Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Inkpot Interviews: Marsha Qualey

Since Hamline’s own Lady Em Fak (otherwise known as Marsha Q) has generously interviewed grads and faculty members about their most recent books, it seemed only fair to turn the tables and interview Marsha about her new novel, Venom and the River: A Novel of Pepin. The novel is available as an e-book through Untreed Reads. —Liza Ketchum

Q: Please describe the story. 
A: Leigh Burton, a former, disgraced journalist working and living under the radar in tiny Pepin, Minnesota, faces exposure and gets sucked into mayhem when several hundred ardent (and adult) fans of a children’s book series descend on Pepin, the hometown of the series’ author.

Q: This new novel is written for adults, rather than for your usual YA audience. What were the major differences in writing for an adult vs. a teen reader? Were you conscious of a different approach in your choice of subject matter, voice, or characters? A: My first steps were the same steps I take when writing a YA: envisioning the scenario and the main characters. The differences emerged once that daydreaming work was done and I understood the set-up (the fans and the woman trying to avoid the fans and why they were in the same town). Those differences all grew out of character: Leigh, a forty-something woman, will respond to situations differently than a teenage girl, and she will create and require different complications. Also, there’s more wine drinking.

Q: As the story progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about? When did you first begin work on Venom? When did you finish?
A: It took me about three years to finish the draft, longer than any previous novel. Then I had to find an agent. Another year, maybe. Once I did, she requested and I delivered a revision. The major change was a huge one: Originally the novel had 5 POV characters, and my agent told me to make it Leigh’s story. So I deleted two of those characters entirely and pushed another two into secondary roles. This required me to deepen Leigh’s story and to kill more than a few darlings. The blood was flowing in my office, I tell you.

Q: Venom takes place in Minnesota, in a region you know well. Did you need to do additional research for this novel? If so, how did that research inform or change the story?
A: It’s set along the Mississippi River, near a section called Lake Pepin, and I made quite a few day trips to the area as I needed to know what Leigh would see at the river’s edge. I focused on the town of Wabasha, Minnesota. Though Wabasha is larger than my imaginary Pepin (the real Pepin is in Wisconsin, across the river) it served nicely as an anchor. BTW, Grumpy Old Men was filmed in Wabasha.

Q: We have often heard you speak about your passion for the Betsy Tacy series of books, as well as your interest in the Maud Hart Lovelace Society How did that involvement influence the story?
A: I’ve been very involved in the MHLS since the mid-nineties, and that involvement triggered the whole darn thing. Well, that and my burning desire after writing nine novels about teen girls to write about a mother of a teen girl.

Q: Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are (e.g., live-action writing group; online writing group; editor; agent). When do you share a piece of writing?
A: I share only when I have a completed draft. As for readers … once upon a time my editor—I had only one during my YA writing years—was my first reader. Then she and a couple of book-world friends and a daughter were Venom’s first readers. And now? Thank goodness for people you meet when teaching in a low-residency writing program.

Q: Venom and the River reads more like a traditional mystery than some of your previous novels. Did your story grow more from plot than from character, or did those two elements work together?
A: Plot grew out of character, and it’s related to the adult v. YA question above. I needed the story to have some energy, and that sure wasn’t going to come from a plot that focuses on a middle-aged woman who’s being forced to confront the mistakes she’s made, which is pretty much the emotional scenario of this and so many other adult novels. So to conjure up the energy, I delved into what would happen because Leigh’s an outsider (a stranger arrives!). It was natural her involvement would unravel the fan’s world just as those fans unravel hers.

Q: You use humor to good effect in Venom. Is it hard to “write funny”? Do you have a favorite funny word?
A: Thank you. For me humor is partly the result of a good vocabulary and a sense of rhythm. The right word at the right moment—zing. I think putter is a funny word.

Q: Venom’s subtitle—A Novel of Pepin—makes me wonder if this is one in a series. If so, would subsequent novels feature any of the same characters?
A: No plans for a series. The title was a gift from the editor, and the subtitle is more about marketing as we wanted to catch the interest of Little House fans.

Q: What are your favorite books to teach? What titles would you recommend to a student working on a mystery?
I love teaching books where structure is obviously in play—where the chapter stops and starts are exemplary, where devices and POV choices are used well, where Time is a factor. Mysteries or suspense stories I frequently recommend include Blank Confession (
Pete Hautman), Trapped in Death Cave (Bill Wallace), and The Rules of Survival (Nancy Werlin).

Q: You mentioned, in a blog post, that you are writing a “space opera murder mystery” with your daughter. Interesting! Could you describe your collaborative process?
A: At this point, she’s educating me. I’d never heard the term “space opera” before. Now I’m reading lots of
Neil deGrasse Tyson and some fiction. We’ve already discarded one effort (a dystopian thingee that we both lost interest in quickly). But we’re gathering steam now as we bat plot and character ideas back and forth. That’s about as far as it’s gone, frankly. I’ve already insisted on suggested to her that we use the writing process (MFAC faculty member) Emily Jenkins described to me. When she (as E. Lockhart) and two other writers were collaborating on How to be Bad they took turns adding fresh stuff, the material making the rounds with no editing and no critiquing until they were well into the first draft. Until then, everyone’s contribution was deemed fabulous. How wise was that!

Q: Venom and the River has been published as an e-book. Do you feel you’ve embarked on a new adventure in publishing?
A: Oh, Liza, every new novel is an adventure. But, yes, I do. Just the speed of this takes my breath away. My agent negotiated the contract in April 2013, I was doing copyedits at residency, and the e-book was released in late July 2013. This post-release period is odd. How does one launch an e-book? How does one gather one’s friends to celebrate? What if one’s friends or relatives don’t have a reading device? I’ve had some complaints about it not being a real book, which is true, I guess. But it is a real novel, and I’m holding on to that.

For more information about Marsha Qualey’s books, visit her website.


  1. Q, it is truly a real book and I will have to break down and finally buy an e=reader so I can read it. I so admire and appreciate how you have kept current by trying new forms and markets to find readers. Look forward to more scoops about writing with your daughter. Great interview, LIza

  2. A story is a story no matter what the form. And I loved this book. The strong voice and biting humor reminded me a bit of Jincy Willet's latest, AMY FALLS DOWN.

  3. I, too, loved this novel! And I wish you'd write a sequel... :0)