A Conversation with (and Short Story by) Marianne Fons

Marianne Fons

Marianne Fons (Photo by AZUREE WIITALA)

Several years ago, I picked up a used copy of the late, great journal, Quilt Digest, published and edited  by Roderick Kiracoffe and Michael Kile. To my surprise, this particular issue (Issue 3, published in 1985) contained a short story by Marianne Fons. I had no idea that along with being a famous quilter, Marianne was also a writer!

Fast forward to–oh, I don’t know. 2018, maybe? One day, out of the blue, Marianne Fons emailed me. After years of backburnering her writing life, she was back at it. She’d come across my book Birds in the Air and was curious who my agent was. With that email, a correspondence and eventually a friendship was born.

So when I started thinking about what–and whose–stories I wanted to read on the Quilt Fiction podcast, Marianne came immediately to mind. I emailed her for permission to read her story from that long ago issue of Quilt Digest, and she graciously gave her permission. Not only that–she agreed to be interviewed for today’s episode!

One of the reasons I love talking to Marianne about writing is because she’s so passionate about it. If you want to know more about Marianne’s life story, and more about her quilting story, here’s a link to an interview I did with her in 2020 for the Quilt Alliance’s Story Bee show. If you’re not familiar with the Quilt Alliance, it’s a nonprofit organization that serves to document quilters and their stories. You can visit the Quilt Alliance by clicking on this link. 

Visit Marianne’s website to read her blog and stay up to date with what she’s reading and quilting. While you’re there, sign up for her email newsletter! Check out Marianne’s pride and joy, the Iowa Quilt Museum.

Marianne took a year-long workshop at StoryStudio Chicago. Both in-person and online writing classes are available. 

Marianne and I both love Rod Kiracofe’s book, Unconventional and Unexpected: Quilts Under the Radar, 1950-2000.

Remember: It’s not too late to sign up for Quilt Fiction’s first ever QAL! For more info, follow this link!

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Interview Transcript [Computer Generated]

SPEAKERS

Marianne Fons, Frances Dowell

Frances Dowell 

Thanks so much, Marianne for coming on the quilt fiction podcast. It’s so great to talk to you.

Marianne Fons 

Well, it’s wonderful to have a reason for us to reconnect because we can’t became pals years ago. And then the pandemic happened. You know, we were at Quilt con together. We met for the first time at Quilt con in Louisville, or Nashville,

Frances Dowell 

was in Nashville. Yeah. Okay.

Marianne Fons 

And we went to the bookstore. I remember in the rain. Oh, that’s

Frances Dowell 

right. That’s right. We went to Ann Patchett’s bookstore together. Do you remember? Were we Uber bird? Did we try to get it? It was a it was a long trip. And it was, yes, very fun. But it was stormy and dramatic. And I think given getting the Uber back was hard. But that was wonderful. And I loved talking with you. We just walked along the shelves and said, Have you read that? Have you read that? It was really

Marianne Fons 

Yep. And I think I didn’t even have an Uber account than I do now. And I went back because Ann Patchett did a reading or an interview with–I can’t think of the name of the writer, who’s her good friend. McCracken.. So I went back. Yes. And I went back, I took another long in the rain ride to to be there at that bookstore. And it was a wonderful experience too, to because I’m a big fan of and Patchett’s  work and I have read Elizabeth McCracken. And so that was it. Parthenon books, I think it’s called. And it was great.

Frances Dowell 

Yeah. Oh, and I think Elizabeth McCracken has a new book that’s out.

Marianne Fons 

She did then too. That’s why she was there. I can’t remember the name of it–Bowling for something– and I bought it and I just couldn’t get into it. But anyway. 

Frances Dowell 

Yeah, we have to be careful because I think we could go down a lot of rabbit holes. “:Let’s talk about Elizabeth McCracken books and which ones we’ve read!”  I want to start off our discussion by talking about the story that everyone has just heard, “Crazy Quilt,” which is a story I loved. I findit  fascinating. And we’re going to talk about the story itself. But I want to talk about you as a writer in 1985. That is when the story was published. I don’t know when you wrote it. But this is an interesting time in Marianne. Fons history because you were Maryanne Fons. You and Liz were publishing books. You were starting your empire. But you hadn’t  published the quilters Complete Guide, which I think was huge. And you hadn’t started Fons and Porter’s Love of Quilting, the magazine or the show. So who were you in 1985? And what were you doing writing this story?

Marianne Fons 

It’s so great that you asked that because the story there’s a story behind this story. And it’s really a pretty good story. So I took a fiction writing class, I wrote the story quite a few years before it was published in the Quilt Digest and you said it was in 1985 that it was in the Quilt Digest. Okay, so it took me 10 years to get my bachelor’s degree in English because I had a baby and I moved, and I then went right into graduate school and literature. There weren’t MFAs back then; you just got a master’s degree, but either at the end of my undergraduate work, or beginning of my graduate work, I took a fiction writing course at Drake University, from Hilary Masters, who was a son of Edgar Lee Masters, who wrote Spoon River anthology. i’d been writing about literature and writing, quilting, some quilting books, too. And I thought fiction can’t be that hard. So I took this fiction class and I thought I wa  s going to flunk but I was a new quilter at the time, and I had this idea that led to the story, “Crazy Quilt.”  And, and I wrote it and I wrote a couple other stories, but on the strength of “Crazy Quilt,” I like made a B  in the class. So so people liked the story. You know, I’ve been working on a novel-llength fiction, but short stories are a whole different ballgame. So I wrote the story. I finished the class and then I went to Houston Quilt Festival three years before that story was published, and Michael Kyle was an exhibitor there with Quilt Digest. And even though Liz and I published a couple of books, and quilt  books were starting to be a thing, this Quilt Digest press was so gorgeous. It was really kind of like what Quilt Folk is now. It was pictorial it was elegant.  I reached out and shook hands w ith Michael Kyle, who became a friend. And I thought to myself, ‘What can I do to get myself in this publication?’ It is  so beautiful.  And I’m like, oh, yeah, I’ve got that story. So I dug out the typewritten copy of “Crazy Quilt” and I mailed it to Michael Kyle in San Francisco, and they loved  it. And Harold Natal was the editors name. And I remember I felt so proud because he said, “Marianne, your story needed practically no editing. And I think they gave  me $300 to publish it, you know, and Michael had written with Penny McMorris, a book on crazy quilts. And he went back to her for  the quilt to illustrate the story in the Quilt Digest. It was the Quilt Digest three the third of only five ever published. And you know, there’s a jockey in the story, you know, that the that Harold, one of the patches on the quilt is of a jockey and this crazy quilt that penne came up with, that had not appeared in their book, had a jockey on it. And so that’s my dog barking. So it was just amazing. And so I mean, I was just so proud that that story was published. And, I mean, because I love fiction. And it just it just, I just felt so privileged to be in that publication. And you know, then time marched on.

