Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Amy MacKinnon

Many of us first heard about Amy MacKinnon when the Boston Globe ran a huge piece about her and her writing group, women on Boston’s South Shore (visit The Writers' Groups blog) who were all working on getting their first novels published. Amy had left her career as a political aide 13 years earlier to be at home with her first child. Then about eight years ago she started to write. At first it was essays for newspapers. She took classes at Grub Street. She wrote 15 pages of her first novel the day she heard Jonathan Franzen, author of “The Corrections,” say in a radio interview that fiction writing was fun. That first novel remains unpublished, but #2 was the charm—she sold “Tethered,” to Random House and it’s just out this month.

Amy, welcome to Jungle Red!

JR: I was so taken with Clara Marsh in "Tethered," so convinced that she really was an undertaker from the way you rendered her, preparing the dead for burial. and you're not an underaker, right? So how did you pull that off?

AM: My uncle is an undertaker in Whitman, MA where the story is set -- and he's a born storyteller. I simply sat at his knee and listened to his stories. It helps that I'm endlessly curious about death.

JR: Under the riveting story line, there's a lot of though about faith and loneliness. Did you consciously write about that?

AM: The main theme of this novel, and every other one I intend to write, is the exploration of faith: in one's self, in another, in a higher power. We write our deepest yearnings, don't we?

JR: Yes, our deepest yearnings, and I’d add our deepest fears. The novel takes on a sort of fugue-like progression, and yet it's a page turner. Seems like a contradiction in terms. How did you achieve that?

AM: Clara is a deliberate, broken woman who hovers in a netherworld between life and death, believing in neither. I tried to create a sense of surrealness, of otherness with her observations, while allowing the action to move the story forward. Thanks for noticing.

JR: How on earth did you find the time to write this?

AM: Though I have three children and was working part-time (plus pets, household chores -- yeah, we have the traditional roles here too-- and family obligations), I wanted something of my very own. Crafting my obituary clarified exactly how I want to live out my remaining years. So I stopped waiting for my turn to come, set my alarm for four o'clock, and started writing. It's important to dream and then to move forward with it.

JR: Love that: “I stopped waiting…set my alarm…and started writing.” We should all put that on our computer monitors. Was this your first novel, and can you talk a little about how it changed as you continued writing and rewriting.

AM: My first manuscript was rejected by 73 agents and was recently deleted from my hard drive. With “Tethered,” I ignored Hemingway's advice to write you know and decided to write what I want to know. Having that curiousity propelled me to explore the subject and characters more deeply, making it a far more interesting read.

As far as revisions went, ugh! When I first submitted it to agents, it was written from three points-of-view. After I signed with the brilliant Emma Sweeney, she said it's really Clara's story and suggested I write it from her perspective only. It took months for me to wrap my head around that, but I'm glad I did. Nine months later, she submitted it to editors and ten days later she held an auction.

JR: At auction! Wow. That’s a writers’ dream. Can you tell us a little about your amazing writing group?

AM: I am blessed to have these three women in my life: Lynne Griffin, Lisa Marnell, and Hannah Roveto. Each is extraordinary in terms of their craft and feedback. We usually meet every two weeks, where two people submit twenty pages for constructive critique. The feedback is professional quality, given with kindness and unfailing support. I owe each of them a great debt. Lynne recently sold her debut novel Life Without Summer (St. Martin's, April 2009), and Lisa and Hannah will soon follow with sales of their own.

JR: What advice do you have for emerging writer?

AM: Believe.

JR: Okay, now for the Jungle Red quiz...
Miss Marple of Hercule Poirot?

AM: Hercule Poirot

JR: Katherine Hepburn or Audrey Hepburn?

AM: Katherine Hepburn

JR: Sex or violence?

AM: Violence

JR: Pizza or chocolate?

AM: Chocolate

JR: Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan?

AM: Mmm, Judi Dench

JR: First person or third?

AM: Depends

JR: Prologue or no prologue?

AM: No prologue

JR: Making dinner or making reservations?

AM: Definitely reservations

JR: Tell us four things about you that no one knows. Only three can be true. We'll search for the fraud.

1) After the birth of my first child, I died, was revived, put on life support, and was comatose for a day.
2) I have an uncanny ability to look inside of people and know their dark sides.
3) I thrive on confrontations and conflict.
4) I'm the most adventurous eater I know. Eat your heart out Anthony Bourdain.

JR: Oooh, I think I know I think I know... Thanks, Amy! And BTW, just read your August 19 blog on The Writers Group about running into Richard Russo at the downtown Borders, also signing books. You titled the blog, "I am a dork" -- and boy can we all relate!!


  1. Hi Amy, welcome to Jungle red writers! what a fabulous story--we can all learn from that kind of persistence. But I have to say, if the adventurous eating is true about you, you'd have a run for your money with Hallie's husband, Jerry. He'll eat anything--and lots of it!

  2. Amy, I, too, loved your comment about setting the alarm . . . I've heard it called the "BIC" method: Butt in Chair. Truly, that's the first step.
    The book sounds fascinating!

  3. I think I know the quiz answer..but I won't say, yet.
    And Amy, if number one is true-- you know, it's so like your book. There's this tension between life and death--even the cover, so perfect, has that tension.
    Is she--floating ? Or sinking?

