With three novels releasing in a 12-month period, Cynthia Newberry Martin is at a real turning point in her life. She began the novels in the 1990s and at long last they’re ready for readers. But she’s already a strong presence in the writing world, thanks to a blog series she started in 2009 – How We Spend Our Days – of essays by writers on their daily lives. The guest list is huge and impressive. Everyone will find at least one of their favourite authors in there – here’s just a smattering of mine – Alexander Chee, Cheryl Strayed, Jane Smiley, Dani Shapiro.
My first question was this: how did the blog series start?
Shortly after I created my blog, which was called Catching Days after the Annie Dillard quote ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives’, I wanted to include guest posts. And I wanted them to be linked, not random. For the first 20 years of my life, I was obsessed with French, and I loved a column in French Elle magazine about days in the lives of women. So I thought, what about days in the lives of writers? I called it How We Spend Our Days, also after the quote.
I was studying with the writer Pam Houston at the time, and I asked her to kick things off. That was August of 2009. I’ve published an essay every month since then.
Dipping into a few, I find them supportive and honest about the mysterious act of creating a book from slippery thoughts and urges. What emerges is a belief in the artistic process, even when the writer themselves is uncertain where they’re going with an idea. Taken together, they’re a testament to persistence, the enduring nature of the artistic vocation and the drive to see more in the everyday.
Stop me babbling – you’ve seen a lot more of them than I have. What do you take from the essays?
Babble on, I agree! I love how the writers invite us into their lives, how they at the same time demystify and honour this thing called the writer’s life.
I think the details and obsessions mentioned go toward giving us the confidence to be who we are. And the inspiration is endless —it’s okay to not write every day, to write in the middle of the night, to think about the possibility of a baby, for writing to be out of the question.
Tell me about your most recent release, Love Like This.
Love Like This is the story of a marriage. After 22 years with children at home, Angelina has been counting on the empty house to rediscover who she is, but it turns out her husband Will has been counting on something else. Nine days into their child-free life, he announces he’s been fired and is home to stay. But Lucy is the character who steals the show, I think. She gives the novel its heart.
Why did you choose that title?
I have zero memory about where it came from. It seems to have been there from the beginning. I remember liking that the word ‘love’ could be understood as a noun or a verb – that the title might be imploring readers to love like this OR it might be describing a kind of love.
The cover is so intriguing and striking. What does it enshrine for you about the novel?
Hats off to Jessica Bell for the cover. Love Like This has four main characters, and each has a sort of animal association except for Will who is totally about the house. The pink eyes were all Jessica and brilliant. Angelina so wants to be seen. And I just love the black.
In your work, what themes or curiosities do you return to or worry over?
I’m obsessed with time to myself, as in I never have enough. I grew up one of five, and when I went away to college I requested a single room on my freshman hall. So my main characters struggle with that push-pull between the self and the other — alone vs together, leaving vs staying, here vs gone, freedom vs love. Marriage and long-term relationships put the squeeze on time to oneself and are the perfect vehicles for digging into this.
On your bio page, you describe your ‘crazy years’, when you were working as an editor on several literary magazines, studying for a postgraduate degree and participating in a writing group. Tell me more about the craziness. How long ago was it?
That was mainly 2010 and 2011. It was insane. On so many nights I sat in the corner of a dark room while the whole family watched TV or a movie. I could barely see but was trying to be there and also get my work done, editing one thing after another as fast as I could and with a packet of writing and commentary due every month. I would leave a couple of days after Christmas for residency. I missed New Year’s Eve three years in a row and my anniversary and my youngest’s birthday two years in a row.
Of course, I loved all of it, but my migraines were coming more often, and I was stress eating with no time to exercise. At the beginning of 2012, I had to start saying no.
What is less crazy about your life now?
Actually, with three books coming out in a 12-month period, it’s not less crazy now. Good point.
I’m going to leap on another intriguing line from your bio… a residency at Ragdale, a playroom, a tower and a shower of pages. Do explain.
Ragdale is a wonderful artistic space, peaceful and inspiring. A former country estate complete with prairie, just north of Chicago. The original house and barn were built around 1900. Each of the rooms has a name. The room I stayed in was called the Playroom.
Aha. Playroom with a capital P.
It had steps up into a cupola where you could look out over the grounds. I would work up there, and the work I was doing was revision—I was actually finishing Love Like This. When I was done with a page, I would wing it down the steps with a satisfying flick of the wrist.