Frances Dowell 

And, yeah, it’s funny, you mentioned that about Quilt Digest, because that’s what I was thinking is, ‘How would I describe the Quilt digest? Is it that Quilters Digest or Quilt digest? Oh, I feel sad. But I but but he, while he was here, he put out a beautiful publication. And I don’t think there’s, you k now,  Quiltfolk is, some is it has a different focus, but it has, I think, the same preoccupation with with making a beautiful magazine.

Marianne Fons 

The quilt digest and the publisher was the quilt digest press and it was Michael Kyle and  Rod Kiracoffe. Rod Kiracoffe is very much involved in the quilt world still.  I mean, he’s sort of sort of newly relevant with Unexpected, and all the quilts he’s collecting, and such a force force in the quilt world, and he’s in my age group. So it’s pretty cool. But they were the owners of quilt digest press, they published five issues of the quilt digest, they’re all wonderful. And then they published some other books, too. And then Michael was one that was an early casualty in the AIDS crisis. We didn’t say that at the time. But looking back, we know that’s what happened. So I still have correspondence with Michael and a picture of Michael and he was a dear, dear person to me. Absolutely. And Mike–another Michael– Michael McCormack, it’s a friend. And in Quiltfolk, I will was the second issue of Quiltfolk, and Mike and his team, this is early on, came to Winterset twice, and I met him and when I saw what he was doing, I went to my shelf, and I got out my five copies of the Quilt Digest. And I said, look at these look at you know, he hadn’t been aware of it, of course, because it was so long ago, and I said, what you’re doing reminds me of this. So, you know, it’s kind of a circle then that Quiltfolk was Michael McCormick’s own idea. But when I met him, I saw the similarity just as you’re commenting that it’s stories and it’s image rich, it’s not how to there’s not advertising. It’s a different animal. It’s a keepsake and I’ve kept my copies of quilt digest once a while I run across a copy of Issue three that has my story in it. The first three were what we call landscape. And then the second the last two were portrait in terms of their their format.

Frances Dowell 

Well, that’s I know I have a have the copy that your story appeared in. I got that years ago. And now it makes me think I don’t have the last two because I can’t picture the portrait, but it is it is lovely. And of course another full circle or another circling around is that your daughter Mary was the editor of quilt for a period and she is a wonderful writer in her own right. And then it’s it’s on the board but yes, but I wonder like mother like daughter.

Marianne Fons 

And she is still very involved with Quiltfolk more as a creative director than editor in chief of the actual magazines that she’s involved with the company more than the magazine now

Frances Dowell 

and was responsible for getting a reissue of –What is it Unexpected and  Unconventional and which is my favorite quote book, I mean, I haven’t gotten my hand, I have the first one. And I’ve actually thought about shelling out for the second one, because I’d like to see the updates, but it’s an amazing book. Yeah, that’s all very cool. And you know, and I write for both now, and which is just so fun for me to be involved with that and to be telling stories in a different way. Like you, I write fiction, and, and I read fiction, and I want to talk a little bit more about Crazy Quilt, as a story, because I found that fascinating. You know, it’s funny, because when we were talking about doing this interview, and we reading crazy quilt for the quilt fiction podcast, and you’re like, Well, you know, it is kind of a Christmas story. And part of me, it’s like, DAG, I don’t want to wait till December to do this interview, and etc, etc. But I was reading it. It’s like, is it a Christmas story? You know, in some ways, it is it’s take it takes place during Christmas. But it’s a it’s a, I feel like it’s a story that on the surface, it’s funny, there’s a lot of humor. The character characters are humorous, humorous, but I think there’s an excuse me if I’m overreacting, I think there’s a lot of darkness and weirdness in it, too. It’s not really a sentimental story, though. If I told someone Oh, there’s this Maryann bond wrote a story about it about people who have had they’ve gotten this crazy quilt, and they when they go to sleep under it, they have dreams. They might think, Oh, what a fun romp. I’m like, I don’t know. I mean, parts of it are very funny and very fun. But there’s darkness to it, as well. And yeah, so the way that when I wrote up the questions for today’s interview, I some ways it’s an in on settling story, the first dreams they have, or are kind of troubling that they get nicer. I think they have some nice dreams as well. But Harold gets addicted to the quote, what were you doing there? Come and this. I’m always interested in how much control authors have over a story. Because sometimes, you know, people read things into our stories, that it’s not that they’re not there. We just didn’t know they were there. But sometimes what you know, you can be very intentional. And I really felt like there’s a tension. That’s that’s in the story between the lighter, funnier part and to me, the more unsettling parts. So talk to me about that.

Marianne Fons 

Okay, so it’s so interesting. No one’s ever really analyzed this story before. And honest to Pete When I wrote it, I was desperately trying to write a story that would get me a passing grade in that class. And I do think now that I’ve spent years studying fiction craft and writing fiction that we unintentionally, we put foreshadowing in just because we’re writers and you know, it’s just, it’s there. And then, you know, we go back through a book link effect, a novel length manuscript, and we think we intensify that foreshadowing, because we realize now that we know the whole story, what’s there. But I it’s, it was so interesting to look at your question about the darkness in this story, which I hadn’t really thought about before. But it’s true. I mean, you have this young married couple. She’s working in a bookstore, he’s in law school, so she’s supporting him. And this quilt that they bought kind of on a lark threatens to destroy their whole life really, because if he can’t go to school, and finish his law degree, that’s they’re going to be their method of support. And so, and I didn’t reread the story, but I know that she gets very concerned she winds up sabotaging the quilt destroying the world in order to get him back. So I don’t I don’t I just was trying to make a story. I think, you know, a story that that would that people would like to read that my teacher would approve of, and I had not studied short story craft or fiction craft. I read a lot of literature because my degrees were in my undergrad was in just straight English literature without a teaching certificate. I didn’t want to be a school teacher. And although I left school teachers, and then my master’s is just in literature there were not MFA is back then you just got a master’s in literature. And so I love literature. I had a lot experience with stories. And that must have come to my aid. But it’s true there there is the humor because I think there’s a thing where the Christmas lights the bubbles are kind of reflected in Harold’s eyes, you know, and he’s just this nerdy, studious guy. And another kind of dark part about it is it’s the way the story is told us. He has no life. You know, he’s never done anything interesting. And so when he starts having these unusual dreams, he that it’s just fun for him.

