letters are marvelously detailed—I can “hear” her speak. I’ve read a dozen novels of the period for the 18th-century language and mindset. And myriad books on period dress, food, crime, manners, et al. Since there are many real people in the books, I’ve dug deeply into their lives as well. I’ve been researching all this for years, while writing other works. The problem, of course, is to hide the research, keep the story moving like a ship weaving through the icebergs.
4/ Since you write YAs, what, besides sex, is the biggest difference in your writing? Ah sex. But there are few taboos these days, even for YA. For younger kids, yes, or the librarians will kick you out. My first YA came out in 1982, and I was criticized for using the word “damn!” And for introducing a lesbian teacher. Now, for most publishers, there’s no real gender barrier. I’ve an historical YA coming out in ’12, but here I have to think like more conservative 18th- century girls. Yet there were plenty of feisty girls like young Wollstonecraft back then to protest their traditional roles. In a contemporary YA I’m writing, I’m mostly in the head of a boy who’s scared of girls, so no sex there—but I can be open about all else.
5/ What was your reaction 17 books ago to your first acceptance? It was the late 70s; my agent called to say he’d found a publisher for my novel, The Losing.
“What novel called The Losing?” I asked.
“The one you called Doors that do Not Stay Shut—too long a title, so I changed it to The Losing. The publisher may want to change it again, so beware.”
“You changed it?” I said, “oh.” And then, “Oh, wow! Somebody bought it?”
It was Ace Books, and they were going to give me a 1000 dollars advance, so at that point I didn’t care what title they came up with—I needed the money. My husband was off on a business trip, so I woke my kids to tell them the news (they went right back to sleep); then called my sister in New Jersey who was too sick to talk. Then called my brother in London. “Do you realize it’s 2 a.m. here?” he said, sounding cross.
No real enthusiasm anywhere so I took a bottle of vodka to my next door neighbor, who congratulated me, and she and I finished it off in record time.
6/ How does your actor/director background influence the way you write?
I think in scenes as I write, and my novel in 3-5 acts, all of it culminating in a major showdown. I see each scene as if on a stage: how my characters react, use their props, their body language. I read dialogue aloud to hear their voices. My theatre background helps!
7/ What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received? Probably: “Show, Don’t Tell.” Which involves using concrete language & images and whenever possible, avoiding abstractions. This works for poems as well as prose, and even nonfiction. Always use the specific rather than the general—another way of saying it. I love lists of things, objects, names.
8/ Which fan encounter stands out in your memory? A bright, cheerful, fragile 93-year-old (we’ll call “S”) came often to the local events for my St. Martin’s Press series, featuring dairy farmer Ruth Willmarth. She followed my characters closely, especially fortyish Ruth, whose husband had left her for an actress he met during a local filming. Ruth had a would-be lover, Colm, but kept putting him off because of her cows and her young children. Finally S could stand it no longer, and during the question period after the launch of my fourth novel, Stolen Honey, she stood up and screeched: “For heaven sake, whenever is Ruth going to get in bed with Colm?!” Everyone clapped. So I got them into bed in the next book.
9/ How did you meet your husband? We love a romance. Which one? Oh, well, I’ll tell you about number 2. I was divorced after many years and four children and went to teach in Poughkeepsie, NY, where I’d gone to college. I remet an English teacher whom I’d almost married when I was a student. We’d first met on a bus coming up from NYC. He was thirty, I was nineteen; he was second generation Irish Catholic, I was a Scots-Irish Presbyterian dropout. One thing led to another, as they say in the romantic novels. Then his mother died, I graduated, we wrote for a time, I met someone else—and married.
Now, thanks to a friend of his whom I ran into, Dennie was in my life again, and still single. Two years later we married in the Vassar College alumnae house. We lived happily for twelve years until sadly, Dennie died of prostate cancer. Sic vita est.
10/ Tell us about your part of the country. We love to travel. We have something of everything: Lake Champlain on the western border of bucolic Vermont, mountains for climbing and skiing, green pastures filled with languid cows—much of the land is in trust. Gorgeous autumns filled with cyclists and leaf-peepers, piles of snow in winter for those who like it, and fun-packed summers. Forget early spring though—we call it mud season—though it ends in maple syruping: try drizzling it on snow! Caring people and liberal politics for the most part. Come visit me in Middlebury, home of Middlebury College and the Town Hall Theater.
11/ How did your two Maine Coon cats come into your life? We love animals. I’m a cat lover, and have always wanted a Maine Coon. One day I saw an a newspaper ad: a woman with ten cats, divorcing, needing to downsize. The huge 6-year-old Maine Coon was called Bashful, and he was—even my visiting stepdaughter’s much smaller Chihuahua would send him scurrying under the bed. We bought a feisty Maine Coon kitten to keep him company, and after a short standoff, they became close buddies. Now we’re a pack: we sleep, purr, and hang out together. They’re my muses. I adore them.
12/ What’s next in your writing life? I’m working on the third in the Wollstonecraft series, set in Paris at the bloody height of the French Revolution. Heads fall daily from the guillotine and Mary is madly, blindly in love. The novel will end shortly before she gives birth to a daughter, and before her lover abandons her for a young actress. All this really happened in her colorful life! Other real life figures such as Thomas Paine, Olympe de Gouges, and Manon Roland weave through the narrative. Paine was imprisoned for a year, and the outspoken Olympe and Manon were beheaded. The real Mary knew and empathized with them all.
I’ve also just signed a contract for the historicalYA mentioned above, set in the Republic of Vermont toward the end of the American Revolution. I dream the 18th-century!
Visit Nancy’s website: www.nancymeanswright.com
Midnight Fires: A Mystery with Mary Wollstonecraft, ’10
“Captivating,” (Publishers Weekly).
The Nightmare, ’11