By Frances O’Roark Dowell
Marie Bostwick is the New York Times bestselling author of numerous books, including A Single Thread, The Second Sister, Between Heaven and Texas, and most recently From Here to Home. Her novels feature creative, resilient women who face their problems with intelligence and humor, and who get by with a little help from their friends. Quilting is a central preoccupation with many of Marie’s characters, making her books especially dear to those of us who love a good novel and a good quilt with equal passion.
I interviewed Marie recently via email in April 2016. In our exchange I discovered a delightful, funny and thoughtful woman (it’s always a treat when writers you love turn out to be nice people). For more about Marie, go to her website: http://www.mariebostwick.com/
Frances: Before we start talking about your marvelous new book, From Here to Home, I want to talk about your quilting. I’ve seen pictures of your quilts and they’re beautiful! How did you start quilting? What are your favorite kinds of quilts to make?
Marie: Well…I’d love to say it was because I had this deep, ineffable need to express myself creatively. The truth is I was walking by a quilt shop in a strip mall in Texas, saw they gave classes, and thought this would be a good way to get a break from my toddlers and engage in adult conversation while I still remembered how. (Bet I’m not the only one who can say that.)
The creativity part came later, when I found out how much I truly adored quilting. It brought me back to that creative part of me I’d given up on after getting a C on my wood sculpture in my fourth grade art class. I often say that I quilt because I don’t paint. (Bet I’m not the only one who can say that either.)
As far as a favorite kind of quilt; for a long time the answer to that question would have been traditional piecing. Now my favorite kind of quilting is whatever I’m working on at the moment. I set myself a goal to tackle a new technique every year or two. That’s opened up a lot of new avenues for me – applique, paper piecing, using made fabrics, learning to quilt my own tops instead of always relying on a longarmer. I’ve been more successful at mastering some techniques than others, but I’ve enjoyed it all.
Right now, I am all about crazy quilting. Perle cotton makes me go weak in the knees!
Frances: Are you a member of a quilt guild or any kind of quilting group? If so, talk about the ways these groups have been meaningful to you. What’s your favorite thing about being around other quilters?
Marie: My work and travel schedule is hectic and unpredictable so I haven’t been able to join a traditional guild. However, a few years back I started an online quilting group through my website. (That was back when websites still had forums – in the old days of ten years ago.) We started with about 25 people.
Now we have a Facebook group – Cobbled Court Quilt Circle Online – with about 1100 members. We do swaps, charity projects, post pictures of our quilts, share tips about tools and techniques, ask for advice about problems we’re having or what border looks best.
Even though it’s an online group, people make strong personal connections. Sometimes we meet in person too. Recently, I was in Washington DC so I asked if anybody from the area wanted to have a meetup. About 20 of us went to a quilting/mixed media shop in Alexandria, VA and had lunch afterward. It was great getting to talk face to face.
What I love about being around quilters is the way that it opens but avenues to meet and make friends with people I would never have known otherwise, people whose life experience or backgrounds are very different from mine. We begin with a love of quilting as common ground and, before long, we’re finding so much else we have in common.
Frances: You’re a novelist and a quilter. What kind of connections, if any, do you see between making quilts and writing novels?
Marie: Something I have discovered over the years is that artists of all stripes – from writers and composers, to sculptors and choreographers and, yes, quilters and fiber artists too – go through similar stages of the creative process.
It starts with an idea that seems very clear and very, very exciting. At this stage, you can’t wait to get to work. You’re sure you’re onto something brilliant, that you are brilliant!
About halfway in, you decide you are the opposite of brilliant. You wonder why you ever, ever thought this was a good idea. It’s just not turning out like you thought it would – not that you can really remember at this point. (By the way, when I’m writing, this feeling always hits me somewhere between pages 160 and 185. It’s eerily consistent.) You’ll be sorely tempted to give up and start something new. And it’s possible you will. But, if you don’t, you’re probably going back and doing some serious editing, ripping and re-sewing, or the like.
Then – assuming you didn’t give up – as you get toward the end, you start to become excited again. Your project might not have turned out exactly like you envisioned but there are some very good, and surprising, things about it. You’re pleased with the effort, eager to show it to others. You realize that you learned a lot in the process and are starting to think about how you can apply that to your next project. You get excited all over again.
Now, because quilting is my hobby as opposed to my profession, the emotional swings I experience in quilting aren’t as dramatic, but it’s definitely that same creative roller coaster ride. I think this is something just about every artist can relate to.
