Marie Mutsuki Mockett was born in born in California to an American father and Japanese mother. She would spend her summers in Japan with her mother and upon her return, she would go straight to the wheat farm in Nebraska, where her father grew up, for harvest. She attended Columbia University and now lives in New York with her husband and baby on the way. She talks about the journey of writing.
At what point did you consider yourself a writer and felt comfortable about it?
I remember listening to Richard Russo on the radio one time””he was asked how he felt when he won the Pulitzer Prize, and he said he was happy, but that he was also pretty happy the first time he had an acceptance for his first publication. And it’s true. There’s nothing quite like that. But I think I didn’t feel comfortable calling myself a writer until the novel was accepted for publication. I always had a very strict definition for myself as to what it meant to be a writer; it meant I had to publish. Until then, nothing really counted.
What initiated the birth of Picking Bones From Ash?
I wrote the first draft from 2001 to 2002. My boyfriend at the time (now husband) read it and said: “Hmm. That’s nice. I like this one paragraph here.” I put the draft away, and spent the next three years writing and publishing short stories. This was tremendously helpful to me. I learned how to imagine a story, write it and polish it. My first acceptance was from the North Dakota Quarterly and I cried when I received the letter. My father, who was always incredibly supportive of my writing efforts, said that I was nearly incomprehensible on the phone when I called to tell him the good news. I wondered if I would publish anything again, and my boyfriend sensibly told me that if I could publish one story, I’d probably publish another one. And I did. In 2005, I tackled the novel again, beginning with the one paragraph my boyfriend liked, and finished the revision in 2006. By this point, I had an agent. The novel was rejected, mostly because it was considered “too slow.” I felt like a failure. My dear friend, the writer Alexi Zentner, suggested I restructure the novel, placing the second part of the novel first. He said he thought it would take me an hour to do so. It took months. In 2007, I gave the revised draft to a new agent. She wanted another revision. I revised again. The novel sold in the spring of 2008, and then I did two rounds of edits with my fabulous editor, Fiona McCrae.
What is your advice to individuals who want to write?
Read as much as you can. Learn to understand why you like what you like, and why you don’t like what you don’t like. You’ll need this critical ability when you revise and edit your own work. A great deal of writing has to do with revision. Writing is making something””it isn’t about the initial rush of just setting thoughts down on paper. All artists and craftsmen tinker and poke and add and subtract till they get a finished thing. Writing is the same. And you won’t know how to make this thing, or how to judge if it is working or not, until you develop your own critical faculties.
What is the biggest challenge that you had to overcome as a writer?
Emotionally, my biggest problem has always been massive insecurity. The rejection that comes with writing is just terrible, but it’s simply a part of the process. When I speak to people interested in writing, they often cite a fear of rejection as the main thing that holds them back. I tell them that unless they are supremely gifted and inordinately lucky (or, famous for all the wrong reasons), they will have to learn to deal with rejection. I don’t think of myself as particular thick-skinned; I’m still quite over-sensitive. I’m not someone who naturally deals well with rejection. In high school, there were plenty of days when I skipped lunch because I couldn’t figure out where to sit in the cafeteria, for example. But if you want to write, you will have rejection. It’s that simple. Eventually, my desire and need to write exceeded my fear of failure. Technically, I think my biggest challenge was just being conscious of my work””why it was working, why it was not, what I had to say that was unique, etc. My challenge now is to not let any of my past struggles hold me back. I have to keep going.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Kazuo Ishiguro. I love his prose, I love the variety in his work and I love that he isn’t pigeonholed as an “ethnic” writer. I greatly admire Colson Whitehead, who has such a playful and original mind. I value originality. Writers and artists aren’t supposed to see things through a “normal” lens; they are supposed to have a unique vision and the writers I like always do. I went through an enormous Penelope Fitzgerald stage. Collum McCann is a gorgeous writer; musicality in language is very important to me. I wonder if Cormac McCarthy isn’t our greatest living author right now. Margaret Atwood and Amy Tan have had such impressive careers. They probably didn’t mean to pave the way for other female authors, but they have. Recently, I’ve fallen in love with Margot Livesey’s books.
What is some of the best advice that you received as a writer?
Iris Dart told me not to be afraid of writing about the things that I understand emotionally. More than one author has told me that the first novel is the big hurdle””that’s the point at which you know that you “can” do it. Writing requires a leap of faith.
For more information visit www.mariemockett.com
Marie will be at the Brooklyn Book Festival September 13, 2009.