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Margaret Maron: A sense of community

The mystery writer talks about how she draws inspiration from living on her grandparents’ “two-mule tobacco farm” in North Carolina.

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Sunset over a North Carolina farm. Writer Margaret Maron sets many of her novels in the North Carolina community in which she was raised.

January 10, 2012

When Margaret Maron returned to her native North Carolina after living in Brooklyn, the landscape of her books shifted as well.

Instead of setting her mysteries on the streets of New York, Maron created a new protagonist, District Court Judge Deborah Knott, the daughter of a bootlegger who has deep roots in her family’s rural North Carolina farm.

This was familiar territory for Maron, who welcomed her return to her own family’s Johnston County, N.C., farm after years of city life.

“I love knowing that I have my grandparents’ trees and bushes and the flowers that the women in my family have planted,” she said. “North Carolina just means an awful lot to me, and I don’t know why I’m so in love with this state, but I am.”

Margaret MaronMaron is the author of more than 25 books, including 18 in the Deborah Knott series and eight featuring Sigrid Harald, a New York City Police Department detective. Her most recent work, “Three-Day Town,” brings the two protagonists together for the first time.

She has won many awards, including the 2008 North Carolina Award for Literature. In 2010, she was given an honorary doctorate by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She also is the recipient of the Edgar, Anthony, Agatha and Macavity awards for mystery writing.

She spoke with Faith & Leadership while at Duke University as the Blackburn Visiting Writer.

Q: How did you become a writer?

Well, I think I was about 9, and I found some writings that my mother had done when she was a teacher, and it looked like little stories, fairy tale things, and I asked her what it was. After I got the lecture about minding my own business and not go rummaging into trunks that I wasn’t supposed to be in, she confessed that she had wanted to write little stories for her class when she was a teacher years ago.

I was absolutely dumbfounded. I loved to read. I loved to be read to. The bookmobile would come out every month, and I’d take my stack of books, but I had never made a connection between the printed page and walking-around people.

I don’t know how I thought the words got on the page, but it never occurred to me that one’s own mother could be one of those people putting words on a page, and once I realized that that was an option, that’s all I ever wanted to do.

I wanted to be a poet, and when I discovered that it’s very, very easy to write bad poetry and very, very hard to write good poetry, I segued over into short stories, and that’s where I stayed for the next 12 years, because I never thought I could do a novel.

Absolutely did not think I could write a full-length novel. But I was eventually backed into writing a book, and having done it once, I’ve now done it 25 or 26 times.

Q: You said you were backed into writing a novel. How did that happen?

The short story market dried up. In the ’20s, ’30s, on into the ’40s and even into the ’50s and ’60s, magazines would carry five or six fiction short stories, and I was writing for the women’s magazines, too, and they just all of a sudden quit carrying short stories, because they could do articles for much cheaper.

The mystery magazines started drying up. I had a long short story that I doubled and doubled it again and got it into a novelette length, and sent it to an agent who said, Well, he liked the characters, and he liked the setting, but it was too short. If I could double it again, he thought he could sell it.

If I had tried to do it as a novel from the beginning, I would never have been able to.

Q: Describe your growing up and the community you come from, which is what you write about now.

I grew up on what I call a two-mule tobacco farm that belonged to my grandparents, and it was hard. It was pretty poor. It was a life of poverty, but we didn’t know how poor we were, because everybody else was in the same boat, and there weren’t any wealthy kids in my school. We -- all of us -- had to work in the summertime, had to work if we wanted a new coat, had to work in tobacco, pick cotton, whatever, to get it.

And I could not wait to get out of Johnston County. Could not wait. And of course there came the day when I could not wait to get back.

I stood there one spring in Brooklyn and I looked at the little patch of dirt that was not a fourth the size of a table and that was all the dirt I had to dig in, and I wanted to plant flowers. I wanted to plant trees. I just needed to get back to the dirt and the soil, I suppose, to be more poetic about it.