    When you read your book now, does it seem like yours? Okay, strange question. But sometimes when I look at what I've written, I think--that came from me? And I wonder if anyone else feels that.

    Congratulations on your wild success. I was reading an article on the NY Times website the other day--and the changing bannner across the top was for Tethered! Four different panels, I think. Gorgeous. And such a--what am I going for here--an announcement of arrival.

    Department of coincidences: Amy and I first met in a mystery writing class Hallie was giving at Grub Street. Come to think of it, that's where I first met Hallie, too. Huh. You never know.

  4. Am inspiring post. Really. And I love the cover. I've seen it in a couple of places and it always makes me stop and look.

    I like the idea of writing what you want to know.

  5. Thanks for the warm welcome, Roberta. If Jerry is such an adventurous eater, than how is it he's so trim? Not fair.

    Julie, call it what you will, just park yourself there and write. And thanks for the kind words.

    Hank, I haven't re-read it yet! I'm afraid. And isn't it strange how we met in Hallie's class? Now look at us. I'm grateful Random House put up the banner ads on the both the NYT & USA Today book pages. They've been wonderfully supportive. And don't forget, you helped me with the ending!

    Helen, you gave me a little thrill when you said you've seen it a couple of places. Good to know it's memorable.

    So does anyone have a guess as to which fact isn't true?

  6. Hi Amy,
    Greetings from Martha's Vineyard, where I'm trying to get away from my computer -- but your novel sounds like EVERYTHING I'm interested in, so I'm going to go to Edgartown Books and see if its there!
    And if #1 is true, I'll be eager to talk to you about your experience. Years ago, I spent a year researching those kinds of medical experiences.

  7. Amy, I'm wildly impressed that you deleted your first novel from your hard drive. Somerset Maugham said that every first novel should be immediately locked in a box after it's written and the writer should move on to the next one. Mine was lost somewhere in an actual cardboard carton during one move or another.

    I'm looking forward to your next one already! xo

  8. Oh, Laura. What if someone finds that novel? Wouldn't that be a good..novel?

    The moving guy, who's a secret writer wannabe. Who steals the manuscript as his own. And then...

    Or it turns up in someone else's stuff. (Whose?) And they think it's--evidence? Clues?

    Okay, back to my own story.

  9. Amy, Thank You for your comment about setting the alarm and just putting that butt in the chair (OK, that's Julie's part...). It made me realize how many excuses I have been making, and my youngest child is now 19! No more excuses. And now that it is 8:30 pm, I'd better get to bed since I've already set the alarm.

  10. Oddly enough, Hank, someone just published a YA novel with the same title as my first novel: Skin Hunger. I haven't been able to bring myself to actually look at the published one because I was so irritated that they used the title!

    I'll use it again, someday, for a whole other book.

    But I love your story idea--that it landed at someone else's house. Probably with our piano bench. Grrr.

  11. Amy, as others have said, "Thanks for setting the alarm!" The only way for an author to get a work done is to write it!!! One of the self-evident irony's of life that most of us, me included, conveniently overlook!!

    Guess where my butt's gonna be tomorrow. In fact, tonight... no time like the present!!!

    As far as setting rules - write what you know derives its power from authenticity. Write what you don't know draws its power from a passion for knowledge, the very juice of life.

    Seems to me your passion is very clear, particularly if the no. 1 fact about your life is true. I have the greatest respect for anyone who has died and returned. The return raises so many questions. For me, it was my intense white light experiences that brought me to probe the very nature of existence and why I am here. At the same time I have decided not to stress over life. When the story is ready, it just pops out of me, like some of the songs I've written.

    Still, a writer must write and that's the power of the outline to propel you forward. Topic of a past JRW.

    In regard to rules, I think it is fine to break ones that some think are "true". I remember one time, I was at a writer's conference and one of the guest agents said, "You don't write your first novel and send it to William Morris Agency?"

    Hmm... who knew... that is exactly what I did and got reviewed and almost taken on as a client. Good thing that was before he told me that! I didn't know that that was not a possibility!!!

    JRW - another great presentation!!!

    Amy - truly a learning experience.

    Thank you!!


  12. Thank you, Jan. Let me know if it's at that darling bookstore and I'll let you know if #1 is true -- or not.

    Laura, like Hank, I wonder who might have your first manuscript, if it still exists somewhere. I recently found out a dear friend and first reader had mine. I made her promise to burn it. I wonder if she did...

    MTV, what an amazing experience you've had. Perhaps you should write about it.

  13. Thanks, Amy. In some ways, like you, I already have written from that experience.

    Actually, what made that experience so powerful is that it was not a near death experience. It just happened!

    Faith is how we navigate this matrix we call time. It is very difficult to separate who our mind thinks we are from who we really are at the core.

    Nelson Mandela touched on this -

    "We ask ourselves who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?

    Actually, who are you not to be?"

    Then we go and set our alarms ...

    How hard it is sometimes for us to confront this.

    That is the most inspiring part of your story ...

    Then we go and set our alarms ....

    It's a matter of connecting the dots that lead us to oursleves.

    "The main theme of this novel, and every other one I intend to write, is the exploration of faith: in one's self, in another, in a higher power."