Interview with Marion Agnew

picture of Marion AgnewMarion Agnew is an editor and writer who lives and works in Shuniah, Ontario. She has worked as an administrator for a federal science improvement grant, a writer-editor, a science education specialist, a senior editor, and as a freelance writer; she has freelanced for software and craft magazine publishers, nonprofit organizations, and educational institutions. Last fall, Agnew and her husband created the publishing company Shuniah House Books. You can find her online at marionagnew.com.

Shauna Kosoris: How did you get your start as a technical writer and editor?

Marion Agnew: When I was in graduate school in a Technical and Expository Writing program in Arkansas, I saw a flyer on a bulletin board—Los Alamos National Laboratory wanted to hire temporary graduate students in its technical communication department. I applied and was accepted. Through grad school I’d been working as an administrator for a science improvement program, and that job involved writing and grants, but the student position at the lab was my first official technical writing job. And it was great! I worked on teams with other writers and scientists to find financial support and recognition for their research projects. Eventually I was hired as a full-time employee in technical writing and I also worked in science education.

You’ve referred to your technical writing as “translating highly technical information for readers.” What’s the most rewarding and challenging aspects of “translating” this technical information for the various experts you have helped over the years?

It’s really fun to work with people who love what they do, and scientists, engineers, and mathematicians are among the most excited and interesting people I’ve met! I had very little formal science or mathematics beyond the intro courses required for my B.A. in English literature. So if scientists can explain their work in a way I can understand, I have a good chance of making their work intelligible to a curious reader. One challenge is that most “regular” people feel they aren’t “smart enough” to understand science, but we all can.

So what brought you here to Thunder Bay?

My mother was born and grew up in Port Arthur. Even though she left in the 1930s, she kept the camp property and brought the family up here every summer. I always loved it. I preferred the summer weather here to the sweltering, suffocating summers of the southern U.S. We also had a lot of freedom at camp. Going back “home” to Oklahoma was always an emotional adjustment. At the age of 8, I announced that “someday” I would live here all year round. My mother thought I’d never be able to handle the winters.

In the early 2000s, I recognized that “someday” had arrived. I started moving (oh, the paperwork!) in late 2004 and became a permanent resident of Canada in the autumn of 2005. Just recently I became a Canadian citizen, so I now hold dual citizenship. I wake up every day feeling so grateful that I never have to leave.

Congratulations!  Along with being a technical writer, you’re also a freelancer. Why did you decide to freelance?

It was partly making a virtue of necessity! I had been working for a publishing company, editing books for tech professionals on subjects such as system security and the Windows NT Registry. In the late 1990s, the tech world was changing so rapidly that the traditional model of book publishing couldn’t keep up, so the books division closed and the company took much of its content online. I could have stayed at the company editing a magazine, but freelancing had always sounded so glamorous that I wanted to give it a try. And it turned out well. Through the years, I’ve enjoyed the chance to pursue interesting work, and I’ve learned a lot. The feast-or-famine nature of independent work doesn’t always feel glamorous, though.

That’s fair. What first drew you to creative nonfiction?

First, a little background for people who may be unfamiliar with the term. Creative nonfiction is an umbrella term for facts and truths presented using the tools of fiction, like dialog and poetic language. Creative nonfiction can take many forms, from recipes to poems to numbered lists or songs, as well as the types of traditional stories we’re used to. It’s a rich world.

I was actually writing creative nonfiction before I knew what it was called. In the late 1990s my brilliant, driven mother developed Alzheimer’s Disease. I didn’t know what her diagnosis really meant. What would her life look like? What care would she need, and when, and how would we know, and would my father be able to provide it? What could I do to help?

So I started writing what she said and did, what I saw, how I felt, what I wished for—the ugly and the sad and the sweet—all as if it were a documentary. I recognized along the way that I wasn’t equipped to write a straightforward “how-to” book. Other people were better-qualified to provide practical information and advice. But I kept writing. I wasn’t sure how or whether it would be published, but I needed to write it down.

Since she died almost 20 years ago, I’ve been learning how to give those scenes and events context and meaning. Some of my writing from that time has become memoir—like a short story except that the events really happened. Some has fueled personal essays, which add reflection and connect to ideas or events in the rest of the world beyond personal experience.

I love writing fiction because anything can happen, even things that could never occur in our universe. And I love writing creative nonfiction because I’m limited to events that really happened, which aren’t as neat and tidy as we might wish. That limit forces me to see meaning and beauty in imperfect, broken fragments.

Thank you for that; I’ve never thought about writing nonfiction in that way! You’ve got two essays coming out in literary journals soon. What can you tell us about them?

