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Interview with Mary Vermillion

Ever since I could read, I wanted to be a writer. Words seemed powerful and magic, and although I wouldn’t have put it this way, I was in awe of the writer/reader relationship. I wanted to introduce total strangers to new worlds, new feelings, new ideas. I also wanted to create books. I loved their physicality, their seeming permanence. But on a less lofty note, I probably started my writing career with a bad poem about autumn that all elementary students are forced to write. I also have a clear memory of writing my own Encyclopedia Brown stories.

I recently reviewed Mary Vermillion’s debut novel Death by Discount for NewPages. The off-beat amateur sleuth adventure is an entertaining and provocative variation on themes, styles, and characters in traditional Golden Age detective fiction. After reading her novel, I did a little sleuthing of my own and tracked the author down (via email) at her Mount Mercy College office where she is associate professor of English. In addition to teaching undergraduates at the prestigious Iowa college, and in addition to being a professional author of detective fiction (with a second novel on the horizon), Ms. Vermillion, a graduate of St. Mary College and University of Iowa, has somehow found time also to write and publish scholarly works on diverse topics ranging from Samuel Richardson to post-feminism. This busy writer-scholar-teacher and I conversed recently during email conversations, and here are the results of those conversations:


TIM DAVIS: Before we talk more specifically about Death by Discount, let me begin by asking the conventional opening questions. How did you become a writer? When did you begin?

MARY VERMILLION: That’s a big question. Ever since I could read, I wanted to be a writer. Words seemed powerful and magic, and although I wouldn’t have put it this way, I was in awe of the writer/reader relationship. I wanted to introduce total strangers to new worlds, new feelings, new ideas. I also wanted to create books. I loved their physicality, their seeming permanence.

But on a less lofty note, I probably started my writing career with a bad poem about autumn that all elementary students are forced to write. I also have a clear memory of writing my own Encyclopedia Brown stories.

In high school, college, and grad school, I took plenty of creative writing courses, and I wrote a whole range of stuff: poems, short stories, essays, science-fiction. I wrote and directed my own play in college. But I was intimidated by the idea of writing a novel even though it has always been my favorite genre (and the one that I focus on in my scholarly writing). My fear faded after I completed my dissertation. Since its length matched most novels’, I developed confidence in my discipline and staying-power. I was also tired of jumping through academic hoops, and I finally figured out that I should write the type of thing that had always brought me the most pleasure as a reader. Writing Death by Discount is the most fun I’ve ever had at the keyboard.

TD: Do you consider yourself now principally a teacher (university professor and writer of scholarly articles) or writer of fiction? What was the path that led you to become a university professor? Are there conflicts (or advantages) with the dual roles?

MV: I see myself as both a teacher and a writer. I’ve always wanted to be both. I see them both as “helping professions.” As a teacher, I help my students develop their knowledge of literature, their thinking and writing skills. As a fiction writer, I “help” my readers by providing them with entertainment, food for thought, and—I hope—some insight about their own lives and world.

My writing and teaching complement one another. When I teach, I draw upon my experiences as a writer, and they increase my credibility—and my empathy—for student writers. Conversely, when I assist students with their writing, I strengthen my own. The content of my freshman writing course—Writing and Social Issues—contributed to Death by Discount and my desire to write a mystery series that portrays social injustices. My interactions with college students also shaped the many young characters in Death by Discount—Stu Two, Collin, Talia, and Parker. My next novel, Murder by Mascot, will be set in Iowa City, the university town where I live, so it will also feature several college students.

The primary conflict with my dual roles is time and energy. Writing and teaching are both so consuming and absorbing.

The path that led me to become a university professor? When I started college, I wanted to be a high school English teacher, but the education courses just weren’t “me.” I realized that I wouldn’t enjoy the disciplinarian/chaperone aspect of high school teaching, so I decided to go the post-secondary route. From the time I started the PhD program at the University of Iowa, I wanted to teach at a small liberal arts college like the one I attended (Saint Mary College in Leavenworth, KS). I was lucky. At Mount Mercy College (Cedar Rapids, IA), I get to teach a huge range courses and produce several types of writing. I love the opportunity to be eclectic. I love getting to know my students and seeing them grow during their college years.

TD: What kinds of writing experiences led up to Death by Discount? Certainly Mara Gilgannon is a long way from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, and status of women in 18th-century novels, and your other research interests? Or is she? How long had this project been “in the works” before finally being published?

MV: Although Mara has little in common with the likes of Clarissa, she has a lot in common with me. Sleuths, in general, have a lot in common with literary and cultural critics. Both are relentless questioners and researchers. Both sift through details in an attempt to examine patterns and relationships. Both (with the possible exception of deconstructionists) chase after some sort of truth (even if it’s with a small t). Both believe that order and meaning can be found or made in the midst of chaos.

