Author Spotlight: Mary L. Tabor

Readers of History & Wine, I have a special spotlight for you.

Mary L. Tabor
Mary L. Tabor

If you have been following along over the past year, you may have noticed my deep love of reading and writing woven throughout the articles I post. I have referenced several authors and books, many of which I have reviewed for you here. One of the best books that I was introduced to recently was written by accomplished Washington, DC author, Mary L. Tabor. Her novel, Who By Fire, is a beautiful love story, and it is definitely one of the better pieces of literary art produced in our modern-day. Mary was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions about reading, writing, and wine-drinking.  She is candid and insightful, and I’m sure you will enjoy what she has to say.

History & Wine readers, meet Mary L. Tabor.

H&W: Your new novel, Who by Fire, is out now. Can you tell us a little bit about the story?

MT: An unconventional love story told by Robert who, after his wife Lena’s death, learns that she’d betrayed him, that she’d had a lover. He reconstructs the past through memory and real-time. Mystery, revenge and intrigue are part of his own story of self-discovery as he looks at his role in her betrayal. Robert wants to answer this question, Can memory lead to forgiveness? I’m deeply interested in our flawed humanity and the need for compassion in the face of our own failures and the failures of those we love.

H&W: You use art, music, and fire as themes in the story. What made you decide to incorporate these elements?

Who by Fire

MT: Art and music are Robert’s obsessions. He turns to both for answers and for solace. The novel opens when Robert witnesses a controlled burn of an old storage bin on a visit to his childhood home in Iowa, an image he can’t get out of his head as he searches for Lena, for her story and his. He begins to keep a list of ordinary people who have saved others from fires as he searches for the answer to another question: How do we define heroism in ordinary life?

H&W:  You also have a book of short stories published. Can you tell us a little about that compilation?

MT: The Woman Who Never Cooked is a collection of connected stories that reflect one woman’s search for love, for goodness and for family through cooking. I look at her through the refracted lens of different points of view. Her journey culminates in the title story about a woman who one day discovers she could no longer cook, couldn’t remember a single recipe or open any of her 327 cookbooks. She realized this on the day she counted them. Love and loss and food are woven into the collection.

H&W:  How much does personal experience play into your writing?Woman Who Never Cooked cover copy

MT: I tell stories about myself all through my work, sometimes stories I don’t actually know but discover through the writing. Memory recalled over and over again of my father, my mother, my sister, my children, and all the men I’ve loved get called up for me somewhere, somehow whenever I write.

On the question of getting it right, I’m with Faulkner who says, in the novel Light in August, “Memory believes before knowing remembers.”

I’ve also written a memoir that recounts what happened when my husband, said after 22 years of marriage, oh-so-Greta-Garbo, “I need to live alone.” Memoir demands that one’s own life is revealed and that the writer do so with all the facts that life and memory provide.

I put aside Who by Fire that was finished when this event stopped me in my tracks—and eventually I blogged my life while I was living it. That blog can still be read on my website and is now the book (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story. This, too, is a love story that fiction oddly would probably not find credible.

ReMakingLove_newcoverSMRecently, I read for my novel Who by Fire (The version should be available on Amazon any day now.) While reading it in a recording studio, I realized that the emotional truth of the story is deeper, more profound, closer to the bone in the novel than it is in the memoir. I realized that I was writing to find the man I somehow knew on the unconscious level that I was losing. I do think that good fiction, meaning you know while you’re reading that the writer is risking her life, can go to this place of hard truth in a way that memoir because of its hold on the so-called facts cannot do. John Berger said it best, “Authenticity comes from a single faithfulness: that to the ambiguity of experience.”

H&W: I’ve really enjoyed listening to some of your radio shows on Rare Bird Blogtalk Radio. Where can other readers find your show, and who have been some of your favorite guests on the show?