Both essays were born in that time of writing about my mother’s disease. They’re part of a collection of linked essays for which I’m seeking a publisher. One essay reflects on the importance of names (“Atomic Tangerine,” coming in the Spring issue of The New Quarterly). The other essay touches on stories about my mother, and the stories we tell about ourselves and each other (“Hours of Daylight,” coming in the Summer issue of Prairie Fire). Each was chosen for publication from that journal’s writing contest.

How exciting! While we’re on the topic of literary journals and contests, what do you find most challenging about writing for them?

It’s taken me a few years, but I think I’ve finally learned that literary journals and contests operate in a different world from that of commercial writing. For one thing, literary journals don’t pay very much.

Also, as a working writer, looking to make a living from magazines or websites or other clients, you have to tailor your writing—even your topic—to a market. If there’s money in writing about software, you do it, even if you’re not especially interested in software. You interview developers, industry analysts, and users and write about them. I certainly did all of that!

Now that I’m lucky enough to focus mostly on creative writing, the biggest challenge for me is remembering that writing comes first. I don’t write with a particular journal or contest in mind. That’s partly because it’s hard to predict what will resonate artistically with strangers, and partly because I write to explore or capture something in writing that interests me.

Matching something I’ve written to a contest or journal comes after I’m 90% sure I’ve said what I want it to. Then I look at the type of work that a journal typically chooses to see if it’s a good fit. The editorial boards at Room and Grain choose different kinds of stories, for example. The online journal Compose is different from either of those journals. Judges for writing contests may prefer more experimental work—or more traditional work—than the journal usually publishes. Choosing a publication takes lots of time and reading to eliminate as many unknowns as you can. TBPL subscribes to some literary journals, which cuts down on the expense. Mostly, landing a piece in a journal requires persistence when you hear “no.” Which everyone does.

One of my essays is having a heck of a time finding a home. I’ve received lots of positive feedback on it, and a couple of publications (and several patient readers) have suggested specific ways to shift the essay’s focus. They may all be “right,” and if I made those changes, it might find a publisher, but that’s not what I want to do. In its most recent revision, I say that almost directly—“this essay is not about X, it’s about Y.” We’ll see how that’s received! I would rather not have it published, or put it on my own website, than change the purpose of that piece. Yes, I’m stubborn, and that shows how privileged I am—I don’t have to sell the essay to pay the mortgage.

What can you tell us about the novel you’ve written?

I’ve learned so much from writing it. Currently called Making Up the Gods, it’s about how an eight-year-old boy, a seventy-year-old widow, and a middle-aged man choose to find or make meaning for their lives. I am desperately in love with these people. In January, I read from the novel at a NOWW event. Listening to it as an outsider and watching the audience respond made me realize I want to revise it yet again. I want to push these characters a bit further and see them really shine.

What are you working on now?

Submission materials, mostly. For my book-length essay collection, I’m sending pitch letters and marketing plans to publishers, and each publisher has different requirements for submissions. I had started looking for an agent for my novel but that’s shelved until this revision is finished.

And, of course, the occasional essay or short story still intrudes from time to time. I’m also antsy to start my second novel, which has been percolating for years. I never lack for projects!

To finish up, I’d like to ask you a few questions about what you like to read. What book or author inspired you to write?

Gosh, all of them. I don’t necessarily try to write like the writers whose work I enjoy reading, though—I’d be too intimidated. I just allow their energy to infuse me.

I love to watch writers play—like Jack Finney’s Time and Again and Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life. I love fiction that’s about something important, like Closer to Hugh and Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott, or At Hawthorne Time by Melissa Harrison. I really like a good, accessible nonfiction collection, like Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. These last two titles are also about humans in the natural world, one of my current interests.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

I highly recommend Medicine Walk, by Richard Wagamese. He is greatly missed. I took his workshop when he was here a few years ago; it was incredible. Indian Horse is on my to-be-read pile—I want to read it before seeing the movie.

In nonfiction, Indigenous Writes by Chelsea Vowell. We could all benefit from reading, considering, and discussing this book.

I also recommend the CBC podcast Missing and Murdered (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/findingcleo). Season 1 investigated the murder of an indigenous woman in BC; Season 2 is tracking down information about a child adopted in the 60s Scoop. The podcast is “about” death and crimes, but it’s really about so much more. The team, especially lead reporter Connie Walker, does an excellent job of setting these stories in context in a way that’s helped me better understand some of the fractures among the peoples that live on this continent.

And what are you currently reading?

I just finished a deep dive into Marilynne Robinson’s novel trilogy: Gilead, Home, and Lila. For me, they’re like an afternoon with my father as he spins story after story, some connected and some not, about his life. Which is to say, they’re not to everyone’s taste, but I enjoyed them.

Cradle of the Deep

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