Frances Dowell 

But, but it’s so much fun. That it’s like at some point. I just imagine if she hadn’t gotten rid of the quote if they ultimately had not gotten rid of that that he never would would have left the apartment again. You know, there’s something that again that the quilt seems to be feeding something in him and yes, and perhaps it is that need for pleasure that need for more than just because the way he’s described it almost surprised me in that terribly, but it’s like that he ended up being that he was in law school because he almost feels like I mean today I think he’d be a computer engineer. Right. So maybe it’s exactly what kind of guy so I think that’s but but lawyers struck me as Okay, yeah, I can see that too. He and, and then you have Martha in the bookstore, you know, with her sitting out with Leonardo that the names that Leonardo the or the big artbooks, Leonardo da Vinci and what have you, and I feel like she’s got and she’s intrigued by the mystery where at first he’s trying to find a scientific explanation where she’s like, live with the mystery dude, he’s like, can’t do that. I cannot eat. I’m like, Why aren’t these two two?

Marianne Fons 

That’s a good question. I have to tell you, though, back in when I wrote the story, there were not computer coders if there were no, we didn’t know about it at the time. But yeah, she’s the free spirit. She does she and and then of course, then she has to come around at the end and be the realist, the practical person in the end. So so I’m like, it amazes me that I could write such a kind of a brilliant story when I didn’t even know how to do it. But but it reminded me that, you know, Liz and I, the first book we wrote was classical to vest in 1982. And it has Joe instructions and the method of minding mitering corners. Liz invented that Liz Porter invented that, and is now standard, but she worked it out. And it’s in that book. And you know, we wrote that book. I was 32 at the time. And and, you know, you think your writing keeps getting better. And it does. It’s true, you think that it should, but I mean, I go back and look at those instructions. And darn, they were good. And I still have a file of some of my literary essays, you know, from graduate school, and I look him and there’s, there’s some vocabulary words, I don’t even use anymore because they’re pertained to criticism. But it’s like, I was a good writer, always a good writer. And so you get what I mean, you know, you do get better in your craft, and you become more skilled. But I just always was a reader and a writer. And so in step by step, and how to, and even when Liz and I looked back, and she transferred our earliest TV episodes to disks, which are now kind of obsolete. It’s like we were so new and green, our very first episodes, but they were very good. The instruction was very good. So that’s so it’s just interesting to me that I was able to write a successful stories successful enough that I got through the class and also successful enough that Michael Kyle liked it, and they would want to publish it, and that you would want to read it right now.

Frances Dowell 

Well, and I think it is a successful story. And I think, by the way, I think it’s beautifully written, there are moments, you know, and this is where Christmas comes in, where are you but the Christmas lights in his eyes, but also, at one point, she’s out walking at night, and it may be where she’s where Harold went home early, but or it’s or maybe it’s when they’re taking the Quilt to Give away, but they’re beautiful. There’s a beautiful description of the lights and the wind, the different kinds of windows and the lights, and all that and, and that’s something I think I always admire extravagantly. And other writers, because I’m not very good at it. But I have my strengths, but writing somebody walking down the street, you know, and really giving that description. So I feel that the reader feels they’re in the scene. I just felt like you did that beautifully. And yeah, and so the sentence level writing is very fine. And yeah, but I didn’t feel like you know, when I teach writing, and do a lot of writing workshops with with young writers, and I always say, you know, if you want to be a writer, you need to be a reader. And that and I feel like, there are no writing prodigies, there’s no 10 year old Shakespeare, but there are kids who have read so much and been read to so much that they are able they write at a really high level at a very early age because there’s there’s some osmosis going on there. Now they have no idea about or or the as far as characterization that’s where they’re the weakest because they don’t have life experience but but in terms of plot and sentence level writing, whatever kid shows up in a workshop just writing at a high level I’m like, do you read all the time? And they’re like, Yeah, I read all the time. And so by the time you wrote the story, just think of every all you had studied and in all the books you have read and and that comes out, you know, I just I feel like we do we absorb forum, we absorb language and all these things. So I’m not surprised.

Marianne Fons 

It’s heartening to know that these young students you have a are such good riders because you know, these would be internet natives. And of course, people read a lot of things. They’re reading things on their phone can be reading books and so forth. But it’s neat to you know, I think back raising my kids, they were born in 7579, and 82. And as they were all readers, and we didn’t have, we had three TV stations, you know, so they had their noses in books all the time, and they’re still avid readers. So that’s great. So, so yeah, I think we do. On the sentence level, we do know what a sentence is. And my mother was a high school English teacher. So I had the grammar and everything down. I just like, how would my mom say it? And then I knew, but you know, something else you mentioned in your getting back to the darkness, and is about them giving the quilt to the man at the Christmas tree lot. And, you know, I just needed a way to end the story. And until you mentioned it, you know, I thought it was kind of cute how they gave this quilt to this old man. And you know, I’m 73 now. So he was probably about my age or younger, this this character that I made. And I thought, well, he must have nothing going on in his life. He’ll like this quilt with these dreams, you know, because he’s just this old man. I never thought that it didn’t occur to me that like they’re, they were dooming him to, to nightmares or something like that. Because they’re, they’re putting it around him. And he’s warm, you know, and everything. And he’s smiling. So he’s having a nice dream, because you know, some of that age wouldn’t nothing, nothing nice would be happening to someone. So it’s kind of fun to look back on that aspect

Frances Dowell 

of it. Right? Because it’s so yeah, he was in his 70s. And now we know 73 Is chicken. But I’ll tell you what, one of the reasons why I came to that conclusion that that was ethically questionable thing for them to do, is they considered like, what should they give it to like a family member? And decided against that? I thought, ah, because they don’t want to pass you know, I mean, it’s, it’s a not I shouldn’t say the curse, the curse of because it’s not that there’s pleasure in it as well. But it I think there’s some danger in it. So they like well, then I thought, well, who aren’t? You know, and then I thought maybe they’re gonna go bury.

