An Interview with M.L. Madison, contributing editor, Fingermagazine
How did you come up with the idea for Emily Hargraves? Did anything in particular inspire you to write the book?
Actually, it started out as a parody on ghost stories. At the time I was challenging myself to come up with a new story idea each day. This was one of them. I sketched out a humorous short tale in about 10 pages, and then I put it away and forgot about it. Several years later, I dug out the notes and started working seriously on it.
How did it go from being a "humorous short tale" to a much darker novel?
Years later I was working on the story when an image came to me: I saw a naked youth running from the Hargraves house. It was nighttime, and he was badly scratched and bruised. My first reaction was to push the image away. It didn't fit this story--the tone was all wrong. The story I was writing was light and comic, and this vision was one of fear and horror. I didn't know who the boy was or what had happened to him, and yet, in some way, I sensed that he was part of the story I was writing. At that point, I knew there was a much bigger idea here and that it was going to be a much different story than the one I had originally intended.
What is the novel about?
On one level it's a supernatural mystery: What happened 70 years earlier in the Hargraves house to account for the strange phenomena people are now experiencing? But on a different level, it's a novel of ideas; specifically, exploring the idea of the paranormal and how to understand these types of experiences. It's not enough for me that there is a ghost. I want to know why is there a ghost, and what we mean by a ghost. There are other themes, too, about love, and its loss, and how that loss can hollow out a life and alter the landscape of one's soul.
It's clear from this novel that you have a fascination with the paranormal. How did that come about?
What fascinates me is what the paranormal suggests: that we might be living in a very different universe than we think we are. It challenges our understanding of reality and the nature of human consciousness. Who said that the universe is not only stranger than we think, but stranger than we can think? That's what intrigues and fascinates me.
Do you believe in the paranormal?
Like a character in my book, I neither believe nor disbelieve. It's really a question of believe in what? We don't have adequate concepts to understand these experiences. Our language doesn't take us that far. When one looks at the literature, there are too many documented experiences to outright deny them or blithely dismiss them as delusions. We just don't know what they mean.
How long did it take you to write the novel?
This story has haunted me for over 20 years. I first sketched out the notes for it in 1984. It then sat in my files--and apparently in my subconscious--for a number of years. I would take it out from time to time, dust it off, write some more, put it away, and go on to some other project. I call this writing by accretion. Then, several years ago, I went from being a weekend writer to the discipline of writing daily and focused on finishing the novel.
You were offered a book contract for Emily Hargraves, but it would have required you to make major changes.
Yes, the publisher really liked the story but wanted me to cut it by about 25 percent. They wanted a stripped down, lean thriller. The only way I could have cut that much would have been to take out the theories on the paranormal, and I loved that material. So I decided against the contract. After having similar experiences with other agents and publishers, I realized that, even if Emily Hargraves was ever to be published, it wouldn't be the book that I had written. I knew then that "the market" and I had to go our separate ways, and I decided to publish it myself.
What audience were you writing for?
Strunk & White (Elements of Style) said that the true writer always plays to an audience of one, that the whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself. It became clear that I was writing for a very specialized niche market: myself and a few friends who share the same fascination for the paranormal.
Your novel's two main characters are gay and there are some very funny sex scenes between them. Do you think that will shock your readers?
This novel is probably not for those men who cringed through Brokeback Mountain. I wanted to show two young men who are gay and just like any heterosexual couple: They love each other, have their little tiffs now and then, make up, make love, laugh together, and go on sharing their lives. The only way they're really different is they have to deal with these pesky ghosts in their house.
Some writers say it's critical to write daily in order to keep your writing skills sharp. Do you agree or disagree?
That works for me. I'm an early morning person: I wake up around 4:00, without an alarm clock. It's my favorite time to write. I can usually get in a couple of hours before leaving for work. Now, if I don't write for several days, I start going through psychic withdrawals.
Do you have plans for any future novels in the works?
Yes, I'm finishing up a novel loosely based on my time in Japan, called Tales of Tokyo.
What's your new book about?
It's about the adventures and misadventures of four young people living in Tokyo over the course of a year. Each character is on his or her own personal quest. It started out as a collection of short stories, but over the years, the stories kind of "mushed" together into a novel. As with Emily Hargraves, I find these works take on a life and a will of their own. But it's very different in tone and content from Emily--although it does have some ghost stories.
I've also started working on an idea for a utopian novel. It came in reaction to this current administration. I began wondering what a sane and humane society would look like versus, you know--ours.
What have you learned from the experience of writing this book?
How much writing is a collaboration of the conscious mind and the subconscious. It's like working with a silent partner. As time went on, I had the sense that 'I' wasn't controlling the process. At different points in the story, I was as surprised as the readers--and scared myself a couple of times. And that's when writing really gets fun. At one abrupt twist in the story, I thought, "Wow! I would never have thought of that!" And there was like this message coming back to me: "You didn't."
What do you like to read?
I read a pretty wide variety of subjects. In addition to fiction, I enjoy history and biography, philosophy, psychology, anthropology and politics. About the only books I don't like to read are cookbooks and books on sports. Unfortunately, I'm a slow reader.
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
Proofread! In an earlier version of the manuscript, I had Mildred, a 76-year-old neighbor, peering out her kitchen window. Only I left out the 'r' in "peering," which would have given Mildred's character a whole new slant that I never intended. Beyond that, I would encourage aspiring novelists to focus on the joy and fulfillment of the writing process itself, and not be too driven by visions of becoming rich and famous.
The big question: Why do you write?
Several reasons. For me, writing's a kind of focused meditation, a way of both getting out of my mind, and going deeper into myself. It can be a form of therapy, of self-exploration as well--Through my stories, I understand myself better and the way I've come. It's also recreation: literally, recreating and renewing myself by going into worlds of my own making. A friend recently asked, "What did you do last weekend?" I told her, "I spent most of the time in Tokyo." And, finally, there's just the pure pleasure of writing, the "writer's high"--similar to the "runner's high." Every reader knows the joy of losing yourself in a good book. It's ten times greater when that book is your own.