Author Spotlight: Marion Grace Woolley
I don't know about you, but I often pick up a book not knowing anything about the author. By the end, if I've enjoyed the book, I'll want to know much more about them and their work. In this case, I already knew Marion because we were both living in Rwanda at the time (she still does) and she taught me on a creative writing course!
She's written eight novels, all garnering some fantastic reviews. In this post, I put her in the spotlight to talk about her latest release, Secure the Shadow. We talk books, death, worldview and the writing process, and finish with some top-drawer advice to newbie writers.
What inspired your latest book, Secure the Shadow?
I used to run a consultancy in the UK, helping non-profit organisations register with the Charity Commission. One day, I received a call from a group and when I asked what they did, the answer was rather unusual.
They were a group of volunteer photographers who go into hospitals to photograph stillborn babies, so that their families have something to remember them by.
I didn’t think much about it until a few years later when I met up with an old school friend for a drink. The conversation drifted onto another friend of ours who kept a picture of their stillborn child on the bookshelf at home. My friend was a bit disturbed by this, but all I kept thinking was, ‘that seems so natural.’ That, having been through the same ordeals of pregnancy and giving birth, you would want to acknowledge that and talk to others about it. It doesn’t seem right that those things should be tidied away, never to be mentioned.
Those two conversations set me off along that journey to explore our relationship with photography and death.
It’s strange how we live life ignoring the reality of death. It’s clearly not a topic you shy away from in your writing, which I admire. You explored this theme in one of your earlier novels, Angorichina, about a sanatorium for dying TB patients in rural Australia. What made you want to tackle it again in this book?
I think I tackle it in every book to some extent. The one before this, The Children of Lir, also explored mortality and what it is to be mortal – and what it would mean to outlive those you love. Both that and Secure the Shadow look at the passage of time and how it changes us, how it changes society, and how it changes our relationship with the inevitable.
As mentioned in Secure the Shadow, something about artists tends to gravitate towards the topic a little faster than most. The saying ‘there is no art without death,’ is probably very true. Neal Shusterman explores that concept in Scythe, the idea that we would simply stagnate emotionally and creatively without a deadline. Death being the ultimate deadline against which there is no negotiating. Without death there is no new growth, no new art, no new artists. So, part of being an artist is accepting that you are the link in a continuous chain reaching back to the beginning of creation. You are an ink-stained, paint-smattered moment in an ongoing conversation.
The best books deal with the most important questions or at least the questions that most preoccupy us in the late hours of the night: death, sex, relationships, the meaning of life, and the existence of self.
I think it’s stranger for an artist to avoid those subjects than to address them.
How much of your worldview makes its way into your writing? Is it all about simply entertaining readers, or do you feel like you communicate deeper messages through your writing?
My worldview doesn’t matter. It’s the reader’s worldview which decides the story. What the reader is capable of understanding, willing to engage with, and reflective enough to dwell on is what that story will become to them.
I write things that entertain me. I’ve had enough bad reviews to know that what entertains me isn’t going to entertain everyone. I’ve also had enough good reviews to know that there are others in this world who enjoy the same things I do. I’ve even had reviews where people got half the details of the book wrong, but still enjoyed it.
If I was trying to impart a message with my books, I’d probably be upset if people missed that message or misinterpreted it. As it is, I just enjoy that people enjoy whatever it is they find between the pages.
Once a book is written, it’s not mine anymore.
Is there anything you wouldn’t write about? A personal no-go topic or issue?
I don’t write about people I know. I write about experiences and observations, and characters are a cumulation of little bits of true things from many different sources, but I don’t include people wholesale in my novels. Unless you’re writing a biography, that seems rather lazy. And, contrary to popular belief, truth is rarely stranger than fiction. Which is how it should be.
What’s the most satisfying part of the writing process?
I must admit, I’m not immune to good reviews. There’s a glowing feeling when someone likes what you’ve done. It’s particularly lovely when you receive a private message, just because you know how much courage that took. It’s a really gutsy thing to contact an author you like and tell them that you like them. Even confident people get a bit shy about that, so it means a lot.
Like many writers, I don’t really enjoy writing but I love having written. It’s all the stuff that comes afterwards, once it’s released, that I enjoy. I think the greatest high is when people develop art based on your work. I’ve had a cartoon, a painting, jewellery and even a dish developed around my stories, and I just think that’s the most incredible compliment. This comes back to what I was saying about being part of a creative chain. Many of my own works were built around the works of others, such as Gaston Leroux for Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran, Lady Gregory’s translation of The Fate of the Children of Lir, and David Southwell’s Hookland. So, to see my work go on to inspire other people’s art is just incredibly life-affirming. To have inspired someone to create, using whatever medium they enjoy, is probably the most satisfying thing that results from writing.
