Q&A with debut author Mary Helen Specht

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Austin’s own Mary Helen Specht talks with our literary director Steph Opitz about research, being a tortoise (not a hare), and the dangers of having an agenda with her debut novel Migratory Animals. Specht’s gorgeous work about college friends who’ve found themselves 10 or so years later at various points of adulthood is equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking.

mary-helen-specht-photo1I’m going to start with an annoying question, but because this book seems so heavily researched (Nigeria, climate science, weaving, Huntington’s Disease): how long did it take to write this book? Did the finished product look similar or completely different to the first complete draft?

The novel was heavily researched. I’ve sometimes encountered the idea that writers are able to create and empathize with characters unlike themselves by pure force of will. And while the desire to understand the lives of others is certainly a prerequisite for being a fiction writer, a big part of empathy comes from being able to truly understand someone’s situation and a big part of that comes from research.

Because of this, I’ve always liked the research part of writing; research is one of the ways that, as a writer, I get to become my characters. Probably, we only get to live one life; writing fiction allows me, for a time, to embody what it’s like to be someone else born into a different context with different desires and challenges and skills. But it takes me many drafts to get this right. I spent about five years on this book.

It didn’t help that I allowed myself to be convinced initially that a memoir of my time living in Nigeria would be more marketable than a novel. I tried writing that for a while and did end up with a few essays I’m proud of, but, ultimately, I was more interested in writing about what if than what was. Then, there was the learning curve of moving from (ten years of writing and publishing) short stories to the novel form itself. In the first draft of Migratory Animals, each chapter was essentially a self-contained piece, with its own radically sharp plot arc, exhausting to read. There were also ten point-of-view characters, if you can believe it; now there are four. Slowly, I found ways to weave the various strands and characters together into something that, I hope, is smoother and more sustained. That’s a longwinded way of of saying: The final book is very different from the first draft.

When did you know it was done?

I wish I could say there was one moment when I typed the last word and collapsed on the floor with joy and relief. Or that there was only one moment when that happened. Truthfully, there were many drafts that I hoped would be the last but were not. When my agent declared the manuscript ready to send to publishing houses, I almost didn’t believe her because I was so accustomed to being wrong. I’m also a believer in the ‘art is not finished, just abandoned’ concept. Gabriel Garcia Marquez said that he never reread his books once they were published because he would find too much he wanted to revise.

My first tattoo—inked on my eighteenth birthday during a trip to Austin—was of a stylized turtle, which, randomly chosen at the time, turned out to be appropriate. I am undoubtedly the tortoise, not the hare. I revise a lot, and I make a lot of mistakes, and I learn as I go. Not a genius, certainly, just really damn stubborn.

Your time in Nigeria planted the seed for one of the story lines in the novel, but where did the rest of the crew’s story’s come from?

As with all of my fiction ideas, this novel began with a lot of what ifs. I’d left Nigeria, but what if I were a different sort of person and had stayed? What if there was an American scientist who felt she’d finally found love and a home in West Africa but wasn’t allowed to stay? During this time, I was also watching the recession ravage people, many of whom were well-educated and ambitious, people who’d always expected adult lives at least as successful as those of their parents. I was particularly drawn to the stories of people I knew who were second-generation immigrants and had been taught that graduating from a good college with a good education was all that was needed to propel themselves into the middle-class. The recession highlighted how the system is still rigged in favor of the privileged, and I tried to explore some of that through the characters of Santiago and Brandon.

Huntington’s Disease emerged as a thread in my novel when, while driving to visit my parents, I heard Charles Sabine, the former war correspondent, speak on NPR about his family’s experiences with the disease and his wrenching decision to get tested. There is no cure for HD, so getting tested for this disease is particularly fraught. I was moved by his story, and it got me thinking about how with HD, children watch a parent die slowly from horrific symptoms that they have a fifty percent chance of inheriting. It’s a twisted and magnified version of what most of us go through on some level: watching our parents age and die, knowing that, in a way, we are watching our future selves.

The character of Alyce developed from my interest and observations concerning the culture of contemporary motherhood—she struggles with connecting emotionally with her children, which is something not really viewed as permissible in our society. The child-mother bond is commonly understood as something natural and automatic, a bolt of lightning that hits every woman when she first sees her baby, though in reality this isn’t necessarily the case. So, that’s where Alyce began and, through many drafts, she took on a constellation of other characteristics that ultimately, I hope, made her feel real and independent and more than just the struggling mother.

Which character do you miss spending time with the most? 

I love all of my children, of course, but lately I’ve been missing Santiago. Particularly in earlier drafts, some of my readers found him the most challenging character to like and sympathize with (though I hope that’s not the case in the final version), but I’ve always had a soft spot for his artsy, hipster, self-destructive wit and bravado, which like most bravado, camouflages a well of pain and vulnerability. He’s also one of my favorite types of friends—cynical and brusque and judgmental and funny on the outside, loyal as a teddy bear underneath. Things are never boring when Santi is around.

What was the most important thing for you to convey with this novel? What it is about, in your words?

I almost never consider overarching messages when I’m actually writing—for me, it’s dangerous to have an agenda early on because it prevents me from following the characters where they need to go. I write to find out what I’m writing about, if that makes sense.

However, now that the novel is finished, I can step back from it and see that I was thinking a lot about place while writing Migratory Animals, both geographic home (which is so different now that most people don’t die in the same place they were born) as well as that more illusive idea of finding a home in a job or family. It turns out that this search underpins the decisions of every character in the book.

Another theme that, for me, ties the book together is friendship and how it changes over time. Friendship is apparently difficult to write about because, while most of us have friends and would say that they’re important to us, there aren’t many books that focus primarily on this relationship. I’m an only child and so that might be one reason friendship has always been important and interesting to me. My friends are also my siblings or an extended part of my family, and the characters in my novel are similarly enmeshed.

What part of the book writing process felt the scariest or most dangerous (or most vulnerable)? 

My answer is a kind of cheat, because it’s not an aspect of the writing process per se. The scariest part for me is this part—the vulnerability that comes with the book’s release into the world. Though this is my debut novel, I’ve been writing and publishing stories and essays for a decade. Despite the setbacks and frustrations and wrong turns in the writing process, I’ve become almost comfortable living and writing in the woods of uncertainty. While it always takes longer than I’d like, eventually the characters come alive and the work falls into place (or sometimes not, in which case I drag myself on to the next project). But a real live physical book comes with a different kind of attention than do stories and essays, so my past experiences haven’t prepared me for the extroverted rollercoaster that comes with interviews and readings and lectures and blog posts, good reviews and bad ones, lists you get included on and lists you don’t. That said, I’m excited and tremendously grateful to be in this position.

What’s next? 

During the editing and copy editing process for Migratory Animals, I tried to keep my imagination nimble by working on a few essays and short stories that I hope to publish this year. When the editing was over, I began the draft of a new novel—still in the playful infant stage where anything could happen. Right now it is told from the point-of-view of a young man who has become the assistant, promoter and protégé of a famous painter at the end of her career. So far the book explores how the narrator (and each of us, to a degree) must come to terms with mediocrity in the face of greatness. It’s also focused on how intimacy, resentment and power might play out in the relationship of mentor and mentee. Thanks for asking!