You have to love technology. How else could a freelance writer/reviewer/editor/Jill of all trades in New Zealand get to review and interview a journalist turned lawyer who also happens to not only be Assistant District Attorney at Sheboygan DA’s Office but also an award winning author?
Mary Wagner is not only a great writer, she’s a true inspiration: she has a day job, she writes, she’s a mom, she has furbabies, she tweets and she has fabulous taste in shoes.
So with no further ado, let’s hand it over to Mary:
Just Heard, Just Read, Just Seen (JH,JR,JS): To get started can you give us a snapshot of who you are?
Mary Wagner (MW): I grew up in Chicago as a city girl, but when I was a teenager my parents decided to turn over a new leaf and moved to an abandoned farm “up north” in Wisconsin. It was a tremendous shock…but the experience definitely sensitized me to the beauty of nature and big skies and unencumbered sunsets. I’ve spent most of my life since then in Wisconsin, going to college (twice), with marriage, four children, and a divorce as the biggest milestones.
JH,JR,JS: Are you a full time working writer or do you have a ‘day’ job?
MW: Oh, I certainly have a day job–I’m a criminal prosecutor for the State of Wisconsin. I started out in journalism, and worked as a newspaper reporter fresh out of college. I got married and the family soon started, and I turned to writing as a freelance journalist while the children were small. It was a perfect arrangement.
Then I had a terrible horseback riding accident back in 1995–I broke my back in a fall and was in a body cast for three months – and came out of the experience with a burning desire to try the other ‘fork in the road’. I was extremely lucky to still be walking after the accident. It made me much more willing to pay attention to that “little voice” inside. So I went to law school, and have been prosecuting for nearly twelve years. But friends who knew that I needed to write again pushed me into blogging. And my blog, ‘Running with Stilettos‘, is what led to publishing the books.
JH,JR,JS: Are you married?
MW: Happily divorced.
JH,JR,JS: Do you have children?
MW: Yes, two sons and two daughters. They’re all out of the nest now, and I absolutely adore them.
JH,JR,JS: Do you have pets?
MW: I have a border collie mix named Lucky, who is very good natured and has the speed of a runaway locomotive. He actually gave me whiplash–the kind you usually get in auto accidents–by bumping me from behind when he was still a young pup. I also serve two cats, both of which started out belonging to my sons.
I seem to have become the temporary cat repository for the family when people move or go on vacation. I had two horses for more than thirty years, but they finally died, each at the ripe old age of 33. I still miss them. I got the first one when I was sixteen, and he was just a baby.
JH,JR,JS: You have are a published author – can you tell us a little about your latest book, without giving away too many spoilers?
MW: I’ve written three books, in fact, all of them collections of “slice of life” essays which initially started out as my essays on the internet. Running with Stilettos was the first (2008), followed by Heck on Heels (2009) and now Fabulous in Flats (2011). All three have done very well in winning book awards in the United States. The essays cover a wide range of experiences that I think many women will relate to or at least connect with, from becoming self-reliant enough after my divorce to buy first a cordless drill and then a chainsaw, to buying my first strapless chiffon dress at the age of…let’s just say ‘over forty’…to go to a Viennese Ball.
Fabulous in Flats starts out with my surprise introduction to having to use a chop saw balanced on the tailgate of a pickup truck to cut concrete pavers for a patio project (I thought I was just going to be serving lunch), and ends with some ruminations of the sort that living well is really the best revenge. Both power tools and spike heels are incredibly empowering things.
My very latest project, though, was to take the second book, Heck on Heels, and remodel it into an e-version that includes color nature photos. Heck was the only book of the three that ever contained images, and they were small, and in black and white. Each chapter started with a photo. And ever since, I always thought that it could be an even better experience if the pictures–I’ve taken them all–were in color, and much larger. This was nothing I could ever accomplish with a paper version…but you’ve got to love the digital age.
Suddenly we’ve got e-readers in color, and iPads, and smart phones, and I could make it happen. So I did. I think of this Kindle edition as a portable serenity zone, something to give the reader some lovely ‘take me away’ moments, even if they’re sitting in an office or on a bus.
JH,JR,JS: What is the target audience?
MW: I think that it’s mostly women with a little life experience that will find the books resonating with them, although I’ve gotten some nice compliments from men who have read them as well. They have some pretty universal themes–love, loss, stretching your boundaries, embracing new adventures.
JH,JR,JS:What inspired you to write it?
MW: As I mentioned earlier, some friends persistently nudged me into starting the blog. I didn’t have a thought in the world at first of turning the essays into a book at that point, but as the essays started to win some awards on their own I began to form the idea of compiling them into a collection. I quickly gave up the idea of finding a traditional publisher to take them on (“great writing, but we can’t possibly sell this” was a typical response) and forged ahead to self-publish the first book. I had so much fun, and so many amazing experiences as a result, that I just kept going as the essays kept coming out.
JH,JR,JS: Is this the genre and style you usually write in? If it isn’t, what moved you to make a change?
MW: This has been a very different direction in writing for me compared to everything I had done professionally before this. In all my previous writing jobs, I was always writing to please an editor somewhere. In the magazine writing that I had done as a freelancer, I enjoyed a lot of latitude in terms of my writing style and even in choosing my subjects, but at the end of the day the article still had to be approved by someone else before I would get a by-line and get paid. When I started writing essays on my blog, though, I was writing simply for the joy of it, and this has been absolutely liberating. There was a value in it that I never foresaw when I started, too, in that it gave me a place to write down what was happening when I was going through some absolutely dreadful times as well. There’s a vast difference between writing from the eye of the storm, and writing about it later, looking back and describing the storm from a vantage point a few weeks out. You can lose a lot of passion and immediacy and truth if you just put things off and say “I’ll remember it and write about it a month from now.”
