The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Mary E Martin

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Mary E Martin

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Summary: The novel is about questions. Like myths and folklore, the best stories enchant us with their simplicity on one level and, on others, with their complexity. This is a tale of a very great artist's growth to the next stage of his creative and personal life. But at the same time, there are many other stories within The Drawing Lesson and each character's own story is woven into the fabric of Alexander's life. We see them from myriad angles, like looking through a crystal. The best stories in The Drawing Lesson are those which give us questions to ponder.

Magical light creates stunning visions in Alexander's landscape paintings. His most recent painting, The Hay Wagon, is a marvelous, moonlit scene. An old-fashioned hay wagon, dominating the foreground, is suffused with a beautiful, unearthly glow. At the pinnacle of his career, this artist is about to lose his muse. Not everyone appreciates his work. Rinaldo, a conceptual artist, mocks Alexander's bourgeois love of beauty. His winning of the Turner Prize for contemporary art proves that the universe is chaotic and absurd. When Alexander does win, Rinaldo is determined to undermine, humiliate and ultimately destroy his rival. He defaces The Hay Wagon by painting on it, This is not a bomb.

Alexander brushes off the attack, but soon he has a frightening vision of misshapen, human-like creatures. These trolls start appearing in his art, and he is beset by questions. Who are these ugly beings? Has he lost both his light and his art?

The creatures lead Alexander to journey from London to Venice and from Toronto to New York as he seeks to understand their meaning. He meets many people, each with a story to tell. Meanwhile, Rinaldo waits in New York City, intent on settling the score. But the real journey is within Alexander. Only by saving his tormentor not once, but twice, does he regain his artistic vision.

Date: 8 November 2010
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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The Drawing Lesson is the first book in Mary E Martin's Trilogy of Remembrance. We thoroughly enjoyed the book and took the opportunity to ask Mary some questions.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Mary E Martin: I see an individual who likes to look beyond the surface of life and search through various layers of meaning. Because the pace of daily life can certainly be enervating, he or she is refreshed by moments of quiet reflection. We are all relentlessly prodded by productivity gurus to maximize our efficient use of time. And so, how can we do anything but skim the surface of life. What about time to reflect?

But wait a moment! This reader also wants to be entertained. He or she demands a great story with depth for reflection. I hope the reader will, in the weeks and months to come think back to something in The Drawing Lesson and say, This person I've just met in real life reminds me of a character in that novel like Rinaldo or Peter or Daphne. The reader is someone who craves real meat in a great plot.

  • BB: What inspired you to write the Remembrance trilogy?

MM: The genesis of the Remembrance Trilogy occurred many years ago, before my first novel, Conduct in Question, the first in The Osgoode Trilogy was published. A writer friend/mentor of mine challenged me to write something other than a mystery novel. And so, I tried to write a romance, with little success. I had a man and woman meet while travelling on the Orient Express to Venice. After thirty pages, I was getting bored. I knew enough to say that if the writer is bored, heaven help the reader!

At that moment in time, I envisioned a mysterious character who pretty much appeared in the room in which I was writing. At once, I knew he was the protagonist for the book. It took a long time to get to know him, but after innumerable character sketches and other jottings, he became Alexander Wainwright, Britain's finest landscape artist. He would be the main character around which the next trilogy would be built. So, I suppose it was Alexander, himself, who inspired the trilogy. Once I got to know him a little bit, I found he had a great deal to say.

My experience has been that the characters an author creates are a part or aspect of oneself. Consequently, the growth of Alexander — a person who believes that there is much more to this world than meets the eye — probably is my inquiring, prodding, reflective self. I present him with many questions to which I want to find answers.

  • BB: Your first books, the Osgoode Trilogy, were legal thrillers. We know that you used to be a lawyer, but what tempted you to become an author? Do you ever regret making the switch?

MM: I think, somewhere in myself, I always knew I wanted to write. In fact, in my early twenties, I did try — briefly. But I quickly learned that I had to earn money to support myself. I decided to become a lawyer because I felt that I was assured of being able to support myself fairly well in that profession. After being called to the Bar, I married, raised three children and practised law for thirty years.

Strangely enough, I began writing at what was likely the busiest time of my life. The children and the law practice demanded a great deal; however, I began my first novel by stealing time late at night or early in the morning. The progress was excruciatingly slow. On one occasion, I had to set the whole project aside for at least a year because of other demands. But when I returned to it, I found that it was still alive. The spirit behind its creation was still there. I think I likely began writing as a form of self-defence. That is, there may be numerous demands on me, but this writing is my own territory, where I can really be myself.

The law practice itself was a huge inspiration for writing. After all, people would come to my office or sometimes I would make a house call. They would tell me the stories of their lives and, most of them paid me! Later, I came to regard my law practice as my window on the world and my research into humanity, which is my real subject matter. Many fascinating characters and plotlines willingly came to my office. After years of this, I felt as if there were a burbling stew of stories within me — and so I began to write.

  • BB: The Remembrance trilogy would seem to be a complete change of approach with its background in the world of art. Are you an artist yourself? Do you have a particular interest in modern art?

MM: I was raised in a family where art was an important dimension of life. But, alas, I am not an artist, although I am a photographer with several commercial shows. I certainly studied art and artists throughout high school and university so it has become a life-long love affair with the visual image.

In The Drawing Lesson, I decided to delve into the argument between representational art and conceptual art. As part of the research, I read a very helpful biography of the artist Marcel Duchamp, grandfather of the conceptual artists, just to get a sense of that art movement.

