I come to author Marissa Stapley’s house with a list of questions. But I don’t end up asking many of them because we just start talking. It’s a spontaneous authorial mind meld! We are both artist-mothers. The struggles are similar, juggling our desires to create and do right by our children. I can’t stop nodding. Right. Yeah. Yep. Me too. Plus, Marissa is just so darn charming and lovely and available. There is no pretension. She holds nothing back. And she just seems to intuit that this issue is about ‘grit’ and how one keeps finding the courage to persevere in this tough business! Everything she says I need to hear. Also, I get to snuggle her 6 month old kitten. When was the last time you were loved on by a black cat with the gentlest of motors? I am healed!
As an artist and a mother, how do you set limits in your personal and professional life?
It’s not easy, and there are so many levels. If you say yes to too many things professionally, you’re pulled away from your family and your writing. If you say no to things, you might be at home playing with your kids in the yard or watching a baseball game and feel really good about that on one hand, but really concerned that the invitations are going to dry up, and people are going to forget who you are. I’m not sure how much it matters—the writing is the most important thing in the end. But in today’s world it’s a fine balance of interacting and hiding away to write. And, of course, making the time to be a mother and a wife and a friend and a daughter.
The other day a male author asked a bunch of us [female authors] what we charge to do a book club appearance? We don’t charge anything. We just go. It gave me pause, the idea of charging money. (He said his rate was $250, and that book clubs happily paid it.) I love going to book clubs and meeting readers, but it means a night away from my family or away from my writing. I find it hard to even ask that everyone in the book club buys the book, let alone requesting a fee. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about trying to set limits, and valuing my time—without alienating my readers. Making a living as an author depends on people buying your books, and also on you having the time to write.
I hold up her book Mating For Life which I have just bought from Book City!
They have a bunch of copies at Book City!
Thank you! Yeah, Sarah who runs that store is a huge support of local authors, and also just a wonderful person. We go there all the time and Joe [Marissa’s husband] has learned the love of a community bookstore.
It seems like a community place!
I think it’s interesting that some of people who work there are authors or people who work in the publishing industry in another capacity. Kind of a testament to the arts community and how hard it is to make a living just writing or publishing alone—but also to how dedicated industry people are to books, to actually trying to get them into people’s hands. But back to your question about limits… I think that women are expected to be more generous with their time and even in a weird way as a female author to have more of it… so you’re expected to do events and be active on social media and go to book clubs. And I wonder is there part of a female author that thinks my work isn’t going to stand alone, and I’m going to have to give myself too?
That’s a great segue, because I was going to start by asking you about your writing routine. I think people are always interested in how artists operate on a day-to-day basis.
I’m at a point now where I have a book coming out in February, Things to Do When It’s Raining, and another book, The Last Resort, sold in three countries, that should come out about a year after that. A draft needs to be submitted to my editors by September, but I’m also starting to think about marketing and publicity for the forthcoming book. It’s an interesting phase to be in—and requires more of that balance I was talking about!
Is this part of the three book deal you recently announced?
Which is a huge deal, right?
It is. It feel like such a gift, although it’s been the product of a huge amount of work and perseverance. When you see someone who seems to be doing really well, it can sometimes appear that it’s all just fallen into their lap. But that’s never the case. You’re usually quiet when things aren’t going as well, because you know you have to put your head down and get the work done so you can achieve your goals. That was me for the last few years, and now it’s definitely paid off. But there’s still work to be done! Signing these deals recently means I can start pulling back and saying no to certain things so I can do the work. I love freelance newspaper writing, for example, but I’ve had to pull back a bit so I can work on my next book. The stakes are high for that one. I have three editors waiting for it!
And the freelance book reviews were a lot of reading too, right?
A huge amount! And I love reading, I’m always reading, but it was getting to be too much, even for me. Still, I felt like I couldn’t say no to any money when I was struggling to earn a living. But even though I’ve pulled back from some of that, it’s hard to find the time to write as much as I want, daily. When I get home from taking the kids to school there are breakfast dishes and laundry and birthday parties to plan for and dinner to make… Now that I have a deadline looming and school is out soon, I’m finding if I get up at 5:30AM–5:45AM, then it gives me a solid hour or so where I’m not—there’s nothing else that I can be doing—I can get a thousand words in, sometimes fifteen hundred. It’s a good time to write and then it doesn’t matter what happens for the rest of the day. It’s like working out. You’ve done it. I have an author in my writing community named Karma Brown to thank for encouraging me, and all of us, really, to just get up and get it done.
