Small pleasures; deeply enjoyed. How old was she before she recognized this as the true joy of living?
Perhaps she should write a book. Or perhaps not.
Too many people wrote books already.
Small Blessings, just released in paperback this week, had the misfortune of being published in hardcover on the heels of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. Both novels are about lonely, bookish people who find love, with the help of orphaned children who show up unexpectedly. They’re about second chances in life — and now Small Blessings, with a gorgeous new cover, has a second chance at finding its readership. It’s a truly special novel, and I’m glad I finally discovered it.
I had the pleasure of “talking” with Martha Woodroof in an online interview, and I mentioned to her that one thing that really resonated with me in the book was the loving relationship between the protagonist, Professor Tom Putnam, and his mother-in-law. Woodroof says that mothers-in-law are the “much-maligned and under-appreciated other mothers in our lives”, and she’d like to start a campaign to make sure they receive equal recognition on Mother’s Day. I’m all for that, since not only do I have a wonderful mother-in-law, I’m now a mother-in-law myself!
When you publish a novel, lots of lovely people write to tell you who their favorite character is. And the clear frontrunner in the Small Blessings favorite character sweepstakes is – ta da! – Agnes Tattle, the protagonist’s seventy-year-old mother-in-law. And why shouldn’t she be? Agnes Tattle is a smart, tough realist. She’s taken great whacking lumps, endured tremendous grief, and yet she still remains unafraid to love her rather unconventional family with all her craggy heart.
Martha Woodroof indulged my curiosity about her writing career and Small Blessings, answering my long-winded questions in detail.
Maybe it isn’t polite to start out by talking about your age — but I think readers would like to know that you became a published novelist in your mid-sixties. I remember years ago reading a newspaper advice column (Ann Landers, maybe?) in which the advice-seeker asked if she was too old to go back to college — “I’ll be 60 when I’m done!” The advice columnist’s answer was, “And how old will you be if you don’t go?” What inspired you to write Small Blessings, and what influence did your age and life experiences have on the writing of the book?
Small Blessings may be the first novel I’ve published, but it is the third one I’ve written. I taught myself how to write novels by writing novels; which is the same way I learned how to be a restaurant owner and a public radio producer/feature reporter.
I have always wanted to get better and better at whatever I’m doing, and I’m also pretty much unafraid to fall flat on my face if the fall is educational. In that respect I am like Mavis Callahan (the mother of Small Blessings‘s female protagonist Rose Callahan) in that one of my best qualities is that I bounce.
Small Blessings is a novel about facing your small, unacknowledged fears and defying them. It tells the story of nice people who have gotten stuck denying something important about themselves. They gotten comfortable living with that denial only to have a chance at real happiness if they will dare to be fully themselves.
I, myself, learned the necessity of being who you are in the world as it actually is through much trial and much error — much bouncing, if you will! And much bouncing takes a lot of time. So I don’t think I knew what I needed to know in order to write Small Blessings until I’d done quite a lot of living myself.
And please, I never consider discussions of my age impolite. My age is part of who I am, after all.
Reading your wonderful book was such an enjoyable and satisfying experience. For one thing, the novel takes place in two of my favorite literary locales — a bookstore and a college campus. What led you to set the novel in The Book Shop?
Oh golly, while I can truly say that none of the characters in Small Blessings are based on anyone I know, The Book Shop is a flat-out tribute to The Sweet Briar College Bookstore, where I worked for about a year-and-a-half back in the nineties.
I’m a long-term recoverer from substance abuse, and that job was the first job I had in sobriety that really challenged me. Skipper Fitts, the then-Director, took me in like a homeless kitten and gave me an opportunity contribute to a college community in creative, meaningful ways. Setting Small Blessings there is, in some ways, an expression of gratitude to Skipper, to my co-workers at The Bookstore, and to the Sweet Briar College community.
Sadly, the Board of Directors has chosen to close Sweet Briar for the murkiest of reasons. The alums, faculty, and Amherst County Commonwealth Attorney have all mounted legal challenges to this decision. Here’s hoping SBC lives on!
I think people yearn for uplifting books with likable characters, and that describes Small Blessings. (I can’t tell you how many times people have told me they didn’t like a book because they found the characters unlikable.) Could you tell us a little bit about how your characters came to be?
I’m not sure I can. They were just kind of there. I got up one morning, started writing the opening scene at The Bookstore, looked around to see who was there at the time, and rolled with it.
How did the title of the book come to be? Was it the working title all along? (“He would at least have a comfortable beginning to this long tumultuous day. Small blessings.”)
As I remember, the title was right there the morning I sat down to write the first scene. It’s a phrase from my childhood that I’ve always loved.
After attending a booksellers’ conference In Seattle last year, you said, “What indie people want from me is a sense of whether my book belongs on their shelves; i.e. can they visualize actual customers to whom they can hand the novel and say with assurance, “You will love this.” You are absolutely right. If you were a bookseller like me, what would you say about Small Blessings to a potential customer?
Hmmm. I would make a rotten bookseller, I think, as I always go on about books I love.
However, since you’ve asked me to take a stab at bare-bones brevity, I would say Small Blessings is the story of a truly nice man who risks his comfort in the cause of happiness.
Who are your favorite contemporary authors? I love the description you use in your blog of “warm bath” storytellers — authors you can “sink into without fear of being surprised by hopelessness.”
I’m rather an omnivore when it comes to reading. Really. The only thing I ask is that a book be well-written (and this includes not being self-consciously writerly), and that it tell a story that expands the range of my own experience. At the moment, I’m reading Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night, which I’m finding pretty yummy. After I’m done, I plan to read a new biography of Ben Franklin. And I just reread a novel (Friday Nights) by Joanna Trollope who is one of my warm bath novelists.
As you’ve already figured out, I am not much a fan of hopelessness for hopelessness’s sake in fiction. Nor am I a fan of the saccharine. Give me real (fictional) people facing real (fictional) problems!
I suppose the biggest change is in the focus of the conversations I have with people I meet. As a public radio feature reporter, I’ve spent years making people comfortable talking about themselves. But since the publication of Small Blessings, I’ve had to learn how to be comfortable talking about myself.
Are you a member of a writers’ group, and if so, what part does it play in your life and career? Do you see yourself as a part of a literary community?
I’m not a member of a formal writers’ group, but I know many writers. As we writers tend to talk about what we do and how we do it, I feel very much a part of a literary community.
Do you have a favorite bookstore, and if you do, what makes it special?
I really love any Indie bookstore, for the same reason that I love any restaurant that is chef-owned. Both have souls un-dulled by corporate culture.
If we could have a glimpse of your personal library, what would it look like? How is it organized?
In our house the words “organized” and “library” do not belong in the same sentence. Every room except one has a bookshelf and all those bookshelves are overflowing. The only truly arranged bits are the shelf where I’ve stowed the books I reported on nationally for NPR and the shelf in the guest room that holds an almost complete collection of Elmore Leonard novels.
Need a Mother’s Day present? Of course, I recommend Small Blessings! Martha Woodroof also has some terrific recommendations for novels “in which women of a certain age shine” on her blog.