Excerpted from Spelling Mississippi by Marnie Woodrow. Copyright © 2002 by Marnie Woodrow. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1) Can you tell us how you became a writer?
I suppose reading other people’s books is to blame in the best possible way, by which I mean that I wanted to do what other writers had done for me. I wanted very much to create a world not-mine for hours and make other people think and feel. Reading William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice really sent me on my way. I remember reading it late at night while babysitting, thinking, I want to do this! I want to make people lose themselves. Make them reach for the dictionary as well as for their own, possibly-buried questions. I’ve written stories of some kind since I first learned how to make a sentence. It’s been my biggest comfort-zone, my truest sanctuary.
2) What inspired you to write Spelling Mississippi? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?
To pin it down: two things inspired this novel. A photograph (National Geographic magazine, July 1967) of a young woman holding a mud-soaked book retrieved from a flooded library in Italy during the famous 1966 deluge in the city of Florence. I wondered who she was, who she might become and, more pressingly, who her daughter might be. The second “inspiration” was my three and a half month stint living in New Orleans and all the crazy, wonderful people I met in the French Quarter. Once back in Toronto, I realized a French Quarter woman could indeed try to swim the Mississippi -- and succeed. My website essay “Memory: The Best Trickster” (in the PLAY section) provides insight for those interested into how front-line research and fuzzy but loving memory can create amusing situations when they collide.
3) What is it that you’re exploring in this book?
I can only see this now, after the fact. I think I was trying to understand the concepts of self-acceptance/acceptance of another person, along with fate/coincidence; letting go of the past so that you might envision a truly inspiring future; and yes, big love. I also explored the notion of a city as a character unto herself, which New Orleans is, for me: a woman everyone wants to meet at least once in their lifetime. And then realizes, maybe once is quite enough?
4) Who is your favourite character in Spelling Mississippi, and why?
To choose a favourite character in something I laboured over for years is impossible. I’m very fond of them all, even as they drift away from me. I really enjoyed Mrs. Ryan, the hotelier, because every time I wrote her scenes I felt warm and happy as I typed. Laughing during the writing of a novel is a rare but oh-so-sweet occurrence. I think you need to make one character your darling fool, as Shakespeare taught us all, and Mrs. Ryan is that wise fool for me.
5) Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
If you hated it, say so. If you loved it, or even just enjoyed it, say so. In either instance, have reasons why. And oh, be sure to serve bourbon sours that night if you’re so inclined: the most astounding confessions/connections happen over bourbon sours, even if they have nothing to do with the appointed book of the night. Don’t worry about seeming silly; let your hair down and talk, really talk. That’s my wish.
6) Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your book?
I find interviews, the process, very educational in both positive and negative senses. Readers of newspapers in particular should know that quotes are often chopped and that the author is often fed a question, which she (dutifully) answers. Strangely, the honest answer is then applied to a question she wasn’t actually asked. Example: when describing the last stages of creating a novel, I told a journalist that I wanted to kill all of my characters off, that I was, because of fatigue, sick of them all and found them aggravating. He then reported that even I, the author, admitted that every character in my novel was/is aggravating. Reading his piece I had to laugh, because I knew how much had been twisted around. For a previous book of mine (In The Spice House) I was asked (on live TV) what the recipe for lasting love is. I had just broken up with someone and was still quite raw, so I said, “I'm fasting just now, recipes don’t appeal to me.” What else can one say to such a crazy question posed by someone who admitted she hadn’t even read the book??
7) What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?
“How truly boring is it to be a writer?”
“Come clean: did you write this novel in your pyjamas, and if so, tell us what your pyjamas look like.”
“What is your current bank balance, and should anyone even bother to write to you asking for money/donations?” (A: Nope!)
8) Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
No. I must say that I am 100% pig-headed that way and tend to be working on something else (if even only in my head) when this aspect of the process gets rolling. It would be deadly to take cues or directions from critics or journalists who meet authors under great duress (post-partum-whatsit/promoting/touring). One’s imagination defies commentary and decrees, or should. I do this because I am compelled to, so critics hardly matter.
9) Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
Everyone I’ve read, but probably, most especially: Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver, James Baldwin, Auden, ee cummings, Dorothy Parker and Grace Paley. Screenwriters and songwriters also keep me going when the going is more than a little rough. I make tapes for each book I write, tapes that instantly bring me into the mood I need for a given piece.
10) If you weren’t writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some
of your other passions in life?
