Lucky 13: Private Faces Author Marianne Gage’s Insights on Life, Art and Writing

Interview conducted and written by Paola K Amaras and Paul T. Kraly.

Marianne Gage is an artist, teacher and novelist. Her latest book, Private Faces is being released by Endeavour Press UK on April 17,2017.

We sat down with Marianne and chatted with her about her life, her art and her writing process. We sort of played 20 questions and her answers were so interesting, that we decided to share ten of them now and the rest when the book is released. We’ve already reviewed the book (insert Link here) and it’s a rousing good tale, so we just had to know how this writer thinks, finds her stories and shares her wisdom and worldviews.

Marianne Gage was born in Oklahoma, educated at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and came to the Bay Area in 1952, to do her graduate work at San Francisco State and California College of Arts & Crafts (now California College of the Arts). It’s also where she met her husband illustrator Ed Diffenderfer. Marianne and Ed have two grown children and three grandsons.

She was a teacher in Oakland during the 1950s, where one of her students was Huey Newton, later leader of the Black Panthers, who inspired one of her characters in Private Faces.

After teaching, Marianne worked as a portrait painter and printmaker for many years, and many of her portraits and monotypes hang in Bay Area homes. In addition to Private Faces, Marianne has two other novels, published two novels by Plain View Press, Austin, Texas: The Wind Came Running (2010) and The Putneyville Fables (2012).

So we decided to ask Marianne what inspired her, and how she came to be a writer after her years as an artist. We were delighted with her stories:

What if any literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

My husband and I went to see Thomas Wolfe’s home in Asheville, North Carolina. His room smelled musty. Eugene O’Neill’s home is 20 minutes away from us in Danville, California, but I have never been there, though I intend to go someday. Another time, as we drove around New England, we tried to see Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, in Lenox Massachusetts, but it was closed for the day. I have always wanted to visit William Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Mississippi, since when I was younger I studied Faulkner at UC Extension classes. Maybe someday!

An original painting by Marianne Gage

What is the first book that made you cry?

Little Women.

Have you ever gotten writer’s block?

Most of the time I feel that I’ll never live long enough to complete all the fiction ideas I have.

Here are the 2 times I had particularly difficult passages to write. The first was when my editor Alan Rinzler thought I should include a sex scene between the two characters who represented my real parents in The Wind Came Running. WOW! I didn’t want to go there. I put it off for quite a while; then finally did it — got them into bed. Then, in a recent short story, “A Terrible Mother”, I needed to write a scene where the young mother is murdered by her drug dealer. That didn’t come easily, but I finally got it done. It ended up being rather short, but I hope it is effective.

Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

Absolutely not, as far as fiction goes. If it’s some other kind of writing: non-fiction, scientific, etc., then emotion would play no part. But a fiction writer has to put herself in the shoes of each of her characters, and that means the ‘emotional’ shoes. You must question their motivations, good and bad, and include something about their characters to explain why they act as they do.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

Any child who listens in on an argument or fight between her parents learns that language has power. Language can hurt and wound, and language can uplift and inspire. I listened to a lot of verbal squabbling in my family, taking part myself with an older brother. Our squabbling sometimes degenerated into minor violence. I also went to the First Methodist Church three times a week, twice on Sunday and once for Wednesday night choir practice, so I was uplifted and inspired quite a bit, too. In high school, a few of my teachers encouraged me with kind words. There’s nothing like an encouraging word from a teacher.

What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?

My first novel, The Wind Came Running, was a fictional account based on my childhood up to age 13; in other words, a coming-of-age story. I owe my parents and my brothers’ heartfelt thanks for my relationships with them. As reflected in the novel, my connection with one brother was not always the most pleasant or easygoing. In addition to family members, I threw in a lot of colorful town characters, some fictional, some based on real people. The heroine Lola was directly based on a girl who worked for my dad in our drugstore. Her death in the tornado was one of the reasons I wanted to write the novel, to tell Lola’s story.

Cassie (my character), the youngest in the Fields family, hides Lola throughout her unwed pregnancy — all the way to the birth of the child and Lola’s death.

A love of animals ties together two of my novels. Running through the plot in The Wind Came Running are an abundance of bird dogs, who were my father’s and the fictional Marvin Fields’ happy avocation. My dad sold trained hunting dogs for good prices all through the depression. I remember one dog sold for $250 to a man in Georgia. That was a lot of money in those days!

In Putneyville Fables, every member of the Cherrystone family is involved with animals. The matriarch Emmeline runs the town’s animal shelter; her eldest son Cal is a veterinarian; one daughter is a bookseller but owns a rapscallion dog born to trouble. In addition, one of Cal’s young twin daughters keeps a veritable menagerie of animals. Emmeline Cherrystone’s lesbian daughter and her partner own a restless beagle, Hughie, who animates the plot when he runs away and is adopted by a black family in a nearby town. Thus we learn about Jeffrey, a nine-year-old mixed- race child who continually ping-pongs between his white and his African-American families. At the beginning of Putneyville, Jeff is almost unacknowledged by his white mother, but the beagle affects a tremendous change in the boy’s relation to the world. Another character, a beautiful heiress, owns her own Wild Animal Rehabilitation Facility in the foothills of the Rockies. She tends to injured baby bears, mountain lions, lynxes, weasels, etc. — and not long after she hires Cal to help tend these creatures, his marriage goes kaput.

