There is so much to celebrate in March – St. Patrick’s Day, the coming of spring (even when it doesn’t feel like it!), the Ides of March, if you’re into the ominous, and this year, Easter. So many new beginnings, and for this month’s featured author, a new venture, a transition from her poetry to a lovely, poignant novel – INVITATION TO THE PARTY. MJ Werthman White reveals such insight into the human condition in her poems and now, in prose, she shares that talent with readers in a special way.

MaryJo is an Ohio poet and fiction writer. Her work has appeared in a variety of local and national journals and anthologies. Her poetry collection – How the Universe Says Yes to Me, was published by Main Street Rag Press in 2017.

White has received numerous awards, including the Paul Lawrence Dunbar Poetry Prize and the Borders’ national online poetry prize. MJ retired from Yellow Springs Schools and lives in Xenia, Ohio, with her excellent husband and the (mostly) good dog, Zaza. In her spare time, she paints watercolors, often with dogs and cats as subjects.

 

Janet Irvin: You are a published poet and now the author of a fiction book. Which genre is the more challenging? Why?

MaryJo Werthman White: I really don’t think in terms of more or less challenging. For me, poetry and fiction are aspects of the same activity; I love them both. Like hands, they can work singly or together to create something new. (I have found that I can’t write poetry and fiction at the same time-the literary version of ambidextrous. I am also pathetic at multi-tasking in real life). Though I am a fan of both memoir and non-fiction – Mary Karr, John McPhee, Susan Orlean, and Malcolm Gladwell are rock stars as far as I’m concerned, it’s their tasks I find challenging. It may be because I’m drawn to making stuff up (lying, I believe some killjoys call it). Addressing the cold, hard facts has never interested me, though I like to read and marvel at how others manage to do it.

JEI: Did you always know you would write, or did you come to it gradually?

MJWW: I don’t know that I always knew I would become a writer. As a kid, I was much more interested in becoming an artist (my parents silently despairing that I’d ever become self-supporting). But I always wrote. I knew from early childhood that putting words on paper pleased me very much. My dad was a sales rep and worked from home, his office in the basement. I used to go down there and bang away on his Smith Corona, leaving stories and my letters to the Lone Ranger’s nephew Dan (my first crush) behind for him, rolled on the platen; even then it was the process rather than the finished product that interested me. But the possibility of actually being a writer didn’t occur to me until college when a professor’s encouragement opened that door for me, the reason I dedicated An Invitation to the Party to him.

JEI: What is your writing process? How do you organize your day to incorporate writing?

MJWW: I have two things going for me, I am retired, with a room of my own (thank you, Virginia). And I’m an early riser; after I turn on the lights every morning, I open my writing on the computer. It stays open until I go to bed at night. I pop in and out all day, fifteen minutes here, an hour there; it’s different every day. Presently I’m working on a follow-up to my first novel, also set in the village of Haven but with a new set of characters. I’m also taking Katrina Kittle’s Writers’12-Step class and have adopted its idea of a monthly writing contract. I’ve committed to at least two hundred words every day. It doesn’t sound like much but it adds up surprisingly fast, probably because so often I get started, breeze past the two-hundred mark, and keep going, which is probably the whole (sneaky) idea.

JEI: That is a sneaky idea! Love it! Now, how important are mentors or writing groups to the writer’s life?

MJWW: I will answer with another question – how important are family, friends, partners, and pets? Same? Same!

JEI: Let’s concentrate on poetry for a moment. In poetry, what is more important to you — theme, word choice, format? Does the way the poem looks on the page matter as much as how it sounds?

MJWW: Really, poetry for me is a means of conveying emotion. Theme, sound, and word choice are all tools in my kit that I use to accomplish that goal. Dr. Gary Pacernick, my poetry professor in graduate school at Wright State University and a fine poet himself, convinced me of the importance of the shape of a poem.  Before the classes I took with him, I have to confess that I didn’t think much about how a poem looks on the page. Now I think of it as scaffolding, something, which if done well, helps the writer build a better poem and, unlike in actual construction, does not have to be torn down when the poem is finished.

JEI: In your poetry collection How the Universe Says Yes to Me, the final poem includes the title for your debut novel. Is this a chicken/egg puzzle or did you find/decide on the title after you wrote the novel?

MJWW:  Sometimes my poetry and fiction speak to each other; I would call what happened in An Invitation to the Party serendipity. I knew my protagonist Garnet, a poet, would turn seventy in the course of the story. Very early on in the writing, my poem “After Reading the Obituaries On Your Birthday” gave me not only the title but the entire birthday party scene and the book’s epilogue. That same collection furnished the epigraph at the start of the novel. And the brief excerpts of Garnet’s poetry throughout were taken from my (large, very large!) assemblage of unpublished poetry. My poetry turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving as far as this novel was concerned.

JEI: Invitation to the Party is both beautiful and heart-breaking…especially the final section. Was that always the intended ending or did you consider other ways to close the book?

MJWW: I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone who has not read the book but two things were apparent to me very early: no dogs would die and the inevitability of that ending.  One of my goals in writing this novel was to present aging as I know it and I know it as a cascade of loss for the survivor. That doesn’t mean joy and love and gratitude do not coexist with the experience; they are in fact what makes it bearable.

JEI: What projects are next in your world?

MJWW: I have thirty or so short stories I am presently attempting to fashion into a manuscript. Unsurprisingly, every story has a dog, either as a major or minor character. I’m titling it Unconditional Love. For some reason, there are a lot of Great Danes wandering around in these stories but not a single Great Pyrenees (sorry, Vera). I also wrote a poem a week during the Covid lockdown and am trying to assemble them into a collection. And I am working on a follow-up novel to An Invitation to the Party, also set in Haven, with a new set of characters though some familiar faces do crop up now and then.

JEI: Sounds like a vibrant writing life! Since pets are featured in your work, care to share a little about the dogs in your life?

MJWW: We had dogs growing up and I believe I read every dog story in our small public library. But for the first ten years after I married, our lives unsettled, we were dogless. Jim was getting a degree thanks to the GI Bill and I was teaching, and going to school part-time and summers to earn the MA New York State required for permanent certification. We moved to DC and then returned to New York State. There in 1978, someone threw two puppies out onto a snowbank in front of my sister’s farmhouse. My parents took the male and we took the female and named her Lady. Four dogs followed: Casey, Bear, Nikki, rescued in order from the snow (again! It passes understanding how anyone tosses puppies out of a car to fend for themselves), from an adjacent field,  from the animal shelter and, from 4-Paws, our current good girl, a golden retriever, Zaza.

JEI: Although my husband and I have cats, dogs find their way into my work as well. Tell us, what serves as your most persistent inspiration?

MJWW: Hmmm…I would have to say trying to make some sense of this beautiful terrifying heartbreaker of a world we live in.

JEI: My thanks to MJ for sharing her writing world with us this month.

For more on MJ Werthman White, visit werthmanwhite@weebly.com