About author, Martha Woodroof: Martha was a regular contributor to NPR news programs, and now writes for npr.org. She has also written for Martketplace and Weekend America, and for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities Radio Feature Bureau. Her print essays have appeared in such newspapers as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The San Francisco Chronicle. She lives with her husband in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Their closest neighbors are cows.
How long have you been writing? I got my first rejection letter at the age of twelve from the poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly. As it was a personal letter asking me to send in more stuff, I took that as encouragement.
You’ve done quite a bit of freelancing for NPR. How did that come about? I met NPR’s Wendy Kaufman back in the 1980’s at a party in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’d just switched from local television to local radio (because, among other things, I got tired of answering questions about my hair), and I’d fallen in love with the story-telling possibilities of sound-only broadcast production. Wendy said I should come work with NPR.
Not being shy, I phoned up Jay Kernis (a big-deal NPR news producer at the time) and cheerfully badgered him into seeing me. I arrived toting a long, mostly-unedited interview with the late, great Blues singer, John Jackson. Jay – bless his heart – listened to it all, told me I was a great interviewer, but had no idea what I was doing technically. He said (kindly, but firmly) that I should come back when I learned something about radio production. And so I did.
I took a break from radio for a decade or so to begin recovering from alcoholism and do some other worthwhile things, then went back – freelancing for NPR and npr.org mostly on books and publishing as well as being a happy part of WMRA public radio in Harrisonburg, VA.
What else have you done since college? Well, let’s start with college.
I dropped out of Mount Holyoke College in the Sixties mainly because I wanted to experience rather than study. A decade-and-a-half later I talked my way into graduate school at the University of Virginia (MFA program in theater) and then dropped out of that. So, I’m actually a double college dropout. Mainly because I am, as my second-ex-grandfather-in-law once put it, a flibbertigibbet.
My first real job was as a teacher’s aide in a pilot Head Start program in Greensboro, North Carolina.
After that – among a lot of other things, I co-owned restaurants based on my cooking, did quite a bit of acting, got fired as a magazine editor, hosted local TV talk shows and anchored the news, wrote a book called How to Stop Screwing Up: 12 Steps to a Real Life and a Pretty Good Time, cooked for an artist’s colony, was a country music disc jockey and a psychiatric occupational therapy aide, taught preschool, published essays, was a morning drive-time personality on a tiny AM radio station, ran a college bookstore coffee shop, directed a college’s co-curricular programming, and failed to sell cars.
So you’ve been fired twice? Once as a magazine editor and once as a car salesperson? That’s correct. I think the magazine editor firing was deserved even though I’d doubled the size of the book and brought in a pretty high class bunch of writers. At the time, I had yet to address my alcoholism and so was – as active alcoholics tend to be – just a tad arrogant.
My failure to sell cars stemmed from my inability to encourage people to spend more than I thought they could afford. I remain rather proud of that particular firing.
How did you come to publish your first novel in your mid-sixties? I finished an early draft of Small Blessings a couple of years ago and then put it away to work on some radio and non-fiction projects.
I’ve never been all that frightened of failing (which is lucky, as I have failed a lot). It seems to me we are each responsible for living our own lives kindly, productively and well; figuring out what we need and want to do with our time and our talents, and then going after those things full-tilt.
With this in mind, when I hit my early sixties, I made a bucket list. As I’ve done (and failed to do) a lot of very different things, my bucket list had one item on it: Publish Small Blessings! I’d recently reread the novel, re-fallen in love with its people, and the one thing I really wanted was to land them a better gig than life in a cardboard box in my home office.
How Small Blessings came to St. Martin’s is a long, funny story involving some more major non-shyness on my part and (as any first novelist will tell you) a giant helping hand from the serendipity gods. One auction later, Small Blessings and I had fetched up at St. Martin’s, which is publishing heaven as far as I’m concerned.
