Monday, September 10, 2012

My First Time: Maryanne O'Hara

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Maryanne O'Hara, author of the new novel Cascade (which is the current Friday Freebie--enter today for your chance at winning a copy).  Kim Edwards (author of  The Memory Keeper’s Daughter) has this to say about the book: “Compelling and fascinating, the story unfolds in such unexpected ways, and with such gathering tension, that I couldn’t stop until I’d read the final, beautifully written, line.”  O’Hara was the longtime associate fiction editor at the award-winning literary journal Ploughshares.  She received her MFA from Emerson College and her short fiction has been published in publications as varied as Five Points, The North American Review, and Redbook, as well as in many anthologies.  She lives on a river near Boston.  Visit her website, and find her on Twitter and Facebook.

My First Book Launch

Launch Week 2012, and fittingly my first book event is a group signing at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Martha’s Vineyard.  It is a gorgeous August Sunday afternoon.  Seven of us are on-hand to sign: Amor Towles, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Margot Stedman, Ann Napolitano, Steven Raichlen, James Sullivan and me.  The event is called “Celebrate the Literary Arts,” and the spirit in that shop is indeed celebratory!  Dawn Braasch, the owner, is the kind of hard-working indie bookseller that writers and readers depend on.  The other authors are warm, supportive, and lively.  Three of us are first-time novelists—Amor with The Rules of Civility, Margot with The Light Between Oceans, and me with Cascade.  We buy each other’s books.  Islander Geraldine Brooks shows up to say hello, while her talented son plays the harp, outside on the patio.

When life is so good, it can be hard to remember the bad.  But during the years that I toiled on Cascade, with no certainty it would ever find a publisher, I often stood in front of the Bunch of Grapes like a Dickensian waif.  Of all the bookstores in the world, I wanted to see my work in their paned windows.  Martha’s Vineyard is a place I love, with farms and tranquil pastures that have nourished complicated souls like Lillian Hellman, William Styron, and Mike Wallace.  It is a creative person’s island, and I wanted to be part of it.

I had started out, late, in my thirties, as a short story writer, with no desire to ever write a novel.  But at one point, a few story ideas refused to be contained—they wanted to come together as a novel: Cascade.

Cascade is about an artist in the 1930s.  It plays out within the context of the Depression, New York during Roosevelt’s “New Deal for the Arts” era, and the approaching World War.  The main setting is a New England town threatened with flooding so a reservoir can be constructed.  A renowned Shakespeare theater, which the artist’s father built, faces destruction if the town is destroyed.  There was a lot to research, and it was easy, in the early years, to devote most of my “novel-writing time” to watching hours of newsreels, reading histories and old newspapers, studying Shakespeare, 20th-century art, reservoir construction materials, and interviewing elderly artists and housewives.

But when I published the last short story I had written, in 2006, I began to panic.  It was then that I really committed to Cascade.  There followed some lonely, uncertain years, when I despaired that the novel’s many layers and themes could ever cohere, make sense, and read well.  But I didn’t have it in me to have a “drawer novel.”  If I was going to devote years of my life to a book, I needed to see it published.  So I kept on.

I finished Cascade right before Christmas 2010.  I gave it to a trusted friend for one last reading.  Susan Conley, God love her, was launching her own book, but read it and gave me the “Go” in February.  The agent I most wanted took it in March.  When she sold it to venerable Viking, I sensed that a lot of good was about to begin.

I reflect on that good as I sign books at the Bunch of Grapes.  I catch sight of the store windows, two copies of Cascade snug inside two panes, and I feel joyous and thankful.  When the event ends, Margot mentions that she wants to see the West Chop lighthouse—she plans to walk there and back.  It is a mile away and getting late in the day, so I offer to drive her up.  That way she can enjoy the walk back in daylight.  It is wonderful to spend time with this interesting woman I never would have otherwise met—one of countless new connections, thanks to the book.  We talk of publishing and privacy and the brilliance of writer Jane Gardem.  I leave her, fittingly, puttering around the lighthouse, as I head off into Launch Week.


  1. Loved reading this blog post. Thank you for letting us get to know Maryanne O'Hara a little better. I'm so looking forward to reading her book Cascade. :)

  2. Thanks so much Beverly, and thanks for hosting me, David !

  3. Congratulations, Maryanne! I also have never understood the concept of a "drawer" novel! I have a pretty crappy first draft of my memoir, but I would have never dreamed of shelving it and never coming back to the story. If a story is worth telling it's going to come out, even if the final version is much different than the first.