Our second Michigan author feature is Mardi Link, a Traverse City-based writer of true crime and memoir.
I prefer “writer” to “author” just because one is a process word, the other is an end product and I do a lot of the first to get to the second. I suppose that probably sounds like just semantics, but writing is way of life for me; being a published author is just something that came about because of it. The writing happens between being a mom, a wife, a citizen, but I can’t think of any other way to be in the world. I write to understand what I think, what I believe, who I am. I don’t think I ever consciously decided to become a writer. It was just what I did, or rather, what I couldn’t help from doing.
The nitty gritty details? I live in Traverse City, have written three published books with two more finished and forthcoming, am a two-time winner of the Michigan Notable Book Award, was given the Bookseller’s Choice Award for Bootstrapper, and, at 52, just received my masters degree in creative writing. All that’s nice, but the best thing is that I get to walk upstairs to my little pink office every day and tell stories. Can you imagine?
Did you have any special teachers or mentors who encouraged you in your writing?
Eleventh grade English at T.L. Handy High School in Bay City, Michigan was ruled over by Mr. Ringle. At least in 1979 it was. He noticed my love of books and language and plied me with classics from his home library. He made me memorize poems and recite them. He showed me that there were other people in the world that made a love of books a lifelong affair. When my second book, Isadore’s Secret, was published in 2009, I did a lot of public speaking about the case (a lot of people were interested in the murder of a nun) and one place was my hometown library in Bay City. The meeting room was packed, people were standing, and when I walked to the podium, there in the front row was Mr. Ringle. He had to walk with a cane but he was there. One of the highlights of my whole writing career.
You have written true crime and a memoir. How is the process of writing When Evil Came to Good Heart different from a book like Bootstrapper?
I never set out to write a memoir. Honestly, I thought they were puff pieces and not serious, important writing. Then a literary agent got ahold of an essay I wrote about raising chickens with my sons and asked if I should write a whole book like that. I was in the process of looking for an agent to represent my true crime work, but she saw something else in me and suggested a memoir. Partly because that was what was selling. I gave it a try, learned that memoir writing is extremely difficult and emotionally challenging, and Bootstrapper is the result. You are right — the experiences were very different. Journalists are taught to never, never to use the word “I”. Memoirs are about the word “I”. It was not easy to turn my reporter’s eye on my own life, my own mistakes, but it was incredibly satisfying in the end. When you write about your life and are saying its nonfiction, you can’t change what happened but you can change how you feel about what happened and there’s real value in that. For the writer and hopefully for the reader, too.
What are some of the particular challenges of publishing a memoir? Were you worried about what some of the real people in your life might think about what you wrote?
The challenges are how to make a life — a messy, unorganized, tangential affair to be sure — fit the structure of a narrative and make it interesting enough so that someone besides your mother will want to read it. Writers are told to “show don’t tell.” Meaning, don’t lecture the reader with a bunch of boring, pedantic prose but instead excite the reader with action and drama. This is good advice but where memoir is concerned writers have to show AND tell. Much of the value in memoir is not just what happened but how the writer feels about what happened. And that means telling. So, there’s a challenge to make that telling interesting and not just an ego trip. There are also challenges and ethical considerations in writing about real people who probably never signed up to be analyzed and dissected in the pages of your book. My flip answer is to say, well, that’s what you get for loving, marrying, hating, befriending, crossing paths with a writer. That’s a little self-serving, though. Especially when the people I wrote about in Bootstrapper were my children. My solution was to give them veto power. A liberty I wouldn’t offer anyone else. They agreed to be written about and I agreed to abide by their decision if they wanted to edit anything out. They didn’t. I have heroic sons, but you know that if you’ve read Bootstrapper!
How important is a sense of place in your writing? Does being a Michigan author give you a special perspective?
What I hope is that my sense of being a Midwesterner, and specifically a Michigander, is not something separate from the rest of my work but rather is infused into everything I write. I see through Michigan eyes. That is the way I see the world. Resourceful, stubborn, hardworking, practical — those are qualities that I hope are in my writing and I know are in my personality because I grew up in Michigan. One of the reasons I wanted to write Bootstrapper was because of the lack of personal stories from the Midwest. We know all about people in New York and New England. We know all about people on the West Coast. Not so many true stories from the Midwest and I wanted to do my part to remedy that.
Bootstrapper explores the stress of financial problems. That is a kind of drama that affects many people’s lives but which people often keep secret. What made you decide to write about it?
Ah, money. The last taboo. I supposed because I knew so many people were struggling with the same issue I was gave me courage to write about it. Plus, I was proud of my sons, proud of what we were able to accomplish that year, not ashamed of it, and I wanted to get our story down so that someday, they’d be able to see how we made it through. Of course, if it helps anyone else, that’s a bonus. Creative people everywhere are intimately familiar with the time/money roulette wheel. It is and will be a lifetime struggle for many of us. I wanted to honor that with my own story, told as honestly as I could bear.
I see that you lead workshops on writing family histories. What type of advice do you give to writers?
I LOVE teaching; especially teaching writers. My goal in these workshops is to stress how valuable their experiences are, and the experiences of their family, even if no one is a celebrity, a mountain climber, someone who soloed across the Atlantic Ocean, etc. Ordinary people do, say, think, and accomplish extraordinary things and I want to give writers a chance to capture their stories. Some advice – entertain first, education second because no one is going to want to read a bunch of dates and cemetery plot information. People want to read about people. Next, I give prompts such as write from a photograph, write about your family’s black sheep, draw a map of your neighborhood, your house when you were a kid, your grandparents’ farm and write from that. I try to ignite a love of personal history in the people who attend my workshops so that they will continue to write long after the workshop is over. I’m so glad I have Bootstrapper to give to my sons. What I wouldn’t give for something like that from my parents, my grandparents or my great grandparents. Writing crosses the boundaries of time. It is the only thing that can.