Marianne Fons 

So as they talk about giving it to someone else, I forgot that part.

Frances Dowell 

There’s some brief mention, like, should we? I don’t know if it’s discussed or that’s just, you know, that does come up. And so that’s how I read it. So maybe, maybe this is just a, you know, 21st century to men gloom reading or, or what have you. But I but I actually I don’t disapprove of that choice, even if it wasn’t made intentionally because I think it makes it really interesting. Yeah, what happens? These guys are Bonnie and Clyde. And now and that’s my question, what hat What do you think might have happened to this couple after the story end? Do they live happily ever after? Or do they rob banks? And you know, go on a murder spree? What do they do?

Marianne Fons 

That’s a great question, Harold. And what’s her name? Martha, Martha. Well, I think in the short term, you know, he the holidays, the winter break would be over. And hopefully he would go back to school. But that’s a really good question. Maybe I need to make this into a novel someday, is to how he’s experienced this, this adventure, these adventures, and now he doesn’t have a means. Well, a positive spin would be that having experienced these adventures, he decides that in addition to going to law school, he’s going to you know, take up fencing or something or he’s gonna, you know, going to do something fun. And maybe she maybe Martha who’s working in the bookstore and we don’t know what her education level is, but she’s well read you know, so she’s been in school probably two they probably met in undergrad school. So she maybe she thinks way, I better go to law school to be two because I can’t really can’t really count on this guy. And I was married at the time I wrote this and then divorced that person, so and had to make my own way, as a career. So there’s all kinds of ways that Martha and and Harold’s life could go, I mean, that’s what a novel and that’s what fiction is, is. What can we do at you know, paragraph three, what what are they going to do in paragraph four? What can happen? And when I’m writing, the novels that I have in the works, and especially with my life with Shelley, I, when I would come to a point where I needed to make up what happened in my current modern day protagonists. I would go for a walk and my my teacher Rebecca Mackay does the same thing is I would go for a walk I do a two mile loop here and Winterson, I keep walking these What could they have could happen? What could they do? What could they say? What can happen next? And usually by about my a one, an idea has dropped into my brain from the sky above. And if it’s a I do that I think is good. And it’s and I start forming a sentence in my mind, I will just keep saying that sentence over and over and over in my brain as I walk, because I write in the mornings. And if I say it in my brain enough times, the next morning when I’m writing, I remember it. And I always remember Hemingway, I did a individual study on Hemingway in grad school, because all the writers were men. And that, that Hemingway would quit writing for the day, when he knew what he was going to write next, not when he was out of ideas. So that’s a really good tip for writers don’t write till you run till it dribbles out the faucet. turns off, stop when you have a good idea. And that excites you to start the next day.

Frances Dowell 

That is so funny Maryann, because I just pass that along to someone yesterday, that is one of my favorite pieces of writing advice, I always know I stop at a good place. Or don’t stop until I know what comes next. But I save that for the next day. Because that’s how you get started. You like it, and it makes you eager to get back to the story because like I know what I’m doing next. And, and then that propels you to the next thing and the next thing, but I’ve always thought that was, especially for writing a novel, something.

Marianne Fons 

And exactly, and you know, since we’re talking about best writing advice, I’ll share mine with you. I like that one, too. But I read a writing book by this guy, his name was Warren Bishop, who is a newer writer that has a fascinating story. It’s called How to be a great writer, and you can buy it on a by a nickel, you know, at Amazon, how to become a great writer, I think it is. He says, and this is for more four novels, I think. Until you write the whole story. You don’t know the whole story. And only when you know, the entire story, can you become the administrator of the work?

Frances Dowell 

Oh, I love that the administrator of the work is perfect. Yeah.

Marianne Fons 

So you have the first full draft, once you have the complete draft. And you go back and revise which is the best part, you know everything then you know, the ending, you know, everything and you become it becomes a more of an administrative than a creative work.

Frances Dowell 

Well, and I’m someone I love revising, I hate writing first drafts, I’m terrible at it, they’re awful, which is fine. That’s part of my process, I have to write the terrible first draft. The same with designing quotes, and I design most of my quotes on the wall. And I’m just I come up with the worst ideas. But then when I have something on the wall or something on the screen, or the page, then I can go then I become the administrator, I revise and revision is beautiful. Because you’ve got you’ve got that, and I’m trying to think who put it this way? I don’t think it were. I know it wasn’t Rebecca Mackay. I’m a huge fan of hers. And we might chat about her in a minute because you’ve worked with her for a while. But this idea that oh, it was Shannon Hale who writes middle grade and young adult fiction and some adult fiction, where it’s like the first draft is like bringing the sand to the sand box. And the second draft is where you actually make the castle. Yes,

Marianne Fons 

that’s a great metaphor. Well, and you know, I’m kind of at a I’m kind of taking a pause on the book I’m writing right now. And of course, everybody’s not you and I are in zoom. But just like, here’s my manuscript, see this? I have this story.

Frances Dowell 

It’s real folks. To show you a manuscript, I

Marianne Fons 

realized I need to go deeper. And really, the motivations of my male characters are more challenging for me. And I’m about to start revising again. But I’ve taken a break, which is scary because I’m always worried I’ll never get back to it but I am. You invest too much. I mean, I got I got 300 pages, or 275 pages here I’ve invested in there’s such great stuff in it. And it will be finished.

Frances Dowell 

Now is this winter set or my life? And well let’s let’s let’s go on to some we’ve already kind of moved on to this. Yeah, we’ve talked about how you’ve always been a writer, you have a background in literature you’ve been writing for a long time. I do anyone who gets your email and i’ll put some stuff in the show notes if anyone wants to sign up to your email newsletter knows that you are actively writing but there are a lot of people obviously, most quilters when you hear the name Mary and Vaughn Do you think quilt Do you think quilting and they might be surprised to know what yeah, that what role writing has in your life now which is central? It says So talk about that talk, talk whatever way you want about the novels you have in progress about I mean, you’re doing a lot of different really fun interesting things doing good work. Talk about that your life as a writer.

