An Interview with Mary Simses
November 2014

Mary Simses is the author of the romantic comedy "The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Café". Originally from Connecticut, USA, she now lives in South Florida with her husband and daughter. After majoring in journalism and working in magazine publishing for a few years, she went on to become a lawyer. She now writes full time.

How did you get started with writing?

I wrote a lot when I was a child, short stories and poems, and sometimes I would illustrate them. After high school, there were many years where I didn’t do any creative writing. After a while, I really began to miss it. When I was in my thirties and working as an attorney, I found out about an evening fiction writing class at a local university. I decided to enrol in the class and that’s what really got me writing again as an adult. I’ve been doing it ever since.

What inspires you to write? How do you get your ideas for your novels?

The inspiration for Blueberry Café came from something I heard on the radio one morning. A woman was telling a story about how her grandmother died, and how right before she died she said, “Erase my hard drive!” I kept wondering what was on that hard drive that the grandmother wanted to keep secret. It finally led me to the idea of an eighty-year-old woman, reflecting on her life and wanting to make amends for something she had done in the past. It was the idea of uncovering a secret that I really liked. I used a letter as the vehicle for opening the story, rather than a computer, because I wanted something more old-fashioned and more tangible.

Please describe a typical writing day. Do you plan a particular word count, or do you wait and see how things go each day?

Ha! I think the only thing consistent about my writing routine is its inconsistency. While I try to write every day (and try to do it in the morning, before the day gets away from me), it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes other things just come up and I can’t write at all or I can’t write for as long as I’d like. Other days, I write for hours and feel good because I accomplish a lot. Sometimes I write in the evening if I can’t get to it during the day. It just depends. As far as word count, I’ve never kept track of that. When I’m editing, of course, it’s a whole different story. I can usually do that more quickly, if the copy is in pretty good shape.

Which aspects do you enjoy most about being an author?

Feeling that what I’ve written has touched someone and affected them emotionally. Maybe I’m speaking out of turn, but I think that’s probably what most writers want.
I also love giving book talks/doing book signings and meeting readers. It’s so much fun to meet and chat with people who love books. And I’m often amazed at who I run into at these events. My very first book signing was at the American Library Association conference in Chicago in June of 2013. My publisher, Hachette, had copies for me to sign at its booth. When I arrived, there were already twenty people waiting in line. The woman at the front of the line was someone I had gone to high school with and we hadn’t seen each other since then, which was ... I’m doing the math here ... let’s just say it was a long time ago! What a great surprise.
I also love getting email from readers (through my website, and facebook messages and posts (facebook/MSimses). I answer all of the emails I receive and all of the Facebook messages and I comment on many of the posts as well.

Do you enjoy the actual writing process?

Yes, I love it. Being an author is my third career (journalism and law preceding it) and it is the one I’m keeping! I used to envy people who loved their work so much that they didn’t think of it as a job. That’s the way I feel about writing. I’m not saying it’s easy, because it isn’t. It’s hard work, it’s solitary work, and there are times when I really doubt my ability – especially when I’ve just finished reading a very good book by another author. And there are times when it’s just difficult to write, when it’s not flowing well. But when it does flow well, all is forgiven. That’s what keeps me coming back.

How is your actual writing process? For example, do the words just tumble out like being dictated from an inner voice, do you see the scenes before you that you describe, or is it more a logical, planned-out process, like writing non-fiction or following the instruction of a recipe book?

It’s a combination of “tumbling” and seeing the scene. I do envision the scene first. I’ve been an avid photographer my whole life. It’s just a hobby but it’s a serious one. And I don’t know if taking photographs has enabled me to have a vivid imagination for writing scenes or if my ability to visualize is what led me to photography. In any case, I guess I’m like my own film director because I envision the scene and put the characters in there, as though they’re actors in a movie. Then I let the dialog roll.
I don’t prepare a detailed outline ahead of time. It’s just not something I’m good at doing. I do know, from the start, what I think the major “beats” of the story will be, but even those can change along the way.

Do you work out the plot and your characters’ personality before you start writing a novel, or do you mostly develop them while writing?

I work out the plot and the personality a little before I start writing, but I do most of the development while I am writing. For the book I’m working on now, I decided to use an index card for each of the characters and write down key things about them, like their physical appearance, personality traits, etc., as I develop them. I know other authors do that but it’s something I didn’t do with Blueberry Café. Developing the plot and characters as I go along means that when I’m done, I have to go back to the beginning of the book and fill in details about them that weren’t there when I started. It’s more work, but it’s the only way I can do it. It’s just how my mind operates.

Do you first write verbosely and then need to shorten a lot, or do you write a lean first draft that you afterwards flesh out with more details?

It’s a little of both. When I finish drafting a chapter, I usually need to go back and flesh out more details, more carefully define the arc of the chapter, and develop the characters. That’s what I’m doing with the novel I’m writing now and that’s what I did with Blueberry Café. But with Blueberry Café, by the time I finished the first draft of the entire manuscript, it was 550 pages long. Even then, it was very, very rough. I ended up doing six or seven redrafts and cutting a lot of pages (including the original first four chapters) before I felt I’d gotten it into pretty good shape.

