Monday, June 8, 2009

Writerly Advice from Mary Yukari Waters

I recently had a chance to have lunch and attend a reading with Mary Yukari Waters, a past teacher of mine that I have mentioned more than once on this blog. Mary’s short stories have been included in The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Book of Short Stories: The Best Short Stories from a Quarter-Century of the Pushcart Prize, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. She has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and has also been supported by the Corporation of Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and Hedgebrook. Her debut novel The Favorites is currently available.

DM: Mary, thanks for offering to answer some questions for us!

In your first collection of short stories, The Laws of Evening, you thank Tom Filer and his Goat Alley workshop for guiding your writing. Who was Tom and why was he such a help to you?

MYW: Tom ran, and still runs, a workshop out of his home. The workshop is a combination of regulars, who have been coming for ten or twenty years, and new blood. I attended Tom’s workshops for a good many years before I got published, and the most special thing about them was that they didn’t focus on publishing, but on the old-fashioned artistic spirit – something of an anomaly in this age of MFAs and conferences and networking. Tom used to read us bits from the letters of Tolstoy and Van Gogh and others, or Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, or a host of other excerpts that he cut and pasted into an enormous scrapbook. I can still remember how it felt to drive home after those sessions, feeling excited and uplifted and reverent.

DM: Your new novel is The Favorites. What would you like our readers to know about it, or about your writing in general?

The Favorites takes place in Japan in the 1970’s and 80’s. It’s about an interfamily adoption in which a woman has to give up one of her babies to her sister-in-law. According to custom, the adoption is kept secret from the child until she comes of age. What complicates this situation is that both of these women live right on the same lane, and their children grow up together. The novel follows this family as these dynamics play out over the succeeding generations.

DM: This book deals with the complexities of Japanese social behavior as a young woman, Sarah Rexford, learns that she must think several steps ahead about her daily actions or risk offending her relatives. What is the purpose of a literary work for you? How important is the educational aspect of your story, or of a book in general? Do you view the explanations of Japanese life as a consequence of what you were trying to say, or was it part of your main message?

MYW: I was never a huge fan of lit classes in college. It seemed to me that they discussed everything but the heart of a story: what the dead rose or the stormy weather symbolized, what the author’s message was, what the theme was, what was going on historically and sociologically and politically when the work was written, etc. One great upside of being a writer is that you don’t have to do that kind of analysis on your own work. I think that creative writing requires you to rely less on left-brain analysis and more on what is subliminal. In other words, you steer by a gut instinct for what “matters,” even though you may not fully understand, at the time, how it works on a conscious level. So to answer your question, I can’t say I have any specific purpose, or message, other than the very basic one of wanting to share a story that I find interesting and moving, and hoping that the reader will feel the same way. The bits about Japanese life are there because I thought they would help the reader better understand the world in which the characters live.

DM: Many writers are working on their first novels or are trying to find an agent to represent their first novels. Can you tell us about how you came to be a client of agent Joy Harris? What qualities should a writer look for in an agent?

MYW: I was lucky in that it was pretty simple. A very kind teacher of mine, who was also a client of Joy’s, thought we might be a good fit. She suggested that I send her a query letter and a manuscript, so I did.

My sense is that the agent you get will probably be determined more by the quality of your manuscript than by any special strategy or personal connections. Believe it or not, this aspect of publishing is still pretty democratic. Someone once compared it to the Field of Dreams: if your work is sellable, then the agents will come. If you’re fortunate enough to have several reputable, competent agents from which to choose, then I would apply the general gut-test. Which one feels most likeable, trustworthy, considerate? Around which one do you feel the most relaxed? And, most importantly, which one really loves your writing?

DM: You also teach writing, and I know from personal experience that you do an excellent job at it. In working with so many beginning and intermediate writers, what are some common problems you encounter, and how can they be fixed?