Marianne Fons 

Well my life as a writer, I you know, I dreamed of writing fiction and I had to make a living and so I wrote you A step by step and still pursued reading fiction and many quilt instructors that I hobnob with teaching at conferences and events around the country. We always compare notes about what we were reading. And I talked about writing I was, I’ve been fascinated by the life of Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein for ever since I wrote about her in graduate school. And so after talking about it for years, I did buckle down. To write this novel my life was Shelley and I spent five years writing it. It’s a got a modern day protagonist, who’s a high school English teacher who’s obsessed with Frankenstein and Mary Shelley. And when the story opens, she’s had a biking accident, she’s got a broken leg. And she decides to finally do what she’s been threatening to do for years, which is write Mary Shelley’s imagined memoir, which I did, I wrote the memoir, and I wrote the exterior story. And I spent five years on it, and then went to classes in Iowa City at the summer writing festival, took classes through story studio Chicago, and and got an agent for my for my life with Shelley who loved it. And she was sure we’d get a two book deal. And she took it into the marketplace and did not find a publisher for it, which is pretty hard to take. And so it’s on the shelf. And she encouraged me to write the the other idea that I had that was going to be the second deal on our two book deal, which is a novel that reimagines the scarlet letter, and which is another favorite novel of mine in Winterset, Iowa, where I live in the late 50s and early 60s. So I’ve been working on that for several years. It’s called Winterset. And we have a protagonist Hester, who is a dressmaker, very talented dressmaker. There’s a minister Arthur, they have the same first names as in The Scarlet Letter, but different last names. Arthur is a Methodist minister, and anyone who remembers the 50s knows the Methodist that was that was they were the church, the Methodist. And then there’s a pharmacist, the shady pharmacist, that is the Roger character, and their baby is named pearl. And so I’ve I’ve got the bulk of the story written, but I know what the ending is, but I was having a real hard time writing the ending last year. And I sort of realized that I really needed to go back and deepen the conflict with the male characters in relationship which which into two male characters, so anyone who knows the scarlet letter knows that Roger Chillingworth and Arthur Dimmesdale have a rather weird relationship, they actually live together. And Roger, kind of Torments torments Arthur. But one of the big differences in my story and in The Scarlet Letter, is if you know, The Scarlet Letter, if you read it in school might remember that at the end, you know, Arthur and Hester get together in the forest and they make plans to run away together, go back to England, and be a family. And then that plan is thwarted. But in my book, when Hester and Arthur see each other again, and by now Pearl is seven years old. And Arthur says, you know, I want to make an honest woman out of you. She’s like, too late, buddy. It’s been seven years. And by now she has a dress making business. She’s making beautiful dresses for the elite women of Des Moines who don’t care that she’s a fallen woman. She’s employing other women. She’s bought her home, she’s learned to drive. She’s as a car, she’s raised pearl. And so she is not interested in this man that she had, you know, a night of passion. Another thing about The Scarlet Letter is we have no idea how this Puritan minister and this woman ever got together to conceive a child. Hawthorne does not tell us anything about it. We don’t know how could they possibly have had the privacy. But in my book, I didn’t set out to write sex scenes, but I do have sex scenes. Because we know how it happens. We were there when it happens. And and my dream, if I can make this book good enough and get have it published, get a publisher is that it’ll do for Madison County all over again with the Bridges of Madison County did which sold 60 million copies. Because I have everything in Madison County is the city park. I have all the businesses that were around the square in the late 50s. There are all in my book. There are a couple of secondary characters who were actual people that lived in Winterset that are gone now that I know that are key figures in the story. So anyway, you know, you know what it’s like Francis, when you’re writing, you live in that story. You know, it’s like you’re living in your life. But you’re also living within the story and it is so thrilling.

Frances Dowell 

It’s well, you’re you’ve created this world that you enjoy every day and kind of inhabits you. And it is thrilling. It can be a little crazy making. It’s like you’re constantly having to wake up not constantly but if you know at some point in your day you have to walk out of that dream You’ve created into doing the dishes.

Marianne Fons 

Right? But when I am writing when I’m when I’m happily writing, and I’m about to do it again, I mean, when I put my head on my pillow at night, I go into that story. And I think about where it is. And when I wake up in the morning, I put my head in that story. It just makes me happy, even when the writing is not going well. But I can always revise, you know, if I can’t push the story forward, I can always revise something.

Frances Dowell 

And you know, one of the things that people often don’t understand is how important an editor is to the process of writing and revising a book particularly revising, you do the first draft, and then you have someone read it. And I’ve always felt my editor really should have her name under mine, my my children’s fiction, it’s such a collaborative process. And that’s another reason why I love revising. I don’t think people understand how collaborative the process can be. And although I’ve frequently asked my editor, why don’t you just say, Oh, I think you need to seem with such and such going on. I’m like, you could write it and she never will. She’s 25 years we’ve worked together. She’s never jumped on that. But nonetheless, there’s a lot of back and forth and we’ll work out plot points. Now you have let’s get back to Rebecca Mackay. I know you’ve taken classes with her. Has she worked in any way in that capacity. And for people who don’t know, Rebecca Mackay is a very fine writer. Her last book was the great believers one of my favorite books of the last decade. I think it’s masterful. She has a new book coming out in February, which I will go and buy in hardback as soon as it comes out. I can’t wait. And Marianne has been working with Rebecca as I think took a year long workshop and perhaps has worked in other ways. But she is a remarkable talent. And she also she has a newsletter now a substack, in which she gives writing advice. I know that I had to but talk about how editors have worked in your life. And particularly, I think Rebecca has worked as a kind of editor for you.

