Interview with Mary Helen Specht: author of Migratory Animals

Mary_HelenFor those of you who read our first issue, you know that one of our book reviews was on Mary Helen Specht’s debut novel, Migratory Animals. For our second issue, I had the pleasure of interviewing Specht about her novel, and about her journey as a writer.

Q: Perhaps the most compelling part of Migratory Animals for me personally, was that each of the characters in this book have some sort of unique secret or flaw that humanizes them. What was most difficult about the process of fleshing out these different characters to give them each their very own life? Did you know from the beginning what the fate of each character would be, or how each relationship would end up?

A: I don’t fully understand how I arrive at my characters. And when I say that, it’s not because I’m channeling them from the ‘other side’ in some mystical artistic process. I’m aware of myself as creator, but it’s hard to articulate where life ends and the imaginative re-working of it begins. For me, characters usually emerge from my curiosity about something I’ve experienced or observed. I began writing the novel after I’d left Nigeria, where I’d been living on a research grant, and since my life was now on a decidedly different trajectory (crashing on friends’ couches), I wondered what kind of person I would have become had I stayed. Then the what ifs started to cascade. What if there was an American scientist who felt she’d finally found love and a home in West Africa but wasn’t allowed to stay? And what if that scientist had a sister—and so on.

During this time, I was also watching the recession ravage people, many of whom were well-educated and ambitious, people who’d always expected adult lives at least as successful as those of their parents. I was particularly drawn to the stories of people I knew who were second-generation immigrants and had been taught that graduating from a good college with a good education was all that was needed to propel themselves into the middle-class. The recession highlighted how the system is still rigged in favor of the privileged, and I tried to explore some of that through the characters of Santiago and Brandon.

The character of Alyce developed from my interest and observations concerning the culture of contemporary motherhood; she struggles with connecting emotionally with her children, which is something not really viewed as permissible in our society. The child-mother bond is commonly understood as something natural and automatic, a bolt of lightning that hits every woman when she first sees her baby, though in reality this isn’t necessarily the case. So, I began by exploring that idea and, through many drafts, Alyce took on a constellation of other characteristics that ultimately, I hope, made her feel real and independent. Only after I am confident in the characters as people does the plot begin to emerge for me. I begin asking more what ifs: What if Alyce were in this situation, or that one? What would she do? How would she react?

Q:  The novel is filled with rich figurative language:metaphor and similes that are much like poetry. Do you often write poetry as well, in addition to your essays and Fiction writing?

A: Thank you so much. I don’t write poetry; that said, I do often read poetry before sitting down to write. Lyricism is one of my favorite elements in good fiction and nonfiction, and for this reason, the writer Michael Ondaatje, who merges fiction and poetry in his book Coming Through Slaughter, is one of my literary heroes.

Q: This novel is also filled with little slices of wisdom or points that call for reflection of personal values throughout, which arise out of the inner struggles of each character:

“Believe your family is worth living for even when you don’t.”

“To be legitimized and respected by the world as two people with a future together.”

“She had not yet realized that sickness follows you to the ends of the earth.”

Did you find you came to most of these, organically, through the writing process, or that  there were already certain sort of meta-points you wanted to work in to the narrative?

A: I almost never consider overarching messages when I’m writing—for me, it’s dangerous to have an agenda early on because it prevents me from following the characters where they need to go. I write to find out what I’m writing about, if that makes sense.

Q: Having received a Master’s of Fine Arts in creative writing, and gone on to teach and become a successfully published author, do you have any advice for those who are pursuing similar degrees and career paths writing?

A: If I had any advice to give to aspiring writers, it would be: read more than you write, keep your expenses low, and take the bus whenever you can. There is, unfortunately, a lot of luck involved in becoming a successful writer, and most writers have to keep a day job. The good news is that a day job can also keep you connected to the world and give you something to write about.

Q: You seem to have mastered the art of storytelling from multiple perspectives. What authors do you look to for inspiration to feed dynamic characters?

A: Thank you for saying so.  I learn to write from reading good books. There are a number of contemporary novels that I looked to specifically as sort of “mentor texts” for Migratory Animals: Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife are all told in a kaleidoscope of multiple points of view, which was something I was attempting in MA. (Early drafts of my novel had ten point-of-view characters, which I eventually pared down to four.) Also, I looked at Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, which focuses on a tight group of friends trying to make their way into adulthood as well as Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and to some extent, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun, which both explore what happens when a group of westerners try to make a home in West Africa.

In terms of the larger literary influences in my life, these are the authors I return to again and again: Virginia Woolf, Michael Ondaatje, Zora Neal Hurston, Marilynn Robinson, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro.

Q: What is one of the most important things you’ve learned or discovered in creating a novel like Migratory Animals?download (5)

A: I’ve heard that Colum McCann claims that writing a novel is like getting a four-year degree, and while that may be an exaggeration, for this book alone I researched—by way of personal interviews, hands-on lessons, and lots and lots of books—the art of weaving, climate science, architecture, Huntington’s Disease and snowflakes. In addition to what I learned from the research itself, I also learned how important research is in helping me to more fully embody my characters. We sometimes encounter the idea that writers are able to create and empathize with characters unlike themselves by pure force of will. And while the desire to empathize with the experiences of others is a prerequisite for being a good writer, I learned that empathy comes from being able to understand someone’s situation and that understanding often comes from lots of research.

Follow Mary Helen Specht on Twitter.

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