I really love the farm where we live. I love knowing that I have my grandparents’ trees and bushes and the flowers that the women in my family have planted. North Carolina just means an awful lot to me, and I don’t know why I’m so in love with this state, but I am.

So I made my character a district court judge so that I could send her all around North Carolina. Every area has its own conflicts, its own special interests, things that are important to it, and by letting my character move into that community for a while, to be a judge, to sit on the court, gives her and me a chance to look at the various things and the issues -- whether it’s pollution in the mountains or dirtying up our estuaries down at the coast.

Q: You also evoke North Carolina beautifully in the characters’ language -- particularly Kezzie Knott, Deborah’s father.

That is so typical, and it’s being lost. The old-timers are still using their double negatives and saying “won’t” for “wasn’t.”

I love that “won’t”: “He won’t doing nothing.”

Q: The setting of eastern North Carolina is crucial to your books, but the characters are also part of a community. Why is that important?

Well, you know, there are so many books written about dysfunctional Southern families, and I wanted to show a functional Southern family. It’s a big, sprawling family, but they’re mutually supportive, and they’re loving, and they like each other. I mean, how many Southern novels have you read in which the families are at each other’s throats? I didn’t want to do that.

My grandmother was one of 11, and yes, they had interfamily little bickerings and things like that, but they were so fond of each other, and they really loved each other.

They all stayed in the area, and that helps, too, when you’re going to the same church, when you’re going to the same community events, and your children are all going to the same school.

My son, even though he was born in New York, he wound up going to the same school that I went to as a child and had some of the same teachers that I had had, and when you have that continuity like that, I think you do have the sense of community.

Q: When you gave the commencement address at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro,  you expressed something similar to what pastors say about a sense of calling. You talked about your work as a writer and particularly the notion of sacrifice.

My husband [artist Joe Maron] and I knew that we could have time or we could have money, but we couldn’t have both, because neither of us was born into wealth. We opted for time, because money things just were not that important to us.

I mean, still in my house I have old wicker furniture and old repurposed kitchen cabinets -- people come in and they say, “Do you really want to live like this?”

We used to splurge on books and records, but I used to make a lot of my clothes. You do have to make choices as to what you’re going to have.

[In the address] it really was funny, because I said, “I’ll give you just one piece of advice: pay off your credit card every month,” and the parents just erupted in applause. It was so cute.

Q: How do you engage and cultivate the imagination in the writing process?

I think that is something innate. I don’t think this is something that can be taught. You can learn the mechanics of putting together a manuscript. You can even learn about characterization and structure and plotting, but the thing that illuminates it and sets it on fire, the imagination -- I don’t think that can be taught, frankly. I think you either have it or you don’t.

I was a lonely little kid. I didn’t have any close siblings. I used to tell myself stories. I mean, it was just what you did. I would go out to play -- and of course, in those days you could let a kid go out and play alone in the woods or at the far end of the yard and not worry about whether or not they were safe -- and I always populated whatever vacant place I was with people. The magic was I was always the heroine.

Do you tell yourself stories when you go to sleep at night? I do. You know, I don’t think that much about what’s going on in the day. I tell myself stories.

Q: How do you foster that quality?

If a child starts with that spark, you don’t tell them they’re silly when they come up and tell you something fantastical. Or you can start by telling that child a story -- I do this all the time when I’m telling my granddaughters stories. I will say things like, “And then she came to a fork in the road, and she didn’t know which way to go. Which way do you think she went?”

And the child will often just take off and tell you the rest of the story, and if they bog down and then they look to you, you’ll say, “Oh yes, that’s exactly what happened, but then, you know, instead of it being a dog with two heads, it was really a tiger that looked very hungry, and what do you think she did then?”

And again, the child will just take off with it. I’m convinced everything comes from reading, and that is what you want to encourage, because reading anything opens the mind to so much, to possibilities.