Marianne Fons 

Well, Rebecca is the creative director at story studio Chicago. So if anybody’s listening to this is interested in writing classes go to story studio, Chicago is one of many places, but there’s lots of online online classes, and they’re very good. I took a year long class from her when I first started Winterset called novel in a year where when Chicago once a month to meet in person with my cohort. And then pandemic happened, and we met online. But we’ve gotten together, our cohort has gotten together for parties a couple of times. But Rebecca hasn’t really worked editing my work, I did hire her to read my wife, Shelley and give me input on that for when the time comes that I revise that novel. But what I’ve done, and this might help anybody who’s listening who’s interested in writing, is I have, I have a writer’s group, and to mine, the Western Wine Library writers, and we’re all fiction writers. And, you know, I don’t know if any of us will ever be published. But you know, we meet twice a month, for three hours on a Saturday in the middle of the day, unlike a lot of writing groups or meet at night, once a month. And so we critique each other’s work. And so each or twice a month, you know, I take 1500 words that I read, and I get their input, and I get great input. And it’s, it’s the input is part of it. But also, it’s the accountability that like, oh, I need to have 1500 words ready to go. And we meet Saturday, we had to skip December. And so I after taking a long pause on winter set, and I’m starting from the beginning, again, is I pulled up the beginning and I’m tweaking, you know, the that for Saturday. So that’s that’s going to carry me through this revision is the accountability. And if we can’t meet in person, someone zooms zooms us, and if we’re not for out of town now, so the writing group is very important. And then the other thing, I’m sure you know, all about is, and you talked about your editor, because you are a working writer, and you have an editor and a publisher, but there’s also your beta readers. So you know, when I finished Winterset, I have probably gosh, I mean, I could stop at six, but I have a lot of volunteers, local people, you know, that born and raised in Winterset, fashion people, pharmacy person, because I have a pharmacist in there, and I will ask them to read this now and just readers, people that just love to buy books, you know, and I know with My Life with Shelley, I used input from everybody. So you send it out for these BETA readers to just read it and to give you notes. And, and, you know, it’s like, I mean, I love input, because it’s like, if if my friend Sherry doesn’t understand this part of this novel, many other people might not understand that either. So I need to clarify that. Right. You know, I mean, I’m sure you run into writers that just won’t take notes and won’t take advice and just and so when someone new joins our writing group, and we give comments and they argue back I’m like, well, they’ll get, they’ll get to the, you know, pretty soon they if they’re going to stick around, they’re going to realize that the input is invaluable. And I think people who have not experienced this kind of input want to defend the way it is. And I just know that my fellow writers have, you know, said, I mean, in fact, Oscar not long ago said, you know, I think you should start here, start with this, so that the conflict in my characters marriage is obvious from the very first paragraph. So, and so I did I, and it’s when you think you someone says, take the paragraph on page three and put that at the beginning? You think that’d be real easy? No, you have to redo everything to make that work.

Frances Dowell 

Right. Right. Well, I, you know, I, I published my children’s fiction with Simon and Schuster. So I have a big time professional editor. But you know, the quilt fiction fiction that I published through my own publishing company that I run with Clifton, my husband and Milton Falls Media, I depend on friends to read drafts. And these are my friends, our readers, they don’t hear they’re not former English majors, or what have you. Ask them to do is just read and then report their experience of reading. Where did they have questions? Where were they confused? Where did they feel a character was behaving out of character? Any kind of feedback like that is really useful. And you don’t have to have someone who is a professional top of their game editor, just someone who is a good reader. And they’re almost better? Yeah, I think so. And especially because they don’t have any skin in the game. Not that I feel like my editor, Caitlin has. Yeah, she wants she’s very much she’s very, she’s very literary. So she’s really trying to help me write the best book. But you know, she’s also thinking about how are reviewers going to see this? How are the sales and marketing people going to respond to this? Where as my friend Kristen, who reads everything? So that’s she’s like, Yo, she’s like, is it a good story? Or just I’m just like, ask questions, asked questions. And she’s, I think, one of the best editors that I’ve had, and so is my husband, Clifton, who actually worked as an editor at Algonquin books years and years ago, we had to get through that. Stop me stop saying mean things to me. You’re my husband. But yeah, so anyway, I think anyone, we have editors all around us, which is very cool. And very good to know. Like, you don’t have to be awesome friends who read books and say, Would you read this and give me your honest feedback and start out by saying something nice. Well, and

Marianne Fons 

sometimes, I mean, some of my readers are my writing friends, because, you know, they’re, but they’re great readers that have no potential of ever wanting to write anything themselves. But I think on your team of beta readers, I think having one of your writing friends who’s looking for craft? Yes, yeah. Yeah,

Frances Dowell 

I think so too. Well, let’s, I want to kind of make a leap, which I don’t think it’s actually a huge leap from writing fiction to making quilts. And I’m curious, so first of all, if you see any parallels in that process, you have been making quilts for a long time now, which is also a creative endeavor, obviously, and designing quilt, what what parallels do you see in these creative activities? The one that does one that involves words, one not so much.

Marianne Fons 

Yeah, I see tons of parallels. I think about it all the time. And my plan had been if my life was Shelley had found a publisher, I was going to do a lecture called read my latest quilt, where I would present images of quilts with words on them, which I love, and then talk about the similarities. But you know, it’s like thinking about right now. I I know how to write a scene. But is it the right scene for the book? So I know how to make a block. I know how to make a quilt. But is it the right fabric? Is it the right block? Does it work together as a whole? You can certainly think about, you know, ripping out things is revising, although I don’t rip out a lot because I’m a pretty good Sower. But you know, you’re revising and editing your quilt, as you know. And so you can think of the blocks almost as chapters or scenes, that that all needs to work together cohesively. So there are definitely parallels. And, you know, it’s a creative process. So I think that, that makes sense that people who like to sew and stitch things together in terms of fabric would be stitching words together, even though they are so different in terms of visual and, you know, in your brain and in front of your eye. But I guess I would say that writing quilting books and making quilts certainly is part of what prepared me to write fiction.

