Interview with Jim Barnes of Independent Publisher

Julie Mars is a writer with a split personality. She’s written and sold both fiction and non-fiction, and published books both serious and frivolous. Mars also splits her time between writing and teaching, helping mold young, aspiring writers into accomplished wordsmiths. She has taught composition, creative writing, business, tech and journalism in classrooms as diverse as high schools, colleges, prisons, and on Indian reservations.

Julie is the recipient of the New York State Council of the Arts Grant for Screenwriting, the New Jersey Council of the Arts Grant for Fiction and the Cone Fellowship for Criticism. She has worked as a gift book writer for Ariel Books (she wrote about 50 mini books for them), sold options on two screenplays, and has worked as a journalist and in Hollywood as a film script analyst.

Her first literary suspense novel, The Secret Keepers, was published by GreyCore in 2000. Now GreyCore has released A Month of Sundays: Searching for the Spirit and My Sister, a memoir that’s received three BookSense nominations. Borders and Walden Books plan to promote it nationally for Mother's Day, and Borders has also selected it for the May, June, July "Discover Great New Writers" program.

A Month of Sundays is part memoir part pilgrimage. It is about the seven months Julie spent as her dying sister primary caretaker, and after her sister died, the 31 houses of worship that Julie visited in 31 weeks in her effort to find an outlet for her grief and get some spiritual questions answered. In spite of the dark subject matter, the book is quite funny in places, and always luminous and insightful.

We asked Julie Mars about the many and varied aspects of her life as a writer, and the cathartic exercise of writing about the loss of her sister.

IP:  You’ve written many different kinds of books. What kind of different approaches do you take to the different styles of books?

JM: I’ve done a lot of what I call "pen-for-hire" work, primarily writing those little gift books you see at the cash register in bookstores. For those, my approach is 100% pragmatic: find out what the editor wants in terms of voice, tone, and content, and deliver it on time to the exact number of words (or even letters!) required. Writing those is like being a part inside a clock. You can’t make any unnecessary motions. Everything has to be precise and efficient. 

For fiction, my approach is to wait attentively until some image captures my imagination. Usually, for me, there’s a moment in my real life that is an entry portal into an alternate life in my imagination. Obviously, I have to be very careful about noticing it. For example, for The Secret Keepers, my novel that came out in 2000, the whole book started based on a random glance from a man in line at the post office while I was getting my mail. I received that glance and POW! It knocked me into the other world (the imagination), and after that, it’s all about making the time and space for the story to come through.

My current book is my first full-length work of creative non-fiction. I felt so discombobulated by my sister’s death, by all she went through and what I went through by proxy taking care of her, that I was really just trying to manage the confusion and grief. This book demanded to be written. What else could I have done? So I guess I’d say my approach to this one was just to use the writing process to find my way through a maze that I got temporarily trapped in by the events in my life.

IP: In your new book you really expose yourself to and share intimate thoughts with the reader. Where in the back of your writer’s mind are the questions, "How much is too much?" and "Will it sell?"

JM: Let’s put it this way: A Month of Sundays: Searching for the Spirit and My Sister was originally twice as long as it is now. Everything that was thrown out was too much. It was interesting to me to see what kinds of categories the "too much" fell into. Sometimes it was personal information about my life, sometimes it was too detailed a recounting of what went on in each church, and sometimes it was drama-queen stuff. I was very lucky in that my agent, Theresa Park, worked with me on every draft of the book. She was able to guide me about how much was too much, which I would not have been able to see without her. I was often pretty stubbornly attached to things that I now see were totally extraneous, but letting them go was like the labors of Hercules for me.

As far as wondering if it would sell and having that affect the writing -- or especially the editing, I had my eye on the goal of doing the best job I could, of making it a good book. I just hoped that the selling would take care of itself, knowing full well, all the way, that it might not. Most of the writers I know work like dogs on their books, finish them, and try mightily to detach from whatever happens next because it’s out of our control. We can’t do one thing about it except hope that whatever is on the page is somehow also in the mass-imagination so all the people who contribute to the mass-imagination, which includes editors in publishing companies, will be receptive.

IP: Tell us about your writing classes, and how they differ, and what they have in common. Does the business of publishing ever come up? Can you teach a writer how to be marketable?

JM: Essentially, I teach three different types of writing: academic, technical, and creative (meaning fiction and creative non-fiction). A totally different teaching personality emerges for each one, and, though I’ve often wondered why, I’ve never been able to really step outside of whatever personality is dominant in each teaching situation. For academic writing, I become General Mars. I put the students through a writing boot camp, in which they have to produce work, more work, better work, constantly. I’m always giving them pep talks/orders along the line of, "Come on, troops! We have to take the next hill!" I run them ragged and then give them a little R&R when their papers come in (usually by giving them that day off).

For technical writing, I set up a number of progressively-more-difficult projects for the term. Some are individual and some are group jobs. I usually give one day’s instruction in the form of a "lecture," and then turn them loose to accomplish it. I monitor each student or group’s progress, and I suggest ways to improve and problem-solve, but I stay in the background, saying things like, "This has to be exactly as long as it needs to be AND NOT ONE WORD LONGER!" or "If it’s not reader-friendly, it’s not technical writing!", or "One more day until the deadline!" Everything is set up as if it were a business setting. I was saying, "You’re fired!’ years before you-know-who.

On the first day of my creative writing classes, I tell my students that my job is to be a strong fence around each one of them. It’s a speech that goes something like this: "I am going to keep everything out of the little patch of personal turf where you are trying to grow your writing. That especially includes doubt and criticism. Those are not allowed in this garden." Something like that. And then I do it. I clear a space for the writer to emerge by making the classroom experience and my personal connection to each student as nurturing as I can. I always feel, and I think the students feel, that we all jump off a cliff together, and in the end, when we’ve all survived and thrived, it’s amazing. I am usually stunned by the work that the students produce. More important, they are.

As for teaching anyone to be marketable, it’s not too hard to convey the standards of academic or technical writing, but for creative writing, it’s almost impossible. I stick to the "to thine own self be true" policy, and warn the students who ask that some great writers never get published, and some not-so-great writers make big bucks, and it’s all a crap shoot. And that’s really what I feel.

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A Month of Sundays: Searching for the Spirit and My Sister

by Julie Mars
Pub Date: April, 2005
ISBN: 0-9742074-5-4
Trade Paper; 6 X 9; 224 pp; $12.95

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Julie Mars is the recipient of the NYS Council on the Arts Grant in Screenwriting, the NJ Council on the Arts Grant in Fiction, and the Cone Fellowship for Literary Criticism. She lives and teaches in Albuquerque, NM. Her novel, The Secret Keepers, was published by GreyCore in 2000.