Tuesday, November 1, 2016
Susan Signe Morrison, on her Top Honors Award Winning Title, Grendel's Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife
WHEN DID YOU FIRST KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER AND WHY?
In 3rd grade, I would bring my stuffed animals with me to school. My teacher let me perform little spontaneous plays with the stuffed animals as characters and me supplying the voices. I guess that was when I knew.
AS A CHILD, WHAT DID YOU ASPIRE TO BE WHEN YOU GREW UP?
An actress or writer. I teach now, which I joke is a kind of acting: you have to stand up in front of an audience--your students!
HOW DID YOU GET THE IDEA FOR YOUR AWARD WINNING TITLE?
From teaching the Old English epic, Beowulf, many times. In my novel, I retell the story from the point of view of the women, compelled to participate in peace-weaving marriages doomed to failure and oppressed as victims. I'm haunted by two stories, one of the Danish woman Hildeburh, who marries as part of a peace-weaving marriage between her clan and that of King Finn. That attempt at harmony falls apart violently. Her brother and son die, as well as her husband. Then there's a nameless woman lamenting the fate of Beowulf's people after his death; they are doomed to death or slavery.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE LINE FROM YOUR AWARD WINNING BOOK AND WHY?
When the queen tells the young woman, Freawaru, that the beheadings are “man’s business,” Freawaru thinks, “Surely…this is woman’s business, too. We are the ones married off as peaceweaving brides after the blood and gore have barely dried.” I like this because it expresses in a nutshell the point of the entire novel: men's and women's worlds mutually impact each other. We need to know about both to understand a culture and also to help make society a better place for all.
WHICH OF YOUR CHARACTERS FROM YOUR AWARD WINNING TITLE DO YOU BELIEVE ARE MOST LIKE YOU AND WHY?
The main character, Brimhild, I do find compelling. The novel traces the many passages of her life: the brine-baby; the passionate hall-queen; the exiled mere-wife; and the seer. I haven't experienced what she has, but every person goes through stages as they get older, including getting a job and having children. I think I am most like Ælfsciene, Brimhild's aunt, who defies public opinion by pursuing what she wants--herbal medicine—and lurks on the literal margins of her culture by a swamp. I don't practice medicine, but I do write on topics lurking in the margins of history, ranging from medieval women pilgrims to excrement in the Middle Ages. I grew up by the Great Swamp in New Jersey.
WHAT MESSAGE DO YOU HOPE READERS WILL GLEAN FROM YOUR AWARD WINNING BOOK?
I hope readers will want to learn more about the original story that inspired me. I hope that people look at history from the point of women, whose stories still need to be told to a larger audience. In my novel, the lesson concerns how invasions by brutal men are not from the fictive world of fairy tales, but disasters doomed to cycle relentlessly through human history. Only the surviving women can sing poignant laments, preserve a glittering culture, and provide hope for the future.
TELL US SOMETHING RANDOM ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A WRITER:
I write when no one is in the house. My husband is at work, and the kids are at school. This happens two or three times a week. Total peace. Except for my corgi, Gwen. She barks constantly at the cats in the neighborhood and at the squirrels and at the wind. So I have to stand up to let her in and out constantly. It's good exercise!
WHICH AUTHOR HAS MOST GREATLY INFLUENCED YOUR WRITING STYLE?
The Beowulf poet. I wanted to echo the language of Anglo-Saxon literature. This meant using a lot of Germanic words. How could I replicate-- but also update for a contemporary, novel-reading audience--the feeling of Old English style? I layered the texture of the writing with many synonyms and alliteration. Rather than just saying, the fierce warrior," a more Anglo-Saxon thing to do would be to write, "the fierce warrior, weapon wielder, war-like wreaker." This device increases the density and weight of such verse. A Picasso portrait might have three eyes in order to show how that person looks from all sides. It creates a 3-D effect.
WHAT BOOK HAS HAD THE GREATEST IMPACT ON YOUR LIFE?
I'd have to say my father's, a textbook on Organic Chemistry. He retired early from being a chemistry professor at NYU just to revise the book, which enabled him to be at home all the time with the family and to take us travelling which has enriched my life greatly--intellectually, culturally, and personally-- since we were and are a very close family. I also loved Edward Eager's Half Magic--it made me think anything mundane or ordinary has the potential to be enchanted.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR GREATEST LITERARY ACCOMPLISHMENT?
Publishing Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America. I found my mother's diaries after her death. She wrote them when she was a teenager from 1937-1943. She was a historian and had great wisdom, even as a young girl, into the political events taking place before and during World War II. Plus, she had a great sense of humor. It was an honor to edit them and share them with the world.
DO YOU HAVE ANY WRITING RITUALS?
I have kept a diary since I was 15. It helps with my writing skills. Like a sport, you need to practice on a regular basis to heighten your abilities and make them sharp. I write in it every night before I go to sleep. Sometimes, I record dialogue that intrigued --or bothered--me during the day. I note down ideas for more novels. By now, I have enough ideas to write hundreds of books!
HOW DID YOU FIND AN AGENT / GET PUBLISHED?
I was looking for a publisher, and discovered Top Hat Books online, John Hunt Publishing's imprint for Historical Fiction. I wrote them, they loved the book, and in less than a year it was published!
WHAT DID YOU DO TO CELEBRATE THE COMPLETION OF YOUR AWARD WINNING BOOK?
Stayed home with my family and we played Masterpiece, an art auction board game, along with the card game, bridge.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE PROCESS OF BECOMING PUBLISHED AND ANY TIPS YOU MIGHT OFFER FOR OTHER ASPIRING AUTHORS?
I recommend joining a critique group, so you can get other writers to look at your book in draft before you send it to an agent or publisher. Also, various writers' organizations are wonderful. In my home state, there is the amazing Writers' League of Texas, which has an annual conference with agents as well as sessions on the craft and business of writing. Conferences are a wonderful way to meet other writers! There are lots of organizations, like SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), the Historical Novel Society, Romance Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime, among many others.
CAN YOU OFFER ANY ADVICE FOR WRITERS ON HOW BEST TO PROMOTE THEIR BOOK?
Tweeting and blogging, taking a virtual blog tour, and getting out to local bookstores--they are our best friends. Support other writers and they will support you.
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU'D LIKE TO SHARE WITH OUR READERS?
Don't give up! I started writing Grendel's Mother in the late 1990s after my daughter was born. Her birth made me think more about the position of women in society. The story just came to me. I've fiddled with it over the years. Finally, in 2014, I decided it was time to stop editing and put it out there. Don’t be afraid to put pen to paper or your fingers on the keyboard. The great thing about writing is, you can always go back and change it, add to it, and reflect on it more.
DO YOU HAVE ANY NEW BOOKS IN THE WORKS?
I have several in the works. The latest is another work of historical fiction. I'm not quite finished with it yet. But I hope to be soon!
To a song that appears in my novel, put to music by Singer-Songwriter Sarah McSweeney
WHAT OTHER BOOKS HAVE YOU PUBLISHED?
A Medieval Woman’s Companion: Women’s Lives in the European Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2016.
The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer's Fecopoetics. The New Middle Ages Series. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Women Pilgrims in Late Medieval England: Private Piety as Public Performance. London: Routledge, 2000.
Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America. Joan Wehlen Morrison. Ed. Susan Signe Morrison. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2013.
All the above books are available on Susan's Amazon Author Page
LITERARY CLASSICS Book Awards & Reviews International Book Awards • Top Honors Youth Book Awards • Seal of Approval http://www.clcawards.org