West Coast Interviews – Mary Akers

Mary Akers is one of my heroes. Not only Bones_of_an_Inland_Islandis she an immensely talented writer, but she’s nice. And generous. Through the years she’s always been willing to help other writers, including me. I first “met” her at Zoetrope Virtual Studio, maybe ten years ago. Fortunately I’ve been able to meet her in person several times at various AWPs since then. Her fiction is out of this world—intense, poetic, and full of fascinating information about the ocean, science, shipwrecks, elephants, and oh so many other captivating topics you’ve always wanted to know more about. Her characters are complex, flawed, and human. She is that perfect blend of fiction writer—highly intelligent, but also highly creative.

In her gorgeous new linked collection, Bones of an Inland Sea, not only is all of this true, but she has masterfully woven her stories together in unexpected and surprising ways. One character, Danielle/Dani, appears first in the story “¡Vieques!” as female and later is transgendered in “What Lies Beneath.” In still another story “Collateral Damage,” Dani meets his unknown father for the first time, and the father has three or four stories of his own. The collection truly is a tapestry in which everything comes together as one larger story.

Mary AkersAkers is an ocean advocate who has published two books of short fiction (Women Up On Blocks, Press 53, 2009, and Bones of an Inland Sea, Press 53, 2013) and one book of nonfiction (One Life to Give: A Path to Finding Yourself by Helping Others). Her creative work frequently focuses on the intersections between art and science, including such topics as diverse and timely as the environmental movement and the struggle for human and animal rights. She has been a Bread Loaf work-study scholar and a VCCA fellow. She is the proud and enthusiastic editor-in-chief of the online journal r.kv.r.y. In 1999, Akers co-founded the Institute for Tropical Marine Ecology, a marine field station and research center originally located in Roseau, Dominica. For recreation she enjoys snorkeling, hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, and snowshoeing. Although raised in Virginia’s beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains—which she will always call home—she currently lives in western New York.

Bonnie ZoBell:  As I mention above, Mary, you do such a masterful job of linking these stories. Could you talk about that a bit? Did you start out the collection knowing they’d all be connected or did you figure it out as you went? What was your overall plan for linking?

Mary Akers: Thank you for the kind words, Bonnie. My plan for linking was initially to have all the stories be related to the ocean. I called the manuscript my Marine Ecology Collection before it had a title. It was actually born in 2003 when the agent Wendy Weil considered my first collection of short stories (Women Up On Bocks). She saw that my email signature was from the marine ecology school I’d co-founded and sent me a kind email that said if I ever wrote a collection of marine ecology stories she’d love to take a look at it. That very evening, I mapped out a new book of stories that eventually became Bones of an Inland Sea. In 2011, I believed I had completed the collection, but then I read several wonderful linked collections (Let the Great World Spin, Olive Kitteridge, and A Visit from the Goon Squad) that made me realize how much tighter and more interesting my collection could be if I had it tell a larger story with repeating characters. It seemed like such a simple thing to tighten the linkages, but it turned out to be quite complex matching up timelines and relationships, especially since several of the stories were based on real events, and I didn’t want to fudge the dates. I also found that I needed to write five more stories from scratch to cement the links. Sadly, Wendy passed away before I could show her the collection she had inspired, but I did dedicate the book to her.

BZ:  One of the things I love so much about Bones of an Inland Sea is the wide range of subject matter it covers. Did you research all these topics, or did you have first-hand knowledge about most of them?

MA: A little bit of both, I think. And maybe “obsession” is a better descriptor than “knowledge.” For me, a story starts with something that I can’t let go. Something that seems to make no sense, that defies logic or reason, that baffles me or shocks me or pains me: Jim Jones convincing 913 people to kill themselves; a brain-dead woman whose family and husband are fighting over whether or not to let her body die; a tsunami that comes out of nowhere and wrecks entire communities and lives; a hurricane that wipes out power to an aquarium killing all the fish trapped inside; a parrotfish that radically changes its sex; war and post-traumatic stress disorder;  the intense, ceaseless demands of motherhood; age-related dementia that wipes away the memories of a well-lived life; 400-million-year-old once-living fossils; the ever-changeable ocean; the nuclear age and the repercussions of atomic weaponry. It’s a long list, but it’s a pretty accurate glimpse into the cobwebbed corridors of my mental storage shed.