MYW: Oh gosh, that would take an entire class – which, incidentally, was the class I was teaching when we met! I’ll make one general suggestion, though, and that would be to write about something that matters very deeply to you, that evokes powerful, even uncomfortable and painful, feelings within yourself. I’ve come across a lot of student stories that were well-written, had fine dialogue and fresh images, etc., but I haven’t always gotten the sense that the writers were deeply, personally invested in the stories they wrote. Maybe they wrote those stories because a deadline was coming up, or they wanted to experiment with point of view – and that’s fine. But my feeling is that one powerful, deeply felt story is worth ten competent, lukewarm ones. It’s true that you’ll pay a higher price for that one story; the creative process will be more emotionally intrusive, and you’ll make yourself more vulnerable to the reading public. But I greatly respect personal risk in a writer, and my feeling is that editors do so as well.

DM: Lastly, your work has appeared in some highly respected literary journals such as Zoetrope: All-Story, Glimmer Train Stories, and Triquarterly, as well as in very respected anthologies such as The Best American Short Stories. What, for you, are the key elements a piece of fiction must have before it will be accepted by these publications?

That’s a really great question. I think, though, that it’s sort of like asking what key elements a woman must have before a man will fall in love with her. One could come up with a list: beautiful face, intelligence, sense of humor, great body, etc. And these are all helpful elements to have. But ultimately, what makes a person fall in love is some unique, deeply personal quality that transcends such bread-and-butter qualifications. Similarly, an editor will pick a story not because it conforms to some preconceived list of requirements, but because he’s fallen in love with it – because it has some unique vision, some unique and deeply honest sensibility, that affects him on a personal level. One stumbling block for beginning writers is that they mistakenly hold back from being completely honest, completely themselves, because they think it’s safer to adopt styles and sensibilities that “editor types” will like.

Note: This interview first appeared on SmokeLong Quarterly.


  1. That was very enlightening, thank you for sharing it with us.

  2. Great interview. There's alot of good stuff here, so thanks for giving us the opportunity to be a part of it.

  3. Wonderful interview - thanks for sharing!

  4. How lovely, and the book sounds intriguing. I've ordered it.

  5. I love a good interview, and this was very informative. Thanks.

    I especially liked the Field of Dreams analogy -- and the importance of being willing to wait to find someone who really loves your writing. Good stuff!

  6. A wonderful interview, with a great deal of helpful information. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  7. "One stumbling block for beginning writers is that they mistakenly hold back from being completely honest, completely themselves, because they think it’s safer to adopt styles and sensibilities that “editor types” will like."


  8. So nice to hear the focus on the fiction, rather than the inudstry. Loved the reference to the meetings and the reverent spirit.

    Also, the reference to Field of Dreams was apt. I will keep that all in mind at the next summer conference where the spirit of the industry can overpower the spirit of creativity and quality writing.

  9. I love that interview. I learned some things. Will I ever learn it all? Thanks Davin. I always had the notion that an editor had to fall in love with a story to want to publish it. Now I know my suspicions were true. :)

  10. Hi everyone,
    I hope you enjoyed the interview. What I like about it, that some of you also mentioned, was that she talked about the beauty of the art, rather than how to work your way through the business. That's one of the things I admire most about Mary.

    Tara, I hope you enjoy the book! I'd love to hear what you think about it, since I've had the pleasure of reading it already.

    Robyn, sorry, but you probably won't learn it all. The bright side is that no one else will learn it all either. :)

  11. Thanks for this Davin and Mary! Some great things to keep in mind. I totally agree that writing is so much better when the writer feels strongly about what they're saying. That deep connection comes through.

  12. "I can’t say I have any specific purpose, or message, other than the very basic one of wanting to share a story that I find interesting and moving, and hoping that the reader will feel the same way."


  13. Thank you for the upbeat, encouraging interview.

  14. Davin, this is an excellent interview. Thank you for sharing. I love the part where she explains one of the most important things we can do is write a story we are deeply invested in, even one that makes us uncomfortable. How true that those are the stories that always shine.

  15. Thanks for this interview! I really need to keep in mind that the story comes first, a story I feel deeply, and not the message or theme or anything else.


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