Frances Dowell 

Hmm. Yeah, and

Marianne Fons 

I think that I think that I mean, my daughter Mary is always been good at asking hard questions, and she’s asked me so often, you know, why are you doing this man? What’s your purpose? Why are you writing? And you know, part of me. I’ve many reasons and I think I think everybody does things for several reasons you don’t do it for for just a single reason. But you know, I want to prove that I can do it. But ultimately I want to give people a great read. And I think the greatest compliment a friend of mine was reading a novel was by Amy Tan. And she said, I just hated to see it. And, you know, and I think that’s a greatest compliment. And I sure I’m sure anyone who’s listening who’s an avid reader, and you can relate is like, if you’re really enjoying a novel, and you know, you’ve got like 30 pages to go, you like, wait until you can be sitting in your favorite chair with your coffee, or your glass of wine or your hot chocolate or tea or whatever. And just be to savor that last part. And then to find out how the story ends, and how if the writer has brought the threads all back, tie them up, and

Frances Dowell 

there’s a quilting metaphor for you. I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver, his new book, Demon Copperhead, and I cried at the end, good, happy tears. But also, I was I didn’t want it to end because I liked being with this character demon, although some of the parts of the book are very difficult. Kingsolver just it’s such a masterly job of creating a real live human being who I was hanging out with, for a week as I read the book, and who I came to love. And so the idea that when I close the book, I he was out of my life. Yeah. It makes a great

Marianne Fons 

compliment. Compliment to these characters can be real. Yeah. Yeah.

Frances Dowell 

So okay, well, then let’s because I think so many of the people who are listening to this are their fiction lovers, and book lovers, and we’ve discussed those things. They’re also quilters and quilt lovers. What’s, what’s your quilting life like these days?

Marianne Fons 

Oh, well, I’m actually gotten back into sewing because I’m doing some fun things where I’m taking blocks, sets of blocks from the past that were never finished and kind of triaging them and making them into a quilt. So I’m, I’m having fun doing that. And I broke away from my latest. It’s there like it’s like a rescue dog only. It’s a rescue quilt. There’s, there’s that and so and then it’s part of a, you know, might be part of another project that’s kind of in the on the backburner to do that. So. So I’m having fun with that. And just doing all the things I do here in Winterset. I’m just real busy with the Iowa Quilt Museum and the Iowa theater. We’re having a Valentine gala that I with theater as a fundraiser on the fourth of February dress up and we’re showing the movie had happened one night with Clark Gable, and Claudette Colbert, which is a good movie. But you know, and just talking about my life and Winterset I’m so happy to be able to tell you we have a bookstore in Winterset now, and a wonderful gal Heather, Heather Arthur’s open brick road books, and it’s like I could practically see it from my front door. It’s just around the corner because we live right uptown. And so we’re all wanting to support her to have a bookstore in a town of you know, 6000 people. And so the first book I bought, because I think you’re gonna ask me what I was reading I bought was Hester. And Hester is and I finished reading it, and I should write a review of it. But what the author is doing is imagining Nathaniel Hawthorne and a woman that he would have known when he was a young rider that might have been the inspiration for Hester Prynne. And so of course, I know a lot about the scarlet letter and all that and, and I found the book kind of unsatisfying, I felt like it was just kind of repetitive and Hawthorne just you know, she has a she has a crummy husband, but she’s attracted now. You know, Hawthorne it’s like I get it, I get it, I get it, you know, so I guess I was and then I’ll tell you what I’m currently reading but I don’t know if this happens to you. But you know, being a writer kind of spoils reading sometimes because I I’m real picky about craft and you know, I hate the word it and when they use it I’m like Can’t you find a better word and and the head when they start talking but she had done this and he had done this and he had done this like why didn’t you start the story there if they had this is so important, why just start the story there. So So Hester from I love the cover, and I’m glad I bought in hardcover from brick road books. But ultimately, I can’t call it a favorite. But brick road books also is starting a book club. And the first book is The Nightingale by Kristen Hanna. And it’s historical fiction. And I’m just into it getting into it and I’m finding I’m being picky. I find things to pick about. But it’s an interesting story, and I’m excited to be in a book club again. And because my book club kind of went away during the pandemic, and so we’re going to meet at the bookshop, which I think is just going to be just great. I can’t wait. It’s later this month. So I need to read my book. And then also in my life and Winterset, because of my involvement with the Iowa theater, we launched in September, the Sunday Movie Club, and so once a month, on Sunday afternoon, earlier, not not like a matinee at seven, it’s like a late, I mean, not like a 7pm show. But we have, we meet at 530. And we’re screening recent Oscar winning films that are just enough out of the mainstream that we wouldn’t screen them at the Iowa theater normally, like we started with the power of the dog, and we saw parasite and Belfast, and then another round, and then a hero’s coming up. So these are, these are films that were critically acclaimed that won awards, but that our community would have to drive to Des Moines to see them if at all. And so we have a discussion afterwards. And so it’s like a book club only with movies. So we you know, we have a we have a two people up front after the movie, and we have over 50 members in the Sunday Movie Club. So I’m really kind of in a movie club and a book club

Frances Dowell 

that likes every time we talk about winter said, I think I’m going to move there. And then I remember where it is and what the weather is like, I think I’m gonna go visit one day. And now that it has a bookstore and did you send me a picture of a cafe right

Marianne Fons 

next door? There’s a coffee shop right next door. I’m not saying I’m the landlord of it.

When are they going to elect you, Mayor of?

Marianne Fons 

Well, I was Citizen of the Year for last year. Yeah, I was the name this guy got the plaque to prove it wasn’t a picture of the plaque. That’s yeah, but the funny thing about the plaque was when they get I wasn’t I didn’t go to the event. It’s always in January and Omicron was out there. And I didn’t want to be in a room full of 300 people. So I did not go and the plaque was delivered to me and it had a typo in it.

Frances Dowell 

And, and for you, it’s but I have to tell you, Marianne, whenever I send you an email, at some point, I just have to let it go. I’m like, she’s gonna need it. I’m not a comma splice. I’m gonna comma splices, but I punctuated this someplace in here. And she’s gonna notice it.

Marianne Fons 

I never I never would I think I think everybody’s emails that I get are just great. But it wasn’t exactly a typo was like a, an extra space. And so I brought it, I’m like, I can’t have it like this. You know, I mean, I care about this plaque so much that I don’t want it to have a typo in it. And so I brought it to the attention of the chamber, and it turned out all the awards. That was part of the boilerplate, kind of and so they redid all of them. Oh, wow. Because I mean, it’s important to have it, you know, yeah, right. Yeah. Yeah.

Frances Dowell 

So yeah, I love that though. Of course. Of course, you you would be the one who noticed it and said you will correct this. We will have a bathroom. I bet desk vice versa. school tomorrow. I

Marianne Fons 

was really nice about it, though. I said, you know, it’s such an honor. It really is.