In some way, all my writing experiences led to Death by Discount. Like many of the eighteenth-century novelists I study, I’m a novelist who has been strongly influenced by the theatre. I double-majored in theatre and English as an undergrad, and I often draw upon my acting and directing skills when writing a scene. Some of my characters—Mara and Vince—are themselves involved in the theatre.

I worked on Death by Discount for about a year and half (over a span of four years) before submitting it for publication. My second novel, Murder by Mascot, is going much faster—in part because I’m more experienced and in part because I have a deadline.

TD: Death by Discount will attract, I think, a diverse audience. Who do you see as the target audience for your novel? Who are your readers?

MV: My target audiences were LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people, mystery fans, people from small towns (especially Midwestern ones), and people concerned about Wal-Mart and other social justice issues. As far as I can tell, my actual readers are mostly from those groups.

TD: What kinds of reactions—among readers and critics—have you gotten? Any surprises?

MV: I feel really honored that I’ve been short-listed for two Lambda Awards: Lesbian Debut Fiction and Lesbian Mystery. I was glad to see that InsightOut Books devoted a full-page ad to my novel in a recent circular. Most readers and critics have been very positive. They say that the whodunit kept them guessing, they like the novel’s humor and romance, and they say they’ve learned a lot about Wal-Mart. Midwestern readers say that I’ve really “nailed” small-town culture. One young man bought my novel as a gift for his father, who lost his job because of Wal-Mart.

Some readers have seemed surprised that Death by Discount (with the exception of the Wal-Mart critique) is fairly traditional. The violence occurs “offstage,” as does the sex, (although I devote quite a bit of “stage time” to flirtation).

The surprises I’ve received? One of them actually came from the final sentence of your review in NewPages, where you mentioned the theme of “economic paranoia.” I hadn’t perceived my characters’ worries about Wal-Mart as paranoid, although I can see how their single-mindedness and zeal might be interpreted that way. I was also surprised by a reviewer in Bottom Line who praised my “polemic” against Wal-Mart. Certainly, I’m no fan of the store, but in my depiction of a public forum about Wal-Mart (inc Chapters 18 and 20), I tried to give both “sides” of the issue. I tried to show why poor people—especially in isolated areas with few jobs or stores—might see Wal-Mart as a boon. But I guess my bias came through loud and clear.

TD: Why the amateur detective novel? Is there something about the amateur sleuth or detective novel form that you find particularly well-suited to your purposes in this novel? Do you consider your novel a mystery or perhaps something else?

MV: The amateur detective novel is my favorite type of mystery. I like the idea that the ordinary person can find the truth and seek justice, that one person can make a difference. The amateur detective novel celebrates the “little guy,” the power of the individual to succeed where large organizations fail. In that sense, it is an ideal literary form for depicting a small town’s battle against Wal-Mart.

I see Death by Discount primarily as a whodunit, but also as a political novel (and to some extent, a comedy of manners).

TD: Have you encountered any professional backlash because of it? (I can’t help noting that detective and mystery fiction often gets an unjustifiable bad rap from academia, even though W. H. Auden, one of the genre’s most famous supporters, tried to valorize it through his analysis and praise of the form, and even though many prestigious academics—including Robert B. Parker [with Ph.D. in English] and many, many others—have been tremendously successful authors in the genre.)

MV: No, I haven’t encountered any backlash, but I have encountered a lot of people who find it surprising or interesting that I write both literary criticism and mystery fiction.

Many academics—especially those who engage in cultural studies—are starting to have more respect for genre fiction. Mysteries, in particular, are gaining more respect as they become more character-oriented and less plot-oriented, as they devote more attention to place and history. Mystery-reading is a fun way to encounter other cultures. Read Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, and learn about Cuban Americans. Read Erin Hart, and learn about Irish history. Read Stephanie Barron, and experience Jane Austen’s world.

TD: Harold Bloom talks about writers always working against the anxiety of influence from other writers. But let’s face it, all writers are, in fact, influenced by others—either positively as models or examples of what to avoid. That being said, what detective novels (or other literary and cultural influences) most interest you or, in writing this novel, most influenced you? I know you have commented elsewhere on Sara Paretsky and Ellen Hart. Who else comes to mind?

MV: My earliest literary influences were Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy. I remember toting around a notebook, pretending to be Harriet, recording people’s conversations. As for more direct influences on Death by Discount? Janet Dawson’s depiction of homelessness in Nobody’s Child made me want to create a mystery series that explores issues of social justice. Gillian Roberts, Joan Hess, and Janet Evanovich energized me with their humor. I owe a huge debt to several other writers with strong female detectives or sleuths: Laurie King, Sandra Scoppetone, Linda Barnes, Charlaine Harris—and, of course, Sara Paretsky and Ellen Hart. Even though Hart writes in third person, and I write in first, she is probably my biggest influence. My favorite lesbian sleuth is Hart’s Jane Lawless, and I absolutely adore Jane’s comic sidekick, Cordelia Thorn. Cordelia was a big inspiration for Mara’s friend, Vince.

My writing has also been shaped by several types of fiction and writing that I teach: satire, social criticism, and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English novels—especially industrial ones.

TD: We all know that the detective and mystery genres, as someone famous once advised, requires that you have a dead body as soon as possible and as dead as possible. In Death by Discount, your victim (or should I say your first victim) becomes something like the victim in Greek tragedy (with violence almost always occurring offstage and the drama itself focusing on the “hows-and-whys” of the tragic consequences). How did you come to choose your victim?

MV: I wanted someone close (but not too close) to my sleuth, someone Mara had “issues” with. Gladys “Glad” McAuley fits that bill. She is the long-time partner of Mara’s Aunt Zee. The two women, who own and manage an independent radio station together, took Mara in when she came out at age sixteen. As I say in my novel,  “raising a teenager wasn’t on Glad’s top-ten list of cherished dreams.” So while Mara tries to uncover the truth about Glad’s murder, she also attempts to discover the truth about her own relationship with the dead woman. Mara tries to understand Glad herself. Of course, Glad also works as a victim because she is a fairly public figure embroiled in the Wal-Mart controversy: she and Zee have been using their radio station to campaign against Wal-Mart.

TD: Your protagonist is provocative and compelling. Talk a bit about her “genesis” and development. What did you admire about her when creating her? What surprised you? If you were forced to explain your protagonist in one word, what is the word?

MV: Like most fictional characters, mine have a bit of their author in them. Mara, in particular, has several surface things in common with me. When I started Death by Discount, we were both 35. We were both raised Catholic, we both grew up as lesbians in don’t-ask-don’t-tell small-town Iowa, and we both moved to Iowa City. My high school job was almost exactly like Mara’s. I deejayed at a tiny radio station next to a cornfield. Mara and I also share some tastes and personality traits. We’re both bookworms who worship Nancy Drew, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen. We’re both tenacious, or stubborn—however you want to put it. We both use our sense of humor to survive life’s rough patches. In some respects, Mara is a more cynical version of myself, perhaps a vent for the cynicism that I don’t want to cultivate in my own life.

Of course, I didn’t set out to make her that. I simply wanted her to have lots of problems, lots of conflict. A lot of Mara’s history, her back story, evolved as I worked on the novel’s supporting cast. For instance, Mara is constantly thwarted by her boss, Orchid Paine, an old-style, über-politically correct lesbian. Mara is obsessing over an ex who dumped her and moved in with this boss. Mara is trying to move on and date other women, but her housemate Vince—and his drag queen entourage—make it difficult for her to bring anyone home.

What I most admire about Mara is her spontaneity and penchant for risk-taking I was surprised by the depth of Mara’s insecurities, but I probably shouldn’t have been. Tough exteriors are just that—exteriors. I was pleasantly surprised by how real she has become to me. As I go about my daily business, I find myself thinking about what she (or Vince) would say in tight or amusing situations. I find myself missing her and wishing I could show her things.

Mara in one word? Obsessive.

TD: Why did you choose the Wal-Mart controversy as such a central issue? (Have you had any reactions from the folks at Wal-Mart about the company being included? But, of course, I imagine they may not be aware; and we know that can we be certain that Death by Discount is not being sold in Wal-Mart?)

MV: I grew up in a small town like Aldoburg (Atlantic, IA), and for a long time, I’ve been saddened by its dwindling population and struggling downtown, saddened by the death of small-town culture in general. As I was thinking about its causes, Wal-Mart came to mind right away. Sure, you’ve got railroad closings and the farm crisis, but everybody knows Wal-Mart destroys downtowns—and not just small-town ones. Iowa City is a thriving university town, but its downtown has been hurt by the discount giant. Once I started researching Wal-Mart, I was shocked. It was a case of truth being stranger—and more horrible—than fiction. If I had tried to create a fictional version of an evil mega-store—a bad global citizen—I wouldn’t have made it as bad as Wal-Mart. It just wouldn’t have seemed believable. I got good and angry, and that fueled my writing.

I haven’t heard anything from Wal-Mart, but the store is selling my novel online. Talk about irony.

TD: Your protagonist is not the “traditional” sleuth, I suppose in part because you want to feature a lesbian as protagonist. Do you consider her sexuality merely incidental or instead critical to your story?

MV: Both. On one hand, I want readers to see her sexuality as no big deal, just one facet of her personality. I don’t like literature that is too self-consciously lesbian or that focuses too narrowly on “lesbian experience”—whatever that means. Our culture (especially the Right) is already way too obsessed with homosexuality.

On the other hand, all marginalized groups hunger for sympathetic and honest representations of themselves. I’ve always thirsted for novels with complex lesbian characters. Even though there have been lots more of these books in recent years, there are still not enough. I also believe that Mara’s lesbianism and the lesbianism of her aunts place them outside the mainstream, thus sharpening their critique of Wal-Mart and the mainstream values it represents. Of course, the careers of these characters also pit them against “big business.” Mara deejays at an alternative radio station, and her aunts run a small independent rural station.

TD: Your novel explores Wal-Mart’s values in a public forum where the characters hotly debate whether they want Wal-Mart in their town. Can you say more about the values you believe the store represents?

MV: I see the store as a symptom of our culture’s hyper-consumerism. We equate freedom with purchasing power and with the so-called choice to buy an ever-increasing (I’d say overwhelming) number of products. We value convenience and low prices over practically everything else. We don’t think about the big picture, the global community, or the long-term. If we did, Wal-Mart would be out of business.

TD: Why the “sidebar” focus on Matthew Shepherd? Were you concerned that allusion to Shepherd’s story would try to make too much of a “statement” about a thematic strand that may be already clearly represented by the characters in the book?

MV: I wasn’t afraid of making a statement, but the novel really isn’t about hate crime. If anything, I was more interested in showing how “everyday” types of homophobia can exhaust gay people. Maybe I included Matthew Shepard as a highly public, dramatic, and horrible example of the hostility many small-town gay people face.

TD: Unless I misread your story, the intolerant folks in Aldoburg—when everything is resolved and when Mara returns to Iowa City—remain rather unchanged. Their attitudes about the important issues seem immutable. Or is there hope for the Aldoburgians? Would Mara (along with Vince, Aunt Zee, and notable others) ever feel as though they “fit in” in close-minded Aldoburg? What is the (specific and more universal) outlook?

MV: You’re right that the intolerant characters in Aldoburg remain relatively unchanged, but I’d also like to point out that many of them are already accepting of Zee and Glad’s relationship, if only in an understated Midwestern let’s-not-use-the-L-word kind of way. So I do think that there is hope for these characters and for increased understanding and appreciation of LGBT people in general. I consider it a hopeful sign that many straight people from my hometown and from other small towns have enjoyed my book. And despite some pretty nasty backlash, we LGBT people experience a lot more acceptance and affirmation than we did when I was a child. The backlash is a sign that homophobia is on the wane in the mainstream.

TD: Am I wrong when I think Vince was a bit short-changed in the story? I looked for him to become more involved in the investigation? Do you think he will appear again in future books with Mara? We will see her again, won’t we?

MV: I originally conceived of Vince as a sidekick, but his humor and exuberance took on a life of their own. He’ll appear in all the Mara Gilgannon books. The next one, Murder by Mascot, is due out in December 2006. The social justice issue that it features is the underside of college sports—more specifically, homophobia in women’s basketball and sexual violence in men’s.

Incidentally, you might be interested in a brief description of Murder by Mascot, part of the proposal that I sent to my editor:

Nothing can make Mara Gilgannon abandon her quest for a Serious Talk with Officer Neale Warner, her geographically and emotionally distant girlfriend. But then a star Hawkeye hoopster charged with raping a player on the women’s team is killed underneath the sculpture unofficially known as Drag Queen Herky. Plenty of folks had reason to dash the center’s head against the campy mascot’s beak, and Mara starts investigating them as a favor to Bridget Stokes, an assistant coach of the women’s basketball team. The cute butch wants to establish her players’ innocence and to protect the confidentiality of the rape victim. She also wants to protect the team’s heterosexual image even though the front-court produces more dyke drama than The L Word. Mara soon finds herself enmeshed in her own drama when her ex is arrested for the murder. Determined to save the day—and to squelch her feelings for the quasi-closeted Bridget—Mara interrogates a full roster of suspects, alienates her girlfriend, angers university big wigs, and searches for clues to her One True Love.

TD: Other than Mara and Vince, both of whom really ought to appear again, are you working on any other projects for the future? What are the plans?

MV: I plan to continue with the Mara Gilgannon series. At some point, I’d also like to try my hand at creative non-fiction.

TD: Finally, do you have any other comments you want to offer preemptively in response to questions I have asked or questions you wish I had asked?

MV: I hope readers check out my website www.maryvermillion.com. It’s still under construction, but it will soon feature several links about writing, mysteries, LGBT issues, and Wal-Mart.

Interview conducted March 1, 2005

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