Kellie Doherty interviews Jo-Ann Mapson

Where are you from, originally?

I was born in Pasadena, California, and have lived briefly in Cambridge, IN when I was very young. Most of my life has been lived in Costa Mesa, CA, then eight years in Alaska, and six so far in New Mexico.

Why did you leave Alaska and move to Santa Fe?

My husband, who quit his job and uprooted his life to move to Alaska with me, wanted to live in a state he loved, New Mexico. When I no longer had to live in Alaska for my job, it was my turn to say yes.

Is writing your day job?

My job as core fiction faculty of the UAA low residency MFA in Writing program is my main work. I’m able to write books because of that income.

How long have you been writing?

I started writing in fourth grade, mainly poetry. I wrote stories in junior high, then went to college where I concentrated on fiction.

What originally got you into the craft?

Our sixth grade teacher, Mr. Knapp, forbid us to use the words “shut up” in class. If we said it, we had to run a lap. So I wrote a short story and had the character say “shut up” in dialogue to see if it worked. It did. I got laughs, which are like gold to a child. I read a lot as a kid. My mother made us all readers with weekly library visits and she read to me when I was sick. My great aunt was a writer, flamboyant, intelligent, and she gave me books.

How was the publishing experience for you?

I wrote a crappy first novel that got me an agent, but never sold, which I am grateful for to this day. I had a few stories published, tried poetry, finally came to the conclusion that I needed more education. I went to graduate school at Vermont College, completing both poetry and fiction projects and essays. I am a draft horse when it comes to writing.

Did you ever get writer’s block?

I’ve been stuck a few times. The wonderful writer Judy Reene Singer (also a horse person like me) likened these feelings of being stuck to riding equitation/dressage. If you’re not progressing, there must be a retreat to the walk and the trot. She’s right. It’s also vital to have other interests–horses, elephants, trapeze, basket weaving, jewelry making, cooking, anything–so that you have something to write about.

Owen’s Daughter was amazing and I really liked how you told the story. Why did you decide to tell it from Dolores’s point of view? (And seem to switch POVs?)

I met and hired the writer Carolyn Turgeon for our MFA Program. She reimagines fairy tales, is an Italian scholar, and her otherworldly imagining was interesting to me. When we lived in Alaska, our house had a “ghost” who moaned during the odd hours. Santa Fe has its own ghost tour. Thought I’d give it a try. I love to layer stories, and Dolores came from that. I also wrote about a folktale in Solomon’s Oak. I am captivated by that sort of thing. Every flower, object, animal, bird I put into my novels has a secondary meaning. The reader might not notice, but it’s there. I’ve always written in multiple POVs.

What drove you to add that corporeal being into the novel?

Dolores had been stuck between worlds forever. She could not move on until she accomplished one thing above all. This was her last chance, so she did what needed to be done, in order to cause two people to cross paths.

Why did you decide to incorporate so much sadness into the novel – Casey, Margaret, Skye?

Life is sad. The happiest people have known great sorrow, and the inverse is also true. We grow older, we struggle, suffer, but that’s what makes happiness so precious. A limited time here on earth.

You include characters from other books in your stories. Why did you decide to do that? Was it hard to do?

That’s a difficult question to answer. These people exist to me, in my imagination and soul, and it’s always been my personal belief that we are wandering around, inches from each other, and sometimes those paths cross, and sometimes they do not. I could pluck any one of those characters up and continue the story as if I was writing it the day before. (Watched soap operas with my mom–got me into a serial-kind of storytelling.)

What little tidbits can you say about the characters from your other books that we read about in Owen’s Daughter?

They have histories that cross each other. When Glory’s husband dies in Solomon’s Oak, she can’t imagine falling in love or moving on. But she’s resilient, and just around the corner there is a foster daughter, a husband, a friend in Margaret, etc. The kindest thing anyone has ever said about my writing is that my “characters are so real you’d expect to meet them on the street.”

What was the significance of the white hummingbird?

There was an albino hummingbird on Canyon Road. I purchased a photo print of it. White hummingbirds are certainly noticeable. Navajo belief systems suggest a hummingbird waits at the gate of heaven. I love oddities that should not exist but do. (Google “Migaloo,” an albino humpback whale in New Zealand, whose albinism is apparently a dominant trait–there are albino progeny of his.)

Are you working on any new projects?

I am 70 pages into book number 13, For Keeps, which will hopefully come out in 2016.

What would your advice be to a new writer wanting to become an author?

Read. If you love a book, read it five times. Take it apart so you can learn what the writer did, and try writing all manner of ways. Take writing classes, so you can get feedback, and learn to critique. You learn as much listening as you do critiquing. Make time in your life to write. Don’t watch as much television as you might. Take walks and let the world show you its mysteries. Pay attention. Eavesdrop. Ask older people about their lives. Listen to TED talks. Get a dog. Walk that dog. Study it. Do things you might never have considered, such as learning to make clay pots, or walk horses in handicapped therapy programs. But mostly open yourself up and notice what’s going on around you. Let yourself fall in love with words, people, animals, paper.

Jo-Ann Mapson is the author of eleven novels and a book of short stories. Her work is widely anthologized and her literary papers are being collected by Boston University’s Twentieth Century Author’s Collection. Blue Rodeo was made into a CBS TV movie starring Kris Kristofferson. Solomon’s Oak won the American Library Association’s RUSA award for women’s fiction. Jo-Ann lives with her husband and their three Italian greyhounds in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her latest novel, Owen’s Daughter, has just been published by Bloomsbury Publishers.

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