And then you feel calmer?
Yes. So if the kids come home sick, for example, then I’m not freaking out. Things were coming at me in the winter and I would be a complete nervous wreck because I wouldn’t have gotten any writing done and then I would stay up ‘til one or two in the morning doing it and then be tired the next day. It wasn’t good. There’s something about being in the quiet of your house without any expectations, and as a woman with nothing else that you think you should be doing. ‘Cause what is it about being creative that feels like a strange luxury? Like it doesn’t feel like a legitimate job.
Were you writing books when I first met you?
I remember seeing Marissa at our local coffee shop years ago with her laptop, always focused but still willing to share a smile!
I think it was more freelance… I wrote my first book when I was pregnant with my daughter and it was supposed to come out with a Toronto-based publisher… but then the publishing company went out of business. So freelancing was the mainstay of what I did, for years. Until I started writing Mating for Life, mostly at night while working full-time as a magazine editor.
Did you still get the advance when the publisher went under?
Part of it. And then there was an advance for Mating for Life, but that was a few years ago. What happened recently with Germany has given me a bit of a reprieve. I went through a few very difficult years, with personnel changes at my publishing house, and my book at one point being orphaned. It was absolutely heartbreaking. These relationships are very personal, because writing is so personal, even when you’re sharing it with the world. But then a new editor came along at Simon & Schuster, a really good editor I’d always wanted to work with—I like to think she felt the same. And when the book had gone through edits with her, my agent, Samantha Haywood, submitted it to publishers in the US. Now I have an amazing publisher there, too. But it wasn’t an easy road, even getting that far. Second books are hard for a number of reasons. You write your first book—or in my case, books!—alone. And then you write your second book with an editor in your head as you write—or at least, I do—and for me, it was actually a few different editors coming and going, which was a challenge. It wasn’t a very easy two years. There were points when the manuscript felt slashed and burned by people who were just, gone. So this book was like this ragged—
Would you just sob?
Oh yeah, Joe went away with the kids for a week at one point and I said I couldn’t go, that I had to get this revision done. I sat here alone, slowly going insane. There was a mouse who would walk across the room and I would be like, “Oh hi!” And then I submitted it and it wasn’t right. None of that work had come from a good place inside me.
But you were so disturbed by the process?
Yeah, nothing was okay. Things were not okay in my life. It wasn’t okay! I thought I could channel some of the pain I was feeling in my life at that time into great writing—but that’s not at all what happened. Then one day, as they do, things started to get better. And so did the writing. The book was mine again, and it was good. And I do think some of the pain was in there, but there was also contentment and joy. My editor sent me flowers after my next revision. I needed that. So after that hellish phase where my confidence had just—
She gestures to what plummeting confidence looks like!
I submitted it and said to Joe, “I think I’m done trying to make a living solely as an author—I will be a always be a writer—I will always write books, but I need to get a job, too.” And Joe is a good enough husband that he never came to me and said me, “you need to get a job.” But he was happy, because things were getting difficult. Then I went through a few months of “what am I going to do?” Previously, I worked as a magazine editor, but the print industry isn’t exactly full of new jobs at the moment. Ultimately, I decided I was going to apply to U of T and get my Masters and become a librarian! And literally… and I hate to use this analogy, but when you say “I’m never going to find a husband. I’ve giving up,” and then you meet your—it was like a Sex and the City episode but to do with publishing. It was less than a month after I applied to post-graduate school that Graydon House bought Things to Do When It’s Raining, plus the novel I’m working on now. So that meant I had Simon & Schuster Canada, who I already have such a great relationship with, and this new and equally enthusiastic US publisher on my team—and it started to feel like maybe things weren’t so desperate after all. But I was still thinking I’d better get that degree.
And then Rowohlt in Germany bought your books?
