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Life Eruptions: Full Interview

A Closer Look at Mary Stanik and Her Novel Life Erupted

By Rebecca Taylor

Photo by Aaron Fahrmann
Photo by Aaron Fahrmann

Life can often take unexpected turns. Jenn Bergquist, protagonist of Mary Stanik’s Life Erupted, is no exception—there are quite a few twists and turns along the way in her story. Her life is turned upside down when she meets Bianca Fiona, a new patient at the medical centre where Jenn works. Jenn embarks on a journey at Bianca’s request, but little does Jenn know that this adventure will change everything from her views on family to her outlook on life. I took the opportunity to talk with Mary Stanik about her book and about life’s many trials.

Take us through your experience in self-publishing the novel. What are some of the challenges you faced? Would you do it again? Would you recommend the process to other up-and-coming authors?

Well, once I finished my book, which took about two years to write, off and on (battling a few intermittent crises of confidence), I tried, like many authors before me, to obtain an agent. I tried for a year. Actually, I’ve been told by many people in publishing that I got much farther than many first-time writers in that a number of agents did ask for a chapter or five or more. Just about all of them said they liked the book very much, they thought it might sell well, and several said they saw movie potential. But all of them, to the last, said the publishing business had changed so much, and not for the better, and that it was incredibly difficult to sell a first-time author to a major publishing house. And that consequently, all of them had very, very limited lists and weren’t planning to add any new authors anytime soon. Several, including one in Toronto, told me I had the background necessary to promote a book, which would be required of me even if I had secured an agent and publisher, and to go out and “self-publish it, pay for quality editing and design and such so it looks like a ‘real’ book, and sell it yourself. You’ll likely do a whole lot better in the end.” So that’s exactly what I did and I can’t say it’s been a bad experience. I control the money. I chose people I knew and could trust to do my editing, design, etc. Though there were, to be certain, some bumps in the road toward getting the right people to work with me, meeting deadlines, etc. It may or may not be more work than what might have been involved if I had secured a major publisher but if things go right, I get most of the credit. If things go wrong, the blame is all on me. I would do it again. A lot of people who have bought the book have asked when the sequel will come out. I had not thought of doing a sequel but I’ve definitely decided to write another book. The next one likely will have Canada in it as well.

Was it difficult to switch gears, from working in corporate communications to being a writer? Is it difficult to switch from writing for other people to writing for yourself? How did you express that difference in the novel?

It wasn’t as tough as I thought it might be to make the switch. There is a lot of potential in some types of corporate communications to tell real stories, such as when I wrote magazine articles on medical research findings or interesting museum exhibits. Even some executive speech writing permits a measure of creative freedom. So I just told myself that I still want to keep people interested in what I have to say, only this time I don’t have to worry about whether everyone comes off looking wonderful or not. And it won’t be a bad thing if there is humour or intentionally bizarre situations. A lot of what I felt when I was a medical centre spokesperson but often (though not always) kept to myself comes through in some of Jenn’s thoughts. And I realized too that in writing a novel I could finally write about things that interested me, that I could find a way to make a medical centre’s workings mesh with a psychic, a volcano, Icelandic culture and a completely unplanned life.

Cover Image Copyright of Mary Stanik 2012
Cover Image Copyright of Mary Stanik 2012

How did you get the idea for this book? What was the inspiration for some of your plots and characters? Are Jenn’s experiences based on things that happened to you?

Jenn’s experiences are very much based upon things that happened to me while I was the spokesperson for the University of Minnesota medical centre. People had told me for years that I needed to write a book about everything I experienced at the centre. But when I finally amassed the courage to actually write the book, I knew I didn’t want to write a book about crooked physicians and medical centres full of sexually adventurous, drug-abusing doctors and nurses. That sort of book has been done many times already. What I saw during my time at the centre, and what I realized I wanted to write about, were so many interesting patients and their stories. The character of Bianca the psychic is a composite of about six quite fascinating patients, enriched with a few extra dashes of colour and fame and wild room decor and wardrobe. Dr. Yuki Atagari, the chief of surgery, and Dr. Tony Fionarello, Bianca’s brother and a world-class volcanologist, are composites of several physicians and scientists I worked with through the years who I admired greatly for their dedication to their science and their innate kindness. I was offered chances, upon at least two occasions, to take the sort of plunge Jenn did when she went to Iceland to work on the volcano documentary. And I had always wanted to go to Iceland but while working at the centre as a state government employee, I really didn’t have the money to do so. So one of the first things I did in the year after I left the University of Minnesota was to get myself to Iceland. Even so, I still regret not taking some of those risks. In Life Erupted, Jenn gets to fulfill many of my own wishes, including a desire to live in Canada some day.