BZ: “Christmas in Phuket” has always been one of my faves. The title is funny, but it also places us in Thailand, where we go on a harrowing journey and discover what being in the ocean during a tsunami might be like.  Before leaving the U.S. on a research trip to study reefs, Leslie is preoccupied by perimenopause and overwhelmed by the intense needs of her home life: three children, an ex-husband, a new husband, and an aging father-in-law.  When she descends into the sea in Thailand, your imagery is stunning: “a blue-spotted stingray shakes off his grainy mantle and swims away in a trail of cascading sand. . . . To her left, a colony of soft corals waves its fuzzy, frondlike polyps in the current.”

As soon as the tsunami hits, all of underwater life becomes a frenzy, and soon a live human baby lands in her arms amid corpses floating by. All of her maternal instincts come to life. Do you think Leslie would really like to keep the baby?

MA:  I think so. Or at least the idea of the baby. She has three older children at home and this small child is at that perfect age—about 16 months—still an adorable toddler, preverbal and a little unsteady, but not yet willful or stubborn. I think Leslie yearns to be needed as a mother in that primal way again. She’s tired of being the chauffeur, the cook, the maid, and misses the snuggles and the adoration.

BZ:  You’ve published quite a few stories—I’d say you’re pretty prolific. How do you decide which stories go in which collection?

MA:    Thanks, Bonnie. I don’t know if I’m prolific or not. Bones of an Inland Sea took ten years to make it to its final form. I did get most of the stories published before the book came out, though. I would say I was definitely prolific in the last year of assembling the book. Once I had the newer, tightly linked shape nailed down, I cranked out five new stories in about three months. I was driven by the finish line at that point and had been thinking about the stories for many years, just hadn’t brought them to print.

That said, I have had stories that I pulled from both of my collections—stories that I thought belonged but then decided they didn’t. For my first collection, Women Up On Blocks, I tried to balance the stories in terms of light vs. dark, first person point of view vs. third person point of view, past tense vs. present tense, etc. For Bones of an Inland Sea, I assembled the stories chronologically so they begin with a shipwreck ghost story in 1886 and end in 2040, on an island made of trash, run by a radical environmentalist.

BZ:  Another favorite in the collection is “¡Vieques!” I love the passion in it and the fact that it’s set in Puerto Rican territory. Nothing like getting to sightsee in fiction. A young woman, Danielle, travels to this Caribbean island with a group of her lesbian friends. She wonders if she fits in because she is uncomfortable dressing in drag and doing burlesque to make money like her friends do. Making fun of men doesn’t feel right.  And yet there are such beautiful passages of sensuality between her and Carlita. Ironically, it is this character that turns up transgendered in another story, in “What Lies Beneath.” What do you think this character went through between the first story and the second?

MA: I think Dani is just trying to figure out where he belongs. He always knew he liked women, but he strongly identified with men, unlike his lesbian friends. I think it takes time to accept who we are when it differs from what society expects of us. Dani has also grown up with a conservative Catholic mother and grandparents. He fights against his own nature for years because he doesn’t realize until his late twenties that he can change how he presents himself to the world. I’m fascinated by the vast spectrum of gender—in both humans and animals. I believe gender is much more fluid—particularly throughout the course of a lifetime—than those with a binary view of gender would have us believe.

BZ: And a whole different aspect of this story that I really like is the wonderful point of view. Much of it is plural first person, but then some of it is singular first person. It all comes together so gracefully. Did you know when you were setting out to write this that the split point of view was going to be present?

