Interview - Mary T. Wagner
By Victor David Giron
I’m a director of Chicago Writers Association (CWA), a networking group for aspiring writers, established authors, publishers, and the like. It’s an open forum that allows members to post questions, news updates about their writing, and learn about literary happenings here in Chicago and beyond.
Through CWA I met Wisconsin-based writer Mary T. Wagner. Mary has self-published three personal essay collections, Running with Stilettos, Heck on Heels, and Fabulous in Flats. They’ve been quite successful, as far as self-published titles are concerned. She's come to read at the TWW Rx reading series we host at Beauty Bar Chicago. I was taken by her poise and energy to promote her own work, driving down from "cheeseland" to Chicago for a Sunday night to read with us; twice now.
Here at the Curbside we find it fascinating how folks these days, with the right amount of dedication, passion, and hard-work can build a brand for themselves and thrive, or at least successfully pursue their passion for writing. So with that I set out to ask Mary some questions.
1. Ms. Wagner, you're an attorney from Wisconsin, a mother, and you've self-published three award-winning personal essay collections. Tell us, what brought all this about, where did it come from?
Well, I've been a writer for as long as I've been a grown-up. Not before that, in the sense that I did not know that this was what I wanted to do from the time I was very young. I never kept a diary, never made up stories, never thought about being a journalist as I was growing up. But I read like crazy. I've been writing professionally since I was twenty-one and a college student at Marquette University. That's when I got hooked on journalism, after my first reporting class, and started stringing for the Milwaukee Sentinel while I was still a student. I worked on the staff of the larger Milwaukee Journal after I graduated, and then free-lanced magazine articles and newspaper features for a long time after I got married and started raising a family. Then in 1995 I took a bad fall off a tall horse and broke my back. This put me in a body cast for a while and got me thinking about second chances and the road less traveled. That's what led me to law school, and I really do love my job. I've been a criminal prosecutor for eleven years. I even get to write on occasion in that job, doing legal briefs to the appellate courts. (Though many would argue that the words "legal" and "writing" are very odd bedfellows.)
But in the past few years I've come to recognize that being is a prosecutor is "what I do," while being a writer is "who I am." The three essay collections that I've written and published were an offshoot of the blog I started at the urging of some friends. I had started writing a suspense novel about six or seven years ago with great enthusiasm, but as I often say, life got in the way. For several years I just had to face a revolving door of family emergencies, many of them unfolding in Chicago, which left little time or energy to sustain a narrative in my head or any complicated thought process. So I got nudged into starting my blog, "Running with Stilettos," and I just let it unfold. I had no idea how many essays I would come up with, or how long it would last. I started with just a photo of my shoes on a Lake Michigan beach, one essay about my children baking Christmas cookies shaped and decorated like tiny bloody axes, and a blogging template. It turned into a tremendous creative and personal outlet for me, giving me a place to put words down, to write through the storm, during some truly awful times. My essay, "The Vigil," is essentially about keeping a death watch at my father's bedside, and trying to stave off the inevitable with a little more German music, a little more beer, a little more ice cream, a little more desperate hope. But then I also had a place to write about things like love, and gardening, and spike heels, and nature, and a mad dash in a rental car to the Gulf of Mexico with a girlfriend from law school when one Midwestern winter just got too long for us to stand
2. So the blog turned into you wanting to put these essays together into a book and self-publishing them. What lead you down this path?
I absolutely never thought of self-publishing at first. But after I contacted a few agents and publishers and got the same answer ("great writing, we can't possibly sell this, better luck next stop"), I changed course entirely. Several things motivated me to self-publish at the same time. For one thing, I looked at the timeline involved in getting a book into print with a traditional publisher, and it seemed that even if I lined one up the next day, the book could still be "in production" a year later. And I'm not a patient person by nature. Another was the "carpe diem" factor--the fact that you never know what tomorrow will hold. I had survived the horseback riding accident, and a terrifying car accident on the interstate in a blizzard, and I was pretty well acquainted with the notion that life is precarious and can change on a dime. I wanted to put my writing in three dimensions and have something tangible to give to my children sooner rather than later.
The fact that I was at mid-life had something to do with the decision as well. Somehow the thought of spending the next year or two knocking on more publishing doors asking for someone to PLEASE take a chance on my writing seemed...wasteful. My goals were very small at first. All I really set out to do was to create ten copies of my first book--one for each of my kids, one for me, one for my boyfriend, and then three or four to send around to publishers and agents. I had absolutely no idea how much fun this would lead to in the form of friendships, and encouragement, and public speaking, and travel. I've signed books in an Italian restaurant while wearing a pink feather boa, ridden a chestnut mare on the beach along the Atlantic coast, and talked about writing and life to a group of college students who had been assigned my first book as one of their texts. I've done so many things I never expected to do, simply because I went out on a limb and took those essays and shaped them into a book!
