Interview: Jeni Mayer|
author of The Mystery of the Missing Will
CM interviewed Jeni Mayer February 12, the week she came to Winnipeg to accept the 1995 Manitoba Young Readers' Choice Award for The Mystery of the Missing Will.
CM: How did you get started writing?
Mayer: Well, it was out of necessity when I was growing up, because I was in this town of 150 people and there was literally nothing to do. I used to hang out in this group of seven kids and we used to get together and tell each other stories -- you know monster stories, vampires, anything scary. And then afterwards we used to explore abandoned houses . . . And over the years it became a competition to outdo one another in your storytelling. So that's how the storytelling started, or at least the interest in stories.
CM: How very satisfying.
Mayer: It was, it was nice and vengeful. . . .
CM: That was your first book --
Mayer: Yeah, and it did really well. I wrote it for my kids -- we had spent the summer at Turtle Lake, looking for the monster, couldn't find it, so at the end of the summer my kids said, "Well, write us a story and pretend it's real."
CM: That was The Mystery of the Missing Will.
CM: That book seems to reflect some of those childhood experiences exploring abandoned houses. . . .
Mayer: A lot of my childhood is in that book, the spooky part of it. . . .
CM: The Mystery of the Missing Will definitely has a mystery, and a touch of the supernatural, but it seems that thematically you were more interested in the lives of the girls who are your protagonists than in issues relating to crime, or spirits. It's their relationships with one another and with their parents that seem to be at the heart of the book.
Mayer: Yeah, the characters in that book kind of dictated that. Especially in a mystery, you sort of block out in your mind all the things that are going to happen and how you're going to get to the end of it. But the characters always sort of grow and they have these personalities and these problems that enter into it. And I think that's particularly true of The Mystery of the Missing Will.
CM: The cover says "A Mayer Mystery," and when I started the book, I assumed that it would be at least be setting up continuing characters -- like the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books you read as a kid. But by the end, it would be difficult to bring those characters back for a sequel. I was impressed that you cared enough for the realism of what was going on in their lives to not return them to a point of stasis so that you could plunge them into another adventure next time. . . .
Mayer: I never have any intention when I'm writing a book of doing a second one. And that's one of the good things about working with Thistledown, because they've given me the freedom to do that. They said, "Do you want to write a series of mysteries?"
CM: They've done a good job promoting your books too. . . .
Mayer: They've done a wonderful job. It's a good gang of people to work with; they're very open to new ideas. I've done a lot of tours; I've probably spoken at three hundred schools in the last few years. They really promote authors not just titles.
CM: You've written other things beyond these Young Adult mysteries; I'm wondering which you're more attached to, the Young Adult part, or the supernatural mystery part?
Mayer: Like a lot of Young Adult authors, it's not that I write specifically for that age group, it just sort of happens . . . Though when I'm writing I understand that those are the people my work is going to appeal to.
CM: So these things aren't divisible for you. You wouldn't want to write an adult Steven King or Anne Rice horror novel; it's that childhood experience of what might be supernatural that --
Mayer: -- That fascinates me. Absolutely. I've never had any plans of writing a supernatural novel for adults. I write what I write and I don't look beyond that and say "What should I be writing?"
CM: You also seem to be happy to write about the real places you've been. There's no ambiguity about you're setting in The Mystery of the Missing Will: it's a rural community outside of Saskatoon; it's not some place that could be in middle America. . . .
Mayer: Yeah, that's really important to me. As I was saying, I grew up believing that nothing could ever happen here, and it's important to me that when kids pick up books that they recognize their own home place, that they recognize those things that are Canadian.
CM: It seems that we deprive our kids when we don't invest the landscape they live in with the possibilities of romance and adventure.
Mayer: And adventure is there; I tell my kids about my childhood and I tell them about going through old houses, and going through graveyards at midnight, and they say, "Wow, I could neveranything exciting, and yet I look at their lives and I see the exciting things they're doing -- because they're living in a rural setting -- and they don't realize it yet, but I think they'll appreciate it more when they think back. . . .
CM: There's some question whether there's too much horror and supernatural fiction being published for kids these days; what are your thoughts?
Mayer: Well, there's a lot of well-written stuff out there --
CM: This might be a touchy subject, but you were living in Martensville, writing supernatural mysteries, at the same time the town was going through a nightmarish legal case relating to Satanic cults and who knows what else. Did that impinge on your imagination? Was it something that you ignored, or something that affected your writing?
Mayer: It didn't affect my writing, and I didn't have time to spend a lot of time on it, because I had two small children who were growing up in this insane series of events. And as a parent, I really had to focus so much attention on their not being damaged by what was happening, that my writing was irrelevant.
CM: In general, do you like the business of going around and doing your readings and promoting your books or is it just a necessary chore?
Mayer: Oh, absolutely not. I love telling stories, and the bigger the audience, the happier I am. I love telling ghost stories. I like the audience response to that. Doing a reading is sort of like sitting around the campfire with a bunch of your friends and their kids and trying to scare everybody.
CM: That sounds tremendously rewarding.
Mayer: Yeah, it is. It's the best part.
CM: Tell me about your job with the Saskatchewan Writer's Guild.
Mayer: I work as the Education Officer. It's actually close to what I'm doing right now as a writer; my job is to promote Saskatchewan and Canadian Literature. Our biggest challenge in Saskatchewan is encouraging the use of Saskatchewan books in the curriculum list. The schools are really supportive of the guild program as far as having readings and workshops -- there's about 250 sponsored through the guild, and then of course there are other writers doing it independently. We look at different ways of promoting the literature in the schools, whether it's by giving them information about the writers so they can do novel studies, or even information about how to get the books -- giving ISBN numbers, anything we can do to make it easy for them to use the literature.
CM: Have you written other mysteries since The Mystery of the Missing Will?
Mayer: The third mystery was Suspicion Island. I have written other novels -- one's set in Egypt, one's set down in the 'States. I was interested in the stories while I was writing them, but I don't really have an interest in publishing them, so I've sort of left them on the shelf. And now I'm concentrating strictly on When Eagles Dance.
CM: Would you talk about that project a little?
Mayer: I met the man who's now my husband three years ago at an elders' gathering. And at that time we just started telling each stories -- we're both real storytellers. And over a period of about six months, just as friends, we started talking about writing a short-story collection.
CM: What a great way to get to know someone. . . .
Mayer: It's been interesting. And I've learned an awful lot about his culture, not only through the exchange of stories, but we've spent a lot of time on the reserve, and I've learned a lot about his spirituality.
A review of The Mystery of the Missing Will is reprinted in this issue of CM
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