I’m so excited to continue my 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 third incredible lady I interviewed is Mary Lide. She and I went to the same graduate school, but at different times. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed the process.
Erin Ollila: You’re about to graduate from Fairfield University with your MFA in Creative Nonfiction. How do you feel? What are your thoughts on your past two years in the program, and what do you expect in the near future?
Mary Lide: I’m a little sad about graduating, because I’m going to miss the residencies. They were like writer summer camps for me. That said, I am excited about graduating, because it’s what I’ve been working for during these past two years. I really enjoyed my time in the program–every mentor I worked with was a dream. They understood my work, and pushed me to try new things. I’m proud of what I’ve written during the program–I think I’ve found my writing style. As for the near future…still figuring that part out!
EO: Let’s talk a little more about what you studied while in the program. What was your thesis about?
ML: My thesis is titled Still: Essays in 23 Frames. It’s a collection divided into three main categories: My mother, my family, and myself. Each section has a mix of lyrical essays and narratives. The subjects of the essays include death, mental health, childhood, the body, identity, fear, and longing.
EO: Sounds incredible. Did you come to Fairfield knowing you’d write essays or did that develop while you were there?
ML: Thanks! I think it turned out all right. I did come to Fairfield knowing that I wanted to write essays, but when I immersed myself in the program I really found the my writing style–I became more comfortable with lyricism.
EO: I remember everyone asking me “But what about your memoir?” when I told them I was writing a collection of essays in school. Did you have a similar experience? Do you think you’ll stick to short-form creative nonfiction, or do you ever play with the longer form?
ML: I got a lot of “What is your book about?” questions, which led into the whole “Well, I actually write essays…about my childhood…and stuff.” Memoir is such big part of our culture these days, so that’s what a lot of people automatically think when they hear “Creative Nonfiction,” but I think the essay is still going strong. I strive for brevity, so I think I’m going to stick with the short form for awhile. I’m always afraid of overwriting, which is a fear I need to get rid of when I’m drafting. It’s hard, though!
EO: Agreed! I’m curious, as a young female writer, have you ever gotten the “What can you possibly know about to write creative nonfiction?” type of question? If so, how did you respond? If not, what are your thoughts on that subject?
ML: I haven’t gotten the “Oh, you’re too young to write xyz” comments, but I know people who have. It’s a pretty dismissive thing to say to somebody. If you have something to write, and it’s important to you, then it’s valid–regardless of your age. I have a quote taped to my computer–“Always to see the general in the particular is the very foundation of genius.” In other words, if you’re a good writer, then emotions and thoughts that are universal will come out in your writing–even if you’re in your twenties and haven’t “lived life” yet.
EO: That’s a great quote! Okay, let’s switch it up a little. What writers and/or poets have made a huge difference in your writing?
ML: E.B. White made me want to write essays, and Brian Doyle’s work (especially The Wet Engine) helped me find my style. I also count Virginia Woolf as a major influence, particularly her essays. I studied and wrote poetry for my third semester project, and found myself really immersed in Sylvia Plath’s work. (One of the phone conversations with my mentor went like this – Me: “I’m reading a lot of Sylvia Plath recently.” *both of us laugh nervously* Mentor: “She said, as they laughed nervously…”)
EO: Okay, let’s have a little fun. If you could invite five characters over for a pot-luck dinner, who would you invite? What would you cook, and what do you think they’d bring?
ML: Oh – I love this question! Let’s see. I’d invite Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web, who would probably bring something vegetarian. Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, who would bring me a new book instead of food. Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, who would bring pickled pigs’ knuckles. Emilia from Othello, who would bring something deliciously Italian. And…let’s see…I’ll do another Shakespeare–Ophelia from Hamlet, who would bring me flowers.
EO: Okay, if you could pick any writer living or dead to have as a mentor who would it be?
ML: That is so hard! I would have to say E.B. White, because his work is what drew me into wanting to study the craft of writing. His essays are about as close to perfect as you can get.
If I ever tried to write fiction, I’d want Emma Donoghue as my coach–I am madly in love with her novels.
EO: Tell me a little about your writing habits. Are you a binge writer or a consistent writer?
ML: I try to be consistent, but I do tend to work in spurts. Because I have the tendency to edit as I go along (which is a habit I’m trying to break), it takes me a long time to finish something.
EO: Do you start multiple projects and work through all of them or do you only work on one thing at a time?
ML: I tend to focus all my energy on one thing at a time. I have a few things going right now, but all my energy is focusing on just one of them–an essay about the music of my childhood.
EO: You’re a pretty funny lady. Does humor find its way into your writing?
ML: Haha thank you! I actually don’t do a lot of humor writing–there are touches of the “funny” in my work, but it’s not satire or parody or sarcastic in any way. I read a lot of humor–I love David Sedaris–but that’s not what my writing is. I have a pretty obnoxious and loud personality, so a lot of people are surprised when they read my writing–it’s a lot different than the way I speak in my everyday life!
EO: If someone who was looking to apply to an MFA program came to you for advice, what would you share with them?
ML: I would tell them to get ready to read, read, read–it’s just as important as the writing itself. You can’t be a writer and not read. And you have to try and read outside of your own genre and comfort zone. I would also tell them to focus on cultivating their own style. That’s something huge for me that came out of my time in the program.
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.
ML: Ooh! Let’s see. Writers (this includes novelists, essayists, etc): Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag, Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Hayden Carruth, Brian Doyle, White, Dan Chaon, Willa Cather, Emma Donoghue, D. H. Lawrence’s travel writings, Anne Carson, Amy Leach, E.B. White. I’m sure there are more that I’m forgetting. You can’t really go wrong with anything by any of those authors.
EO: How can my readers find you? Please share any social media links.