Private Faces, just published as an e-book by Endeavour Press, has no animals, but it does have a lot of animal lust. The main characters are women, and all, including Natalie, the principal character, have problems with men. There is a tie-in here with Wind Came Running, in that it is somewhat autobiographical. Natalie is a portrait artist, as I am, but Natalie’s story is much more intriguing than mine.

Another link: I’m working on a collection of stories, Foolish Girls and Reckless Women, and one of the stories, “The Eye of Jealousy” takes place in New Mexico — the Southwest again — and is set in a drugstore. The setting is similar to The Wind Came Running; however, the short story is very different in tone and plot from the novel.

Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?

Any creative process is spiritual. Art is spiritual. (I had to go to Google for this, but I sometimes think of Hippocrates’ quote: Art is long, life is short. Ars longa, vita brevis is a Latin translation of an aphorism coming originally from Greek. I believe that implicitly. And what better excuse do we have for skipping the vacuuming and instead penning a little poem or painting a still-life?

How long were you a part-time writer before you became a full-time one?

Never. I had no experience with writing at all until I began to write Wind Came Running. I took a fiction-writing class at UC Berkeley Extension because I wanted to tell stories about my home town, and the class acted as a spur to get it done — except it took 5 years!

My brother Stanley Hoig, though, was a well-known historian and writer. He has written maybe 30 books on Oklahoma and/or Oklahoma Indians. He has been much-honored, is in the Oklahoma History Hall of Fame. He is now deceased, by my sister-in-law Pat Hoig in Edmond, Oklahoma tells me that Endeavour Press has been in touch with her in regard to re-publishing his books.

Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?

Every time I read a great piece of fiction by Alice Munro, Anne Tyler, Muriel Spark, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Richard Russo, I am inspired anew. Reading good fiction makes me want to read more.

How do you select the names of your characters?

That part is a lot of fun. I have many files of names, both first names and surnames. I remember being in a writing group years ago and a man asked me. “How do you think of names?” I said, “That’s the easy part!” I remember lending that same man a book on writing which had a helpful section on Point of View, and I never got it back. But I don’t want to be like one of my friends who never lent her books to anyone. She’s dead now, so I can get away with saying that.

What is your favorite childhood book?

As a child growing up in the Dust Bowl and the Depression, I wasn’t exposed much to books. There was a book in our attic which seemed to be about fairy children, and had wonderful illustrations. I’m going to stop and Google a title which has come back to me. Omigosh! I think it was Water Babies, and I’m sure I didn’t read it, just looked at the pictures. I wonder how the heck that book ended up in our attic! But I think my maternal grandmother was a reader.*

When I started school I loved the Dick and Jane books; learning to read was so exciting! Then when I was around twelve, a thoughtful teacher arranged that I belong to a mail-order library. Books were sent out from, I think, an Oklahoma City library. I enjoyed every one of these books, but I would have to be hypnotized to recall any titles. I remember one was fiction and was about bees.

A funny post-script to my early reading experiences is this: Once when our house was being re-modeled I slept in the back of the drugstore for several nights, where I discovered my dad’s porno rental business. He had some very questionable books, one with illustrations which could only have been by Aubrey Beardsley. These were certainly an eye-opener for a young girl, and gave me a new perspective on my father. He had been in WWI and served in France — was that where he developed his libidinous tastes? And how do I remember that the books were for rent? But I do.

What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

Editing my work, over and over, before it goes to an editor. It gets tedious, but it has to be done, for 3 reasons: (1) To catch mistakes in spelling, tense, chronology, etc.; (2) to find a better way of expressing a thought or describing an action — in other words, to make the writing more graceful; and (3) sometimes to shorten and edit out sections.

How long on average does it take you to write a book?

It took 5 years to write Wind Came Running, but about two each for the others. Wind had many historical aspects (the Great Depression; the Dust Bowl; the racial background of the times, Negro baseball). There was no Google then, so I made many trips to the library and did a lot of photo-copying. I also have bought, in addition to researching my books, a small library of reference works. I have a list on my website: http://mariannegage.com in case other writers are interested.

Marianne Gage’s book Private Faces was released on April 17, 2017 and will be available through Endeavour Press UK, Amazon.com and other sites. Please visit her website for more insights into her writing and her art. A review of Private Faces is available: Book Review: Private Faces by Marianne Gage

* The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby is a children’s novel by the Reverend Charles Kingsley. Written in 1862–63 as a serial for Macmillan’s Magazine, it was first published in its entirety in 1863. It was written as part satire in support of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. The book was extremely popular in England, and was a mainstay of British children’s literature for many decades, but eventually fell out of favor in part due to its prejudices (common at the time) against Irish, Jews, Americans, and the poor.

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