Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Wednesday Writers: Marie-Anne Mancio

As an aspiring author, it’s always good to hear stories of other people’s success. They inspire us to not procrastinate, and reassure us that there is a light at the end of that proverbial tunnel.

This week, trained artist Marie-Anne Mancio, author of Whorticulture, tells us about her fascination for a good historical scandal and sheds light on the ever-changing place of women in history.

Name: Marie-Anne Mancio
Location and one thing you love about living there: Near London, England. It's brilliant that we have so many galleries and museums and that most of them are free.  
Author of: Whorticulture
Available: As an e-book on Smashwords, Amazon, Barnes and Noble.

Tell us a bit about yourself: I trained as an artist originally (in performance art). I did a DPhil only to decide I didn't actually want to be an academic then spent many years teaching art history to adults. I went back to university to do an MPhil in Creative Writing and it's taken me a long time to realise that writing is just another way of making art.

Tell us about your latest book: It's about four migrant women in pre-Civil War America. Katharine is a country girl, a daydreamer who meets all kinds of characters when her uncle decides to educate her; Abigail owns a store but falls in love with a thief in the chaos of Gold Rush San Francisco; Seraphine is a fugitive quadroon who re-invents herself in a New York brothel; and Emily is a young bride trapped on a Louisiana sugar plantation. They don't know it, but their lives are linked by the men they meet. Peopled by whores, tricksters, gamblers, do-gooders, liars, and fools, and with allusions to the coded language of flowers, Whorticulture is about prostitution in its myriad forms. It also contains a discussion guide for book groups and a flower dictionary.

What sparked your passion for books and the art of a good story? I've always been a big reader. Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo really made me want to write because it's such a compelling story and revenge is a powerful motivation. I find character-driven, rather than plot-driven, stories more satisfying.

Where does your interest in historical fiction come from? Partly from art history but also from reading the classics: Austen, the Brontes, Tolstoy etc. One of my grandmothers had Parkinson's and my other grandparents died when I was young so I feel I missed out on hearing their stories but I bet everyone has an ancestor with a really interesting past.

Is there a particular book that changed or affected your life in a big way? Jeanette Winterson's Gut Symmetries made me want to write better because she is so lyrical; Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's reminded me you don't have to write an epic tome to create something that stays with the reader.

What was the seed of inspiration for your latest book? A true story about a woman in the 19th Century who ran a brothel and killed 3 husbands! It made me research American prostitution and the whole Gold Rush era. I was also inspired by the art of Kara Walker to query the historical stereotypes we've created around the antebellum period. The character of Seraphine in Whorticulture really plays on that.

Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp? The artist Barbara Kruger once said her work was about doubt and I'd like people to put their own attitudes under the microscope. If prostitution is wrong, is marrying for financial stability equally wrong? And, historically, what were women's choices? And how do they relate to women now who are facing tough economic circumstances? The other message is about responsibility and where it lies.

What challenges have you faced in your writing career?  I think getting rejection letters was one! But I was very lucky to have Lesley Thorne at Aitken Alexander who has been incredibly encouraging. A smaller challenge is reading reviews - it's hard not to want to engage in debate. For instance, someone wrote recently that there wasn't a single positive male character in Whorticulture and that really surprised me because some of the men have very positive traits (generosity, passion, kindness etc.) but, fair enough, there are no heroes (or heroines) as such. There's a lot of ambiguity, a lot of grey. But ultimately I'm grateful to anyone who's taken the time to read and review Whorticulture.

What has been your best moment as a writer? Getting an email from a reader asking what happens next to one of the characters in Whorticulture. It's a brilliant moment when you feel the world you've created is as real for readers.

Who is your author idol? There are lots but I'm a big fan of Donna Tartt. I actually preferred The Little Friend to The Secret History. It had some stunning set pieces and I liked the open ending.

Do you see yourself in any of your characters? Oh yes, definitely. There are probably elements of me in all of them. Stubbornness, impatience... And though it isn't very nice to admit, I'm sure I've told a few colourful lies in my time.

Do you feel like your dream has come true or is there much more to do? Much, much more! Firstly it is a great feeling to have finished something and to have put it out there. But then you want as many people to read it as possible. And marketing takes a lot of time if you're doing it all by yourself. Then there's the question of the next book. I've just started researching it and it's a different kind of challenge as it involves an unsolved 18th Century mystery and 150 characters.

What is your personal cure for procrastination? Get the most boring tasks out of the way first. My father was self-employed and every morning he got up, had a bath, and went to the shed at the bottom of the garden to work. That kind of discipline's really important. As long as you set yourself a time to start work it doesn't matter about the rest. And reward yourself after.

What does your workspace look like? I find it hard to work if I'm surrounded by chaos. Maybe that's a form of procrastination - I can't start till I've cleared up. I organise my text sources in files on the laptop and keep a sketchbook for visual material.

Are there any occupational hazards to being a writer? Spending too much time at the computer so eye strain, occasional back ache. And nosiness. I'm always eavesdropping on people's conversations on the train.

Have you ever had a day when you just wanted to quit? Plenty. Days where you think no-one's going to read what you've written. I seriously questioned why I struggle to craft beautiful sentences when literally millions of people are reading Fifty Shades of Grey. But I think you can only write the way you write and you have to be true to that.

What do you do when you’re not writing? Teach. Read. Travel when I can.

What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer? Give yourself realistic deadlines and don't get caught up in worrying about what or how well other people are doing.

What was the greatest thing you learned at school? My school expected perfectionism which isn't always a good thing but it taught me to be academic and thorough.

Did you have a moment when you realised you were meant to be a writer? Not really but plenty of moments where I've really enjoyed researching then writing something and thought what a fun way this is to use your time. We spend a lot of our lives problem solving but the best thing about art is you get to choose the problems.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors? Write about something you're passionate about. Write the kind of book you'd love to read. Share your writing with a good writers' group and accept constructive criticism. Support other writers by reading their books or blogs. And challenge yourself to do some interesting things in life.

If you are an author and would like to be featured on You May Say I'm a Dreamer, email me at: sarah.hardie[at] and I'll get back to you quick smart.


  1. Great interview and I will keep her procrastination tip in mind!

  2. Hi Sarah -for me this is one of the best author interviews. Very interesting book and to be honest, if I had just seen it on a shelf, I wouldn't have bothered because it's not the type of subject info I'd normally read. However, the synopsis here is enough to change my mind so well done!
    Many thanks to Marie-Anne Mancio. As a writer myself and one hoping to be published, her answers above are extremely helpful. I particularly liked her response to fifty shades. Really inspiring and I need a bit of inspiration right now. Thank you.
    All the best