Readers are getting information on the plot from various different characters. Why did you choose to have so many voices, instead of just focusing on Jenn’s perspective throughout the novel?

Although Jenn is the primary character, the life eruptions, these happenings that affect her deeply, occur as a result of the actions and non-actions of others, including Bianca, Tony and Jenn’s father, Olaf. And these characters experience their own eruptions that then influence Jenn. I also wanted to tell a bit of a “family story,” though not about a stereotypical traditional family with a mother and father and two kids living under the same roof and eating meatloaf every Tuesday. I wanted to tell a story about a primary character with a modern, urban family, a family that is not completely traditional but is a type of family that is much more common than a lot of people want to realize. I wanted to tell a story about single people who though they may not be married with children, are still connected to people they care about a great deal. And I wanted at least one character to be a source of nearly continuous wisdom mixed with joy, so that is why there is Marco, the nonagenarian retired architect who is still out to get as much gusto out of life as possible while always looking wonderful. He’s actually based on the architect husband (and proud Greek) of a great friend of mine.

The plot moves quickly, and there are large breaks in time in the story. Why did you choose to have the story take place over a long period, and is there a specific reason you chose for the readers to not see what was going on during the breaks in time?

The plot does move fairly fast through most of the book but I wanted to move things along for a number of reasons. One, and this is probably the biggest reason, is because Bianca doesn’t have much time once she enters the University of Minnesota medical centre. She knows, and her doctor and her brother do too, that she has to get moving if she is going to accomplish what she came there to do, besides getting a new liver. Two, volcanoes on the verge of eruption don’t wait for months to sort out when television documentary people can arrive. I didn’t think there would be much use in saying “life erupted” if things did not move along. I did debate about the one chapter where there is a one year gap but decided I didn’t want to talk about a year of learning to deal with the ramifications of the life eruptions. Once they happened, I wanted the characters to boldly explore the new world, if you will, that would come forth out of all of that fertile lava. I think I made the right decision and I hope readers will feel the same way.

Take us through working with an illustrator. Why did you decide to have illustrations? Were you happy with the final images? What was it like working with Jack Ohman?

I love so many illustrated books. I think good illustrations can add so much to so many stories, as they really can help readers envision characters and their lives and experiences. I just like the look too. I wanted to write a book that people might consider a bit of fun and thought good illustrations would really add to that fun. I also thought this story would lend itself well to whimsical, yet sometimes poignant, drawings. And to be honest, several agents told me that if I were to successfully self-publish, I would need to do something special and that this book seemed to lend itself well to illustrations.

Jack Ohman (now the editorial cartoonist for the Sacramento Bee) is one of the world’s most talented editorial cartoonists, one who has written and/or illustrated 10 successful books of his own. I’ve admired his work since he was the editorial cartoonist at the Minnesota Daily (the University of Minnesota student newspaper). The best editorial cartoonists are not just people who have great technical drawing skills. The best also can make precise comments on characters and issues because they look beyond the drawing mechanics and comprehend the many sides of the person and the issue. Jack Ohman is that sort of cartoonist. When I made his acquaintance in late 2011, I knew I wanted to see if there would be a possibility he would illustrate my book. The drawings are more than exactly what I wanted and I am particularly thrilled with the way he drew Jenn, Olaf and Marco. He also did a nice rendition of the CN Tower. He’s won every major journalism award in the U.S. and was a finalist for last year’s Pulitzer Prize. I hope this is the year he finally takes the Pulitzer and I am honoured to have his work in my book.

Why did you decide to use the Danforth in the final scene of the novel? What do you enjoy about the Danforth and the neighbourhoods in East Toronto?

Well, I love Toronto and I love the way the Danforth, and neighbourhoods such as Riverdale and Leslieville, ooze with the vitality of the best that urban life can offer. It’s real-life stylish without being precious or completely unaffordable. It’s city living with a beautiful but friendly park oasis (Withrow Park) and lovely old homes, mixed with a non-chain shopping, cultural and restaurant scene that many American urban leaders have only recently realized is valuable. When I was there last summer, before I made the final revisions to the book, I did a bit of shopping at the Big Carrot and had lunch at Christina’s. I fell into talking with some people, told them about my book, and several said, well, if you’ve written about us, then consider yourself one of us. Welcome to the neighbourhood.

How could anyone (and especially an American!) refuse such a kind invitation?

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