Ann Medlock is the author of Outing the Mermaid, an Amazon Bestseller and Honorable Mention recipient at the Paris Book Festival. We interviewed her to share with you a glimpse into her life as a creative and published writer.
Where do you live currently and how does it influence your writing?
I live on an island between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., on the U.S.-side of the border, in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains. I drove here from Manhattan in 1985 because we wanted a more sustainable lifestyle in a place that wasn’t already hot, given the predicted global warming. It’s gray here much of the time and in almost three decades, we’ve had maybe five unpleasantly hot days. That’s my Englisher blood talking, I think. Those of us whose ancestors were painting themselves blue not so long ago, may have gray skies and rain in our DNA.
I call our normal island days “writer weather,” conducive to holing up with a mug of what’s been called the Northwest’s “nuclear” coffee, and all my notes and drafts. When I look up, there are ships passing, on the way to Asia or coming home, snowy mountains, eagles soaring, water gently falling. The island is full of artists of all kinds so when I do need to stop, move about, and talk, the companionship is superb. I’d say it’s about perfect as a place to write.
What is your most recently published or almost published book, and how long did it take you to write it?
Outing the Mermaid, subtitled A Novel of Love, Fear & Misogyny, is a novel that I’m too embarrassed to put a time-spent figure on. In N.Y. in the 80s, I hosted a writers’ group in my apartment every Tuesday, so I had to have something to read, week after week. I started dashing off what the group came to call the “Lee and Joe stories,” quick scenes I could read in a few minutes. Then I stuffed them in a drawer. I had rent and tuition to pay, sons to clothe and feed — I wrote for money, not art.
Then came a day that, here in a house in a Northwest forest, I opened a shipping carton from N.Y., started reading forgotten Lee and Joe pages, and thought, Good heavens, these are actually interesting. I saw they were like quilt squares; I just had to assemble them in a pattern, fill in a lot of blanks, and stitch them all together. Well, being an evening and weekend fictionalizer, that took years. I still had a demanding day job and little faith that this fiction stuff would be of interest to anyone.
I picked up speed when friends read chunks of the manuscript and urged me to give them more. My partner, Blooming Twig fellow writer John Graham, actually started pushing me to finish because, “This is important. People have to read this!” He can be relentless when he’s onto something. So, he gets major credit for my getting to the closing pages.
I did finish a book of poems, Arias, Riffs & Whispers, along the way, again making a book by pulling pieces out of drawers and from computer files — the closet poet/novelist, finally outing herself.
All my other writing is nonfiction, for the Giraffe Heroes Project — stories for kids, materials for teachers, even a deck of hero trading cards, each hero profiled on a card.
How many hours a day do you spend writing, and what helps you to get into the writing mood?
Late morning through mid-afternoon seem the best hours. The emails and calls are all answered, and I’ve got a “calm” desk. I need some visual order or my inner editor gets distracted by things in my field of vision that need fixing. The “nuclear” coffee is a factor — a double-shot Turkish-grind Americano, made in my Italian moka pot — and the words come roaring in. My muse just will not shut up.
The internet has proved to be both a blessing and a curse — it’s grand to be able to do an instant fact check, or verify a spelling. But the infinite distractions are a problem. I’ve got one computer here that refuses to pick up wifi — it’s my best shot at working non-stop, so I don’t plan to ever get it fixed.
Who are your literary heroes?
I dedicated Arias, Riffs & Whispers to poet Lisel Mueller, so she comes to mind right away. Such wit, grace, and discernment — she’s a marvel.
I work with dozens of writers via Hedgebrook, a writers’ retreat for women, where I’m doing my second term as a board member. The work coming out of the cottages there gives me goosebumps.
Among “commercial” writers, Barbara Kingsolver and Ann Patchett are faves, and I’ve just discovered Jane Gardam, whose Old Filth was marvelous. Anne Lamott and Karen Joy Fowler make me smile, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s novels are excellent. Nevertheless, the one sure way to blow the top of my head off, make me weep and laugh, is reading or seeing Shakespeare. No one will ever do this writing thing better than Ole Will.
