Interview with Mark Wiederanders

I met Mark at the Sierra Writers conference and loved his book! I have a special place in my heart for Robert Louis Stevenson because “I have a little shadow….” was the first poem I ever memorized…first grade. I still can recite it to this day. 

Mark Wiederanders’ first novel, Stevenson’s Treasure, was a finalist in the Eric Hoffer Book Awards. His screenplay about William Shakespeare, “Taming Judith” was a finalist in the Academy of Motion Pictures’ writing competition and optioned by a film company. Mark earned writer’s residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, Martha’s Vineyard Writers’ Residency, and New York Mills. A psychologist who studied the criminally insane, he lives with his wife near Sacramento and enjoys skiing, golf, and family.

What inspired you to start writing?

A grandmother on my mother’s side and a grandfather on Dad’s side were fine storytellers. Grandma passed along stories of Comanche raids on her Texas farmhouse when her parents were alive, and Grandpa told how his father survived battles and starvation in the Civil War. I also loved cartoons and animation. At age nine I studied “How to Draw” books, sketched characters and began creating stories as flip books. In the fifth grade I started writing stories, and won a newspaper contest with a submission that my mother forced me to finish before I could go swimming. After a long detour into psychology, I got serious about writing fiction twenty years ago, as a nightly escape from my day job. As for my latest book, I’ve been working on it for three years and it’s just about ready to submit.

What influenced the way you tell a story?

My storyteller grandparents’ interest was simply to entertain me – to tell a good yarn and see if they could hold my interest, raise my eyebrows or hair. I have always loved the storytelling-kind of writers – Pat Conroy comes to mind in recent times – rather than overly literary or experimental novelists.

How do you approach the art of writing?

First thing each day: free-form meditative writing, what Julia Cameron calls “morning pages” in The Artist’s Way. Then I spend an hour or two in focused writing, such as writing a new scene for a novel. I do this after developing what Sands Hall calls a scene plan (in Tools of the Writer’s Craft) to pinpoint the plot purpose, characters, their goals, setting, etc. Then I go for a walk, a workout at the gym, or to the golf course to clear my head. I spend an hour or so editing at nights. Getting the storyline and characters right is an exacting process involving both left and right brain. I have a comfortable home office with a window looking out on a tropical garden, but after a few hours of writing I often move to a coffee shop. Each year, I try to do at least one two-week writing residency away from home. There’s something about moving one’s setting that tends to move one’s plots!

What do you read for pleasure?

My pleasure reading is eclectic. I like to browse bookstores, especially independent ones where owners are voracious readers who display the best written books, rather than the best-promoted books that get top billing in chain bookstores. Recently in popular fiction I’ve liked Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, Stephen King’s time travel/historical fiction 1963, and in nonfiction, Erik Larson’s Dead Wake about the sinking of the Lusitania. If there’s a common thread it is good storytelling, plus fearlessness in presenting characters so that they aren’t always nice.

For growth I browse biography and history sections because I am always looking out for the subject of a new historical novel. My latest recommend is The Little Book, by Selden Edwards. At a recent lunch with the author, he described working on that first novel for thirty years before he thought it was ready to submit! Then, it quickly sold it for a deserved six-figure advance. It is entertaining, well written, crosses genres (time travel, historical fiction, thriller) and its success teaches writers a lot about patience and craft.

My favorite author is a tie between Ernest Hemingway and William Shakespeare. Hemingway because of his uncanny ability to be unsettling with words and emotions – he tells a good story and surprises us with tenderness in the midst of harsh discoveries. Farewell to Arms is possibly the best historical romance ever written. Shakespeare’s plots and characters are timeless for a reason – they shock, please, outrage and enthrall persons of all ages and tastes, if presented well onstage (or by an engaging teacher for those first reading him).

I really enjoyed your book on Robert Louis Stevenson. It was very apparent you did a ton of research and tried to make the book close to factual, yet you blended it into a story that read smooth and was captivating. Tell my readers a bit about the process you went through in writing this book. AND…are you working on another book of the same type?

I discovered the story during a visit to my son’s house in the hills above the Carmel Valley. I read in a guidebook that in 1879 “Louis” Stevenson collapsed just above the house, and would have died were it not for two goat ranchers who took the comatose traveler to their cabin and nursed him to health. What was the young, as-yet unknown writer with lung problems doing in these rugged hills so far from Scotland? I learned that Louis’s collapse was one of several near-fatal setbacks during his year-long quest to make an American, Fanny Osbourne, his wife despite the facts that she was already married, had children and was ten years his senior. Fanny, a fiercely protective mother, faced the realities of keeping her children fed while somehow ending a marriage to a domineering and philandering husband.  Both Louis and Fanny inspired me because they risked everything, and succeeded beyond their wildest imaginations.

I began looking for and reading original sources, especially the hundreds of RLS’s personal letters that Yale University has archived, memoirs about the two written by family and friends, and Fanny’s artwork. Especially helpful was the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in St. Helena, CA. After vetting me as a scholar, they gave access to personal artifacts including clothes, sketches, scrapbooks, handwritten notes, train tickets and the like that gave me insight into personalities. For example, Fanny wrote in a neat, cramped, easily readable cursive while Louis scrawled in big, looping, sometimes illegible strokes with any pen or pencil at hand, and he doodled cartoons on his letters! I then travelled to key settings including Monterey, San Francisco, Calistoga, Edinburgh, and the Scottish Highlands cottage where RLS drafted Treasure Island. My wife and I arranged to spend a weekend in the graceful Edinburgh home where Louis grew up. Then we spent a week in the Highlands cottage where my book ends. In both places I felt RLS and his loved ones in a deep emotional way which, I am certain, somehow got onto the pages of my book.

While doing research, I repeatedly roughed out and revised the storyline, agenda of each character within it, and developed a detailed biography of each character. For inspiration I arranged objects, photos, sketches, and historical letters over my desk while I worked. This may go back to my interest in movies and cartoons, but in my mind I like to be able to see the scenes I am writing as if watching a play or movie. Finally, I did lots of rewriting and work-shopping chapters with critique buddies.

Currently I’m finishing a book about Jack London and his second wife, Charmian Kittredge that has some parallels to the first book, even though the writers were very different kinds of persons. Interestingly, RLS was one of Jack’s favorite writers whom he often referred to and even mimicked in his own writing about a generation later. Both men had loving but at the time scandalous relationships, and sadly, both died in their forties.

Any upcoming events?

I’ll be presenting a workshop later in the summer at the Historical Writers of America conference in Santa Fe, “Worth a Thousand Words: Using Images of the Past to Improve Historical Fiction.”

Final words of wisdom? 

Write about topics or persons that truly interest you, take classes and workshops to improve your craft, keep writing, and be patient!

Mark’s Website:

 Thank you Mark. I look forward to reading the Jack London and Chairman Kittredge book.