Frances: In From Here to Home, we return to the tiny Texas town of Too Much and what remains of the Templeton clan. The last time we saw Mary Dell and company, in the final pages of Between Heaven and Texas, it was 1984 and all kind of exciting things were just getting started—Mary Dell’s quilt shop, The Patchwork Palace, the romance between Lydia Dale and Graydon, etc. From Here to Home is set in the present day, which is to say some thirty years later. Why did you make the choice to jump so far ahead in time? And do you think you’ll ever go back and write about the years you leapt over?
Marie: Originally, I did plan for three “Too Much, Texas” books. But when I started to sit down and plot out the middle bit, I realized that the things that happened as Mary Dell built her business and life just weren’t as momentous as what happened later.
A good story requires drama, a seemingly insurmountable problem to be faced. That’s what I was able to give readers in From Here to Home that I wouldn’t have been able to supply in a book focused on the middle years of Mary Dell and Howard’s lives. It’s a plot that keeps you turning pages.
Frances: Mary Dell is just fabulous—she’s the best friend we all wish we had. One of my favorite things about her is that she’s so down to earth and yet larger (and gaudier) than life when it comes to clothes. What do you think this dichotomy says about who Mary Dell is? How fun is it to come up with her wardrobe choices? Do you make it all up, or are her outfits inspired by someone you know in real life?
Marie: You really hit upon something here that is important. Mary Dell’s wardrobe choices are very gaudy – she never met an animal print she didn’t love and one of her favorite sayings is, “more red is more better.” But there’s a reason for that quality that goes far beyond a quirky character trait.
The thing about Mary Dell is this: she knows she has no taste, she even jokes about having, “no more taste than a hothouse tomato”. But, guess what? She doesn’t care. She likes what she likes and she is who she is. She makes no apologies for it. That’s what I absolutely love about Mary Dell. She’s not proud but she is confident, comfortable in her own skin. I think that’s what readers like about her too.
Her wardrobe is really all of my own invention – I just sit there and try to think of the loudest, craziest combinations of colors and patterns I can come up and go with that. Yes, it’s a lot of fun.
Frances: I love Howard! I love that he’s a real (if made-up) person, not just a stick figure with Downs. But I’m curious—was it hard to get inside the head the character of a young man with an intellectual disability? And speaking of getting into men’s minds, how did you go about creating Rob Lee, who’s returned from Afghanistan with PTSD?
Marie: Thanks! I love Howard too.
You know, it really wasn’t hard at all to get in Howard’s head. Cognitive challenges or not, people are people. We want the same things – love, acceptance, happiness in our relationships, satisfaction in our work, a chance to prove ourselves. At this stage of his life, Howard wants to be independent, to go out into the world and test himself, to have control over his choices. I have three grown sons and watched them all go through that same stage of life – perhaps at a younger chronological age than Howard – but the desire was the same.
Learning about PTSD was more challenging. I read many books on the subject. The ones that contained first person narratives from people who had suffered through it, and also from the family members who were walking alongside them, were crucial in helping me get that portion of the story right.
Frances: What’s the hardest thing about writing a series? What’s your favorite thing?
Marie: First off, let me say that I’ve never written a series by planning to do it. What happens is that I finish a book and find that I want to know more about the main character, or I realize that a secondary character has a story of they want to tell.
Part of the reason I never plan to write one is that it is just really hard to do. You’ve got to figure out a way to make the story, setting, and characters seem fresh to people who read the previous books and, at the same time, you have to make sure that you cover enough of the older story so new readers won’t feel like they came in at the middle of the movie. It’s a tricky balance to strike.
However, the part I do like about writing a series is the sense that you’re getting to visit with an old friend, someone you’ve missed talking with. From the letters I get, I know that is what readers like about reading a series as well.
Frances: I know you’re working on something now. Are you the kind of writer who resists talking about her current project or can you tell us a little of what it’s about? If you don’t want to spill the beans just yet, can you tell us when we can expect to see a new book in the stores?
Marie: I really don’t like to talk about a book until I’m finished with it. However, I can tell you that my next book is set in Seattle, involves three sisters who are failed artistic prodigies. One of them is a part time mermaid. As you can imagine, I’m having a lot of fun with that.
Frances: What’s your big quilting dream that may never come true, but is fun to think about (owning your own quilt shop, spending your retirement years taking quilting cruises)? Do you have any special hopes for your writing career?
Marie: My quilting fantasy involves making a Baltimore album quilt – by hand – and doing it well. This doesn’t really seem like something that will ever happen though; my needle turn applique skills are less than stellar. And where would I ever find the time? But it is nice to think about.
As far as writing, I’d like to live long enough to write 50 full-length novels. I’ve got 38 to go.
I’d like to do that well, too. Really well.