What advice would you give struggling writers?
I guess the main things would be read read read read, and don’t do what I did with your writing. No matter how unlikely success may look, go ahead and write what you’ve got to say anyway.
Which brings up a bit of a sticky issue: As an editor, I’ve dealt with some people who were sure they were great writers with Something To Say when they were actually deluded, on both counts. I was lucky early on to encounter Charles Martin, a teacher who drop-kicked me into reality. He called me on being glib, facile and mindless. Made me re-think, re-tool, re-furnish my mind, and start over. He told me I did have talent, could be a fine writer — if I learned to think. Everybody needs such frank feedback, to counter the unearned kudos that may have been heaped on them at school and at home.
Decades after that now-dead teacher’s swift kick, I so wish I could hand him the books I’ve done, and thank him.
What is the strangest thing a fan or fellow writer has asked you?
I guess it’s not really strange but, “What happened after that?” is a hard one. The novel has an ending that’s also a launching — I’d rather leave it to the reader to make up what might happen next.
What is your favorite book and why?
Hardest question imaginable. It’s usually the one I just finished — right now that would be James Salter’s Light Years. But this house has books in every room, on every table and shelf, even on stairs. Choosing one fave doesn’t seem possible. How about a book I have bought many copies of and pressed into people’s hands, if I think they’d like it? That would be The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams. And The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff. When Daniel Quinn, who has written brilliantly about what’s wrong with the human race, was asked what the Solution was, he said read The Continuum Concept. I may have given away a dozen copies, because I think Quinn’s right.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I just listen. Once I apply butt to chair and begin to work, the voice starts sounding off. And there’s that double-shot Americano, no doubt amplifying the words.
What is the worst critique your work has received and how did you move on from it?
That would be back when this straight-A student English major encountered badass Charles Martin, the teacher who told me I was glib and ignorant. I moved on by accepting his mentoring.
And then there was the professor who flunked me on an honors thesis in History: I had researched, in 1963 mind you, the idea that Thomas Jefferson had a slave mistress. The racist prof was freaked by what I wrote. When I challenged the F, his justification was, “Undergraduates are not supposed to do original research.” (I had gone into Jefferson’s papers and other documents in the Library of Congress and at the University of VA.) Never mind — I decided an F from a racist was a badge of honor, and the experience led me to a friendship with Annette Gordon Reed, the attorney/professor/writer who has since written the definitive books on Jefferson and Sally Hemings, his enslaved mistress.
How do you think the possible success of your writing will affect you and those around you?
Me? I hope it would mean the satisfaction and joy of Connecting/Communicating with a lot of people — that seems to make me really happy. The people around me already know I don’t fit any templates they have for friend or relative, so that probably wouldn’t change.
What is the weirdest dream you have had?
Just a few mornings ago, I woke up laughing, coming out of a dream in which I was flying wherever I decided to go, completely in charge of the flight. I’m told that’s a fine dream to have so, though it was weird, I’m up for doing it again.
What’s one thing you want people to take from your writing?
I hope people read Outing the Mermaid and realize that they may have the wrong myths embedded in their subconscious minds, just as the book’s protagonist does. If readers go on to delete destructive programming and get their lives onto better tracks, that would be smashing.
As a “second-wave” feminist, I’d love it if readers recognize and call out the kind of misogyny that underlies the story. We owe our daughters a better shot than most of us may have had.
Readers could also come away with a better understanding of what the Mad Men era really was like.
I’d like them to love the words and images, love the characters, and remember entrancing hours in another world.
It would be good if it’s not just more people asking me what happens after the last page.
You can purchase Ann Medlock’s latest novel, Outing the Mermaid, on Amazon.
This article was originally published on Medium.