I’m so excited to begin a new blog series in which I’ll be interviewing some incredible lady writers. Every woman I interview is someone I know and admire, and I can’t wait for you to get to know them as well.
The first lovely lady I’ll be interviewing is Maria Marmanides. Maria and I went to the same graduate school, and I adore her. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed the process.
Erin Ollila: Okay so to start, I guess my first question is how and why did you get into copywriting and editing. Is this something you’ve been doing for a while or something that started after the MFA program?
Maria Marmanides: When I graduated from my undergrad, all I knew was that I wanted to be “a writer.” I don’t even think I knew what copywriting was – I just got lucky with a creative director who was willing to take a chance on someone with no real experience, but a lot of drive, badly drawn sketches and a propensity for making puns.
Now I’ve been a copywriter for nearly a decade, so long before I even considered going back to school to get my MFA. In fact, it was being a copywriter that motivated me to go back to get it. Not because you need an MFA to work as a copywriter – you really don’t – but because I was starting to lose my own voice. You write so much in marketing speak, and for various brands and different target audiences – that you start to lose a little bit of what makes your writing yours. That’s why I decided to go back to get my MFA, to get back to the core of what I love about writing, which is, revealing a personal truth, however shameful, embarrassing, or uncomfortable, in hopes of a creating a honest connection with someone else who has felt that same way. I didn’t want to be a writer because of some deep-rooted need to get someone to buy another bottle of shampoo.
EO: I love that you made the decision to get your MFA because you wanted to refine and also redefine your “voice.” As a creative nonfiction writer, building my voice is paramount. I’ve always wondered about voice in fiction. How do you develop the voice of your characters?
MM: I’m writing what could be considered a roman a clef – it’s a fictional novel that borrows very, very heavily from my life. So it should seem easy. Your main character is you, so she writes, thinks, and acts like you. But you have to create a kind of emotional distance from yourself when you’re writing, while also trying to draw the reader in with an immediacy of language. If that makes sense. I’m having to distance myself as the writer, from myself as the character, so I can see myself clearly enough to be able draw my reader in with these very exact details and descriptions so she seems really real. Everything matters. Word choice, cadence to her narration. And then you’ll hear things in workshop, more often about other characters I’ve written, where they question the believability. “I don’t think a guy would say something like that.” Or, “doesn’t this mother seem a little broad? Cliched?” And as the writer, you’re thinking to yourself, “but my mother can be a caricature!” Or, “that guy really did say that!” But the failure isn’t on the reader. It’s on me, and it’s a failure of the voice. The biggest challenge is making each character feel like a living, breathing, actual human being, despite what may actually be fact.
EO: Fact – isn’t it such a funny “tool” in writing. As a creative nonfiction writer, I need to accept that I cannot bend fact. I’ve always wondered what is is like to write fiction based on real life. Do you have a hard time making fictional choices or has that been fun for you?
MM: It’s that very reason that I decided to study and write fiction instead of creative nonfiction. I just wanted the flexibility to bend the truth – and invent it – where I wanted. Which is funny, because even after having that freedom, I felt so bound by “what really happened,” that when a mentor or workshopper made a suggestion, I couldn’t help but think, “but that’s not what happened.” It was really limiting my creativity – and more importantly, the plot! I wish I could say something magical happened, but it was really just two years of working up the courage, making small changes at first and getting comfortable with those. Then, that would lead to a cascading effect, where I built on those small changes more and more, and then looked back and realized, NOW I am really writing fiction. And that’s when things got interesting, because I had to imagine how I/my character would’ve reacted to these new situations that were now purely invented. So yes, I got to the fun part, it just took me a while to allow myself to get there.
EO: I think small changes are the best to make while practicing craft. Have you ever made a large change in writing? If so, what was that experience like?
MM: Funny you ask. Right now, i’m in the middle of writing through my first major, major change, something that I have no real-life, personal experience with, and it’s been fun trying to picture this fictionalized version of myself, and wonder how “I: would respond, react, feel, think. It’s fun and scary writing through it.
EO: Writing can definitely be scary sometimes. I’m always wondering what writers were like as children. Tell me about Maria as a youngin’.
