Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Ellen Feld is talking with Marie A. Wishert, author of Ignite.
FQ: Tell our readers a little about yourself. Your background, your interests, and how this led to writing a book?
WISHERT: Awwww dang. You would start off with that! This question is always the hardest. Let me see...well...first and foremost, I'm a mother and a wife. Everything else about me is defined as part of those roles. After that, there are three lifestyle related activities I would say are salient character traits. I am a dentist, I am an athlete, and I am an artist. I've been varying degrees of each for twenty plus years; always a little expression of each, but never am I equal parts all three.
My interest in dentistry came from my stepdad. As a skill and self-defining trait, the kinda odd thing is dentistry wasn't a conscious choice. Literally, this part revealed itself to me. My stepfather was a man of impeccable character, and I admired that; he was (to me) the epitome of a model human being. For that reason, I aligned with his career trajectory. But to be frank, I didn't know shit about teeth. In hindsight this is so crazy because anyone who has seen me work would swear I was born to do dentistry. But had anyone told me early in life I'd be a dentist, I would have laughed in their face. Now, it's crazy to say, but dentistry is my escape. When I sit down to work, I fall into a blissful trancelike state. It enlivens me.
As much as dentistry enlivens me though, it takes a toll on my psyche. Being a dentist is not easy, to frame it mildly, so I need outlets to counterbalance the crazy. That’s where athletics come into play. Athletics keep me sane.
All my life I've had a sport. Challenging my body brings mental clarity and stability. When I was young it was gymnastics and figure skating. Then, as a precocious and rebellious teenager, I traded in my figure skates for a skateboard, roller blades, and a snowboard. Then, once I reached dental school and a different level of maturity, I started running. Years later, triathlete has become my modus operandi, (largely to ensure longevity as an athlete), but at heart, I’m a runner first and cyclist second. Swimming is for recovery and racing.
Those two really ought to be enough to occupy all my time, yet there has always been this artist persona begging to come out and play. With the release of this book, I must say writing has come to the forefront as my passion and purpose for living. At an early age I wrote poetry; it was where the emotional side of me came to life on page. Then, throughout high school and college, I would write and sketch and sing and play music, but that stuff I gave zero credibility. I believed I was a two-year-old with finger-paint making herself happy, and if I ever mustered the gumption to call what I did "art," I'd be laughed into outer space.
All my life I secretly craved to live a passionate, artistic existence, but I feared financial instability. I thought making art was a rich man’s luxury or a poor man’s death dream. And I know to say that sounds naïve and foolish, but it's the truth. It scared me. The day I sat down to write this book, I had reached a point where the artist inside me was dying. Almost as a swan song, this incessant need to make a drastic effort to resurrect her overtook everything. I was a woman possessed, and I wrote and made parallel art pieces with fury.
Six years later, I’m answering these questions and telling you I’m an artist above everything. It’s wild how drastically things have changed.
Truthfully, it sucks I had to wait so long before getting to that point, but when I reached it, there was no going back. In retrospect, I couldn't shape my life any other way.
It took writing my book to arrive at the place. Writing a book is unlike anything. Who you are when you start the thing will be a stranger to you by the end.
FQ: Tell us a little about your book – a brief synopsis and what makes your book unique.
WISHERT: Ignite follows the story of Ruby Carlson from the birth of her son to something like the death of herself. As a headstrong woman, Ruby spent years chasing an elusive construct; an idea of perfection, of normalcy. Compelled by the need to fulfill the "American Dream" for her family, Ruby goes about doing everything right. And for the longest time, doing right doesn't feel like a compromise. Until one day, when the compromise is all she can see. When faced with an unlikely love affair, Ruby's resolve diminishes, and she finds herself sucked down a hole she is unskilled at navigating.
When I was writing The Terrible Love Memoirs, I had this mantra on repeat: "write a story no one has ever seen." When a cautious voice inside my head advised me to hold back, I pushed it all out instead. I said the things no one was willing to say, and then I explored why that was. At the end of the day, all those horrible ghosts keeping me in check became muses that set the work on fire.