Do you continue to think about your characters long after writing the closing chapter, or is it a case of onwards and upwards, moving on to the next
Once the story is done, it’s done. I start thinking about the next one. I will sometimes flick back through a previous work, especially if I know that a friend is starting it. Trying to imagine what they might see in it or how they might read certain parts, but for me the completion of the story is the end of my relationship with those characters. Maybe that comes from drama school and plays. You work very hard towards a performance, you do it for a few nights, then it’s on to the next script and new lines. There isn’t really time to dwell on what went before.
Do you think you’ve evolved as a writer? If so, how?
As a writer, you have to evolve. If I was still writing the way I wrote when I was sixteen, I’d never have been published. We’re all dreadful when we first start. I was homonymically challenged and incapable of spelling or using an apostrophe until my early twenties. I was scribbling short stories, and the ideas were good, but I had a lot to learn technically. I learnt those things because I loved writing and I wanted to be a good writer. In turn, learning those things made my stories better, so I started to enjoy grammar where once I had hated it. Today, I teach writing at a University in Rwanda.
Other than the technical side of things, I think it’s just down to confidence. I’m a lot more confident in my own assessment of my work than I used to be. I feel confident that time spent writing is time well spent. I don’t doubt my ability to tell a good story.
Have you ever read a non-fiction book you didn’t agree with but which made you want to read on anyway?
Not that I can recall. Most of the non-fiction I read are world histories, such as Peter Frankopan, Yuval Noah Harari, with a side helping of Bill Bryson, so it’s quite difficult to argue with history in that way. A few biographies, Alan Cumming, Mikey Walsh, Jo Brand. Again, it’s hard to disagree with someone when your reason for reading is to understand their personal experiences better. I tend to avoid picking up books by people I know I’m politically or ideologically opposed to because there simply isn’t the time to waste. Why read an entire book when you can get their opinion in two-minute bytes on YouTube and be just as outraged, but for a lot less time.
Funniest book you’ve ever read?
Bill Bryson’s always good for a laugh. Terry Pratchett used to have me in stitches as a teen. That bit in Mort where Death slips on the ice is the literary equivalent of Del Boy falling through the bar flap.
What was the first book that made you cry?
Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. I was reading from an early age, so to ask, ‘what was the first book?’ - often I forget the title of books I read a couple of months back, which is why I usually write them down. It could have been anything. The first that probably left a lasting emotional impression on me was The Seduction of Silence by Bem Le Hunte. Several generations of an Indian family from the ayurvedic mountains to a spiritualist church in central London. A very impressive read. Memorable. There’s a particular character who is just so filled with anger and dissatisfaction, even though she is continually met with love. Just that inability for her to see it, and accept it, was particularly thought provoking.
You’re currently based in Rwanda. Is there another country you’d love to try living in?
Not at the moment. Rwanda is home for me, I’ve been here many years. I’ve travelled quite a bit, seen a little of India, Laos, Australia, other areas in Africa, and a lot of Europe. I enjoy going on holiday very much, but I haven’t found anywhere I’d rather live than Kigali. That might change one day, but for now I’m very settled.
Did you start out writing short fiction, or did you dive straight into a novel?
I wrote short stories as a kid, but really, like a lot of authors of my generation, I owe a lot to text-based adventures and role-playing games. I was very into MUDs in my teens, and that taught me a lot about world building, character development and dialogue. I could sit for hours in front of a computer, building stories with people I only knew online. I still have a lot of love for RPGs, though I don’t have the time to play anymore.
I didn’t write my first novel until 2008, when I was in Rwanda with no television, books or radio to distract me. I did it to see whether I could make the word count. Lucid went on to be shortlisted for the Luke Bitmead Bursary for New Writers in 2009. So, I was pretty lucky with my first attempt. A novel is a long slog, and a huge time commitment, so that encouragement really pushed me forward.
What would you say to a newbie writer embarking on their first story, whether short fiction or a novel?
The first few are for you. If you choose to show them to anyone, that’s fine, but don’t be discouraged. We all start somewhere. If writing’s in your blood, you’ll keep doing it regardless of what people say. Then, one day, you’ll wake up and people will be saying nice things. It’s a skill – work at it. I guarantee it’s worth it.
Thanks for being on the blog, Marion! You can purchase Marion's latest book here.
When she's not writing novels, teaching or running her international development consultancy in Rwanda, Marion can be found tuning and building pianos in her spare time.