Be glad in the Lord and rejoice! Psalm 32:11

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Five Questions With ... Marian Szczepanski, author of Playing St. Barbara

I'm pleased to kick off the Five Questions With feature for the new year with a question and answer session with Marian Szczepanski, author of the historical fiction novel, "Playing St. Barbara."


1.  At what age did you know that you wanted to be a writer? 

I vividly remember a 4th-grade English class when we were asked to write and illustrate a short essay about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I was about to write about how much I loved books and wanted to write them someday when it struck me I had no idea how to draw a typewriter. I decided to do the picture first, and sure enough, my efforts resulted in what looked like a lopsided box arbitrarily dotted with letters of the alphabet. Yikes! Time was almost up! So I quickly wrote about becoming an archaeologist, mainly because I could whip out a drawing of a girl digging up a dinosaur bone in short order. Truth be told, archaeology was my runner-up career choice, mainly because the promise of exotic travel destinations was just too tempting to ignore. However, in college, I reverted to my fourth-grade ambition and majored in journalism, then later finished a graduate degree in creative writing. 

And just in case you're wondering, I STILL can't draw a typewriter!

2.  Who are some of your favorite authors? Who inspires you?

I'm continually inspired by what I read and constantly challenging myself to add new tools to my writer's toolbox. Right now, I'm reading Robert Boswell's brilliant novel Tumbledown, whose point of view is, according to the author, unreliable omniscience. I've always been fascinated with unreliable narrators and awed by authors employing a sure-handed omniscience in telling their stories. To combine these elements demonstrates remarkable skill and intelligence on the part of the author, who was one of my teachers in grad school. I recently read Alice McDermott's Someone, which could not be more different. McDermott shuns the wide-angle lens and, instead, focuses with microscopic precision on tiny physical details and distinctive mannerisms to characterize the people in her novels. Scrupulously observed and compassionately rendered--her writing exudes quiet, but indomitable strength. An excellent reminder to me to never overlook the power of  physical detail. Other contemporary writers I admire--oh, so many!--include Hilary Mantel, A.S. Byatt, Shirley Hazzard, Richard Russo, Marilynne Robinson, Andre Dubus, George Saunders, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Flannery O'Connor, and Virginia Woolf. And many, many more.

3. What do you have coming up in the future?

My next projects include a short story about an American woman tourist in a tiny seaside Yorkshire town and a contemporary novel, much different than Playing St. Barbara, about a 40ish woman coping with an aging father, an unexpected, uninvited, and extremely damaged young houseguest, and a relationship with a younger man. I've always wanted to write about a mismatched, almost certain emotional train wreck of a relationship between two people who seemingly have no common ground. And also a ghost. I've never written anything remotely paranormal, so I thought it would be fun to give it a shot. No zombies or vampires, though. 

4. What advice would you have for anyone wanting to break into the writing biz today?

Read, read, read. Read the sort of books you'd like to write by authors you admire. Read like a writer. Pay attention to why a story or novel works. And, although some writers can jump right in and produce amazing work out of instinct or intuition, I believe it's immensely helpful to have a grounding in the basics of craft. I started with an intro to creative writing class at my local community college, took the follow-up class in fiction writing, then, thoroughly hooked, applied to graduate school to earn an MFA. Too many new writers are overly focused on the finish line--getting an agent, landing a book deal--and lose sight of the work itself. Dedicate yourself to becoming the very best writer you can be, embrace the discipline of revision, and take advantage of whatever learning opportunities are available: writing workshops or classes at conferences, a formal degree, one-on-one mentoring, and/or joining a writers group. 

Books I'd recommend: Janet Burroway's must-have guide Writing FIction, Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners, Joan Frank's Because You Have To: A Writing Life, Elizabeth Benedict's The Joy of Writing Sex, Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, and Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life, ed. Charles Baxter & Peter Turchi. 

5.  What is one fun thing about you that not everyone knows? 
I love to watch professional basketball--though I'm far too uncoordinated ever to have played myself--and I'm a died-hard fan of the San Antonio Spurs. I have a collection of Spurs T shirts, Mardi Gras beads with the team logo dangling from my car's rear-view mirror, a starting line-up poster on my pantry door, and the jersey of Manu Ginobili, my favorite player, hanging in my office. I've never watched a more intense and unpredictable competitor, and the jersey reminds me not to be afraid of taking risks and, even if things don't look promising, to never, ever, ever give up.

For more information on Marian and her work, check out her website at www.marianszczepanski.com

About The Book:

In the Depression-era coal patch known as The Hive, miner’s wife Clare Sweeney keeps secrets to survive. Stripped of her real name, she hides her friendship with a town pariah, haunting guilt around the deaths of her three infant sons, and determination never to bear another. She defies her abusive husband and the town’s rigid caste system to ensure a better future for her daughters, who harbor secrets of their own.

Deirdre conceals her attraction to a member of the despised Company police. Katie withholds her plans for a college education—and the convent—from her high school sweetheart.  And Norah suppresses the cause of her mother’s frequent miscarriages, the devastating memory of one brother’s death, and her love for a married man.

The four women’s intertwined lives eerily mirror the 7th century legend of St. Barbara, patroness of miners, reenacted annually in the town pageant. Each daughter is cast as St. Barbara, but scandal and tragedy intervene, allowing just one to play the coveted role. In turn, they depart from The Hive, leaving Clare to endure her difficult marriage—till a mine explosion rocks the town. Forced to confront the ghosts of her past, she faces a life-changing choice. Her decision will test her capacity to forgive and challenge her to begin a courageous journey to self-redemption.

My Thoughts:

"Playing St. Barbara" is a fascinating look at one family's experience during the turbulent time period in Pennsylvania's coal mining history. Author Marian Szczepanski tells the heart-wrenching story of the Sweeney family through the voices of mother Clare and her three daughters, Dierdre, Norah and Katie and through their eyes the reader gets a very personal look at how hard life was for the women of the mines back then, and the struggles they went through because of and for their men.

This historical novel is well written with a mesmerizing cast of characters that will resonate with readers. Many emotions revolve through this story, ranging from romance to heartache, joy to sorrow. Szczepanski mixes in historical facts with this brilliant tale and readers will thoroughly enjoy the experience.

I highly recommend this novel.

My thanks to Marian Szczepanski for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer questions about her career, and to TLC Book Tours for including me on this blog tour.

I was not compensated for my opinion.

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Mystica said...

Thanks for this review. I will be putting this on my TBR

Sharon Galligar Chance said...

I think you'll really like it - fascinating time period in US history!

Marian Szczepanski said...

Thanks, Sharon, for such a great review and especially for your insightful comment about the wide range of emotions that permeate the story. It was my intention from page 1 to write a narrative that placed my characters is situations that would elicit deep and often complex emotions. And, Mystica, when you eventually read it, I hope you agree!

Heather J @ TLC Book Tours said...

This definitely sounds like a historical fiction book I'd enjoy! Thanks for being on the tour!