The thing that really makes this story unique is that it keeps going. I read so many memoirs as research, and the endings always pissed me off. More often than not, stories concluded wrapped in tidy bows, even though anyone paying attention could see in truth the bows were shredded fragments and the writers were people still searching. Publishers want classic hero's journeys. Readers deserve the real story. I wanted to get to the truth. That's the glory of being an independent author: I control the narrative. No one else really supported me in this coming out as a three-part story, but I couldn't see it any other way. It takes that long to unpack it all humanely. In the end, everyone (I'm sure) will agree.
FQ: Please give our readers a little insight into your writing process. Do you set aside a certain time each day to write, only write when the desire to write surfaces, or ...?
WISHERT: Oh man, the initial writing process was a mess!! Everything was on one trusted laptop, and that thing was an extension of me. At the time I was getting out the first draft, I was also traveling like crazy. Partly to write, and partly for education and seeking out where I wanted to relocate my family. While flying, as soon as the plane reached the safe tray table altitude, I would set up and write until the descent stopped me. Then, I would find the United Club and write during the layover.
At that time, I was also selling my practice and couldn't breathe a word of it to anybody. As such, being around family or in our hometown felt horrible. We would leave at every opportunity. I wrote in the car on the road, and at whoever’s home we landed, I continued writing. This story was transcribed in locations all across America. Random bars in Aspen, CO, Portland, ME, Minneapolis, MN, at my local craft brewery in Moorhead, and then my local craft brewery in San Diego. And in Airbnb’s far and wide.
As for schedule, good lord - NO schedule. I wrote at odd hours, whenever inspiration took me. I was sleeping with my laptop, waking up to write, falling asleep and waking again inspired. I have a photo of me on social medial with a towel on my head wearing only a bra, leaning over two laptops trying to get some crucial scene down. Suffice it to say, I was a woman possessed; doing everything and anything I could to get it out.
As for the editing process, that is much more structured and focused. Now I carve time out of my normal day when my boys are in school and my husband is at work, and I use those hours exclusively. If I get put up against a deadline though? We shall see if I resort to my old ways!
FQ: Who are your favorite authors?
WISHERT: Please accept this answer as one written in sand. I find my favorite authors drift with the changing tides of life, however, during the writing of this book, a few authors maintained a constant place on my bedside stand:
Cheryl Strayed: Fellow Minnesotan! Plus, she has this wisdom about her. And a skill with words I think is unparalleled. I love what she does.
Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club has a pacing that is unique, and I envied his ability to get gruesome. I read that book often, studying how he jumped from one scene to the next, one airport to the next, and always used it as a reference when I was trying to create a similar vibe.
Harper Lee: Her brazen depiction of a man tormented and transfigured into a ghastly figure beneath the guise of religion had me mesmerized. Also, just, all her themes. So poignant and resonate. Deep, universal, and still to this day, appropriate. One would think by now people should know better, but history repeats itself. That a writer was calling attention to those types of injustices in the way she did, years and years ago, was a priceless act of bravery.
Andy Weir: For two reasons – 1) he is freaking hilarious; I laughed my ass off while reading The Martian. And I mean, how many books make a person laugh out loud?? His sarcasm was on point – and how he took this life and death, seemingly hopeless situation and turned it on its head: making it something people could laugh about, was brilliant. 2) his road to becoming an author was my sanctuary. When I heard how it was his story came to see the light of day coupled with how humble he is; how he is man whose singular aim to entertain, I came to appreciate that the sheer act of having a creative process and being on the road to establishing a readership is the real reward of this writing game.
FQ: Is this the first book, the second, etc. in the series and how many books do you anticipate writing in this series?
WISHERT: Ignite is the first, and it is in essence a backstory. The book I sat down to write is actually book two, this got written as an afterthought because without this information, readers have no framework for why it is Ruby does what comes next.
At this point, three books are anticipated, though, I must admit, I cannot rule out the potential for a fourth.
