Monday, March 30, 2009

Michigander Monday: Margaret Mason

I'm pleased to welcome Margaret Mason to Michigander Monday!

Debbie: Tell us a little about yourself.

Margaret: I grew up near Columbus, Ohio, but I hasten to say I was never a Buckeye! (I actually didn’t pay any attention to sports, which is fortunate, because I also attended the University of Michigan for a graduate degree in public health -- and my husband has nothing but green and white Spartan blood flowing through his veins.)

I went to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts for my undergraduate degree and then lived in Washington, D.C. for several years (where I met my husband, who was born in Lansing), working for feminist and advocacy organizations and, for a while, for Bella Abzug. I still have one of her hats! We moved to Detroit in the 1980s. I’ve worked at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan for many years now, developing health care policies and programs. I live in Ferndale, just north of Detroit, and have 3 children. I still think of them as my wee ones, although my oldest is now 21!

Debbie: And, of course, we want to know all about your book!

Margaret: Inside All is my first picture book, recently published by Dawn Publications, a nature inspiration and awareness publisher in California. They are a wonderful group of people to work with. Holly Welch of Minnesota created the illustrations, and as is often the case with authors and illustrators, I’ve never met Holly or spoken to her; it was so much fun to discover the magic of being part of an artistic partnership where we communicated solely through our art.

My favorite description of Inside All comes from my publisher:

Inside All offers children a vision of a vast universe and yet assures them of their place securely within it, guiding the reader from the great universe inward to the Earth, to a valley, to a home, to a hushed and golden space, a warm and enfolding bed – and then to their "pure and glowing" heart within, filled with “all - love overflowing.”
I wanted to convey the notion of the universe as a kind of Matreshka doll -- that we all are connected, and have a place; that we all fit.

Debbie: What a lovely notion and image! Do you have other books and projects on the horizon?

Margaret: My second picture book, These Hands, is due out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Fall 2010. I was thrilled to learn recently that Floyd Cooper is doing the illustrations.

These Hands is based on stories told to me by an old friend and union leader about the experiences of African-Americans working at Wonder Bread and other bakeries during the 1950s and early 60s: they were not allowed to be dough mixers or handlers because management thought that white people would not buy bread that had been touched by black hands.

Debbie: It sounds like an extraordinary book. Tell us, what are some of the most important things you’ve learned so far on your writing journey?

Margaret: That the happiest writing hours come when you’ve managed (to paraphrase Arlo Guthrie) to hook a catch from the great flowing river of artistic ideas that surges through the universe and is available to us all (although, as Arlo points out, some people, like Bob Dylan, seem to catch way more than their fair share), and you’re fully engaged in helping that idea realize its full potential.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert has a similar concept -- hearkening back to the ancient Greeks’ concept of genius as “divine, attendant spirits from distant, unknowable sources that influence creativity” –- that the creative process is a collaboration between the universe and us. You just have to show up, every day, cast out your line, and be patient.

I very much like the idea that I’m not on my own with this writing business – I’ll take the universe as a collaborator any day over the miniscule creative nooks and crannies of my own brain.

I also think it’s important to remember that the “us” includes readers. Writers write for the love of writing, but also, at least some of the time, as a way of connecting with others. I love this quote from Isak Dinesen’s story, Peter and Rosa:

“Imagine that a flute maker did make a flute, and that no one did ever play on it? Would not that be a shame and a great pity? Then, all at once, someone takes hold of it and plays upon it, and the flute maker hears and says, ‘That is my flute!’"
So never, ever give up. Use every rejection as an opportunity to re-examine and re-connect and revise, with the faith that if you’re showing up every day and taking joy in the process, one of those little catches that you are nurturing and nudging and helping to shine will eventually flow through you to its intended audience: your readers.

Debbie: What wonderful and encouraging words for us all to keep in mind!

Do you have any upcoming author appearances?

Margaret: I’m excited (and a little nervous) about my upcoming first school visit: to my sister Mary’s 4th grade classroom in Columbus, Ohio!

Debbie: Your favorite place in Michigan (or places, if you can't settle on just one)

Margaret: Lower Herring Lake and Pickerel Lake, up north, come to mind as sites of many magical family vacations, but I’d like to focus in particular on a somewhat different place: a cemetery...

Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit, on Woodward Avenue just south of 8 Mile, has many rich memories and connections for me. When I first moved to Detroit, an unusual and wonderful older lady who lived across the street (she called herself “Wild and Wacky Daphy”) invited me to walk with her one day, and she took me to what she called her “Pond of Peace” in Woodlawn Cemetery – where I ended up spending many a restorative afternoon, reading under the weeping willow tree, watching my beloved dog Vasco swim in the pond.

Years later, I watched a young friend be buried at Woodlawn, and more recently, with my family, saw Rosa Parks’ funeral procession (complete with a parade of Detroit city buses packed full of people except for the front seats, which were empty – reserved for Rosa - in every bus) end there. Now, I take my kids to Woodlawn to give them driving lessons on its winding, tree-lined lanes. It’s a peaceful, beautiful sanctuary in the city.

Debbie: Your favorite Michigan event or happening?

Margaret: The Dally in the Alley in Detroit (great music, food, camaraderie) and the Dream Cruise alternative: the Ferndale Green Cruise! Also, the June Fair -- an annual fund-raiser for Ferndale’s elementary schools, which enchants wide-eyed little ones (including my own, a few years back) with cake walks, dunk tanks, carnival games and live jazz, and lasts into the evening hours, so kids have the thrill of dashing around on their own in the early summer darkness, squeezing in just a few more ring tosses and air bounces.

Debbie: A few fun Michigan people we should all know about?

Margaret: The best (and wittiest) teacher my kids ever had: Shirley Oleinick, who has worked harder to teach first and second-graders not only to read, but to learn to love reading and writing, than anyone I know. Also Detroit legend Grace Lee Boggs, who at the age of 93 is an inspiring, passionate advocate for human rights and social justice; she counsels young people to “find their piece of the puzzle” and pour their heart and soul into it.

Debbie: Something you'd like a non-Michigander to know about our state?

Margaret: First of all, we do not live in one big cornfield. (When I visited a friend in Manhattan one time, she solicitously greeted me with a basket of fruit – “you can’t get fresh apples in Michigan, can you?”)

Secondly, we have Ferndale! It’s kind of like Provincetown, Stars Hollow, and Greenwich Village, all tumbled together into 3.9 square miles. No matter who you are or where you come from, you will feel comfortable in “Fabulous Ferndale.”

Debbie: Some residents of Michigan refer to themselves as Michiganders; others Michiganians. For our ongoing vote tally: Are you a "Michigander" or a "Michiganian"?

Margaret: I think of myself as a “Midwesterner” – so I had to consult with my husband for this one. He says people who are born here are Michiganders, and that only outlanders say Michiganian. Hmmm… maybe I’ll alternate: Michigander on Monday, Michiganian on Tuesday, et cetera!

Debbie: A perfect compromise! Margaret, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been a pleasure.

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