Join a group of writers or take a workshop class. Be open to feedback even though it hurts.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marian O’Shea Wernicke.
Marian O’Shea Wernicke is the author of a new novel, Toward That Which Is Beautiful. A professor of English for 25 years at Pensacola State College, where Wernicke also was faculty advisor for the literary journal, The Hurricane Review. Wernicke was a nun for eleven years, teaching in St. Louis, Missouri, and in Lima, Peru. Now married and the mother of three grown children, she and her husband live in Austin, Texas.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
I love to read, so I majored in English in college. I taught grade school children, then high school and finally spent 25 years teaching literature and creative writing in a community college. I began writing poetry. One year I had a semester sabbatical from teaching, and I started working on a novel that I had been thinking about for years.
Share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career.
The best story is the incident that became the seed of my novel. When I was working in Lima, Peru, I overheard the older nuns talking about the time a nun in a long white habit, smudged with dirt in the front, had shown up at our convent. She had been working in the Altiplano of Peru, a very difficult climate, and one day had walked out of her convent without telling anyone. Somehow she made her way to Lima, hundreds of miles away and showed up at our convent. This was all I knew, but that story stayed with me for years as I tried to imagine what she had been feeling and thinking, how she had made the journey and what that experience had led to. I dreamed up the scenario in my novel Toward That Which is Beautiful.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in becoming a writer, and how did you overcome it?
At first the biggest challenge was finding time to write. I had three children and a full-time career as a professor of English. But the biggest challenge was getting the novel published. I did have an agent early on, a family friend, and he sent it out to some big New York publishers. Despite some positive feedback, no one accepted it. I realize now that I sent it out too early. I needed to revise and do several more drafts. Later another agent took it on, and again there was positive feedback on the setting and characters and the writing itself, but publishers were not sure of “how to market it.” In other words, the novel did not fit into a niche. Finally in 2019 the novel was accepted by an award-winning independent publisher called She Writes Press. The lessons I learned were 1) don’t send a novel out until it has gone through several revisions; 2) Be clear about what genre the novel is, i.e., literary fiction, historical fiction, adventure, etc. ; 3) don’t ever give up! If your work has merit, you will find a publisher.
What are some of the most interesting projects you are working on now?
I have a first draft of a historical novel based loosely on the life of my Irish great-grandmother. She was born in Bantry, Ireland around 1850, and all I know is what I have heard from my mother, and from some letters her daughters, my grandmother and great-aunt, wrote about her life. She was forced to marry an older farmer at age 16, and when they emigrated to America with their baby, the baby died at sea. Her life was quite tough, but her story shows the bravery of immigrants who come to this country, leaving everything they know and love behind for an uncertain future. We are a nation of immigrants, and I hope we will always welcome those who are seeking a better life.
Share the most interesting story that you shared in your book.
The incident in which Kate, the main character, is found with smuggled beer under her seat while on a bus to Arequipa and is taken into custody by a Peruvian policeman for questioning is based on a real incident. One of the sisters I worked with in Lima had been on a bus near the border between Bolivia and Peru when someone afraid of being caught pushed some smuggled beer under her seat and got off the bus. She, however, was not taken in for questioning, but spent some scary minutes before the case was cleared up.
What is the most empowering lesson you want your readers to take away from your book?
Kate’s interior journey to self-knowledge is just as hazardous as her exterior journey alone throughout Peru. By the end of the novel, she finally sees and accepts herself as she is. But she had to go through a dark period of doubt and confusion to get there. We all have periods of struggle in our lives that can lead to a luminous new path.
What are the 5 things you need to know to become a great author?
1. Read all the time, from the classics to contemporary writers.
2. Write every day, no waiting for the Muse to arrive. Sit down and begin.
3. Revise, revise, revise! As you do, you will sharpen and intensify your work.
4. Join a group of writers or take a workshop class. Be open to feedback even though it hurts.
5. Don’t give up.
What is the one habit that contributed most to your becoming a great writer?
Which literature do you draw inspiration from?
In fiction, I love the Russians: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol and Chekhov.; also Jane Austen the Brontes, Sigrid Undset, James Joyce; in Latin America, I love Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa; and today’s writers, Edna O’Brien, Colm Toibin, Alice McDermott, Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Luis Alberto Urrea, Jhumpa Lahiri. In poetry, I love the Bible, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Yeats, Hopkins, Heaney. Elizabeth Bishop, Maxine Kumin and Mary Oliver. For spirituality I love Thomas Merton, Teilhard de Chardin and Elizabeth Johnson.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to people, what would it be?
I wish all parents would read to their children from infancy on. Hospitals should give parents some books for babies as they take their newborns home to start them on this habit. Those kids would grow up with the best gift in the world.
How can readers follow you on social media?
Facebook author page: Marian O’Shea Wernicke