MT: My interview with Margaret Brown, editor and publisher of Shelf Unbound: What to read next in independent publishing is a fascinating look into the world of publishing. Brown is doing groundbreaking work in finding literary fiction that matters and subscriptions to her gorgeous online magazine are amazingly free. Our conversation revealed her journey. I am in awe of her vision. She’s found Kevin Powers, author of Yellow Birds, that went on to become a National Book Award finalist, and Paul Harding, author of Tinkers, that went on to win the Pulitzer.

I interviewed Brown after, lucky for me, she discovered my novel Who by Fire at Book Expo in Manhattan and contacted me for an interview that you can read in the February/March 2013 Issue and now on my website as well.

Occasionally I turn an interview into a column as I did with the independent film director Henry Jaglom. You can read that interview and the one I did with the poet Dana Gioia along with my fascination with film here.

Links to all the radio shows so far are on my website, and I have a book club on Goodreads that is not actually about my book (Well, a girl could hope!). Instead I choose to interview artists, poets, writers and film directors. Anyone who’s a member of Goodreads can join and find links to the interviews. I often interview folks who join the club, as in the case of Richard Kramer, who wrote the TV shows Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life that launched the career of Claire Danes.

H&W: Tell us a little bit about your writing history. When did you know that you wanted to be a writer, and how did you go about getting to the point of having a novel published?

MT: I published my first piece in 1987 but I didn’t begin to write full-time until I quit my corporate job when I was 50. I think Auden had it right in the poem “Leap Before You Look” when he said, “Our dream of safety has to disappear.” Writing is all about risking your life on the page. Once I began to do that, I lived my life more fully.

H&W: Who is your favorite author to read for enjoyment–either classic or modern?

MT: I love Vladimir Nabokov, John Berger, Elizabeth Bishop, Cólm Toíbín, Molly Peacock, whom I’ve interviewed, Marly Swick, Annie Dillard, Melanie Rae Thon —and many more. I read everything I can get my hands on. Reading has always saved my life.

H&W: You live in Washington, DC, which is a city not usually identified as an “artistic” capital. What is the biggest challenge of being a literary artist in a city known more for non-fiction & politics? (If there is one)

MT: The writing is a solitary act and the joys come in the room of my own where I work—small but precious like flakes of snow on a midnight walk. So I’m not sure it matters where I live—only that I risk my life on the page. Where I’ve lived fills the pages of my writing because as Eudora Welty said, “How can you go out on a limb if you do not know your own tree? No art ever came out of not risking you neck.”

H&W: Who is your favorite historical figure–literary or real life?

MT: Steve Jobs and Leonard Cohen. Both men define creative living for me.

H&W: I have to ask, what is your favorite wine to drink?

MT: Woop Woop and Imprimata, both wines that my son Benjamin Hammerschlag, who owns Epicurean Wines, makes and imports.

H&W:  If you were to give young writers ONE piece of advice, what would you say is the most important thing to keep in mind as you begin a writing career?

MT: Save everything. I think most writers are hoarders. When a student has told me after a workshop that he’s going to trash a story, I’ve reacted in horror, but until I wrote this book, I’m not sure I fully understood why. Many years ago, I read an article in the newspaper about a baby’s bones found in a suitcase in the attic of a house after it had been sold on Veazey Street in DC. I cut it out and saved it. Didn’t know why, just couldn’t forget it. Later I wrote a short story about what might have happened and titled it “The Suitcase.” That story re-envisioned became a key part of the novel.

H&W: Thank you, Mary, for being such an inspiration!

If you are in the Washington, DC area, and would like to see Mary in person, she has been selected to be honored at the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival’s Local Author Fair at the DCJCC on 16th Street, NW (1529 16th Street NW), on Sunday, October 13, at 7:00PM. Please stop by to Congratulate her on this competitive achievement.

Program Co-Sponsors: Creative Writing Program of the George Washington University English DepartmentThe Writer’s CenterWriting Program at Johns Hopkins University

Mary L. Tabor on the Web:

Follow Mary on Twitter.
Like her on Facebook.
Visit her website
Join her book club on Goodreads.

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