Mary Williams has lived in Mexico City for more than twenty years and teaches creative writing in English. Her first novel Heart of the Sky is set to be published later this year. In her spare time she enjoys drawing, painting, driving her car and almost anything to do with the arts.
Interview by Jack Little (Published in Issue 1)
Tell us your latest news Mary.
I have a lot of writing projects for 2011 as well as writing for online publications. I'm starting my own blog based on the contributions made by Mexicans in my creative writing classes. Mexicans have a unique and interesting voice and a rich culture. I want to provide an opportunity for them to have their voices heard and published in English.
What are you reading at the moment?
I'm reading Purple Hibiscus by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I think she’s an illuminating author with talent and courage, and these are the qualities I admire most in an author. Purple Hibiscus is her first novel and is about Kambili, a girl growing up in a fanatically religious family. The story takes up many themes related to gender, identity and freedom, politics and the state, and weaves them all together through its characters and plot.
Reading and writing are activities that combine very well. There’s always something to learn from reading, and it almost inevitably enriches my own writing. That includes brilliant and good writing and sometimes mediocre, and even bad, writing. The point is that books are like people, they come in all shapes and forms, and reading is like meeting someone new and finding out about them. For many writers that’s interesting because it sharpens our definition of what we want from our own writing.
And when did you first consider yourself as a writer?
My sense of 'being a writer' has grown with the development of my novel. I’ve published a few short stories in the past but tackling a novel has meant that I’ve had to take the whole thing very seriously. A novel is a big project for anyone, Charles Dickens included, (he’s the first novelist that enters my head). I've learned a lot, it’s even changed my life and I can say categorically that you can’t learn to write by reading about it, or by reading literature. You can only learn it by doing it. And I think I’ve got quite good at it. I hope I have readers that think the same!
Did you have someone who you considered as a mentor to you as a writer?
Not really. I like a wide range of literature, as long as it’s interesting. I’m prepared to take a long time reading a book because, to me, some authors are “slow burners.” Authors like Marcel Proust whose writing is so rich that I can only take in a certain amount at a time; I really have to savor the flavor for a while before I can take another mouthful. Then there are other authors, and nearly all detective stories fall into this category, that can’t be put down because they’re made to be raced through from cover to cover. I’ve missed appointments and trains because. I’ve been rooted by a fast moving novel.
So, for me, all writers can be mentors, and some are until the next one comes along. Like many modern writers I’ve been influenced by Hemingway, but I’m also fascinated by the Mexican “fragmented” novel, and right now I’m excited by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s all good, and I don’t think that I try to emulate anybody’s style. I just try to develop my own.
And your own novel, what is it about?
My story is about a poor rural woman who gets married to a community leader, expecting to find life fulfillment in raising her child. Set in Oaxaca, Mexico her community has suffered an eviction and grave injustices. She is unable to have children and the book explores themes of poverty, injustice, the lives of women, as well as religion and class struggle. It sounds a bit like too much sauce on your chips, but I was determined to address these issues.
Where did you get the idea for your story?
The idea came originally from a photo of an indigenous woman with a baby on her back in a cemetery. It was dark, just about to rain and very atmospheric. I saw this in one of my creative writing classes four years ago and went on to write a short story. Some colleagues told me that there was a lot of scope to make something bigger out of it and well the rest is history. Ideas for novels often come out of the very strangest places...
Does Mexican culture and living here play a big part in that?
Yes it does! Partly due to the experiences that I have had here and partly because I have become more and more interested in pre-Hispanic cultures, traditions and identity. For instance I had to do a lot of research into medicinal plants. I remember going to botanical gardens to take photos of the flowers; I bought books of indigenous stories and legends; visited museums, as well as visiting the archeological sites of Oaxaca. It was great fun!
Are the events and characters in the book based on people and things that you have known in your own life?
Descriptions of everything in the book are all based on life here and experiences. For instance the climate and the quality of the earth, I have smelt this myself. I have felt the heat of the sun on my back... Of special importance are the physical descriptions of the characters. All of which mix elements of people that I know from different places and times in my life. So what I'm trying to say is that you would have to have been here in Mexico to have written this novel!
Finally, what advice would you give to a young aspiring writer?
Do it! Seek out the comments of peers. Seek out useful feedback. Write! Get published! Read a lot! Just get out there and do it.