From PineStraw Magazine : The Art & Soul of the Sandhills August 2011
Writers in Bloom
If you attend a book signing at The Country Bookshop or Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books, you are likely to see them, especially if one of their own is doing the signing. They are seven smart, funny, well-spoken women, and they also happen to be some of the most successful authors in the state. Mary Kay Andrews (Kathy Trocheck), Diane Chamberlain, Margaret Maron, Katy Munger, Alexandra Sokoloff, Sarah Shaber and Brynn Bonner (Bren Witchger) can also regularly be found in Southern Pines’ beautiful Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities, utilizing the writer-in-residence program, which allows them to come, live in, and create.
Many of the stories and characters we treasure from these authors were likely born or developed on Weymouth’s graceful acres. The women get together at the mansion twice each year for intensive days of brainstorming, organizing, plotting, writing, editing, and only a little bit of procrastination. When novelist James Boyd and his family owned the home in the early twentieth century, they hosted many art-and literature-filled gatherings, welcoming guests such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Now, as then, great stories are being developed inside these walls.
If Virginia Woolf advocated for a room of one’s own, this group takes over an entire house. Imagine a week of sharing ideas with fellow professionals, writing all day in beautiful surroundings, and settling in with good company after the sun goes down. If this sounds ideal, keep in mind I’m leaving out the most important component of this writers’ retreat; the hard work of filling the blank pages.
These diverse but like minded writers began getting together for lunches several years ago, sharing information as professionals and friends. The image of the writer as a solitary figure, hunched over a keyboard, is a common one, and, as Shaber points out, not totally off base. Their regular communication with each other, in person and via email, provides a sense of community in what is often a very solitary profession. The group credits Nancy Olson of Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books for understanding that need and for introducing them to each other.
While each writer has her own distinct way of approaching the craft, they obviously benefit from the feedback, creative energy, and encouraging competition of the time spent together. They brainstorm and share ideas in the mornings, and break for intensive solitary writing during the day. They all point to Andrews (Trocheck) as the group taskmaster, outlining their goals for the week and issuing creative challenges. As a New York Times best-selling author and former journalist, she has plenty of experience writing on deadline. There is structure for evaluating their output. Word and page counts are shared and compared. As they all quickly point out, no one wants to be known as the group’s slacker.
“Although our genres are technically different, we all know the value of plot. Point A leads to point B and ultimately to XYZ. If one of us is stuck, the others can almost always come up with something that works or helps us find the right solution on our own,” Maron says. For example, Chamberlain’s books are suspenseful, but they are most often categorized as women’s fiction. She thinks the collaboration with some of the more traditional mystery writers in the group helps her add twists and turns to her stories.
Sokoloff, known for her spine-tingling action, brings her screenwriting expertise to her work as a novelist. She says, “Because I’m a mystery/thriller/horror writer, and could easily get lost in genre plotting, I find the group helps keep me grounded in character and true emotions. And I’m aware of wanting to write stories that everyone in the group would appreciate,
no matter what their own genre is. That’s very satisfying to me.”
Sokoloff also took direct inspiration from one of the retreats. The haunted house in her novel, The Unseen, was based on Weymouth. The writers talk about the energy of the home, and the possible ghostly activity that goes on there. Certainly they are surrounded by the ghosts of writers past, as the beautiful library at Weymouth houses the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, and showcases the amazing literary history of the state.
As they gather there in the library, helping one of the group through a plot point, generating ideas about a particular character, and completely dissecting the art of the prologue, it’s clear that their collaboration greatly enchances the creative process. “Because we are familiar with each other’s writing style, strengths and interests, we can offer each other pertinent suggestions and advice in a stress-free setting that’s as much about mutual respect and friendship as it is about work,” Maron says.
What makes the group such a good fit is the fact that they are all professionals, and well established in their careers. All of the hurdles for beginning writers have been surpassed, and they are clearly at the highest levels of their craft. In some ways, it is not unlike a conference for executives, where skilled practitioners inspire and learn from each other. One morning Sokoloff gave a brief seminar on the history and elements of drama, and how this structure is also useful in plotting a novel. Her fellow writers took notes. Maron jokes, “We’re like the Junior League. Not just anyone could join us.”
Although they work hard, there is also time during the week to enjoy each other’s company. The women enjoy discussing politics, and sharing stories from the publishing world. In the evenings they generally have dinner together, and often settle in with wine and word games. Imagine playing Balderdash with some of the best wordsmiths in the business. The humor that emerges from their time together inevitably finds its way into the characters they create, as we laugh out loud at the hilarious dialogue in Andrews’ novels, or enjoy the wry wit of Maron’s Judge Knott.
It’s clear that the bonds of the group are not just professional. The friendship and mutual support these writers give each other is critical to their success. Munger stopped writing for a while. With a busy family and work life, it seemed impossible to fit it all in. But this group wouldn’t let her stay away. They continued to encourage her, and she credits them for making sure she didn’t
quit the writing life.
Chamberlain speaks of the excitement of the drive into Weymouth and the ability to flip a switch away from the real world and into this cloister world of work and friendship. She notes, “We’ve become close friends, sharing the sorts of confidences that women share all around the globe, but that closeness is only a happy consequence of our main purpose in coming together. We’ve each worked during times of illness, loss, and other forms of chaos, and we’re always there to support each other, and also at times to push each other to keep going. The group dynamic can be a powerful thing.”
Inspiration abounds at Weymouth, but most of the productivity can be credited to the dedication of the writers and the smart blend of their personalities and skills. They have a lot of fun together, but they also challenge each other, and thrive off the flowing creativity. Sokoloff sums it up well. “We all love what we do, we admire anyone who can do it well, and we enjoy each other as people and as artists.”