Hi Monica! Can you tell us a bit about how the idea for The One in a Million Boy came together? And, from there, what was the initial process of writing the novel?
It’s so hard to speak about process because so much of it happens outside the conscious mind. Ona, my 104-year-old Lithuanian lady, is likely an oddball combo of my childhood landlady (who was scary and forbidding) and my dear friend Mary Berry, who was still driving at age 98 and so spirited she made me feel like an old mule. Often I begin with an image, and in this case it was a bereaved parent (a mother, in my first iteration) arriving at the door of this old woman. That was all I had. It amazes me how much can come from almost nothing if you just stay with the creative impulse.
Why does ‘The Boy’ remain unnamed throughout the novel?
It’s funny that nobody – not one person – has mentioned that fact. He didn’t have a name at first because I couldn’t pin him to a name. Then I realized I couldn’t pin him to a name because he is a presence, not an actual person, and to name him was to give him a corporeal quality that seemed wrong. He does, in fact, have a name. But only I, my husband, and my oldest sister know what it is. She named him.
The One in a Million Boy has both a physical and psychological ‘road trip’ at the core of the story – did you have an itinerary from the start or did you go on the journey with your characters while writing?
Who doesn’t love a road trip? Ahhh, that sense of beginning, that sense of not-knowing, that sense of moving toward! I love the idea of a “psychological road trip,” because of course all these characters are both going and being taken somewhere so different from the place they’re in when we first meet them. The actual road trip came when it came. Ona wanted something, and the only way I could give it to her was get her into a car.
What were your main influences surrounding Ona’s unique personality and life story? How did her character form in your mind?
Ever since I was a kid I have loved old ladies. My first job out of college was in an old folks’ home where the ladies fawned over me in a way I found comforting and comical. One of my best friends was a very old woman who died at age 98. I also loved researching the aged for this novel. “Supercentenarians” – 110 plus – are everywhere, it turns out, and some of them are still mowing their own lawns. I’m not kidding.
Why does birds’ song and music play an important part in this novel.
Writers’ obsessions work their way into every book. You can find birds, singing, at least one cat, and a reference to sports in almost all of my books.
What kind of writer are you? How do you set about writing a novel?
I am a pathologically disciplined writer. One of my favorite quotes about inspiration is from Tom Robbins: “I’m at my desk at 9am every day. That way, if the Muse decides to pay a visit, I’ll be there to answer the door.” That’s what kind of writer I am; waiting for inspiration is a losing game. If you write every day, eventually you get a novel out of it. It’s that simple, and that hard.
What would be your typical day as a writer?
I have a separate studio building in my backyard in Portland, Maine. It’s small – 9 x 11 feet – but efficiently laid out and filled with talismans, favorite books, works in progress. It’s usually tidy. It’s heated for the cold Maine winter. It has a phone that is usually off. My husband built it for me, the best gift ever.
‘The Boy’ had a dream – one that was rather difficult to accomplish – whereas Ona has lived her life day by day, until she meets ‘The Boy’. Which method do you aim to live by? Which would you encourage your readers to aspire to?
Hmm. What a provocative question. I’m not an “in the present moment” person though I try and try and try. I’m an inveterate worrier. But I’m not a regretter, generally speaking, so that’s good. I believe in endless second chances for myself and everybody else.
What is your dream holiday/travel destination?
I’ve never been a big traveller, but I’m a hopeless Francophile. I love southwestern France where they speak hardly any English. The one time I went there – with my husband, oldest sister, and a friend – we travelled by houseboat on the Lot River. Just the four of us with my husband at the helm (he’s an excellent boatsman), going through a series of locks that we had to open and close by hand. However, the week we were there, the region suffered their worst flood in fifty years. We tied up for five days, the river unnavigable, and rode bikes to all the little villages. We’d ask every day at the bakery for the weather report and the baker couldn’t bear to tell us. At that point we were “les americains” for whom they felt personally responsible.
What would be your ideal day?
My ideal day: a good book, a long couch, a tall coffee, and a raging blizzard outside the window. Isn’t that what any reader would say?
Did you always want to write?
I don’t remember ever not writing. At age four, I wrote letters to my sister, who was away at college. That was just the beginning.
Who are your favourite authors?
I have many, many, MANY favourite authors, beginning with George Eliot, whose Middlemarch is my most reread novel. Other favorite books are The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, anything by American writer Andrea Barrett. My fave Dickens is Bleak House. Every January I read a classic for the first time. This year it will be Vanity Fair.
Do you write to a specific audience?
If you mean my cat, Minnie, who stares at the keyboard while I type, then yes. Otherwise, I try to write a book that I myself would love to read.
How did you find (and perfect) your style of writing?
I have not found that yet. Each book is different, each calls for a slightly different set of skills, each book begins with the GREAT BLANK that is daunting and thrilling.
Are there any people or authors who particularly inspire/initially inspired you to write?
My sister Anne was my high school English teacher, an exacting, old-school grammarian who did not suffer errors but was free with praise at the same time. I owe her so much. She is still one of my first readers. I dedicated my first novel to her. She is more than a mentor; she took care of her three baby sisters when our father died, and again when our mother died. She is an angel. The best human on the planet.
Does a book normally end up as you expected it to at the start of the process or does it change?
If only! Hah! The answer is never. NEVER NEVER NEVER. And even when the book finally does “end up” the way it ends up, the finished product isn’t anything close to the perfection I hoped for at the outset. But hope springs eternal, and I keep trying to get better.
If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?
I think I’d be in the performing arts in some way.
Why ‘The One in a Million Boy’ as a title?
That wasn’t my original title. My publishers came up with it and at first I hated it but now I love it. I also liked my original, which was The Wakening World.