Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mary Andonian takes us to "Bitsy's Labyrinth"

HALLIE: I had the pleasure of meeting Mary Andonian at the Willamette Writers conference in Portland, Oregon. She was coordinating the enormous programming schedule, wrangling agents and editors and making me, a newbie there, feel comfortable and welcome.

Mary is a novelist and a screenwriter, and her new book for teen readers, Bitsy's Labyrinth, is set in the beautiful Willamette Valley.

Welcome to Jungle Red, Mary. Tell us about Bitsy.

MARY: Bitsy Johnson is a teenager suffering from her parents’ benign neglect. Her dad has recently remarried and prioritizes the new wife over his kids. Bitsy’s mom is in recovery, which is a good thing, but spends all of her free time helping other alcoholics. Bitsy’s left to fend for herself.

HALLIE: Was it hard for you to think like a 13-year old? Particularly one who's dealing with divorced and dysfunctional parents and starting to have feelings for boys?

MARY: I felt like Bitsy represented a lot of us who grew up in an “almost normal” household. I remember as a teenager reading extreme stories of abuse and neglect, and thinking I had no right to feel bad about my situation. I wanted Bitsy’s story to capture what it was like to feel lonely in your own home.

HALLIE: I love the idea of a lavender farm, which is where this book is set. Are there really lavender farms in the Willamette Valley?

MARY: Absolutely! The Pacific Northwest is actually the perfect place to grow lavender. The setting is my friend Sarah Bader’s farm, Lavender at Stonegate, in West Linn, Oregon ( It’s gorgeous. The first time I went there I knew I wanted to write about it. Ironically, she plans to build a labyrinth on the property!

HALLIE: I can see why it inspired you. It's gorgeous! (And, mental note: they ship lavendar plants all over the country.)

Why a labyrinth?
I can't help wondering if you ever built one yourself, and where the idea came to you that a labyrinth could be a place of contemplation.

MARY: I’ve loved labyrinths ever since I walked my first one at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. When the lot next store to our home became available, I told my husband I wanted to buy it and put a labyrinth there. He said I was crazy. After the lot sold to someone else, I decided to do the next best thing: write a fictional story about a family who builds a labyrinth and find out what happens.

HALLIE: That makes me laugh -- I set my last novel in a gorgeous Victorian house that my husband and I bid on but didn't get.

I know the novel started out as a screenplay. You've said that what you learned about screenwriting helped make Bitsy's Labyrinth a better story. How?

MARY: During the process of writing the screenplay for Bitsy’s Labyrinth, I noticed I had done way too much “telling,” and not enough “showing.” I needed to move scenes around to fit the classic three-act screenplay structure. Characters had to be introduced earlier on in the story. I realized I hadn’t sufficiently increased the stakes or created enough tension, and my payoffs were coming too early. I made all of these changes when I wrote the screenplay, and then incorporated them back into the manuscript when I was finished.

HALLIE: That's so fascinating. Jan is right now turning a screenplay into a book. Such an interesting process.

In this blog we're all mystery writers, and I'm convinced that every good novel has a mystery in it. Without spoiling it, what kind of mystery do you think Bitsy's Labyrinth has in it?

MARY: For me, Bitsy's dad poses the biggest mystery. Why do some Fathers forsake their own children for new spouses? And how do kids cope with this realization?

HALLIE: Just reading that makes me want to cry.

Mary will be stopping by today, so if you have any comments and questions for her, please post them.


  1. Mary, your book sounds wonderful. Definitely going on my "to read" list. Love the idea of the story, the labyrinth, AND the lavender farm. I've visited Norfolk Lavender, and had thought about setting a story around a lavender farm but have never quite managed to work it in.

    Congratulations on the book, and so nice to virtually meet you!

  2. Willamette Writers Conference is a wonderful event. I attended with my daughter, who lives in Portland and loves it, several years ago (3 I think). Everyone is helpful, friendly, and their panels and speakers are top of the line. We've been to a couple of lavender farms out there as well, but not your friends...making a note to head there next time I'm out. Since I'm a part-time bookseller as well as aspiring author, I'll see if I can shortlist Bitsy's Labyrinth in our store. I can think of several customers who would love it.

  3. Yay, Maryann! What's the name of your store and where is it? Tell us more!

  4. OH, gosh, how beautiful..the fragrance must be transporting! Lovely.

    There's a YA book lurking in my head, too. How did you change your--language, or thought processes, to put your self back in that time-mindset? I mean--someone that age has such a different outlook on the world. As well as physical things like being--smaller, and shorter.

    SO fascinating!

  5. Thank you, Deborah and Maryann. Sarah's farm is open in the summer so it's a perfect place to stop after a day of workshops at the Willamette Writers conference! (This year's conference is August 5-7).
    Hallie was our keynote speaker a few years ago and did a FABULOUS job!
    One point of clarification: Bitsy's Labyrinth was first a manuscript, then I turned it into a screenplay, and then back into a manuscript again. It was a lot of work but I think putting it into proper screenplay structure made the story better.

  6. Hank Phillippi Ryan (and may I say you have a great name), I did two things to get the language right: gave it to my writing group (one in particular has teenage kids), and had a group of teenagers read it. Everyone noticed in the first draft that these kids weren't texting. The teens said I needed them to be living on their phones, texting each other. My first line in the book now has Bitsy texting the words, "R U COMING OR WHAT?!"

  7. I have my 30-something kids read my manuscript with 30-something characters. And texting... sigh. Last time I tried I couldn't find the space key so my text was ISEEU (my daughter was graduating and I knew she had no idea whether we were there in the throng). I think it was much easier 20 years ago to write characters younger than oneself because things were changing so darned fast.

  8. Make that 20 years ago thing were NOT changing so fast.

  9. I agree, Hallie. Now you also run the risk of looking outdated five years from now (when everyone will probably be communicating telepathically...).

  10. Mary, so interesting!And exactly what I mean.

    (And you're right--I just got some new electronic wonders..and I said to my husband--when do I get my two-way wrist radio? Then I kind of realized..that's what we already have. Still waiting for flying cars.)

  11. I have a couple of writer friends who are deep into labyrinths and walks. Must share this with them, pronto!

    Best of luck with the novel, Mary. It looks fab.

  12. Ah, Portland, Oregon, my second favorite place on the planet next to Oxford, England! It's also where my 30-something kids live. ;0) Mary, I'm getting your book today and can't wait to read it. Thank you, Hallie, for introducing us all to Mary and her book.

  13. Thank you, Ramona and Ann.
    Portland is a special place. There's even a new show on cable called Portlandia. Haven't seen it yet.

  14. "You've said that what you learned about screenwriting helped make Bitsy's Labyrinth a better story. How?" Well structure (in the case of screenwriting, hero's journey - see ) makes it better.

  15. RE: Screenplay structure...Yes, Christopher Vogler is my hero and I've read his books. I tend to rely on Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! books, however, because of their practical, how-to guides/templates.