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Interview with Beth Mayer

Beth Mayer’s We Will Tell You Otherwise is a collection of short stories with real characters who are often socially marginalized, with themes of family dynamics, children, death, and interactions between strangers. I think that writing a short story is more difficult simply because the author has limited space to create a world or a moment and get the story across. This collection manages to do that and some of the characters stayed with me long after I read the last page. I asked Beth Mayer about her stories, her characters, and her advice to writers.

Rashmila Maiti: Where do you get your ideas? The stories in We Will Tell You Otherwise are poignant and remarkable.
Beth Mayer: Thank you! Like many authors, I get my ideas from a wide variety of places: my observations, overheard snippets of conversations, my personal odd obsessions, something I hear on NPR or on Science Friday that intrigues me for some odd reason, parts of dreams, memories, or things I read that get me wondering about “what if?”. I also keep a journal or writer’s notebook, and I write down seemingly disjointed ideas and items and chunks of text in that writer’s notebook, sometimes on an index card that I throw into the writer’s notebook. But the ideas eventually coalesce.

RM: Which is your favorite story and why?
BM: My favorite story in this collection is the one that inspired the title of the book, “But I Will Tell You Otherwise” that features Janie and her brilliant naughty friend, Cha Cha McGee. That story brought together so many elements of my imagination, my own life, stories from other girls I knew growing up, and the need to be heard and listened to which is the theme that I discovered in all my work. Writing that story changed me, made me a better and braver writer, and taught me a lot about how I want to write. A lot of women tell me that it is their favorite. When my stories won the Hudson Prize, the first thing the publisher told me was how much she loved Cha Cha McGee. That made me happy because Cha Cha felt real to me.

RM: What inspired you to write this collection?
BM: The very early drafts of the collection began forming when I was working on my MFA (Hamline University), focusing on fiction. During that time, several writers, who I respect and I worked with in summer workshops, encouraged me to stop writing short stories and write my novel so that I could get an agent and make some money. I wasn’t averse to that but I had more stories to write. I even considered taking the story of Cha Cha or another long story, “Let Her Tell the Way,” and create a novel. However, that just wasn’t the time to write a novel. What inspired me to write this collection was being in graduate school and the impetus to complete my thesis, which is a creative project. I like deadlines and meeting them, having a wise person offer me feedback, and I like revising. So the opportunity to continue doing that in graduate school kept me going. So, my thesis was an early draft which substantially changed over the years. When I finished my MFA, I did not immediately acquire a publisher. I kept writing and revising and so on.

RM: There seems to be a preoccupation with the socially marginal figures. Why is that?
BM: I have always been inclined toward seeing folks on, what we now might call, the margins. I haven’t felt socially marginalized in ways of privilege, race, class, sexuality, or ableness. I am aware of my privilege. But when I am in the world, because I am a writer having a writer’s sensibility, I am often mentally and observationally, on the periphery. Rather than being in the throes of the moment, I am aware, cognizant, empathetic, and engaged in the edges. Some of that has to do with my anxiety and social anxiety. I like to be alone in a restaurant or café; I sometimes feel alone in a crowd. Ethically, morally and social justice-wise, I recognize and am frustrated when there are folks who have something to say and no one’s listening, especially the powerful decision-makers. I have become more cognizant of that in the last ten years, but I think that tendency has always been there.

RM: There are so many children and family relationships in your stories. Can you elaborate on that?
BM: Well, I’m a mother myself and I feel a mother’s protectiveness and urgency to pay attention and notice kids’ vulnerability. I am a bit of a worrier so that shows up in my work. But most importantly, I think we need to believe kids, women, and people of color. We need to believe folx when they tell us about their experience. There are kids and young women around predatory men who are particularly vulnerable. I wanted to bear witness to that and write Cha Cha’s story where someone young was able, even though they weren’t heard by most adults, to get what they wanted. And to show that for women the ways to happiness aren’t always conventional.