My novel is very much about outsiders who, in fact, become the revered artists, much later. Other issues such as — must art be beautiful or harmonious — intrigued me in the writing. In terms of the art which I like, I would prefer the work that Alexander paints (representational) and I worry that conceptual art tends to leave me somewhat cold. I sometimes wonder whether art should be used for overtly political or social statements or criticism. To me, art is about the human soul and does not have a particular agenda or axe to grind.

  • BB: As I read The Drawing Lesson I sensed that you knew London well - I often found myself walking the streets with your characters. Have you lived in London? If not, how do you bring it to life so vividly?

MM: I have never lived in London, but I have visited it many times. At the age of twenty five, I did spend two weeks there by myself just wandering around. I think I must have walked just about everywhere. And, there is something about visiting a place by yourself. You are free to walk about and simply observe. The fact of being alone seems to permit me to simply absorb my surroundings. My heritage can be traced back to the UK and so, perhaps, in some other life, I have lived there! I don't particularly believe that, but it's a nice thought!

As I have walked around London (and other cities), I have always liked to carry a pad of paper with me. I like to try to express not just my surroundings in words but also my feelings, thoughts, reactions and questions.

Much of The Drawing Lesson, is set in Venice — another city which I love. I spent ten days there by myself in 2002 just wandering and taking photographs. Another city which I love is New York, another place in The Drawing Lesson. But there is something so comfortable about London which speaks to something within me which I find nowhere else. After all, if Alexander is a part or aspect of me, then the great city of London is also.

  • BB: I liked Alexander Wainwright in The Drawing Lesson, but the man who really took my attention was the art dealer, Jamie Helmsworth, who narrates the story. Is he based on any particular person or combination of people?

MM: I'm really delighted that you like James Helmsworth so much. While he is the reasonable man, he is also the sensitive' man. He views Alexander the artist, with the greatest love, respect and admiration. James knows that Alexander inhabits another world, one which he can only strive to see.

I created Jamie as my story-teller so that a reasonable man of commerce could relate the way Alex views the world. I could present some of Alex's more unusual views (and visions) of the world with James's common sense approach. That way, the reader could allow him/herself to understand and experience Alex's thoughts from Jamie's 'feet on the ground' foothold.

In fact, James is a creation of my imagination and not based on anyone in particular that I consciously know. But he is probably that person who exists in all of us and says — Now wait a minute. Is that reasonable and rational? Does that make sense? He is the lens through which we can view Alex.

When Alexander, who sees the beyond, is the protagonist, you need someone to anchor him here in reality. That is Jamie's job, which will continue throughout the trilogy. In fact, he may have a greater role to play as events unfold. It might be interesting to turn him into more of one who acts than one who simply tells the story.

When I studied law in Canada, we would of course read case law from your courts as ours is derived from the British common law. I remember one case from the UK where the standard of care in torts cases was set as the reasonable man —otherwise described in the case as the Man on the Clapham Omnibus. There sits James Helmsworth along side him.

  • BB: Your writing turns the pages very quickly. Have you had any formal training as an author?

MM: Years back I took a five day course at a college here in Toronto for writers. Otherwise, I write on my own and always have. I do not believe that one can be taught creative writing. One must learn the essential basics of spelling, grammar and syntax, but beyond that I don't think formal training works. I learned how to write by writing over a long period of time. The hardest part was learning to get my nose off the page and see the 'whole' of the work.

I do believe that a novelist must provide a great story. That means not only interesting characters, but lots of interesting things happening — all told in a very effective order to get the maximum suspense and movement.

I really like to have my characters tackle the 'big' questions in life—such as, Do we live in a random, chaotic universe, or one governed by a secret, mysterious order which we don't yet understand.

Now you will lose your readers very quickly if you have a bunch of people sitting in a café debating this. Instead, you have to create an exciting plot which demonstrates the different potential answers to those questions. The story must do this because readers, while they may want some depth of thought, certainly want some real excitement and entertainment. Consequently, I always put the story at the top of the list.

  • BB: Where and how do you write?

MM: That has changed over the years. When I first started, I wrote on a yellow legal pad at the kitchen counter. Later, once my secretary got a computer, I used it at her desk when she had gone home. At one point, my office was in the home. Sometimes, I would write at the kitchen table with the kids coming in and out. But now that the children are grown and long gone to their own places, I have my own space. I converted a spare bedroom into my den. Delightful!

  • BB: How do you relax when you're not writing?

MM: I love to travel and hope to continue that, including coming back to London in September 2011. I enjoy photography and movies. Sometimes, I review movies on my blog such as some that were shown at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. In particular, I enjoy reading but usually non-fiction. Joseph Campbell, the mythologist is one writer I particularly like as he is very helpful when it comes to considering the elements of story-making. I read Carl Jung who is great for considering what goes on in other levels of consciousness. He maintains that the sub and collective unconscious are the places where the creative spirit resides.

I don't like to read other works of fiction when I am writing, because the process seems to get muddy. Please take a look at my blog to see the kinds of things I like. If you find it interesting, please tell others who might enjoy it.

  • BB: What's next for Mary Martin?

MM: Right now, I am working on a second draft of the second novel in the Remembrance Trilogy, provisionally entitled The Fate of Pryde. As I work on this, I am also writing some blog posts in which I talk about all the issues I am confronting in this second draft. In this novel, I'm working on answers to the question — Can an individual combine the very best and the very worst of humanity all within himself? Alexander's new patron presents him with this very question.

Of course, sometimes it seems that the easy part is writing the novel. Now, more than ever, promotion is essential. But there is so much writing 'out there' and the problem for the author is building a following. Every writer needs and audience and so, if you read The Drawing Lesson and enjoy it, please tell anyone else about it.

  • BB: Thanks, Mary - we'll do that.

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