4 min

Delta dawn

Southern light shines on stunning debut

Credit: Paula Wilson

I first met Marnie Woodrow two years ago at a reading, and her words were as wonderfully sensory- and detail-driven then as they are in her new, first novel, Spelling Mississippi.

Back then she looked bone-weary exhausted, as do all of the hardest working emerging writers. Under her ice-blue eyes hung dark circles, her salt-and-pepper hair was overgrown and hanging in her face. She moved in an oddly gothic manner, with the weight of the world, it seemed to me – as if Wuthering Heights had legs, I told myself.

But my, how things have changed. The woman who once wrote a regular column Xtra now walks with a lighter step and appears to be enjoying some degree of accomplishment. In fact, Woodrow herself comments wryly on the lack of doom-and-gloom, which figured in earlier work.

“There’s not as much death as usual here,” she says. “I didn’t have as high a body count, which is good.”

Spelling Mississippi is very much alive and well, and on its way to becoming a hit. And good for Woodrow. It has been 11 years since the publication of her first collection of short stories, Why We Close Our Eyes When We Kiss, and not long after that, her second collection, In The Spice House, hit stores. Over the years she’s worked for pay, published fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and played literary leapfrog from small to medium and now, to a large sized press.

With so much industry fervour these days, pitting small press against big, I ask Woodrow about her experiences of both. “Super small,” is how she describes her first collection. “A one-woman operation, which was lovely.” The next book was with a mid-sized house, but later bought up by McClelland And Stewart.

Now, ironically, with publishing giant Knopf pushing her as one of the “new faces of fiction” (look for that reading event in May), Woodrow has found the intimacy and magical sense of team-creation that is often rumoured to be the sole purview of smaller houses. “People have these ideas that big publishers are bad,” says Woodrow. “How are they bad? Because you’re going to reach more readers than otherwise? That’s the whole point of being a storyteller. Not so you can have world domination but so you can reach as many people as you’d like.

“Small presses don’t have the budget but I bet they wish they could.”

What about barriers to publishing, though? What about the role of literary agents? “I think people are too obsessed with agents,” says Woodrow. “I think of myself as being in my 12th or 13th year of apprenticeship as a writer. My whole life will be about trying to hit some mark that changes every time.

“And people are too obsessed with the trappings of success. The whole point is to enjoy what you’re doing and to escape, to entertain.” Of course, Woodrow is quick to acknowledge that without an agent, Knopf would never have given her novel a chance. “It just doesn’t happen. It’s as hard to get an agent as it is to get a publisher.

“But all the agenting in the world cannot help you if you’re not ready to publish and some people don’t want to hear that. There’s a vibe out there that says, [the manuscript] is a diamond in the rough and that’s how it should stay. There’s no fixing.”

It took over four years to complete Spelling Mississippi. And just months before it finally gelled, Woodrow had grown so frustrated that she was close to giving up. She doesn’t write every day, or structure her writing time. In fact, she describes herself as “the queen of haphazard.” She says, “Half the time I spent beating myself up because I couldn’t just get it [the draft] out.”

She was experimenting, and finally learned how to trust and respect the process.

“Eight years from now the next book might come out. I have no idea. But what I mean by respecting the process is that you could literally become psychotic with the competitive energy that’s going around – being concerned with who’s getting what advance, agents, foreign rights – it’s crazy. It’s not the cool way to be but I work in long bursts and then do nothing.”

Spelling Mississippi, a sensual tale set in New Orleans, is, in the author’s own words, “a love story.” Its central characters, Cleo and Madeline, are intimates and the most significant phantom haunting the novel is sex.

So how does Woodrow feel about the moniker “lesbian writer,” which seems to plague or please so many, even today? “Madeline bridles when called a lesbian,” Woodrow says. “She doesn’t like that. She says, ‘I am nothing in particular.’ That is my view. We would all be a lot healthier if we were just nothing in particular once in a while, if we could relax with the ambiguous pockets that we keep hitting throughout our lives.

“If we’re honest with ourselves we hit them all the time, even if it only lasts for an afternoon.”

Identity politics aside, there is an unmistakable commentary on marriage within Spelling Mississippi. “People have this idea about heterosexual marriage,” Woodrow says, “that it guarantees something, when it guarantees nothing.

“Gay marriage is prickly for all of us, within the community and outside of it. There are people who don’t want us to marry, which makes us want to, just out of sheer will. You change throughout your life and sometimes marriage isn’t ideal because it doesn’t necessarily allow for that [change].”

I wonder if Woodrow always felt this way. She nods. “As a child I imagined a husband and three kids. And I killed them off one by one.” She laughs. “By the age of four they were all dead. I could move on to women. I moved on to Mrs Beasley. Oh yeah, we dated for ages.”

So, we’re back to love and death. Perhaps there is still a certain gothic echo following this author. But then again, perhaps not. As if reading my mind, Woodrow suddenly gestures across the table to a copy of Spelling Mississippi. “There are no vampires here,” she says smiling. “They have their own novels.”

* Elizabeth Ruth’s debut novel, Ten Good Seconds Of Silence, is a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Of Canada Fiction Prize; winners are announced this week.