Acting, absolutely. My love of performing is, I realize, in complete opposition to the solitary, brooding nature of many writers. In fact, I am quite split this way. I still dream of doing the toilet-paper commercial no one ever forgets, or the live-theatre character role of my dreams. Juliet’s wet-nurse comes to mind here! Acting is the biggest high ever, next to riding a roller coaster. The high of writing is much quieter, a slow burn, yet also satisfying in ways I never dreamt possible. Also, if I weren’t so shy on a level, I’d be a portrait photographer, snapping people in the midst of their amazing one-time lives. Cooking is my only other “passion.” I communicate through food when I’m not writing. Which is why, when I’m working on a book, I almost always lose weight. I need a chef.
11) If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
Jazz, by Toni Morrison, a book so perfect that I still cannot believe it was written by a human being.
1. Why does Madeline swim the Mississippi at the opening of this novel? Why has she her entire life?
2. Beginning with Cleo’s presence on the wharf just as Madeline is taking her plunge, much of the flow of Spelling Mississippi depends on coincidence and/or fate. What is the difference between the two? Discuss particular moments in the text, and in Cleo and Madeline’s relationship, in which fate or coincidence come into play.
3. Self-imposed exile and or being rejected unwittingly are important themes in this novel. Almost every character -- Cleo, Madeline, their parents, for instance -- experiences some form of exile or rejection. Discuss how Woodrow uses these themes. What might she be saying about emotional bonds? About following your own path in life?
4. What do you think of Johnny? Canadian readers and reviewers have indicated that he’s one of the most digestible/believable characters. However, U.K. readers seem to have more difficulty with him. Is it possible that a man of fifty years of age could be this boyish, this simple in his outlook? And is he as simple as he seems? His perspective has a strong presence late in the novel. Why do you think that is?
5. Spelling Mississippi has been praised for the detail and impact of its setting, New Orleans. For you, was the city a backdrop to the story or was it something more? Had this novel been set in Ohio, would it have held the same resonance? Have you been to New Orleans? Do you desire to go there, whether because of this novel or separately? Why or why not?
6. If you were to sum up this book to a friend, what kind of novel would you say it is? A love story? A journey of self-discovery? The story of a city or a river? Something else?
7. Woodrow unfolds the histories of her characters throughout this novel, often as stories Cleo and Madeline get each other to share. It is only in the end that the two women, and us readers with them, become aware of what “really” happened in their early lives. Why do you think the author used this technique?
8. Mrs. Ryan admires travellers, yet also says to Cleo that “one of the best ways to get stuck in a place is to end up running a hotel.” What do you think she means? Discuss the importance of travel in this novel, and of getting stuck in places.
9. Why does Cleo leave New Orleans when she does?
10. The author alludes to several works by other authors in her text. What effects do the references to other works have on your reading of this novel? How do you connect the other writers to this book? Do the mentions inspire you to explore their works?
11. Rivers, ferries, ocean liners, Florentine floods, diving, swimming… Water is a constant presence in this novel. Discuss the effect of this element on the story, on the characters, and you as a reader. What does water signify for you?
12. The most difficult relationships in this novel are between mothers and daughters, and between husbands and wives. Do Madeline and Cleo come to terms with their mothers? What do you think Woodrow is saying about motherhood and marriage?
13. Cleo and Madeline, and Johnny as well, spend a lot of their time traipsing from bar to restaurant to bar in search of drinks and food and each other, and whether together or alone. Discuss such activity in the novel. In drinking, are the characters trying to lose something of themselves? Find something? Although the three more often turn to bourbon, can their drunkenness be connected to the recurring references to water in the novel?
14. At the end of the novel, it is clear that Mrs. Ryan’s words about New Orleans are equally suited to the relationship between Cleo and Madeline, as the women certainly haunt each other’s thoughts. What we don’t know is whether they parted too quickly or too slowly -- or at just the right time. What do you think? Discuss the novel’s ending and its epilogue.
15. Cleo describes herself as a “poet-chambermaid” and Mrs. Ryan is a writer who has been working on a novel for thirteen years. Discuss the act of writing in terms of the characters in this novel and how they communicate. For instance, can connections be found between Cleo’s travelogue of postcards and journal entries, the cheques sent by Madeline’s mom, the letters Madeline writes but never sends to Cleo, the poem Cleo writes in Florence, the postcard that arrives in Toronto to end this book?
16. How important is the notion of labelling oneself according to sexual preference? In this novel about unexpected love, do you think the characters avoid doing so? Why? What do you think/feel about such labels in real life?
17. Who is your favourite character in this novel? Why?
18. What was your overall impression upon turning the last page? Did you feel you had been taken someplace? Did you feel conscious of not connecting with any parts of the novel, or with some very much?
19. Where will Madeline and Cleo go from here? Imagine your own ending to their story. Will they find happiness together, or part, of necessity, yet again?