3. Sounds like you've had quite an adventure and an overall positive experience with the self-publishing route. But tell us, what was not so great about this process? Or rather, what were some of the more challenging aspects and what did you do to try and manage?
Self-publishing my three essay collections has been, in the balance, just a wonderful experience for me. It's definitely not for the shy or the faint of heart...luckily I seem to be neither!
For me, the challenges came in two varieties: time and experience. I never felt like I had enough time to really attend to every detail properly. I published the first two books Running with Stilettos and Heck on Heels while I was juggling the aforementioned stream of family emergencies, many of them a hundred miles from my home. I vividly remember reading emails from my publisher while I was sitting at a public access computer in a hospital in the Loop a few years ago, while my godmother was undergoing some medical treatment and my son and the dog were parked with my ex-husband back in Wisconsin. But then again, had I waited until I had lined up "enough" time to do anything, I would still be in the planning stages of my first book. Carpe diem!
I definitely learned many things "by doing," which is to say I learned a lot the hard way! I can't stress enough the fact that you need to have design issues such as line spacing, and margins, and type fonts and sizes, all thought through before you start, along with a cover design that's solid. I'm currently revising the print version of Running with Stilettos as we speak, simply to make it as "readable" and easy on the eyes as the later two books were. All that I'm changing in the book only relates to page design rather than content...but as I've gained experience with this, I know that it matters. And as mind-numbingly repetitive as it feels to keep reading your own words, you have to force yourself to look for typos with a fine-toothed comb!
Of course, every self-publishing author knows that it's an uphill climb to get reviewed and get your books noticed. Marketing can be a full-time job, and if there's one place in the process where the lack of time has hurt me, it's that I wish I had a few more hours in the day to do things like blog for other websites and pursue more speaking engagements. But the things that I HAVE been doing along those lines--entering contests, writing for other websites such as Growing Bolder and Open Salon and MORE.com, and of course, doing live readings at places like the Beauty Bar--have already led to friendships and opportunities that are priceless. Here in April, I'm going to be giving a presentation about self-publishing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's annual spring "Writer's Institute," and in fall I'll be returning to my favorite place in the universe, St. Simons Island, Georgia, to talk at the Scribblers Retreat Writers Conference for the third time. So for a self-published writer with too few hours in the day...I can't really complain at all!
4. What are your plans going forward, do you think you'll continue self-publishing? Have you thought of packaging your self-publishing successes and seeking out a 'traditional' publisher?
Yes to everything, and MORE. I've got three irons in the fire right now. I'm almost finished with retooling the interior design of Running with Stilettos, and will then try to pitch the idea of the three-book set to some traditional publishers. I think the trio would make a great "gift set" for holidays and birthdays. I'm also moving forward with self-publishing a Kindle version of my second book, Heck on Heels, which would incorporate my color nature photographs that first appeared in black and white in the original print and PDF versions. With so many e-readers now coming out in color and people reading books on their iPads, I'd like to offer the text with gorgeous color pictures. The book would be like a portable serenity zone!
And finally, when those two projects have been put to bed, I plan to get back to work on that suspense novel I began before I started writing essays. The worlds of self-publishing and e-publishing have been so vibrant and changing so quickly that I may very well end up self-publishing straight to Kindle and Amazon right off the bat. I never could have imagined that when I started working on that novel about six years ago. Back then, the only books I knew were in 3-D, and the only publishers I could imagine were "traditional"...and based in New York. Welcome to the New World!! I love it.
5. That's quite wonderful Mary. Tying into your last response, you mention how at the start of your journey all the 'traditional' publishers you knew were based in New York. We're a publisher (though not a 'traditional' one) based here in Chicago. You were born and raised here, right? Tell us, what's your favorite memory of growing up in Chicago?
Yes, I grew up in Chicago and went to Maternity B.V.M. grade school on North Avenue. We lived on the northwest side until we moved to a farm in Wisconsin when I was sixteen. Three things really stand out in memory. One was that we lived quite close to Humboldt Park, and when I was still a preschooler, my father would take me for walks in the park. We were always "marble hunting," finding stray marbles that other kids had lost along the way. I remember ducks in the lagoon, and a large weeping willow leaning over it that I liked to climb on, and those gorgeous bronze bison in the rose garden. I also look back on many balmy summer days at the beach with my two aunts, picking up tiny shells on the shore, wave jumping, and having hot dogs and orange drink for lunch. Hot dogs always taste best with sand in the picture. But my favorite would have to be horseback riding after school on Friday afternoons in the Forest Preserves on the west side. I went to Immaculate High School for two years, and a group of us would take the bus west from the lakefront down Addison to the end of the line, and then wait to be picked up in a truck from the stable. In spring and fall we'd be riding out on the trails in Schiller Woods, and in winter we'd be freezing our tails off and riding indoors. Those would have to be my "glory days"!
Mary T Wagner and her father, Humboldt Park, Chicago.
To find more about Mary, including where to purchase her books, please visit her blog here: http://www.runningwithstilettos.blogspot.com/