RM: Death seems to feature in various forms. Was that a conscious decision? Why/why not?
BM: It was not initially a conscious decision to have death as a theme in my work. It emerged because it is a primal fear that we must reckon with. I recognize that and that is why “Please Tell Us Your Beautiful Secret” is placed where it is.

RM: Are your stories/characters based on real people?
BM: Tennessee Williams said, “My work [fiction] is always emotionally autobiographical.” This is true for me. My fiction is emotionally autobiographical. Even if I tried to write a story or novel that was not emotionally autobiographical, even if it was a formulaic project, it cannot be helped; it is unconscious. There isn’t a Cha Cha; she is a confluence of a part of me, a part of my friends growing up, a girl I saw at a carnival when I was in middle school. Other characters are little sparks or seeds or details that were stolen or borrowed from real life, but no characters were people from my real life.

RM: What did you edit out of the book?
BM: In the draft stage, many of these were in shape or form, early versions of what I was trying to build into a collection. As I wrote and revised more, remained in a writing group, took classes at The Loft [Literary Center, Minneapolis, MN,] and won the Loft mentorship in fiction where I got to work with accomplished regional and national writers, it grew and I grew as a writer. Some of my earlier stories that weren’t as strong or didn’t fit thematically were culled and new stories emerged that lined up with what this collection wanted to be. So stories got sidelined and put into drawers; stories were added and any existing ones were significantly revised. I am grateful that when my first story was accepted at The Threepenny Review, the Editor-in-Chief, Wendy Lesser, told me there was a problem with the ending. Without giving too much direction, she asked me to fix it. So, that coaching from an accomplished editor and writer gave me an opportunity to make that story work. Similarly, when The Sun magazine accepted one of my stories, Luc Sanders, (one of the fiction editors at that time) also didn’t tell me what to do but pointed out areas that were problematic or unclear. So, at the micro level, having keen eyes and being receptive to that well-intentioned and wise counsel was a part of my editing.

RM: When did you first realize that you want to be a writer?
BM: I was very young: keeping a notebook, telling stories, writing my stories down, showing them to my teacher, and entering them in contests.

RM: What is the first book that made you cry?
BM: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a novel by E. L. Konigsburg.

RM: How do you balance your career as a writer and as a professor?
BM: I would like to give you a beautiful inspiring answer to this question but I would be lying. I don’t know. What I find is I am able to wear one and a half hats at a time. And so, when I was on a sabbatical, I got a lot of writing done and got this collection sent out for consideration. My work during the academic year is teaching undergraduate creative writing and English full-time. I find that I can focus on writing in the summer and over winter break. I create two sets of deadlines for things: January 1st and before the academic year starts. So if I can send work out before those deadlines then I am happy.

RM: What do you like to do when you are not writing or teaching?
BM: I have to admit, there is too much good television. My husband and I like to go hiking. Since I live in the Midwest, we have all our seasons. In the winter, I like to cozy up with lots of books.

RM: What advice do you have for writers?
BM: My advice would be:
•As Anne Lamott says, turn off the vinegar-lipped reader-lady who censors your ideas.
•Keep a writer’s notebook and try to write in it every or every other day for ten minutes.
•Show your work only when you ready to hear what they like or don’t like.
•Don’t go into teaching unless you want to be a teacher. Writing and teaching can be a beautiful marriage, but only if you love teaching.
Read voraciously.
•Be coachable.
•Be audacious.
•Don’t use your writing to punish or get even with anyone.
•I learned from Joni Tevis that if at all possible, find a way to make money and don’t depend on your writing for rent and food.
•I learned from Patricia Weaver Francisco that when it gets hard, to remember that you like writing.

So, if you want to be transported to the Midwest while also reading about ordinary people, do read We Will Tell You Otherwise.

Rashmila likes to read books by/about women/people of color. She prefers fiction to reality. A dog parent and word ninja, she volunteers for non-profits and is multilingual. Favorite genre- contemporary literary fiction.

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