Why did you write Small Blessings? Why this particular story set on a small college campus? About the story: If I had to be stuck on a desert island with only one book, it would be The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald. In one particular letter, someone asks Ms. O’Connor (who was a seriously devout Catholic) what our duty in prayer is. Ms. O’Connor replies something to the effect that our duty is to figure out what we want and ask for it.
The above italics are mine, as I read this at a point in my life when I was not yet sober and so was really floundering. And even though I wasn’t even a person of faith at the time, I remember those words hitting me like a blow.
Our duty is to figure out what we want…
At the time I was clueless about who I was, let alone what I wanted. That moment with Ms. O’Connor began an ongoing process of learning to accept myself exactly as I am in the world as it actually is. This has been both challenging and, at times, very scary. But – yowza! – it’s also, in my opinion, the most alive way to live. How can we possibly be happy without first being our real selves?
So – back to Small Blessings – in general, I think I’m interested in writing about nice, well-meaning people who are willing to face the extreme challenge of accepting themselves as they really are and, in the process, learning what it is they really, truly want.
As for setting Small Blessings at a college, I’ve been connected with college campuses all my life. They are, in my opinion, the ideal setting for an examination of community. Which, I think, is something a lot of us are examining afresh as we wade into the I.T. Age.
One note about the college bookstore where Rose Callahan (one of Small Blessings’ central characters) works. As I mentioned before, I once ran a quite magical coffee shop in a quite magical college bookstore. None of the characters in Small Blessings are based on real people (Rose is most emphatically not me); but The Bookstore is very much a tribute to that bookstore.
You’ve mentioned two things that a lot of people shy away from being so open about: your age and the fact that you are in substance-abuse recovery. Why? Oh golly, why not? As Popeye put it (anyone remember Popeye?), I yam what I yam. Life is change, and, it seems to me, if you don’t embrace life – if you let it scare you – you miss out on so much!
As far as being open about recovery, it’s the only way I’m able to share my experiences, strengths and hope with others who are still struggling – or who are concerned about someone else’s struggles. Secrecy about issues such as substance abuse, mental illness, and child abuse does nothing but perpetuate suffering. Life is often uncomfortable. That’s no reason to deny reality. Deny reality, and reality gets worse.
As for being in my sixties, why is that something I should be ashamed of? We Second and Third Wave Feminists fought so hard to be thought of as more than sex objects. Until, it almost seems, we were no longer viable sex objects. I want to see us Boomer Babes embrace womanhood in all its glory – and all its glorious stages.
Just last night, I heard an ad for “Botox and other anti-aging remedies.”
* * * * *
From debut novelist Martha Woodroof comes an inspiring tale of a small-town college professor, a remarkable new woman at the bookshop, and the ten-year old son he never knew he had.
Tom Putnam has resigned himself to a quiet and half-fulfilled life. An English professor in a sleepy college town, he spends his days browsing the Shakespeare shelves at the campus bookstore, managing the oddball faculty in his department and caring, alongside his formidable mother-in-law, for his wife Marjory, a fragile shut-in with unrelenting neuroses, a condition exacerbated by her discovery of Tom’s brief and misguided affair with a visiting poetess a decade earlier.
Then, one evening at the bookstore, Tom and Marjory meet Rose Callahan, the shop’s charming new hire, and Marjory invites Rose to their home for dinner, out of the blue, her first social interaction since her breakdown. Tom wonders if it’s a sign that change is on the horizon, a feeling confirmed upon his return home, where he opens a letter from his former paramour, informing him he’d fathered a son who is heading Tom’s way on a train. His mind races at the possibility of having a family after so many years of loneliness. And it becomes clear change is coming whether Tom’s ready or not.
A heartwarming story with a charmingly imperfect cast of characters to cheer for, Small Blessings‘s wonderfully optimistic heart that reminds us that sometimes, when it feels like life has veered irrevocably off track, the track shifts in ways we never can have imagined.
**The release date for “Small Blessings” is August 12th, 2014!