This month I had the pleasure of interviewing Martha Engber, whose new novel Winter Light won the 2021 Gold Medal IPPY Award for Young Adult Fiction. Adding to the fun was discovering that we both grew up in the Chicago suburbs around the same time–which turns out to be the setting for Winter Light, the story 15-year-old Mary Donahue, a smart but troubled kid navigating the brutal hand life has dealt her.
Engber who received a journalism degree before working as a freelance reporter for the Chicago Tribune, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other national publications, is also also a freelance editor and workshop facilitator. Her writing career has included work in a wide variety of genres, including newspaper articles, poems, essays, and plays. Besides Winter Light, Mary is the author of two other books: The Wind Thief, a literary novel, and Growing Great Characters From the Ground Up: A Thorough Primer for the Writers of Fiction and Nonfiction.
TZ: First off, big congratulations on winning the IPPY Award, which recognizes “the year’s best independently published titles from around the world.” Why did you decide to publish Winter Light independently? Any second thoughts on taking that route?
ME: Thank you, Terra!
I began writing Winter Light in the early 2000s, primarily because Mary was such an insistent character who kept taunting me, as in, You lived such an privileged life. What do you know about those of us who don’t have it so easy? To which I had no answer. I tried to get an agent, but by then the publishing industry had changed toward favoring those who already have big social media presences, which I didn’t have at the time. So I began looking for suitable small publishers and found Vine Leaves Press, for which I was — and am — very grateful!
TZ: Winter Light explores teenage life, but it explores themes and involves life challenges that would resonate with older readers as well. It is also strikingly different in both setting and genre from you first novel. Why did you decide to write this novel for a young adult audience?
I didn’t! I wrote this as a straight up literary novel like the kind chosen and discussed by book clubs. I organized my marketing around those like myself, who grew up during that era and who enjoyed other gritty literary stories featuring teens in tough situations: The Outsiders, Lord of the Flies, Bless the Beasts and the Children. When Jessica Bell, publisher of VLP, categorized my book as young adult, feeling that would be the best marketing move, I was really startled. But then she said not to worry and to keep targeting those I felt were my readers, which has worked great.
TZ: What, if anything, do you think distinguishes “Young Adult” novels from “literary fiction” that happens to have a young adult protagonist?
ME: I don’t actually think there’s a difference between literary books and literary YA books. “Literary” focus on human nature, and specifically, why people do what they do. Literary YA — as opposed to the many different YA genres of romance, mystery, thriller, etc. — simply has a teen protagonist. Should anyone in this community also be a writer, I’m going to teach a live webinar for SavvyAuthors, the fabulous online writing class website, titled Edgy YA: Don’t Dumb It Down! on Sept. 10. In terms of writing literary YA fiction, it’s absolutely necessary to avoid self-censorship that can arise when authors worry about exposing young readers to the gritty side of life.
TZ: The authenticity of the story, including the dialogue, and the snarky voice of a highly introspective teenager made me think of Catcher in The Rye—and, of course, this book is explicitly mentioned in the novel. Was that intentional, and were there other YA books that you consider models?
ME: Yes, the reference to Catcher in the Rye is intentional. The image of Holden Caulfield in a field of rye, wishing he could capture people before they fall over a cliff, seemed a perfect metaphor for Mary. She doesn’t think she’s in nearly as much trouble as she is, yet she’s running toward that cliff. And I definitely called upon other such books I read as a kid, including To Kill a Mockingbird. What was so important to me as a young reader was that the authors of these books didn’t dismiss me as a kid, but instead treated me as a person who was experiencing big, important, and sometimes scary things in my life. That’s why those books are classics, because the struggles — abandonment, loss, desperation, survival — are universal, no matter what in what era the story takes place.
TZ: Winter Light starts off with a famous Chicago blizzard, one that certainly brought back memories since I myself grew up in that area during the 1970s. You include many other familiar cultural references (including “bright pink coconut-covered Sno Balls”). How do you think today’s young adult readers will relate these bits of “ancient” history? And which parts of the setting do you think are most likely to resonate with them?
ME: I love, love, love to learn through the fiction I read, which is one of the reasons I feel so at home at VLP, because the press publishes books from around the world. Given my book is “historic fiction,” any young readers would be similarly interested in learning about past times, just as I loved reading about the clothes and cultural behavior portrayed in books like Jane Eyre, published in1847. In terms of what young readers might find most resonating, I have to assume it’s Mary’s struggle to become a better person despite the obstacles she faces, a situation all of us face at some point.
TZ: Let’s talk a bit about character, a subject that clearly interests you since you wrote a whole book on the subject. Many of the characters in the book are vividly and believably developed, some presumably inspired by your own experiences. You even dedicate the book to your mother, who you call your personal version of the character “Mrs. McCarthy.” Was there also some version of Mary in your life? Kathleen?
ME: Yes, Mary and Kathleen — and all of the characters — stem from the various social groups in my high school. Mary is a burnout, Kathleen is a prep (wannabe!), then there are jocks, geeks and the theater kids. My experience was closest to Kathleen’s, though I was much more of an observer and at the edge of my social group. In that space, the burnouts fascinated (and scared) me, primarily because they posed an oxymoron. They were very smart and independent, yet they seemed set on failing in life. Why would they do that? Winter Light is the journey I took to learn the answer.
TZ: Have you always wanted to write fiction, or is that something that developed out of your career as a journalist? And how did your experiences as a journalist shape you as a fiction writer?
ME: I’ve always wanted to write: journals, essays, articles. In second grade I wrote my first book, Flawrs — “flowers” — and tried to write fiction in high school, but got lost. I just assumed my parents would freak if I asked to get a degree in creative writing, so I chose journalism, the only form of paid writing I knew about. After about five years as a journalist, I began writing fiction and immediately realized fiction was nothing like nonfiction. A long way to say I was terrible! So I had to start from scratch. Growing Great Characters stemmed from what I learned about trying to develop an emotional bridge between characters and readers. I’m happy to say I use my journalism every day to research stories and pick and choose the exact details that move characters on their journeys.
TZ: You thank your writers group in the acknowledgements. This made me smile, as Late Last Night Books itself grew out of a writers’ group I was part of many years ago. What role have writing groups played in your creative process generally and in the development of Winter Light specifically?
ME: I love my writing group! I also now have a huge group of fellow writers with whom I trade feedback. The value of both is this: getting a read-through from a writer friend can give you an overview of your book and the major changes you should consider making. When you move your book chapter-by-chapter through a critique group, that’s when the story gets put under a microscope and everything gets checked: concepts, details, structure, etc. Many iterations of Winter Light went through my group, which was one of the main reasons for the book’s success.
TZ: Over the years you’ve not only written fiction, non-fiction, and plays but served as a writing coach and seminar leader. What’s up next?
ME: A memoir! I’ve just signed a contract with VLP for Bliss Road (June 2023). Here’s the summary:
Through this hybrid of poetry and essays, Martha Engber provides insight into what it’s like to be the child of an undiagnosed high-functioning autistic parent. Sometimes funny, often devastating, this honest and moving self-help memoir will illuminate a neurological condition that affects over 40 million people worldwide, and in the process encourage others to chase down the source of their family angst to reach a more blissful future.
I’ll also be teaching at the San Francisco Writers Conference in February 2022.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to connect with your community, Terra! In turn, I invite readers and writers to connect with me!