Yes. Joe and I were walking down the street a few months ago and my agent texted and said you have a German offer. And I’ve always wanted a foreign deal so I was thrilled! And then over the course of two weeks it somehow snowballed. There were five publishers involved in a bidding war to buy Things to Do When It’s Raining in Germany. It really caught on and resonated there—it’s exciting. They also bought Mating for Life, my first novel, and The Last Resort, my work in progress. The publisher who won the auction committed to some incredible marketing plans. So, right now I know that for the next three years, everything is okay. That might be as much job security as an author can ask for!
How hard is it doing motherhood and artist juggle?
I love my kids so much. A painful amount. And I think my children will have a lot of great memories of me, because I’m here, I’m with them. But I know in some of those memories I’m just edgy. I’m distracted or I would rather be writing and I don’t want to be feeling that way—but it happens, especially in the middle of the book when you can’t get your head out of that world and into the real world by three-thirty, you just can’t.
I read a great interview with Zadie Smith, where she seems pretty accepting of who she is as a mother and her limitations. She didn’t seem guilty, which was inspiring for me. Because mostly I feel bad about myself. I’m not present and I’m not fun, and I wonder if my girls are going to hate me.
I know. I worry about it a lot. Joseph will say when I get to an end of a book… it’s almost a hysteria. It’s a difficult thing for me to come to the end of a book. There’s so much emotion, and I’m saying goodbye to this thing that was mine alone. I guarantee that come September I will be hysterically trying to finish and inevitably Joe will say go upstairs… and I don’t have a door on my office so I’ll end up on the bed. There was this one night where Joseph kept coming into the bedroom and I screamed at him. I just screamed “GET OUT!” And he sort of backed out and closed the door. And I just sat there and was thinking, “I am the worst parent and person ever.” And then the next time I was getting to the end of a draft I could hear him outside the door whispering, “Don’t go in there! Just don’t go in there. Mommy’s at the end of a book.” Will they remember how much I love them? Or are they going to remember me hiding in the bedroom, shouting? I worry about it a lot.
But then you think of all these male authors and the wives that were facilitating and keeping the kids out.
I do think that women have trouble asking for what they need. I saw an interview with John Irving in his beautiful office with his neat stacks of paper. I think that men compartmentalize their brains. So they do that, and take the space, and also this is their work, their job! It’s mine, too, but for so long it wasn’t paying our bills so it started to feel like a hobby. I think that’s why I often feel everything else has to be done before I can write. Whereas my husband, who also works from home, will leave the house looking like a tornado hit it and not think about it because he knows he has to get his work done. I want to be more like that!
And they have no trouble saying it!
Even if a man is not making any money off his writing, if he considers himself to be an author, he could still be “I need you to take the kids today.” And he would probably be more effective and taken more seriously by the whole family… than literally I maybe even have been up until this point.
We pause to consider how hard it is to be taken seriously as a woman. Then we talk about Oscar the beautiful black cat who is now in my lap. We are cat ladies!
I wonder if I need an animal in my life!
Apparently black cats have doglike personalities! And this cat is a dog!
I want a dog-cat!
That’s why I don’t go to coffee shops anymore, because I have this purring cat here. Much more inspiring.
By the way, I think you hit on everything I was going to ask without me even asking… ‘cause this issue was about grit.
Oh yeah, that’s all I’ve ever known! That’s my motto: ‘Never give up! Never give up! Never, never, never-never-never-never!’ (to paraphrase Winston Churchill). Although I do think I gave up to a certain extent and the universe said come back! I was completely battered. I’m not even being dramatic.
She looks down at her watch and realizes she needs to run and grab her kids. We hug and I hop on my bike just as it starts to pour. My grit will get me home and the energy of Marissa Stapley. Thanks, friend!
Marissa Stapley is the author of the critically acclaimed Globe and Mail bestselling novel Mating for Life, which was released in 2014 by Atria Books and Simon & Schuster Canada, and Things to Do When It’s Raining, out in 2018. She is a National Magazine Award nominated journalist who writes the Shelf Love commercial fiction review column for the Globe and Mail and reports on books for the Toronto Star.