Welcome to Author Wednesday once again. Today I welcome back fellow author Mary Gottschalk who appeared on Writing Whims more than a year ago. I reviewed her first book Sailing down the Moonbeam, a memoir from her time of living on a sailboat while her marriage crumbled around her. Now Mary has turned her hand to writing fiction with the publication of A Fitting Place. I’m thrilled she’s returned to talk about switching gears from nonfiction to fiction.
Welcome, Mary. Tell us a little bit about how your two books are connected. Do they have a common theme or thread?
Yes — the concept that you grow the most when you are outside your comfort zone, when your core beliefs and values are challenged, when your habitual ways of getting though the day don’t work.
It’s tempting to think of one’s “comfort zone” as a place in which you can get through life with minimal stress. In fact, many sociologists and psychologists use the term to describe a set of behaviors that got you through the traumas of childhood, but are not necessarily healthy or effective in adult relationships.
And even if you do function effectively in your personal and professional, it’s hard to grow and develop as a human being if you stay in an environment where everything is safe and familiar.
The French author, André Gide, captured this notion beautifully: “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”
Excellent quote, and I so agree. You do a beautiful job of expressing that philosophy in your books, Mary. What is it that’s inspired you to include this thread in both books?
It’s a concept that has played a key role in my own life.
I’ve been something of a risk-taker since childhood, out of both curiosity and an intolerance for routine and repetition. Even so, I spent much of my early life ensconced in the comfort zone defined by my parents, teachers, bosses, and friends. Although I went to the right schools, got the right jobs, and married the right sort of man, I lived in constant fear of being found wanting.
And then I made the decision to walk away from all those expectations. At the time, the decision to quit my job and sail around the world with my husband seemed outrageously risky. In retrospect, it was one of the smartest decisions I ever made. By leaving my comfort zone for a world in which everything was foreign, I could recreate myself, based on what I wanted, not what I thought others expected of me.
I intended for Sailing Down the Moonbeam to be “my story,” but as the memoir progressed, I realized that “the story” belonged on a larger stage. Sailing on the ocean is a metaphor for the whole of life: you can’t control your environment, the path is not well marked, and you often end up someplace other than where you set out to go.
Moonbeam is a story of a woman who makes a conscious decision to step out of her comfort zone. But most people can’t quit their jobs and head off into the sunset. I itched to write a story that could happen to any woman.
Voilà, I wrote the novel A Fitting Place in which my protagonist remains surrounded by friends, family and her career, but begins to grow in new ways when she is forced out of her comfort zone by changing circumstances.
How did you choose the title, A Fitting Place? Has it been the title from the very beginning?
No, it came during a regular session with my writing buddy Carol Bodensteiner. As we talked about how Lindsey was “trying on” a different way of life, we thought immediately of a fitting room.
However, the title works as a metaphor on multiple levels:
- A Fitting Room – A fitting room is not just a place to check sizes, but also be a place to try on a new persona — a dramatically different style or color. How would I look in purple? Would I feel sexy or tart-y in a dress with a plunging back? Over the years, dressing rooms yielded some unexpected treasures, but also a host of purchases that languished in a closet until I carted them off to Goodwill.
Lindsey’s love affair offers an opportunity to try a different way of living and loving. But will a same-sex relationship stand the test of time, or will it founder just as her previous relationships with men have foundered?
- The Biblical Notion of Fitting — The term “fitting” appears in the Bible, usually referring to actions that are appropriate rather than “right” in an a priori or moralistic way.
For most of her life, Lindsey tried to do the “right” thing, often subordinating her needs to what she assumed was expected of her. Only when Lindsey begins to take responsibility for her own actions—to do what fits her situation rather than what she thinks is expected—do her chronic stomachaches ease.
- A Jigsaw Puzzle – For many years, Lindsey felt that some critical piece of information or insight was missing from her life. But the missing pieces were largely of her own making, a consequence of her tendency to withhold information about herself. The puzzle pieces began to fall into place when Lindsey began to share more about her own needs, and negotiate day to day life based on a realistic assessment of the stakes.
I love that the title has so many layers. It all “fits.” How long do you estimate it took you to take the book from an idea to a finished, published?
I found a draft of chapter one dated January 2008, more than six years ago. I’ve never felt weighted down by the time it’s taken—a fact that seems surprising for someone who dislikes repetition. But the story and the characters have evolved quite significantly over that period, so always felt new.
Also, there were a couple times when I set it aside for three–six months. It’s so easy for an author to fall in love with her own words … and putting it aside means you can come back with a less jaundiced eye.
I agree that time away from a work can bring new perspective. I started my current work in progress in 2006, and let it alone for seven years. But I never forgot the characters. I’m always curious about when other writers discover they have a voice. When did you first discover your voice as a writer?
It was rather late in life. As a voracious reader, I always recognized a distinctive “voice” when I saw it, but I’d never tried to define it. I had no idea how to find my own voice when I turned my hand to creative writing at age sixty.
Although I’ve been a prolific writer since childhood, almost everything I wrote had a purpose—a term paper, my senior thesis in college, a report to a client, an opinion piece for the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. With this kind of writing, where my goal was to present a set of ideas and concepts logically and persuasively, I made a conscious effort to silence anything that might be considered a personal point of view or an individual voice.
I did, from time to time, keep a journal (mostly when I was traveling) and for a brief period in college, I tried my hand at poetry. But until I started on my memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam, it never dawned on me that I needed a voice — or that I didn’t have a voice.
Writing a memoir strikes me as a wonderful way to find your voice, since you know what happened, and how people—most importantly, you as the author—felt about the events. I don’t mean to make light of the challenge of writing realistic and three-dimensional characters, but if you tell your story well, your voice will emerge.
I’ve never thought of it that way. It’s very logical. What is the best thing a reviewer could say about one of your books?
Gottschalk’s characters explore “edgy” or “provocative” issues in a way that gives the reader “a shiver of recognition” at the universal human dimension of even an unfamiliar situation or experience.
I love “shiver of recognition.” Such a powerful thing to have said about your writing and to realize as a reader. Are your books traditionally or self-published? Why did you choose one over the other?
I decided to self publish for two reasons. First of all, I had good luck with self-publishing my memoir from a process point of view. Getting a book produced is a bit like putting on a gala: you have to make a list of all the tasks and then check them off, one by one. It’s tedious, but not hard. And since high-quality Print on Demand (e.g., Create Space) is now available, A Fitting Place was even easier to do, with considerably less upfront cash.
But the second reason is that it is almost impossible for the average author to make any money. Advances are small, and you need to sell a lot of books before you begin to receive royalties. Then too, the royalties on e-books are ridiculously small when you consider that they are zero cost to the publisher. These days, I make significantly more money from the e-book edition of Moonbeam than I do from the paperbacks.
Yes, that’s the reality of book publishing today, and thank goodness we have that choice. I’m so happy you stopped by today, Mary. It’s always a treat to hear from my fellow authors.
Be sure to stop by Writing Whims on Friday for my review of A Fitting Place.
About Mary: Mary has made a career out of changing careers. Her mantra comes from Ray Bradbury: “Jump off the cliff and grow your wings on the way down!”
Mary spent nearly thirty years in the financial markets, working with major corporations in New York, New Zealand, Australia, Europe, and Mexico. Along the way, she dropped out several times, the first time to embark on the three-year sailing voyage that is the subject of her memoir, SAILING DOWN THE MOONBEAM.
In her latest incarnation, she is a writer and lecturer, with emphasis on the personal and professional benefits that come when you step outside your comfort zone.
Click on titles for links to Mary’s Work: