Join author, educator, and learner, Annmarie Kelly as she laughs, cries, and kvetches with the writers, musicians, entrepreneurs, and wanderers who inspire all of us to reach beyond our divisions and discover what it means to be wild, precious, and brave.
Monica Wood’s most recent novel THE ONE-IN-A-MILLION BOY will capture your imagination and warm your heart. It’s the best book you may not yet have heard of. In this episode, Monica and Annmarie discuss found families, where stories come from, and why strivers make the world go ‘round.
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Annmarie Kelly: Wild Precious Life is brought to you in part by Visible Voice Books in Tremont, Ohio. With a glass of wine or a cup of Joe in hand, readers can explore a curated selection of new and secondhand books. And we're brought to you by Lit Youngstown, a literary community proud to support beginning and experienced writers who seek to hone their craft, foster understanding, and share and publish their creative work. Read, write and tell your story at lityoungstown.org.
Annmarie Kelly: Who's your oldest friend? When it comes to this question, we often answer with the name of the person we've known the longest. My friend, Steve, and I have known each other for more than 40 years. Our moms led a local parenting group, so we were constantly dragged to picnics and barbecues where we fled the breastfeeding women and climbed on rocks and waded in creeks. As teenagers we were always in the same math class and we danced together in the show choir.
Annmarie Kelly: When I published my first book, Steve drove across Los Angeles after work to be one of a small handful of people in the audience at my first reading. Even though we only see one another every few years, he's still one of my oldest friends. But we could also answer this question a different way. Who's your oldest friend? Steve's my age. We grew up together. A lot of us, I'm guessing, don't have many older friends. I might have counted my grandma, Mary, as a friend. She taught me to make homemade pasta and always laughed when my sister and I called to say we flummoxed the Italian Easter bread recipe again.
Annmarie Kelly: Year after year, she would counsel us, "You added too much flour. You didn't knead long enough. Were the eggs fresh?" Grandma Mary possessed wisdom that we didn't, and I was always grateful when she shared it. But she was also family, I'm not sure if I can technically call her my friend. I'm in a book club now with a handful of older women. I inherited the spot when a friend of mine admitted she never read the books and sent me in her place. For a while I barely spoke. Most of the women are at least a decade older than I am and each and every one of them is so brilliant and accomplished.
Annmarie Kelly: They've had long careers, led progressive causes, traveled extensively. Some are active retirees. It's such an honor to learn from them. And we recently read and loved a book by today's guest, Monica Wood, who wrote about the oldest person I've ever met in a novel. Miss Ona Vitkus is a 104 year old Lithuanian American woman whose expressions and mannerisms found their way into my heart. She was like my best childhood friend, my grandmother, and a member of my book club all rolled into one, and I wanted to meet the writer who invented this spectacular character I came to love so well.
Annmarie Kelly: Monica Wood is a novelist, memoirist and playwright, the 2019 recipient of the Maine Humanities Council Carlson prize for contributions to the public humanities, and a recipient of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance Distinguished Achievement Award. She's the author of four works of fiction, most recently, The One-in-a-Million Boy, which won a Nautilus Award and the 2017 Fiction Prize from the New England Society in the City of New York. She's also the author of Any Bitter Thing, Ernie's Ark, and My Only Story, a finalist for the Kate Chopin Award.
Annmarie Kelly: Monica is also the author of When We Were the Kennedy's, a memoir of her growing up in Mexico, Maine. She lives in Portland with her husband, Dan Abbott, and their cat, Susie. Monica Wood, welcome to Wild Precious Life.
Monica Wood: Thank you.
Annmarie Kelly: So, other than Little Women, which I read and reread I think every night between the ages of maybe eight and 11, because I thought if I kept reading, maybe this time Jo would accept Teddy's proposal and the world would be right. Other than that book, and maybe The Great Gatsby, which I just read every few years, I think I've read your novel, The One-in-a-Million Boy, more times than any other book I've ever owned.
Monica Wood: Oh my gosh, that makes me feel so good. Thank you, Annmarie.
Annmarie Kelly: I do reread things, but I met your book just at a particular time and place in my life and I got stuck in it in a good way. So, I'm just so grateful that you're out there and it's out there.
Monica Wood: Well, I'm grateful for readers like you, that is for sure. And I really understand that idea of a book coming to you at a certain time and place. There are books that I read when I was younger, that I revisited, classics. I mean that I revisited later that I thought, "Oh my goodness, I can't understand why I was so enthralled by this." And I always say too that a book doesn't live all by itself, it's where the reader and the writer meet. And sometimes you just have to meet under the right street lamp, or on the proper corner before the book can fully flower for the reader.
Annmarie Kelly: Absolutely. I think we had good lighting, my hair looked good that day. I don't know what happened, but when I met your book, I was ready for it. But I'm jumping ahead and I should let people meet you, because not all of our readers will have had the great good fortune to read The One-in-a-Million Boy, or We Are The Kennedy's, or any of your other things. So, why don't I just ask you our opening question, which is always will you tell us your story?
Monica Wood: Well, I've been a writer my whole life, but as a professional writer, I was a bit of a late bloomer. I didn't publish anything really of substance until I was about 40. That's when my first novel came out. I'm from a little town in Maine called Mexico. Mexico, Maine. It's a mill town on the Androscoggin River, at the heart of the Androscoggin Valley with a giant paper mill pumping at the heart of this valley.
Monica Wood: And we were a mill family. My father and my grandfather and my brother worked their whole lives at the mill. And I was one of five children, Irish Catholic family, and we had kind of a two generation family. I had a older brother and sister, much older than I, and then there were the three little girls. And of the three little girls, I was the middle one, but I feel more like the older one of that group, because my next older sister was Betty and she had developmental disabilities.
Monica Wood: She was a delightful, delightful human being. We lost her four years ago and miss her every day still.
Annmarie Kelly: I'm sorry.
Monica Wood: Oh yeah, she was quite a gal. And so we were a very close family, and my father died very suddenly when I was nine. So, my mother had these three little kids. And my sister Anne, at the time, was still living at home, but she was a teacher at the high school and she would be my teacher when I got to high school. And without her, I don't know what our family would have done. She's one of those step up people who just kind of held up the whole world for our family in the face of tragedy, and she also encouraged my writing. She was the best English teacher I ever had, and I had a lot of really good ones, and I probably wasn't the best student she ever had though.
Monica Wood: It was the only B I ever got in English. So, that's a whole other story. So, it was a working class mill family, blue collar, Democrat, pretty typical family of that era and that town. And I was just always writing. I wrote little stories and poems and songs and things. And before I became a writer, I was a high school guidance counselor for eight years, which was a wonderful job, but very draining and didn't have a lot of energy left over at the end of the day to do any writing, which I was always doing. Since I was four years old, I was writing. And so I took a big chance.
Monica Wood: I was married by then. I was about 33, I think, and decided to leave my day job. And luckily I had a wonderful partner who was supportive of that, and I did, and I never looked back. I've been freelancing ever since.
Annmarie Kelly: You lived the dream. That's what we all want to do, is leave our day jobs and write for a living and have books in the trunks of our cars and just drive around. You did it.
Monica Wood: Well, with help. I couldn't have done it alone. I couldn't have become a writer alone. I needed my sister and wonderful teachers and, of course, beautiful books to read. And I definitely could never have left that job without a husband who really supported what I was doing. So, eventually it became a living, but it took a long time for that to happen.
Annmarie Kelly: Why did your sister give you a B? Was that the right grade, or was it more like she didn't want to be seen as giving you an A? Or did you write a crummy paragraph?
Monica Wood: It was absolutely. No, no, no, no, no. She knew that I faked my way through Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations. I never read either book.
Annmarie Kelly: What?
Monica Wood: And she knew it.
Annmarie Kelly: Not Heathcliff? Not Catherine?
Monica Wood: Okay, Annmarie, there's another book. We were talking a little earlier, I think off air, about how books come to you at certain times in your life and sometimes it's the right time and sometimes it isn't. And I remember thinking, I don't know what I was missing with Wuthering Heights and I read it maybe two or three years ago and thought, "Oh my, this is a horrendously, horrible story about terrible people doing awful things. And somehow generations of teenage girls think Heathcliff is this smoke show, but he killed her puppies. Do we not remember that?"
Annmarie Kelly: We skip over that part. We absolutely do not remember that part.
Monica Wood: How?
Annmarie Kelly: We just breezed by.
Monica Wood: Yeah. Well, I could not do that.
Annmarie Kelly: You're totally right. That book is crazy.
Monica Wood: The man was evil incarnate, so I'm glad I didn't read it when I was in high school. It would've kept me up at night.
Annmarie Kelly: Well, you're lucky that you only got a B if you skipped both of those books.
Monica Wood: I know I did, but I read a lot of other stuff. And I was a really good writer back then, so my papers were good.
Annmarie Kelly: Well, I think you're a really good writer right about now too.
Monica Wood: Thank you.
Annmarie Kelly: In an interview, I think it was a few years ago, I heard your body of work described as an exercise in empathy and compassion. Do you think that's a fair assessment of the work you do, or aspire to do?
Monica Wood: Yes, I do, but I also think empathy and compassion are two very different things. Empathy is merely the ability to put yourself in somebody else's shoes. It doesn't necessarily follow that you'll feel compassion for that person, but being a writer means you can imagine yourself as anyone. As a serial killer, as a cloistered nun, as a 10 year old boy with issues. So, I kind of make a difference between empathy and compassion. I think I do have a lot of compassion. I think there's a lot of heart in my work, because that's what I value in my life. But empathy is something else. I think of it more as it's a writerly tool and compassion is, I think, just the spirit with which you approach the work.
Annmarie Kelly: No, that makes sense. I feel like I felt both of those things with The One in a Million Boy. I mean like many folks at the start of the pandemic I struggled to take in information. I'm a lifelong reader, I've got books in every room of my house, but in 2020 anyway, it was hard for me to let new stories in. And so at first I reached for familiar stories that I knew, Pride and Prejudice, The English Patient, far off love stories that my heart knew by heart. But my dad was sick at the beginning of the pandemic. He was dying of brain cancer while the whole world was closing down.
Monica Wood: Oh my gosh.
Annmarie Kelly: And I know that part of the reason that your book came and sat with me for so long is I was yearning for stories to help me make sense of loss. And the opening pages, I'm not giving anything away here, we learn that an 11 year old child has passed away. We never learn his name. He's the boy. But of course, for us, for readers, he's simultaneously alive throughout the novel, because much of it consists of these gorgeous flashbacks, live scenes between the boy and his 104 year old Lithuanian American friend, Ona Vitkus.
Annmarie Kelly: I think for me, that's why I kept coming back to the story, because it was like a handbook for how to survive grief. How do we grieve the people we love? We keep them alive in the stories we tell, in the moments we remember. I'm going to start fawning here a little bit, but again, one of my favorite things was to meet these characters I never knew, who helped me make sense of something that I'd never experienced. How did you find these characters?
Monica Wood: Oh my goodness. Well, first of all, thank you for that. That's just very beautifully expressed, and that is what I was trying to get to. I really want people to enter my stories and feel as if they are accompanying people they would never have met in their own life, but they're accompanying somebody else through a story that feels very, very real to them. I like my characters to feel multidimensional and complicated and real. It's funny, the only thing, Annmarie, that I had at the beginning of this, this is very typical of me, I started the book with nothing but an image of a house.
Monica Wood: I knew just where it was. It's not very far from where I live in Portland, Maine. And I knew there was an old person living in the house. I didn't know if it was a male or a female. And all I had was an image of a bereaved person walking up the steps and knocking on the door. That is all I had. I didn't know who the bereaved person was, nothing. And I just set pen to paper. And the second I realized I just started writing and the person was a male, and that was Quinn, the boy's father, who's a musician, he's a guitar player. I knew that. And he opens the door and it's a little old lady. And I didn't realize how old she was until she started talking.
Monica Wood: And I realized she was 104 years old. And I also realized that Quinn was the father of this child, and was there not really of his own free will, he's there to complete his son's weekly Boy Scout troop good deed for this old lady, helping her with her chores. And his ex-wife, twice ex-wife, who's the boys grieving mother you find out later, has guilted him into going and completing the boys' tasks for the old lady. But he cannot bring himself to tell the woman that the boy has died, and she finds out on her own and is very angry with him when she does find out.
Monica Wood: Because, as she says, "I thought he was one of those boys who never finished anything, and he wasn't." And she's telling this poor man, "And you made me think he was one of those, besmirching his reputation in this house." She was sticking up for him. And I think that's maybe the first place in the book where Quinn realizes the impact this child, who's a very odd little boy that he never really understood, a little bit afraid of him really because he was so quirky and unusual. But he realizes, too late for him, but not too late for him to learn how to care for others, as what we find later on in the book. But he discovers the impact his child had on other people, and that's the one of the first times that happens.
Annmarie Kelly: I am overwhelmed thinking... I actually cried a little bit thinking of you starting only with this house where an older person lived and someone who's broken is walking to the door. I actually, I feel like I've been on that porch. I feel like I've knocked on that door. I feel like I've been the broken person who Ona has said, "Come in. I will regale you." How amazing that that's the origin point. So, then how are these characters born? Because I feel like Louise Grady, the one woman weather system, could be her own book, right?
Monica Wood: Yeah.
Annmarie Kelly: Even Belle, the twice ex-wife, chopping the heads off of tulips because she can't bear the thought of these flowers, she could be her own story. Quinn, as you mentioned, trying to learn to be a father after his son has passed away and also standing in for the lead guitarist in a Christian rock band, he could be his own story. How did they all find that house? How did you weave them together? Where did they come from?
Monica Wood: It is so hard to talk about process, Annmarie, because the way I write is so... My process is something that sets my other writer friends hair on fire, because some people do work this way, but not a lot. What I do is I write about 50 pages and then throw them away and start all over again. And then I write about 75 pages and throw those away and start all over again. Because what I'm doing is just finding my way into the story, because you start on page one and all you know is there's a woman and a man in a kitchen talking.
Monica Wood: And by page 50, I'm getting an idea of who they are, who they were, what they want, what their real problem is, how they're going to interact. But what happens earlier is no longer relevant, because I didn't know who they were then. So, page five is like, why even hang on to page five? It's gone. So the whole thing goes away. And then by the time I get to the third round, I've got it enough to keep going. But I still do constant... I'm like a Border Collie herding sheep. I go up to the front and then back to the back, and up to the front and back to the back, and just revising very heavily as I go.
Annmarie Kelly: All right. So, we learn early on that one of the shared projects between Ona and the boy is a quest to break a world record. It occurs to the boy that Ona, at age 104, could in fact be the oldest living person. And he is quite enamored of world records, right?
Monica Wood: Yes, he is.
Annmarie Kelly: He's tried to spin a nickel and he's tried to stack cards and he's interested in records and being remembered, right? Spoiler alert, she's not the oldest person at 104, there are others. But the two of them set out to determine a record they might be able to break. How did this thread come in? Was it 50 pages in, 100? Where did this come from?
Monica Wood: I can't remember where that came from, but I think probably what I did is I started researching very old people and realized that Ona, honestly, in the grand scheme of things, is a spring chicken still, because the oldest person ever to live was 122 years old. Her name was Madam Calment from France. And she figures very heavily in the story and becomes a kind of rival to Ona, even though she's long dead. And then I started looking at they're called super centenarians, is people over 110 years old. And some of them are still mowing their own lawns. I mean it's just kind of amazing.
Monica Wood: And there's this outfit called genealogy research something or other online, and they keep constant track of the oldest people in the world. And the only sad thing about it is I became quite attached to some of these people and of course they all died because they were 116, 114, 112. And, in fact, the oldest woman in the world just died. She was 119 years old, a Japanese woman. And then the one who took her place is 117. She's also Japanese, which is not unusual. And both of them were doing just fine and dandy until old age finally took over. And at the time that I was writing the book, I was a visiting writer at Colby College for a year.
Monica Wood: And I live in Portland, Maine, Colby College is in Waterville, Maine. It's about an hour and a half drive from my house, and I hate driving. So, I thought I really should find some place to stay up there for three days a week or so, so I can fully participate on campus activities and all that jazz. So, I found a little apartment above this rambling old house in the next town over from Waterville, and the land lady's name was Mary Berry and she was a tiny little 87 year old. And we became fast friends, because I had to walk through her house to get up to my little apartment.
Monica Wood: And so she would have tea ready for me when I came in. She was an extremely vibrant person. She was connected to her church and she was the designated driver for all her little old lady friends. She would take them to the nursing home and to church and to the supermarket. And she was part owner of the cat across the street named Tic Tac, because she loved cats. But she felt she would outlive a cat, so she didn't want to have a cat. So, this guy just lounged around her house, eating the cat version of Bon Bons all day and then he'd leave at night and go to his real home, supposedly. So, we became very, very good friends, but I got a few little things from Ona's life straight from Mary.
Annmarie Kelly: The layers upon layers of story in here, I'm just delighted by everyone.
Monica Wood: Oh, gosh. Thank you.
Annmarie Kelly: Just so much fun. We also get a bunch of lines that are, I don't know, I wouldn't call them admonishment so much, but the way you capture Ona, were any of these just stolen lines when she says, "People don't live in capital letters," "People don't write their own endings," "No one will love you more than they love themselves." I don't know, I'm mixing up Quinn and Ona in these, but these pronouncements and lines, are they just gifts from the heavens? Are they written 75 lines in? Do you remember stealing anything from your muses?
Monica Wood: She says for crumb's sake, that's her little thing. "Oh, for crumb's sake."
Annmarie Kelly: I love it.
Monica Wood: And I did lift that directly from my friend, Mary Jane, who talks like she's 105 and she's not. So, there were a few little things like that, that I'll take. A lot of expressions from my own mother. She was an old fashioned gal. Some of them, they just arrive. You start writing and you honestly don't know what's coming. It's very exciting.
Annmarie Kelly: As a writer, you also don't always write the ending that you thought you were going to. I would imagine that that ending comes as a gift at some point, but that it may or may not be the bow you tie around the end of a story.
Monica Wood: Yeah. The ending for this one, it goes to a place you're not expecting, let me put it that way. And I love that last chapter so much, because I wasn't intending to go to that place. And I thought I was finished with the book and realized that there was an unwritten ending that people needed to experience. Not to read, but to experience. And even though it's very fraught and emotional, I loved writing it. I was so happy writing that last chapter. And then you turn the page and there's a little something for the reader for making that journey. There's one more little thing.
Annmarie Kelly: People who are listening, you really do just need to read this book.
Monica Wood: Oh, thank you, Annmarie.
Annmarie Kelly: I'm yapping about The One-in-a-Million Boy as though it's the only thing you've ever written, but I'm doing your career a disservice. You've written a memoir, you've written short stories, I've read essays of yours, and you're also recently a playwright.
Monica Wood: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
Annmarie Kelly: So, I mean, I think I read that Papermaker was your first play and a resounding success, followed very closely by The Half-Light. And you possibly have another one in the works?
Monica Wood: I do. I have another one.
Annmarie Kelly: Tell me about the playwriting.
Monica Wood: The playwriting is an utter delight, especially when you've spent decades typing alone in a room. You're suddenly in a room with a bunch of actors and a director, and you have to write the script first, of course, but what happens in the theater world, and I know so little about the theater world, it was sort of interesting to be a neophyte again in an area that I... It's writing, writing is writing, but the business of it was completely foreign to me.
Monica Wood: I'm a huge theater enthusiast. I go to theater all the time. I love plays, all kinds of plays, but when you are a playwright and theater agrees to do your play, the first time, so the debut production of your play, you are in the process. So, you're rewriting it with the actors. So, I was in the rehearsal room. This was at Portland Stage, which is a very well regarded regional theater, and I was in the room with the actors and the director with my laptop and my printer. And I would literally be printing new pages as they were rehearsing their scenes.
Monica Wood: It was the most dynamic and collaborative and exciting experience of my professional life. I just loved it, and the actors were so good. And I got to go on a casting trip to New York.
Annmarie Kelly: So fun.
Monica Wood: And I mean it was all very so new and exciting and after I did the original script, everything about it was teamwork. It wasn't just me. It was all these other beautiful souls rowing the boat with me, going to the same place on the shore, which was a place that would make this the best play it could possibly be. We all had that same goal and it was a truly magical experience. And The Half-Light was the same thing, another beautiful cast, another trip to New York, audiences.
Monica Wood: The other thing about playwriting is, I'll just admit it, I went to every single play, every single show, every single one.
Annmarie Kelly: Were there more than two?
Monica Wood: I'd never been there, there were 30 something, and I was at every single one of them. And I would run into people afterwards and they'd go, "Oh, I was so excited that you happen to be at the play that I saw." I said, "Oh yes. Well, I was at all of them, so really the odds were excellent that you would see me there." Sometimes I'd go up in the booth in the tech booth and watch from there, and sometimes I'd be in the audience. But I saw every single show, because I thought may never see this play again.
Monica Wood: That's the thing. Even if you did have it in a book form, plays are not meant to be read, they're meant to be seen and heard. And there's just this magic of it's so different from a book, you don't get to see people reacting in real time to what you've written. And in a play, you've got a whole theater cracking up with laughter over some line that you wrote. It is really exciting and gratifying. So, I absolutely adore playwriting. This is number three now, and it's called Saint Dad and it's kind of in the workshop staging now.
Monica Wood: So, the other terrifying and horrible thing about the playwriting process, which is very different from novel writing, is the public gets to see your drafts because there's no other way to know what's working or what isn't.
Annmarie Kelly: That's terrifying.
Monica Wood: Horrible. I said, I would-
Annmarie Kelly: That's like when you bring the pages to a workshop, you're like, "I know these aren't ready yet," and then you just give them to the world.
Monica Wood: Oh, it's awful.
Annmarie Kelly: Wow.
Monica Wood: So, you have an audience and you have actors, staged reading of the work, and there's a director. I'm going to have one coming up next month for the new one, although I'm not as scared this time. I've been through it twice, so my skin's a little thicker. But I told somebody once I would rather walk down Congress Street in my underwear than do this. Having everybody see your drafts, it's horrifying, but it must be done.
Annmarie Kelly: Or also really vulnerable, and like you said, you might have written a sentence where it has the word good and someone else is like, "I think bedazzled works better here," and then that sentence is born. So, I don't know, you could do both. You could go to it in your underwear.
Monica Wood: Yeah, I'll do that. They'll be so distracted by the playwright in her underwear that they won't notice the mistakes.
Annmarie Kelly: I don't know. I should confess that I have held a little bit of a grudge against the state of Maine since as a 13 year old, I was dragged there to visit family while my then best friend got to go to Myrtle Beach and she got a boyfriend and a bikini, and I just had to like eat popovers in the fog, which now sounds wonderful to me. But as a 13 year old, I've been mad about it for a long time. But if I knew I was coming to see a play of yours, I think I could, one, just see this author's writing that I love and also make peace with an entire state, and also my moody teenage self. So, when and where can we see this play?
Monica Wood: First of all, Annmarie, you could have found a boyfriend in Maine, you just didn't look hard enough.
Annmarie Kelly: It was so cold. I brought a bikini I couldn't wear.
Monica Wood: There are plenty of boys in Maine. This new play, honestly, I don't know if or when it will debut, but if it debuts, it probably will be Portland Stage. That's kind of my artistic home at this point. Papermaker has been performed all kinds of places, but the original production remains absolutely my favorite.
Annmarie Kelly: That's tremendous. Well, I will jump online and we'll make sure to link to them so that people can follow that theater.
Monica Wood: Yeah, great.
Annmarie Kelly: And so we can poke around and try to find you there. That's so great. Okay. So, I know what's next, and I've asked you about these things. All right, so I'm going to-
Monica Wood: Well, I have a novel coming up.
Annmarie Kelly: That's right.
Monica Wood: I have a new novel coming up. I have a novel coming out from Mariner Books in May of '23, so that's a year from now. And Mariner Books is, well, you don't need to know all this, but it sounds like it's a new publisher, but it's actually my old publisher was sold to HarperCollins, blah, blah, blah. Anyway, it's coming out under Mariner Books and I have a new editor, very young editor, she's 25 years old. And I thought, "Oh, this could be interesting." And we had just a wonderful editorial relationship. I think she's an old soul, just very insightful, very wise. And did what good editors do, which is she didn't try to bend the book to her will, she tried to bend the book to its own will to see what the book wanted to be, and that's how we proceeded.
Monica Wood: And that is not easy to do, especially as a younger editor working with an older established writer, but she was really great. Anyway, it's called Meanwhile, and there are three main characters. And the one whose story it really is, is Violet. And her part of the book is in the first person. The other two are in third person. And it's called Meanwhile. And so Violet, the narrator, is 22 years old and she is just getting out of prison for vehicular manslaughter. It was a drunk driving accident in which she killed a kindergarten teacher.
Monica Wood: And while she's in prison, she goes to the prison book club every Friday without fail, which is run by a volunteer lady named Harriet who's a retired English teacher. And when Violet gets out, which is very early in the book, she gets out and she's dumped in Portland, Maine, where she knows nobody. And she beelines it to a bookstore, because she wants to find the book they were reading and she didn't finish when they were in the book. And Harriet is in the bookstore, which she's in a lot, buying the next round of books for the next book they're going to read.
Monica Wood: And she sees Violet and decides to take her under her wing. And in the meantime there is a man named Frank Daygle. He's the third character in the book. He's a retired machinist. He is working now as the store handyman. He has a crush on Harriet and doesn't quite know how to go about it, and he is the widower of the woman that Violet killed in the accident. So, it's very similar to my other books in the sense of disparate people forming a family bond. So, I really describe my work as a body of work, it's about people making family out of broken parts.
Annmarie Kelly: Yeah. Found family.
Monica Wood: And that's what this is about. Yeah, found families.
Annmarie Kelly: I've lived in a lot of places where my family wasn't, and so the misfit toys that you gather and the people that you find and discover, there is something gorgeous about the folks who complete you when you've got no family around. Also I've taught incarcerated folks and worked in juvenile justice centers, and one of my biggest takeaways was always how an instant... you're describing someone who was drunk, who killed someone. I have talked on the show before about just like stupid choices I made that you somehow got out of okay.
Monica Wood: Because you were lucky.
Annmarie Kelly: You were lucky. And that was my biggest takeaway, was when I was writing with these men and women who were incarcerated, all I could think was, "Oh my God, that is the worst luck I've ever heard. That I was loved through a moment that I went left, and they were loved or not loved through a moment and they went right and their entire lives changed." And so I don't think we tell enough stories probably about folks who've been in and out of our prison industrial complexes.
Monica Wood: The line is much thinner than we think between us and them. Much, much thinner.
Annmarie Kelly: Absolutely. Well, we will be on the lookout for that. And I hope that you'll come back and chat with us about it. All right, we always end with just some last little multiple choice questions. So, you just pick one, okay?
Monica Wood: Oh, goody. All right.
Annmarie Kelly: All right. Dogs or cats?
Monica Wood: Cats.
Annmarie Kelly: I thought as much.
Monica Wood: That's so easy. All writers pick cats. Don't all your writers pick cats?
Annmarie Kelly: You'd be surprised. I love when Ona was talking about how she could have gone through another cat and a half. She had room in her heart for, like you're saying, she had room for another cat and a half.
Monica Wood: Yeah.
Annmarie Kelly: Coffee or tea?
Monica Wood: Coffee.
Annmarie Kelly: Mountains or beach?
Monica Wood: Mountains.
Annmarie Kelly: Dreamer or striver?
Monica Wood: Oh, that's from the book. Dreamer or striver? I am a striver. What can I say? I really, I am a striver.
Annmarie Kelly: Me too. I want to be a dreamer, but I'm a striver too.
Monica Wood: But strivers make the world go around, Annmarie. We're the ones who keep the dreamers... they can float off in their clouds, they need us badly.
Annmarie Kelly: Shonda Rhimes has a good graduation speech, I think that she gave at Dartmouth at this point many years ago probably, times gone screw away, but it's something about like doers are busy doing, while the dreamers are dreaming. So, I took some good faith in that. Early bird or night owl?
Monica Wood: Night owl.
Annmarie Kelly: And if you weren't working as a writer, what would you be?
Monica Wood: I'd be a performer of some kind probably. I would probably have been a singer. But the other thing, there are two other things, one is a hairdresser, that has always appealed to me greatly. And the other is the ornithologist lady who goes on the islands to band all the birds. I would love that job.
Annmarie Kelly: Oh my gosh. A singing hairdresser who also does birds.
Monica Wood: There you go.
Annmarie Kelly: Or a singing bird lady who also does hair.
Monica Wood: Yeah.
Annmarie Kelly: I assume that you were a bird person because of the book.
Monica Wood: I am.
Annmarie Kelly: What's your favorite bird?
Monica Wood: My favorite bird, honestly, it's not any of the exotics. It's just the plain old Black-capped chickadee, because they never leave us. They're here all year round when all the other birds fly to their little summer vacations and the chickadee sticks around. And I've tamed them by hand. They're just very friendly, confiding birds.