MA:   I didn’t. But I played a lot with point-of-view in this collection. There’s a second person POV story, an unreliable narrator with dementia, an epistolary story, a multiple POV story, a story with a tangential narrator, a story with an omniscient narrator, and a story with a brainwashing megaphone POV. So this was just another attempt to play with point of view. A Visit from the Goon Squad has a “we” story that I like a lot, and I loved We the Animals by Justin Torres. I wanted some of that collective voice to exist in my collection. The young women in “¡Vieques!” consider themselves to be a tribe of sorts, so that story was a natural fit for plural first person. The narrators are at that stage of life when they are looking to belong, thrilled and seduced by the idea of a common, collective identity.

BZ:  I know you write both short stories and novels. Do you have a preference? What do you like and dislike about each form?

MA: Well, I like that I have published two collections! I have yet to get a novel published and I’ve finished three and started two more. The nonfiction book I published reads a bit like a novel, though I doubt that counts. Honestly, the shape and size of a novel can feel unruly to me. I struggle to keep the whole thing in my head although I do enjoy the chance to sprawl, to go deep, to write at a more leisurely pace. Starting a novel is like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, staring across that vast expanse and telling yourself that you’re going to hike to the other side. You might get there, but you’ll be exhausted and sore and a changed person by the time you make it down one side, across the river, and climb back up out of that giant inverted mountain.

I like that I can finish a short story more quickly and feel the sense of accomplishment that is so important to me as an artist. I really like finishing things and sending them out into the world to make their own way. Otherwise, what’s the point? Contrary to what some writers say, I don’t write for me. I don’t even write just for the love of writing. I might still write even if no one else ever read my work, but part of my love for the craft would be missing if I wrote novels and stacked them in a drawer. I write in order to reach others, to cross lines and bring to life—and to another brain—an immersive experience that previously existed only in my brain. I’m a storyteller, and I’m not interested in telling stories only to myself. Maybe that makes me less of a purist, less of an artist and more of a craftsperson. If so, I’m okay with that. I am also a potter, and I most enjoy making pots that people will use—mugs and platters and bowls and such. The joy for me exists in the sweet spot of conversation that develops between hand of the potter and the hand of the user, between the mind of the writer and the mind of the reader. It’s so intimate. It’s a form of communion.

BZ:  What are you working on now?

MA:  I’m working on surrendering my expectations. On not fighting so hard that my head gets bloodied from bashing it against the doors of publishing. That sounds like a glib answer, but I promise you it isn’t. Anyone who knows me knows I am a fighter. I’m a bull—very stubborn—and I’m starting to understand that it hasn’t served me well in many ways. I have this dream of seeing my name on a hardcover book—a dream that I’ve nurtured for twenty years, but I’ve realized in the past year or so that somewhere along the way the dream stopped serving as a beacon or a touchstone and instead morphed into an anvil around my neck. That dream has proven elusive, and now it only makes me feel dissatisfied with all of the other things that I have accomplished. So I’m trying like hell to let it go. Striving to let go, to not strive…so…I’m still fighting, I guess. Just fighting to stop fighting. (It’s been a tough, conflicted year.) Anyway, I have a wonderful, bright shining star of an agent now, and I have great confidence in her abilities, so I’m trying to focus on what I can control (the writing) and let her focus on the selling of the writing.

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By | 2016-11-20T17:35:21+00:00 February 3rd, 2015|Bonnie ZoBell Blog, West Coast Interviews|2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Melanie February 5, 2015 at 8:32 am - Reply

    This is a nice interview! Even though I haven’t read the collection, I can follow along and understand what the collection will be like, including it’s themes. Lately, I’ve read a number of interviews that feel quite the opposite! And, to Mary: I understand what you mean by you don’t write for yourself. I often wonder why those who write for themselves publish anything. Perhaps the original project began for the person, but it clearly (to me) ends with the goal of reaching others. I don’t think you’re alone 🙂

  2. Mary Akers February 13, 2015 at 7:19 am - Reply

    Thanks for reading, Melanie! And I’m glad to know I’m not alone. 🙂

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