I’m so delighted to have Mary Popham as my featured guest author today. Mary is a remarkable writer whose novels sweep you into a whole other world, early twentieth century rural Kentucky. We are both members of North End Writers, a critique group, and I always look forward to Mary’s submissions. She is a treasure!
Below are her responses to my interview questions, followed by her bio and contact information.
First off, congratulations on your recently released novel, EMMALENE OF LANDING RUN. Can you tell us about the book and what inspired you to write it?
Emmalene of Landing Run is the third in a trilogy describing lives and attitudes of 1910, in the hamlet of Nelson County, Kentucky. Back Home in Landing Run tells of Emmalene’s arrival, and adapting to a new life and love in the pre-dominantly Catholic community. The Wife Takes a Farmer describes a choice: stay in the country, or move to the city. The third book depicts Emmalene, consigned to bedrest during pregnancy. A new friend interests her in getting the vote for women and other social issues. My inspiration is love for my ancestors, and imagining how they lived back then.
You do such a beautiful job of capturing life in rural Kentucky in the early twentieth century in your novels. How did you go about doing the research for your novels?
My research began in childhood sitting behind a rocking chair to listen to the relatives talk about their “old times” in the community. After retirement, I hand-copied a huge box of letters passed down from my maternal grandmother, and also journals, diaries, and greeting cards written and saved by my paternal relatives. Googling became indispensable when documenting exact dates, and describing household, church, and farm implements.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? Were there books/authors who especially inspired you as a child?
I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I was the student who was overjoyed when the teacher assigned, “Writing a Story.” The subject: write about a shoe; I created a baby shoe in the back of a closet. Lately, a grade school friend reminded me that I had written a play for our 5th grade class. I read all the books, and wanted to be Nancy Drew. I have kept a diary/journal all my life, and wherever I go, I take notes, thinking, “I might use this someday.”
You have dipped your pen into many genres: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays, book reviews, plays, and short stories. Are there genres you particularly enjoy working in?
Fiction is the genre I chose to develop at Spalding’s MFA in Writing Program. Although, my first publications were poems, obviously, each one tells a story. Everyone has a story, and if I don’t know it, I make it up—at least in my mind. Fiction reveals true life. The actions and emotions depicted in fiction have happened and are happening to someone. This also informs my book reviews. Ferreting out the significance of other writers’ stories.
For your fiction, how much of your plots and characters are drawn from stories passed down to you from your Nelson County family and friends or from real life?
The historical facts of the return of Halley’s Comet, when crops are planted and harvested, the arrival of the automobile and telephone are documented and are real life experiences. My stories of a young woman whose prospective husband fathers a baby with another; one who marries an old man to get away from home; a worried mother of many children facing a decision not approved by her church, have all happened to someone, even if I don’t know them. I write about a sawmill exploding, and although there is a history of those explosions, mine was made up. A surviving brother marrying a widowed sister-in-law has happened several times in our family, but my characters are fictional.
Do you consider yourself a plotter, panster, or somewhere in-between?
I define myself as a panster, because outlining an entire book stifles me. However, I do keep a “Timeline” of what occurs in each chapter and the word count. This let’s me know what I have covered as well as my progress. I have a general idea of where the novel/chapter is going, but I might have the barest of notes to remind me of what I want to depict. So, I guess I am a plotter in reverse.
You were in the first MFA graduating class from Spalding University. How did the program help you to grow as a writer, and do you recommend pursuing an MFA to aspiring writers? Any other advice for aspiring writers?
It is a distinct honor to have been in the inaugural class of Spalding’s low-residency MFA program. Although I believe that a certain talent must be inborn, the rudiments of writing are vital. For our first semester, the founders Sena Jeter Naslund and Karen Mann, loaded the days and nights with classes, lectures, programs, and cross-genre experimentation, such as writing a poem during a trip to the Speed Museum, seeing a play at Actors’ Theatre, creating an opening page for a story in the genre Writing For Children and/or Young Adults. Encouragement from other writers in the program, critiquing others’ writing, and the continued support of graduates with special on-line workshops and celebrations are priceless aids that keep a writer motivated. Another tip for a writer that you’ll hear everywhere: Read, read, read! This means the good stuff, not the fluff.
What are you currently working on writing-wise?
I’m beginning a new novel which follows the Landing Run trilogy about my favorite character, Emmalene Richman. The story is set in 1913, and her life is much different after being transplanted from the Eastern Kentucky Mountains to the rolling knobs in the middle of the state. Times change but feelings don’t. I’m looking forward to the adventures that await this young woman, and hope to capture the spirit of the people in this rural, Catholic hamlet; to document their day-to-day lives, their values of family and religion, work and play, and in particular, what it meant to be a woman one hundred years ago.
When you’re not writing, what do you especially enjoy doing?
Family Zooms are essential! I like to read, mostly the classics: Adam Bede by George Eliot, all of Jane Austen’s books; and Ahab’s Wife, by Sena Naslund, which I’ve now read three times. I love movies—always taking them apart—discussing with my husband the opening, sequence of events, the actors, and I find dialogue as one of the most interesting facets. I have tons of scrapbooks, keeping track of family and treasured events in my life. I have separate scrapbooks for each daughter’s wedding, and for each organization to which I belong. I like keeping up with my writing groups, The Cherokee Roundtable and the North End Writers. Having a goal to submit writing helps get it done.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself and/or your books—or questions I didn’t ask that you wish I had?
I love people. I love my life. Everyday when I wake up, I stretch out my arms to heaven and say the words of gratitude for “Health, Wealth, Creative Expression, and Love.” My Grandma Mattie used to say while eating a good meal, “I wish every little girl and boy could be eating this good.” I feel as blessed as any human ever born, and wish that the troubled and troubling people in this world could feel like I do.
Mary Popham is a 2003 graduate of the Spalding MFA in Writing Program. Her novels set in Central Kentucky in the early 1900s are Back Home in Landing Run, The Wife Takes a Farmer, and Emmalene of Landing Run. She has also published a collection of short stories, Love is a Fireplace; leads a writing group, the Cherokee Roundtable; and presents a program, “Writing Your Life Story.” She lives with writer husband, Ronnie Popham, in Clifton, a historic neighborhood in Louisville.