It took Marian Szczepanski nine years to write her newly released novel Playing St. Barbara. She says she'll probably spend another year publicizing and promoting it. "What's another year, right?" she laughs. "I've already spent nine years of my life on this book. What can another year be?"
Her debut novel, Playing St. Barbara, the story of a Depression-era woman and her three daughters, was inspired by two elements of Szczepanski's real life. The first, a family history tied to coal mines of Pennsylvania. The second, an interest in women's history. Both of her grandfathers were immigrant coal miners and she had some information about them but she knew very little about her grandmothers' lives. "I've always been interested in social history and women's history and there's nothing about the lives of women back in the coal era. I had no idea what women's lives were like back then."
A former volunteer for a domestic violence hotline, Szczepanski says she discovered that while separated by both time and distance, there were similar incidents in the lives of women in Pennsylvania during the coal era and contemporary Houston.
"It was a very profound experience hearing those women's stories [on the hotline]. I was struck by how conflicted they were. They were so scared to stay where they were and they were equally scared to try to leave. The idea of a character being in that much psychological conflict fascinated me. I really wanted to write a character like that, but at the same time I was hesitating because I didn't want to breach any confidentiality.
During her research for the Playing St. Barbara, she found similar stories in the coal era police reports she read. "I was amazed that I was reading the same sorts of reports, about police being called to homes because of conflicts and violence between husbands and wives.
"When I thought of writing about what my grandmother's life might have been like, that's when I put two and two together. I could write about a conflicted character but put her in a time and a place that was completely different from contemporary Houston."
The book has been getting rave reviews, including a nod by Nina Sankovitch of the Huffington Post, who called it "a stunning debut novel that shimmers with unforgettable characters while casting a necessary light on a dark chapter in American history."
What She Does: "I've recently started calling myself a novelist," says Szczepanski who has an MFA in fiction and has spent several years writing for magazines. "I've called myself a writer for a long time, but it wasn't until recently, with this novel being published, that I've started to call myself a novelist."
People have been responding to Szczepanski's new moniker. "If I'm on a plane or something and someone asks me what I do, I tell them I'm a novelist and I see their reaction, as if to say, 'Oh wow, you must be a magic being.' That always cracks me up.
"There's no magic to it and it's not glamorous at all. You sit in a chair at a desk and you churn out work. People have this idea that those of us who work in creative areas are just blessed by the muse and poetry just follows out of us. It doesn't happen that way for most of us, certainly not for me."
Why She Likes It: "I'm not good at anything else," she laughs. "I'm not good with numbers. My husband, who is a businessperson, looks at my sales records and just rolls his eyes. I lasted exactly one semester in an MBA program, that just wasn't where I needed to be. I'm a storyteller and I can't imagine anything else.
"Once you've created characters and put them in situations, they start doing things on their own. It's always a surprise for me, writing literary fiction, to see where my story's going, how it ends. The story takes on a shape of it's own and it's a constant series of discoveries about characters that I created. I love the satisfaction of writing a perfect sentence."
What Inspires Her: "I get a lot of my ideas from facts, from newspaper articles. I remember when the Andrea Yates story was dominating the headlines and there was one [article] that fascinated me. One of her friends was being quoted and ... she kept saying that she should have done more, that she could have done more. She sounded just haunted by this [tragedy] that she hadn't been able to stop from happening. There's the headlines of a story, but then there's the people on the sidelines of the situation that are also affected by the event and those are the people who interest me."
If Not This, Then What: "Before I wanted to be a writer, I always wanted to be an archaeologist and go around and discover things. If I couldn't do that, I would love to be an orchestra conductor. I love classical music. To me, watching the conductor provoke such huge sound all from his or her two hands, is amazing. I can't imagine anything that would be more transforming."
If Not Here, Then Where: Szczepanski and her husband lived in Switzerland for a time because of his job. "It was wonderful, but I didn't really have a big writing community there. I'm always torn between the mountains and the ocean, so maybe somewhere close to both."
What's Next: Szczepanski has a schedule filled with promotional events for Playing St. Barbara and is already at work at her next novel. "I wanted a bunch of people in this [next] book that were struggling to do good, but don't really know how to do that." An older woman married to a younger man, an older man with Alzheimer's Disease and a troubled teenager are among the characters. "I started thinking about the story and thought, 'You know, there should be a ghost in this story.' Everybody is dealing with the ghosts of their past, so why not have a real ghost?"
More Creatives for 2014 (In order of most recently published; click here for the full page).
Jonathan Blake, fashion designer Doni Langlois, interior designer Kat Denson, dancer Blame the Comic, comedian Margaret Menchaca Alvarez, artist Jacquelyne Jay Boe, dancer Rene Fernandez, painter Teresa Chapman, choreographer and dancer
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