Annmarie Kelly: That's excellent. Are you a risk taker or the person who always knows where the bandaids are?
Monica Wood: Oh my goodness, I have a friend who did a book a few years ago called Quirk, and it's about brain chemistry. And so she had all of her friends be guinea pigs, and we took this long, long personality test, which was about the five tenets of a human personality. So, are you this or that? Are you this or that? And on risk taking, there were two, one is emotional risk taking and one was physical risk taking, and it was zero 100. And on physical risk taking, Annmarie, I got a zero.
Annmarie Kelly: On no.
Monica Wood: And on emotional risk taking, I got 100.
Annmarie Kelly: Wow.
Monica Wood: Isn't that hilarious?
Annmarie Kelly: Well, that actually makes sense for the writing life.
Monica Wood: I think it does.
Annmarie Kelly: You've got to do the emotional work. You can't be bungee jumping today, you've got this chapter to do.
Monica Wood: You couldn't pay me enough. I am a fraidy-cat. Terrible fraidy-cat
Annmarie Kelly: All right. What do you love about where you live?
Monica Wood: Oh my goodness, Portland, Maine is a beautiful city. I've been here for my whole adult life. It's changed a lot. It's now like the hippest city in America, everybody wants to come, except in the dead of winter. But it's right on the coast. My husband has a boat, so we go out on Casco Bay and motor around and watch birds. And it has an incredibly vibrant art and theater scene. And Maine itself has an unbelievable tribe of writers. There are so many of us here and writers who come to live here from elsewhere, which they do more and more and more. They can't get over how nice we are. They just say, "You're so nice." I don't know where they come from, but apparently writers are always stabbing each other in the back, but not here. That does not happen. It's a marvelous place to be a writer.
Annmarie Kelly: Well, I was thinking that you and Elizabeth Strout were the only two people I knew of who had written such holy rich older characters, Olive Kitteridge and Ona Vitkus.
Monica Wood: Yeah. It's one of my favorite books. I know Liz too, of course, because she's Maine based.
Annmarie Kelly: What's your favorite ice cream flavor?
Monica Wood: That varies greatly. Right now it's mint chocolate chip. But I'm also a sucker for chocolate with any kind of cherry, or orange, or strawberry.
Annmarie Kelly: Those are both lovely. All lovely. And the last one, if we were to take a picture of you really happy and doing something you love, what would we see?
Monica Wood: I would be giving a grape to my neighbor chicken who comes over every day and knocks on my door. That's what I would be doing. That ridiculous chicken got me through COVID without having a breakdown.
Annmarie Kelly: Does the chicken have a name?
Monica Wood: Yes, her name is Eddie. Eddie, the chicken. She's a hen. And she's got a long story. She has nine lives. She got grabbed by a coyote one day and she ended up the winner. She had no tail, but she came out of it just fine and dandy. She's quite a gal.
Annmarie Kelly: The little Ed hen. Oh wow.
Monica Wood: That's what you would see me doing right now, is giving Eddie a grape.
Annmarie Kelly: Green or red grape?
Monica Wood: Oh, she likes green. Prefers them.
Annmarie Kelly: Okay.
Monica Wood: Yeah.
Annmarie Kelly: Just want to make sure.
Monica Wood: For a chicken she's rather fussy.
Annmarie Kelly: That's excellent. Well, thank you Monica Wood for coming on the show today. Thank you for reminding us that the story of our life doesn't necessarily start at the beginning, that we may in fact live more than one life. And for reminding us that most folks we know are probably also like the boy in the story made of a little magic, and to be on the lookout for that.
Annmarie Kelly: Folks, our guest today has been Monica Wood. She is the author of novels, short stories, plays, a memoir. We will link to as much as we can find out there on our show notes page. Please do yourself a favor, just go buy, say 10 copies of this book, from an independent bookstore near you and give it to everyone you know. You will not be sorry. We thank you for listening. Be good to yourselves. Be good to one another. And we'll see you again soon on this wild and precious journey.
Annmarie Kelly: Wild Precious Life is a production of Evergreen podcasts. Special thanks to executive producers, Gerardo Orlando and Michael DeAloia. Producer, Sarah Willgrube, and audio engineer, Ian Douglas. Be sure to subscribe and follow us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.