Do your novels contain lots of personal experiences, thoughts, opinions, personality traits?

In Blueberry Cafe, the main character, Ellen is an attorney (like me), loves photography (like me), and loves old jazz standards (like me). And, of course, she loves food, which, needless to say, I do as well. So there are definitely some of my traits in Ellen. I also used some of my parents’ traits in Ruth and Chet. My mother was a great cook, like Ruth, and my father was very talented in terms of building things and fixing things, like Chet. That said, the story is not autobiographical. The experiences that take place are Ellen’s, not mine. It’s similar with the novel I’m working on now. Threads of my life are woven into some of the characters and the story takes place in a fictional town in Connecticut, the state where I grew up, so I am stealing little bits and pieces from my past, but it’s not autobiographical.

Do you first write by hand or type the story right away?

I type everything. Even lists of things I need to do!

How long did it approximately take you to write “The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Café”?

It took about three years. I was doing most of it on the side – on weekends, at night, on airplanes, whenever I could squeeze in the time. I was also working as an attorney at the law firm my husband and I founded and was raising our daughter.

Who was your first reader?

My good friend, author, and writing mentor, Jamie Callan. She is the person who taught the evening class in fiction writing that got me back into creative writing, and we have remained friends ever since. She gave me lots of great advice and really helped me shape the story.

Please describe your journey to finding an agent and to the publication of “The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Café”.

I didn’t have an agent for Blueberry Café, although I did have a publishing attorney who negotiated the contract for me. I was very fortunate in that the author, James Patterson, who lives in Palm Beach, Florida as I do, read the manuscript and liked it. His wife, Sue, who I have been friends with for years, offered to read the manuscript when she found out I was working on a novel. She liked it and passed it on to Jim, who also liked it and who gave me some wonderful suggestions and advice. He then offered to take the manuscript to his publisher, Little, Brown – part of Hachette Publishing – to see if they would be interested in publishing it. Several nail-biting weeks later I received a call from Jim, and when he asked, “Are you sitting down?” I knew it was going to be good news.
I do have an agent for my new novel, which is also going to be published by Little, Brown. It’s a terrific company and I’m thrilled to be doing another book with them.

How did you celebrate the publication of “The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Café”?

My friend, Jamie, gave me some very good advice when I told her the book had been accepted for publication. She said “celebrate your achievements along the way.” She said that there are so many little achievements (revising the manuscript after your editor reviews it, revising it after the copy editor reviews it, reading the galleys, etc.) between getting a book accepted and finally having a printed copy in your hand, and so much time passes, that when you finally do get that box of books delivered to your doorstep it’s almost anti-climactic. So we did what Jamie suggested, and I think it’s great advice.

Did you take a break from writing before starting with your next novel?

Yes, I did, but I wouldn’t take as long of a break again. Now that I’ve been through the process once, I realize that the best time to start writing the next book is as soon as your last manuscript has been delivered to the publisher. Yes, there is still work you have to do on that manuscript while it’s going through all of the pre-publication processes, but there are long gaps of time when you’re not working on it. It’s the time to get going on something new.

How do you deal with and feel about destructive criticism from readers?

It doesn’t bother me. Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. I don’t like everything I read either. Sometimes I’ll read a book that’s being touted by well-known critics as the latest and greatest thing since the invention of the toaster and I’ll wonder if we’re living on the same planet, my view is so different from theirs.

What are your favorite ways to spend your non-writing time? What are your hobbies and interests?

I have a husband and a sixteen-year-old daughter, so spending time with them is a priority. But besides that, I love to read - mostly fiction but I enjoy non-fiction as well. I also love taking photographs (I’ve had a camera of one type or another ever since I was five), and listening to music, especially old jazz standards by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Duke Ellington and musicians of that type. I’m also a sucker for Broadway musicals.

Which genres or types of novels do you enjoy reading most?

I like fiction the best, especially books about relationships, character-driven fiction. I also love to read humorous books, fiction or non-fiction. I think we need more laughter in the world.

How would you describe your personality?

I’m fairly outgoing. I enjoy being around people and meeting new people. But I also like my “alone” time. That probably comes from being an only child. I’m very detail oriented, which is good and bad. The downside is that I can sometimes be overly controlling (ask my husband and daughter, they will be nodding their heads if they read this!). I think (and hope) that I have a good sense of humor – at least I like to try to find the humor in things. And I’m persistent. I have a lot of patience and I don’t easily give up.

What do you hope to achieve with your novels?

I hope that my novels can transport readers to another place, where they can relax and become absorbed in someone else’s world. That’s what I look for when I’m reading a book. 

What is your next novel about?

It’s about a woman in her thirties who loses her job in New York City and returns to the town where she grew up in Connecticut to visit her parents. While there, she is forced to confront an unresolved matter from her past and make some important decisions about her future. It’s a blend of romance, drama, and humor.

Thank you very much for your time, and all the best for your future!

For more information, please visit Mary Simses’ website.