Interview with Mary Volmer

I met Mary last year when I attended “Bridging: A One Day Writing Retreat with Keynote Speaker Cherrie Moraga”, which was Mary’s brainchild. Working with Hedgebrook she put on a wonderful full day of positive writing experiences for many women.  Meeting Mary was instant friendship! She is full of energy and motivation and I love being around her because it rubs off.


Mary Volmer is the author of two novels: Crown of Dust (Soho Press, 2010) and Reliance, Illinois (Soho Press, 2016)She had been Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar to Wales and has been awarded scholarships and residencies at Saint Mary’s College (CA), Hedgebrook and a Vermont Studio Center. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in The Farallon ReviewMutha Magazine, Women’s Basketball Magazine and Fiction Writers ReviewShe teaches at Saint Mary’s College (CA).

 Your books, Crown of Dust and Reliance Illinois, explore the history of strong women. How did you come to be interested in these two topics: Women in the gold rush era and women suffragettes?

I love the term “strong women!” I imagine the athletes I grew up with on the basketball, court. Tall, muscular, swaggering. In fiction I think the term means something else. By “strong women” we mean complicated and fully conceived characters who are not simply pawns, but actors in a story. Actors in their own story. Women with opinions and passions. Women who assume roles that don’t merely compliment men, but influence a community. Outcasts who don’t (or can’t) embrace the functions they’re meant to fill. Women who, in an effort to survive, discover their strength. Women who wish to exert their will and who find ways of doing so, not always with noble intentions or happy ends. I’m drawn to these personalities, in fiction and in history. There are women like this in every historical period, really. I happened to look first at the Gold Rush and then to Reconstruction era suffragists. 

What influenced the way you tell a story?

 The story tells me how to tell the story. I don’t mean to be cryptic. I only mean that writing, for me, is a process of both clarifying and discarding my intentions as the real story emerges. When I began the first two books, what I had was not a story at all, but a scenario, a few characters and a voice in my head. The story emerged out of these things, and from research and reading. I use outlines, but I rewrite them constantly. The hardest part, for me, is to be patient and receptive. I’m learning to recognize and translate the story as it emerges rather than trying to control it. Writing is finding a balance, between control and discovery.  

I’ve had wonderful and generous mentors, many of whom are now my colleagues at Saint Mary’s College (CA). If I try to list them all, I’ll leave someone out and feel terrible. I will mention Patricia Duncker, who I met at the University of Wales, and who has remained a constant support and inspiration. Her advice, and it is good advice: keep going.  

How do you approach the art of writing? Any tips for other writers?

I prefer a scheduled day. Get the kiddo to school. Read and write in the morning. Go for a run. Read, edit and teach in the afternoon. That’s ideal, but I’ve learned to be flexible and forgiving of myself and the universe when the day (or week or month) does not go as planned.  

The best advice I can give writers is to persist, if you must. I’ve tried to quit writing, but I failed. I’m compelled to put words on a page and if this describes you, too, then keep going. You don’t have to write a novel to be writer. You don’t have to publish a novel to be a writer. You only need to write. The practice is hard, often frustrating, sometimes demoralizing. But writing also allows you to inhabit the world with a constant sense of curiosity and awe. This is true for all storytellers, essayists, and poets, regardless of aesthetic or genre. Mary Zimmerman says, “Through storytelling we cultivate empathy.” I can think of no more noble and necessary calling at this trying time.

What do you read for pleasure?

I read everything: biography, poetry, history, SciFi, historical fiction, mysteries… I’m currently reading The Book of Joy, a conversation between the Dalai Lama and the Reverend Desmond Tutu, which I recommend. I’m living in the U.K. for the next few months, and have rediscovered Patricia Duncker, Rose Tremain, Rebecca West and Colm Toibin (who’s Irish). Elizabeth Gaskell, William Trevor and Jeanette Winterson are stacked on my desk. Before I left the U.S. I picked up Susan Sherman’s new book, If You Are There, about Marie Currie. It’s very good. And I return again and again to Elizabeth Strout, Richard Bausch, Ursula Le Guin, Daniel Woodrell, James Baldwin, Karen Joy Fowler, Wallace Stegner and Willa Cather.  

What inspired you to start writing? How long have you been writing? What about your latest book/story?

Reading inspired me and still does. I’ve always loved to read and my mom is a big reader, too. I remember nights after dinner, laying across her bed, and watching her read. She’d be entirely absorbed and absent from the room. Her body was there, warm, inviting, but there was this transfixed look on her face, an intensity, a joy. Watching her read like that was one of the few times I didn’t mind being ignored. Not that she ignore me much. But we lived in a busy house, and books seemed to open up a space of her own inside her head. I knew enough to leave her alone there.  

I started writing in high school, mostly terrible poems and “portraits” which were intense little descriptions of strangers, no more than a paragraph or two long. But no one ever saw these and I didn’t call myself a writer until long after I’d finished my first novel in my early twenties. 

I’m not sure why. I was an athlete for years, and that identity felt legitimate in ways writing did not, if only because of the uniform. You walk around in your sweats, or toting the gym bag and everyone knows what you are. You can be on the bench (which I was in college) but if you go to practice every day and wear the uniform, no one ever questions your title. No one asks you to prove or justify your claim. They don’t say, “You’re writer? And what have you published?” Which is an awkward question, even now with two books under my belt. 

Right now, I’m working on two novels, both contemporary. One is about an unlikely and rather remarkable friendship. The other is a novel about female athletes. It’s odd for me to work on two at once, but the two stories seem to compliment and speak to one another.   

Any upcoming events? 

The paperback of Reliance, Illinois comes out in April in the U.S. and U.K. I’m living in the U.K. until August. We’ll have some kind of paperback release party here, but I’m not sure when. Check out my calendar page for updates. 

Find out more by checking out Mary’s website and twitter and FB page., @maryvolmer (twitter),