MM: When I think back to who I was as a kid, adult Maria just wants to reach out, hug her, and tell her everything is going to work out OK for her – if that’s not a weird thing to say about yourself. The same things my parents praised me for and encouraged in me, like reading and studying, were things I was obviously teased about. Add in huge Sally Jesse Raphael-style red glasses that took up my whole face and being a chubby, Greek kid, and my self esteem was pretty low. And because of that, I just liked to be in my room, reading, anything and everything, I mean, even warning labels on the back of cleaning products. And just escaping into a fantasy world where I would think about what I would be like when I was older. What I would look like, if I’d ever get a boyfriend, if I’d have a cool job with lots of friends and write books and make lots of money. Normal kid fantasies. I did have friends, lots of them, but I always felt a little on the outs in a group. To be honest, I still do. That feeling never went away, of just wanting to be alone, in my room, reading, and obsessing about my future. I still do those things!
EO: It’s great to hear that you are the adult version of your young self. What do you think grown-up Maria will be doing. Where do you see yourself in the future?
MM: It’s funny that I just told you that I still think about my future all the time, but part of that is that it also causes me a tremendous amount of anxiety. I was talking about this with a former mentor I had in the program, and she told me to read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. It was pretty eye-opening, just how ineffectual it is to either worry about the past or obsess about the future. That all we have is the moment. That you have never lived in any moment but the one that is happening right now. So maybe it’s not my real answer to your question, but it’s answer. I see myself living in the moment. Or trying to more, anyway.
EO: That’s a great answer. Side stepping for a bit: Today on Facebook I noticed you giving great advice to an MFA student about humor writing. Someone else jumped in to say that you were hilarious. What a great compliment! How does humor fit into the fiction and nonfiction you’re currently working on?
MM: This probably will reveal a lot about my own personal psychology, but like most people, not only do I remember negative comments, but I dwell on them. And one workshop comment that’s stuck with me is this: “Maria writes very funny. I laughed a lot while reading this. But if you remove the humor, what is the story? Isn’t this a twice-told tale?” And because I lash out when I’m angry, I can only thank the workshop rules for making the workshopee be silent, because I immediately thought in my defensiveness, “well then I won’t remove the humor then, will I?” And this little angry anecdote I think answers your question, or at least, leads me to answer it. The humor fits into my piece because you can’t separate it. If you were to remove the humor, it’s as if to suggest I write [insert joke here] as I go, and therefore could easily remove it should I need to. But I don’t. I think all writers write autobiographically, even when they’re not writing as themselves. Every sentence is a reflection of how the author sees the world – or how the author thinks others do. And so, my narrator/main character’s humor is an integral piece to her characterization and development. Also, it’s just fun to write.
EO: Before we finish this interview, tell me any recommendations you have for other lady writers: favorite authors, favorite books, favorite essays, favorite food. Whatever comes to your mind.
MM: I spend an embarrassing amount of time of the Internet, which everyone knows, is bad for a writer. Or at least for me. So while I’ve been trying to cut back on my social media-ing, having said that, the person I seek out deliberately is Roxane Gay. No matter what’s happening in the news, she finds the perfect words to describe how we feel, without anger or rage. It’s not outrage for the sake of outrage, which you find so often in opinion-based journalism. It’s just rational, reasonable and still emotional. And often pointed and funny. So definitely Roxane Gay’s essays, and her book of essays, Bad Feminist, is what I would recommend.
For more fun stuff, my favorite video game, throwback edition, is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Current edition is The Walking Dead: The Game from Telltale, because even if you would never consider yourself a gamer, this is less about hacking and slashing and more about putting yourself in the character’s shoes, faced with really tough, often life-or-death decisions, and having seconds to react. And sometimes those reactions are just conversations and building relationships with the non-playable characters. It’s amazing storytelling. And slight-spoiler alert, if you do play, (which you should!!!), is at the end of the first season, I cried these big, hot tears while sobbing inconsolably for at least an hour, even after the game was over. Mascara running down, total staring at your belly button afterwards on the couch, wondering if I had done the right thing. Just so, so good.
EO: How can my readers find you? Please share any social media links.
MM: You can find me on Twitter at @copymaria, and I will start blogging again at mariamarmanides.com. Thank you so much, this was so much fun!!