JH,JR,JS:How did you come up with the title?
MW: Well the first book was named for the blog, Running with Stilettos. And that name got picked because the internet domain that was my first choice, Living Full Throttle, was no longer available. So there was a tug of war over what I would pick next. My youngest son wanted me to go with something nice and soothing like Sunday Morning Coffee, while my friend’s husband, who was providing all the technical advice on how to set the blog up, was urging me to pick something much edgier.
I was mightily enjoying the fact that I had just started wearing spike heels in recent years after a couple of decades of chasing after my children and pets in sneakers, and so Running with Stilettos came to be. And I liked the shoe theme for all the book titles.
JH,JR,JS: Which character do you like the most? Why?
MW: Well, I’m the only real ‘character’ in these books, but I’m happy to share the journey.
JH,JR,JS: Is this a ‘sit back and read for pleasure’ book or is there a message in your book you want readers to grasp – or is it a bit of both?
MW: It’s a bit of both, I suppose. They’re great books for traveling, or for reading an essay or two before turning in, because none of the essays is terribly long. In fact, one reader called them bed time tales for grownups.
If there’s a message in them, it’s that life’s short and can turn on a dime, so take those risks your heart is telling you to take, keep your chin up during the darker times, and make sure that the people you love in this world know it all the time.
JH,JR,JS: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Who or what inspired you?
MW: I didn’t actually turn to writing until I was a sophomore in college and took a class in basic newspaper reporting. I was hooked from the very first day. I think that the discipline of writing a newspaper article back then, with its inverted pyramid style, brought some structured way of looking at the world to a very chaotic mind. Plus, being able to say “I’m a reporter” gives you the incredible ability to ask anybody just about anything.
Magazine writing was a big adjustment, because all of a sudden I could get more creative in my sentence structure and use of language, and actually sneak an opinion or two into my work. I don’t know at exactly what point the need to write became about as strong as the need to breathe, but it’s been like that for a very long time now.
JH,JR,JS: What books have most influenced your life most?
MW: I think that both Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and A Short Guide to a Happy Life by Anna Quindlen have inspired me. Both books have given me the courage to look at my life and make difficult decisions based on the recognition that you’ve only got one life to live…and you’d better make it count.
JH,JR,JS: What book are you reading now?
MW: I just finished listening to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby on audio (I spend a lot of time in the car driving to the office) and was absolutely mesmerized. I appreciated it so much more now than I did when I read it as a teenager for homework.
JH,JR,JS: Are there any new authors that currently interest you?
MW: Yes, I recently read And She Was, a suspense novel by Alison Gaylin. I can’t wait to read the sequel featuring the same character. And coming home from a trip to Italy, I picked up the only paperback I could find in English at an airport bookstore. It was a suspense novel The Echo Man by Richard Montanari. I finished the entire book on the flight back to the States. He’s not a new author, but he was brand new to me.
JH,JR,JS: What type of music do you listen to when you write?
MW: I love listening to music…Mary Chapin Carpenter is one of my favorites…but I turn it off when I write so I can focus on the screen in front of me.
JH,JR,JS: Do you have any little ‘things’ you do or traditions you follow when you write?
MW: There’s usually a lot of chocolate involved, and cups and cups of tea with lemon and sugar.
JH,JR,JS: Where do you write? Do you have a dedicated space, a particular office or piece of machinery?
MW: In times of chaos and emergency, I’ve been known to write on the backs of envelopes, on Dairy Queen napkins and assorted pieces of scrap paper in my car, and at public access computers in libraries and hospitals.
However, most of the time I write either at my desktop computer or on my laptop, sitting on the sofa with the dog at my feet and one of the cats at my knee. I recently bought a new desktop computer and so I’m settling in to my comfy office chair with the tall back and wheels more and more. Forget what Virginia Woolf said about a woman needing “a room of her own” to write. All I really need is a good chair of my own.
JH,JR,JS: Mac or PC?
MW: I’ve got a PC…though my kids favor Macs.
JH,JR,JS: Do you ever write longhand?
MW: Right before I broke my back, I had taken the time to write a suspense novel, and I did it in longhand, with a fountain pen. I found that because my brain had to slow down processing words to give my hand time to catch up with putting words on the page, my thinking got…deeper somehow.
JH,JR,JS: How long does it take to finish a project?
MW: Generally one of my essays will take me about two or three hours to write and post. Then I may go back to them later, tweaking the language, adding a paragraph, changing something around. Putting a collection of essays into a finished book can take several months, however, with multiple rounds of proofreading and tweaking the layout and getting the cover ready.
JH,JR,JS: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
MW: I would have made the moon a bit bigger on the front cover of Fabulous in Flats … but I’m happy with what’s inside.
JH,JR,JS: What do you love most about writing? And what do you dislike about it?
MW: Oh, I love to push words around on a screen until I get them right. It’s almost like making a sand castle. And for me, writing is often like opening Pandora’s box. I may sit down with one idea and start writing something I think will be straightforward, but then other doors that I didn’t even know I had in my head start to open, and I realize there are thoughts and memories I hadn’t accessed or even admitted to myself that need airing. As for what I dislike…that would have to be the time spent sitting still in one spot. If I could find a way to write and garden at the same time, I’d be ecstatic.
JH,JR,JS: What are the three pieces of advice you would give a new writer?
MW: 1. Read a lot, and read critically. When you find yourself reading something that absolutely sings to you because it is seamless, or perfect, make a mental note of how that writer did it…and put that into practice yourself. By the same token, if you read something you think is dreadful, pay attention as to why and then promise yourself you won’t do the same.
2. Hold on to your own voice. It has value, just like you do.
3. Believe in yourself and your dreams.