FQ: Tell us a bit about the series. Do you know where the series will take the characters or are you working that out as you go along with each book? What has been the reader response to your series?
WISHERT: This series is intended to show the transformational power of memoir. The first book takes readers to the point where a person finds themselves at the brink, at a point where something as gregarious as penning a memoir to write oneself out of a hole while hoping a happy ending magically appears seems logical. That memoir project is the second book. The third will be an unflinching absorption of the brutal doses of truth any memoirist faces once they dive into editing, and once they accept life is journey without tidy bows and trimmings. The third book reveals what transpires once the author accepts what is and moves on.
This series has quite a past. Early iterations of it have gone out amateurishly, going as far back as 2016. The initial reaction to what is now Ignite (the most well-organized of the earlier releases) was mind-blowing. I had readers unable to put it down and messaging me about how deeply they connected to the story. I knew after connecting with my first reader that I had created something extraordinary. His overwhelming sense of himself inside the work was powerful. And not only did he see himself in there, he transcended a roadblock of similar heft while carrying on with Ruby's journey. His support was the reason I carried on writing.
FQ: Did your family & friends encourage you to write your book?
WISHERT: Yes and No. This project has been met with mixed reactions. In truth, my ex-husband was my biggest supporter, which seems illogical, but it's true. He sensed the need within me to create greater than anyone, and he was enlivened seeing me come to life in a way he hadn't in years. But he and I kind of fell into hiding when this all began. It was a tough time; we lost our former lifelines and relied on fringe-friends and out-of-town distant relations; people we entrusted with our secret who were empathetic and became a new kind of family. They were all very encouraging.
Yet, it was those who held me dear and loved me the most: loved and knew the version of me I was writing to unbecome, that rejected the transformation. When we change, those who loved our former selves go through mourning. It is normal for them to want distance, but it was hard AF. I lost my best friend entirely, and some of my closest relatives shut me out for years before changing their heart and admitting the new me back into their lives.
It is not anything I will bemoan because what was achieved through writing was important. Furthermore, there are relationships that developed both directly and indirectly related to this work that have been most encouraging, relationships that I couldn't picture my life without.
FQ: Tell us about the protagonist in your story.
WISHERRT: Ruby is one of those women who went through life always missing the point. Headstrong and focused, it's always been her way or the highway, and that worked as long as she had the drive. She is something of a loner, though she doesn't know it. She's the extroverted introvert who disappeared raising her family. In college, before family, there was a fire inside her. Then, when she became a dentist, it was simple to shelve her former feminist, boho, thrift-store clothes wearing, indie loving-self. A woman on a mission to change the world. When that woman had been dormant for too long, she goes on a self-imposed mission to revive her.
As a mind bent on the scientific, Ruby is convinced she can use her experience as a research project. She relies on herself and her instincts over the advice of anyone else. Which is why, to her, a memoir project seemed logical. She wanted to discover her true self, which she assumed would come through writing.
In a lot of ways Ruby is childish. She lacks the ability to sense what others see, as she is so lost in herself. The coping mechanisms many develop through friendships and peer interactions are lost on her. She spent her youth being bullied and isolated by a fanatical religion border lining cult status. These things are part of her, but not anything she considered shaped her differently, until she starts to read her own writing.
FQ: What was the most difficult scene to write and why?
WISHERT: Okay - well, there is one obvious scene readers will expect was the hardest, but that’s far too easy to say. We all know writing those kinds of scenes only get written after the third drink. It wasn’t hard emotionally, just hard to write because I’m a shy person who’d never really say those things.
In truth, the hardest was the anniversary proposal scene. This was the subject matter I found lacking in parallel stories—what goes through a person’s brain when they are admitting finally their marriage is failing. I had to get it right, and I had to go to the depth of genuine emotions in a way everyone could relate.
Oh man, it was excruciating work, but in the end, I think it worked. I cry every time I read it. Brutal truth is an idiom for a reason. There are remnants of my soul on those pages, now all I can do is pray for the work to resonate.