Frances Dowell 

It’s important, you know, keep it on display. Yeah. Yeah. No, well, congratulations. I’m not surprised because you’ve done so much in that town. And, and there’s so much to see, I really want to come to the quilt. And

Marianne Fons 

now that we’re now that the vaccinations and now the pandemic, we can handle it all. And I finally had COVID After two and a half years Mark and I had COVID got was pretty mild. Got through that. And so you know, I like to think that if I can, if I can, if I can make a really good book if Winterset can be good enough to get published and be popular. And do what the Bridges of Madison County did for Madison County. I will be citizen of the Forever citizen of the of the you know, yes. If they don’t run me out of town because of all the Afghan? Yeah, the scandal. Yeah,

Frances Dowell 

all right. Tell us I did want I did want to hear what you’re telling us some of the books that you’ve read. And by the way, as a writer, I have the same issues. My book club hates me because I’m like, I just did not believe that that character would have done that. I just and they’re just us enjoy the book. Everyone else loved it. I’m like, Yeah,

Marianne Fons 

I know. I know. I’m there as I reading this Nightingale thinking about the book club I’m like Marian when that club when you go there you got to keep your mouth shut and not ruin this for people that aren’t picky like you and not trying to write and I just I’m gonna I’ve just got to sit on my hands and zip my lip and just because I want to I don’t want to be kicked out of the book club. I want to be well,

Frances Dowell 

they will say no more Marianne Fons? Because that’s how I feel like she doesn’t like anything. No, and I have I have learned to do that as well. But yeah, there was a period of like, my editor would never let me get away with that. Which is so obnoxious. Yeah, yeah. brands asleep. Yes. favorite books of all time?

Marianne Fons 

Well, you know, I participated in QuickBooks patchwork and prose and I did. I did Frankenstein, and the scarlet letter and life after life Kate Atkinson. I love that book. And I also bel canto I haven’t I mean Kanto by and passionate to me is a perfect novel.

Frances Dowell 

That’s one of my favorites, and I want to reread that. And I don’t reread a lot now because I haven’t read but I remember just the deep pleasure of reading that book.

Marianne Fons 

That was it was great and then never got made into the movie it should have been made into would be so great. But, you know, I loved the book, The Art of Racing in the Rain That was told from the point of view of the dog. I thought this sounds so stupid and then I just I loved it so much. I read it a second time. I’m a big fan of the Shipping News is one of the books that I read and then reread because it was so terrific. Those are among my favorites. And I do love the great believers and by Rebecca mkhaya and I’m looking forward as you are to her next book is hard act to follow but she’s a marvelous writer. So those are those are a few that sprang to my mind I loved reading gone with a when I read that more in a quest To Kill a Mockingbird is everyone’s favorite but it’s perfect.

Frances Dowell 

Yeah, I love it you I have never read the Shipping News and I don’t know why how that got away from me but so it’s it’s on the list of books I missed that I want to that I want to read. There’s so many there’s so many more out there to read.

Marianne Fons 

There’s a there’s a book that that probably no one you or anyone has ever heard of. Precious bein by Mary Webb find it it’s it’s a love story set in in England. Such a love story. Precious bein. Who wrote it? Mary Webb.

Frances Dowell 

Mary Webb. Okay. writing that down? Yeah, well, yeah, I have never

Marianne Fons 

heard of it. Yeah. It’s tissue was just obscure, obscure, obscure, I don’t know how ever came across it. And then for nonfiction, no time on my hands by Grace Schneider. And we sell that to the Iowa Quilt Museum. It’s a memoir. Many of the scenes of the play The quilters were drawn from that. And I mean, it’s everyone. It’s like, it’s, you know, growing up on the prairie, in a, you know, in Nebraska, every American should should read that dress. And I made the Petit point basket quilt, you know, with 87,000 pieces. And so her life was just, it’s just a very interesting, interesting story of America.

Frances Dowell 

Yeah, I agree. And we have a quote, the quote fiction has a Facebook group called the quote fiction club. And we read that together a couple of years ago. And it was just a deeply interesting book. Yeah, so I share your love of that, and your recommendation, so much to read. And I know that you and I could just keep chatting. And but we should probably wrap up, we’ll go back to their lives. But thank you so much, thank you so much for giving me permission to read the story, which I absolutely enjoyed. Great. And you should go back and reread it and see that

Marianne Fons 

I’m gonna listen to you read it. And make a note to send you an email to get a date of when you’re going to come to intersect and visit so. So that, you know, that’s what I did the happiness challenge with the New York Times last week, and part of it and I did pretty well. So but you know, it’s like you make a social plan, not like, oh, we should Oh, I should come to winter. So we should get together we say, well, let’s let’s let’s get together for dinner this particular time, get it on the calendar. So I’m gonna, I’m gonna write you a note about that and see if you can actually you know, and you can stay here we got a guest room at the back end with its own bathroom in there. It’s just feel comfortable. And that would be great.

Frances Dowell 

That sounds wonderful. Send the email or when they get the invitation for summer. Yeah, I will figure out a way and Clifton and my husband will pack his cameras because I’m sure he would love to go out and about and explore and, but I think I interviewed you

Marianne Fons 

know, the airing of the quilts and the the I will quote festival happens in Winterset, the first weekend in June. And it’s a wonderful time there quilts all over the whole community. Ricky Tims is going to be here, teaching at the Iowa theater. So other other national teachers and it’s a it’s a great and we’ll have a one artist show of Ricky Tim’s work at the local museum at that time. So everybody, kind of hearing

Frances Dowell 

everybody, let’s all go, oh, go. I think that sounds wonderful. And I have written that down. So let’s make that happen. And I hope that we will see your books and bookstores soon. Someday, one day, one day it’s going to happen and I’m excited And I will certainly talk about them here on the QlikView podcast. Marianne, thank you so much for your time and for for everything. It’s just been so much fun as always talking anytime

Marianne Fons 

anytime, Francis and best wishes to all your listeners.

Frances Dowell 

Yeah, they’re the I love the quote fiction community were the best authors and readers man. They’re the best. All right, thanks. Okay, bye

Marianne Fons 

bye.

Frances Dowell 

And now I’m gonna finish here.

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