Novelist Jo-Ann Mapson - Hank & Chloe, Loving Chloe

I interview her via email Sept. 17, 2006.

* Why did you choose the plot point of Chloe breaking up with Hank after she found his folder with her background check? This seems to be the most common reason females break up with males in stories (on TV, movies or in novels). I never see men breaking up with women over such. Why do you think that is? What does this say about male vs. female nature?

The book was published in 1993 (thirteen years ago), and I recall feeling unsettled with the newly emerging background check businesses popping up. Chloe is a deeply conflicted private person, and carries a lot of demons within due to her childhood and trials suffered in the foster care system. It's difficult for her to trust anyone, so when Hank has her investigated, it seemed natural for her to withdraw and feel angry.

* What is it with the close connection many women have with their horses? It seems to be different from the connection many men have with their horses?

If I knew the answer to that I'd be a rich woman because I could sell that story to all men and retire a jillionaire. Here is what I can tell you from my own experience. From atop a horse the world looks different. There's a sense of perspective that is missing from everyday life. It's the closest relationship. There's this thousand pound animal beneath you, doing what you ask. You're communicating without words. He/she is gentle when you need it, responds to the lightest touch, and watches out for rattlesnakes. Riding horses is a ton of fun besides.

I firmly believe (because I saw it happen) every troubled child should be given horseback riding lessons. Horses heal. Let's face it, women have had it worse than men for centuries. They are beautiful, poorly designed animals and women love those kinds of conundrums. It's as natural and nurturing to love a horse for me as it is a baby. Animals respond to kindness. They love unconditionally. Women like that. I have witnessed men who've had it hard in life also feel this way about their horses.

* How important is it that your reader sympathizes with your characters or likes them?

Very, or else they won't read on. Liking my characters means identifying with them, and I try to write as honestly as I can, respecting each character's integrity. We are all flawed beings. Stories allow us to have compassion for our fellow man, woman, dog or horse.

* What are the juiciest (most shame-filled) things your peers say about writing and their careers as writers? I'm digging for stuff writers don't like to talk about publicly but admit to their friends.

Oh, we pretty much all think we should have been picked for Oprah instead of James Frey. We lament that we can't write better. When someone else gets a good review we're envious and to overcome this envy chocolate must be ingested.

* Have you written books that you didn't publish? Are there times when you get sick of a book and though unsatisfied with it, you want to publish it anyway?

I have written one entire book that never got published which is now in The Jo-Ann Mapson Collection at Boston University in its Twentieth Century Writers Collection. Many false starts were set aside. I have a couple of rejected proposals as well. There comes a point in any book that the writer becomes sick of it. Proofing galleys is sometimes like that, but the inverse can also be true. I don't think any writer is ever truly satisfied with her "final draft."

* Have there been any dramatic differences in your experience of writing a book? Was one book a delight and another an agony?

Some books are easier than others, sure, but all have their agonizing moments. I loved writing Hank & Chloe because I had no deadline. I loved writing Blue Rodeo because that was a hard time in my life and I found solace in writing the story. Though it came out of a time of great doubt, Bad Girl Creek had some truly fun moments. The Owl & Moon Café took so many rewrites I felt like I'd lost half my brain cells someplace.

* Why did you move to Alaska?

Because I was tired of Southern California, the endlessly choking traffic, the endlessly sunny weather, neighbors living so close I could hear them cough, and there was no open land or beautiful scenery that didn't involve a long car ride on a congested freeway. I wanted to take this chance on doing something different before my age prevented it. Additionally, I wanted my husband, who had supported me for years, to have his chance to devote his time to making art. We chose Alaska because of the beauty in the landscape, the four seasons, the snow, and emancipation from our former lives.

* In what ways are your perceptions of life keener than other people's?

I think that I have (figuratively) one less layer of skin that other people. Often I can sense emotion in people who have no outward sign of it. I am the person who walks through a crowd and picks up bits of conversation and idioms that are simply chatter to someone else, but are authentic conversations to me as a writer. I listen, and then I write it down.

* How has your choice of vocation affected you, and your relationships? I'm indoors a lot, sitting at my computer, so I don't interact with the outside world as much as non-writing people do. My husband is an artist, so he understands the process and is very understanding about the hours I log in and the distractedness that is always a part of me. Our son Jack, 28, inherited the artistic sensibility, but uses it differently-he works in a hospital E.R. and plans to study medicine.

* How do you know when you've done good work?

When I look up at the clock and see that hours have passed without me knowing it, and I've written a number of pages that feel hopeful, then I know I'm within spitting distance of good. After rewriting, trimming, and sharpening until I am moving commas around is when I feel I've produced truly good work.

* What have you sacrificed to be a writer?

Working out, being able to set work aside after eight hours, making great meals all the time, doing the laundry before it piles up and takes all day, a clean house, lunch with friends, spending more time on my appearance, a neat office, and I feel sure that I shortchanged my son on some things -- my full attention, being a soccer mom, stuff like that, but luckily he's forgiven me.

* What do you do best and worst as a writer?

I am naturally good at dialogue, which I attribute to growing up in a large family and listening. Readers tell me that I create characters so believable they would recognize them walking down the street. I am overly wordy and dense in plot. I'm not a bestseller.

* Why do you write what you write?

I have to find out what happens to these women, their boyfriends, the children and the animals.

* Were there any events in childhood that prefigured your adult work?

Oh, plenty. I grew up in a large family with a talented older sister and a smart older brother, and a younger sister who was into science and a younger brother who showed off a lot. From my spot in the middle I sort of watched it all and wrote things down. My great aunt was a working writer, and she gave me excellent books to read. My mother, an avid reader, took us to the library a lot, read to me when I was sick. And these crazy, dramatic things happened around me all the time, and left an impression on me that could only find release in writing.

* What do your books say that has not been said before?

Ordinary lives matter. Love is always possible. Forgiveness is a good idea.

* Surely you feel that your view of life that is unique? How so? How do you find your understanding of life differs from everyone else?

I see the trees before I see the forest. I believe Gandhi was right when he said that you could tell the worth of a society by the way it treats their animals. Come at life, work and leisure from a place of kindness.

* How do you feel about your author photos and how do you choose them?

I dislike having my picture taken because it's hard for me to hold a natural smile while someone is focusing the camera. Put a dog in my lap and I'll smile all day. Hence, my photos usually have a dog or horse in them. I try to pick the one I hate least. Sometimes I send them to my siblings and have them choose.

* When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A writer.

* What did your parents want most for you and from you?

My dad wanted me to have a secretary job. My mom wanted me to be happy and to get married and give her grandchildren.

* What crowd did you hang out with in high school? (Where did you go?)

I graduated from Troy high school in Fullerton, California in 1970. Who I hung out with varied. My dearest friends were mostly the hippie-types. For a while I had a group of girlfriends who liked to drink and smoke, but eventually our interests were too different. I went away to a university. Most of them stayed in town and went to community college and became nurses. My favorite hangouts were The Velvet Hog, a beer joint on the Campus of Cal State Fullerton, the public library, Newport and Balboa beaches.

* Where did you go to college and when did you get your degree(s?) and in what?

Initially I attended Johnston College at the University of Redlands, but left after two years. I finished my B.A. in English with a Creative Writing option from California State University Long Beach in 1977. In 1992 I received my M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Norwich University with projects in both prose and poetry.

* What's the story of you and God and religion?

I was raised as a strict Catholic, communioned, confirmed, et cetera, and at age twelve I was allowed to stop going. For a long time I did not believe in God and was very angry at religion in general. Now my beliefs have their roots in the twelve-step tradition. I believe in a benevolent God and the promise of afterlife.