Actually, there are so many lines in your bio that I enjoyed. This resonated personally: ‘I want to figure out how to be in the world as I am in my head.’ I always say I’m wild person trapped in a cautious one. Tell me how you’re living on the outside as loudly as you are on the inside.
Before I started writing, I was private and all closed off. Now I’m private but opening up about it. I still think lots of things I don’t say. So much happens in my head. But before, I was trapped up there, tight, guarded. With writing I’m letting the bridge down. I escape onto the page and then into the world. And the more events and interviews I do, the more I speak. It’s a process.
You have another novel coming out soon, The Art of Her Life, which tackles this idea of inner life versus outer – a character who lives more in the world of art than the here and now of family.
The Art of Her Life was the first novel I ever wrote. I started it in the late 1990s when I had a house full of children. The main character Emily needs a lot of time to herself, but there are her two children who need her and the man she loves who wants more from her. Now that I think about it, the world of art was Emily’s starting place for getting out of her head and into the world. And as the paintings and words and life of Henri Matisse swirl around her… well, I don’t want to spoil the story.
I haven’t yet given you the chance to talk about your novel Tidal Flats… let’s do that now!
Tidal Flats was actually the fourth novel I wrote, although it was the first one to be published. At the time I started it, my last child had just gone to college, and I was no longer chained to the house—whoops, I meant to say, I could travel more. I began to spend a week a month in Provincetown.
The novel turned out to be about a young couple, and the big question that spilled onto the page was whether two people who want different things from life could make marriage work. Cass wants a husband who comes home at night, but Ethan’s work takes him to Afghanistan for weeks at a time. Ethan wants children but Cass does not. How can they make it work?
You also write short stories and essays. How do you decide what deserves short treatment, and fiction treatment?
Someone asked me this question at an event a few weeks ago. The first thing I’ll say is that if I have a point, I write an essay. I had to learn this the hard way. That novel is still in a drawer.
The second thing is, I really don’t write short stories any more. The last one I tried turned into Love Like This, and I only started that as a story because I was determined not to write any more novels because they took too long, and I couldn’t seem to get them published. When I feel like all my characters have so much to say and that I can move in any direction, it’s a novel. When I feel floors and walls and ceilings, it’s a short story.
Was anyone in your family a writer or other kind of creative? How did writing start for you?
No one I know of. We were all super left-brained, except for one sister eight years younger than me. I was organised, a list-maker, good at languages. My parents encouraged me in all these activities.
The first 20 years of my life were all French all the time—I learned it, spoke it, taught it, lived it. The second 20 were practising law and raising a family. All the language and law were easy and grew my left brain three sizes. While I’m sure a certain amount of language proficiency was good for creative writing, my right brain/creative side was the size of a peanut.
When I was pregnant with child number three, my family life ate my legal career. While I’d always been a reader, for the years I stayed home with the kids, reading became a lifeline to the outside world. Fast forward six years, when child number four was two years old, and I started to have a few minutes to myself. I thought about going back to practising law. But I didn’t want to do that any more. I wanted to do what they did. I wanted to create magic. I wanted to become a writer.
That is so lovely. What magic are you making at the moment?
Temporarily nothing. All my time is going toward launching the two new books into the world. But last May, when it was time to start developmental edits on The Art of Her Life and then on Love Like This, I was two years into a new novel called The Glove Factory. I currently have a self-imposed deadline to get back to it the Tuesday after Labour Day. When I last worked on it, The Glove Factory was about a librarian turned private investigator (married and divorced three times) who returns to the Cape Cod town where she used to live — which leads her on a quest for the place of the past in the present and the need to make peace with all her past selves.
You’re launching three books in short succession, books you’ve been working on since the 1990s. That’s almost a new phase of life.
I decided I needed to celebrate big-time. I wanted to do something to support indie bookstores and spread the word about other books from indie presses. Indie publishers are great, right? For most of them it’s a labour of love, not profit, which means they have little to no funds to get the word out. So I decided I’d visit at least one bookstore in every state to talk with readers. Not just about my book but also about the book of a local author also published by an indie press. That’s 50 bookstores, 50 writers, 50 books. And these indie-published books are so good! You can find more info about the tour plus the list of books I’ve read and photos here.
Connect with Cynthia on her website, Facebook and Twitter. Find Love Like This here.
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.