Interview with Gilbert Mansergh

Usually, Gilbert Mansergh is the one doing the interviewing on his radio show “Word by Word.” But the tables have turned! His YA novel The Marvelous Journals of Miss Virginia Pettingill is the funny, lush, and interesting fictionalized story of his mother’s coming of age in 1920’s Massachusetts, and I am thrilled to chat with Mansergh for the fourth installment of my YA interview series.

After I read your book, I felt like I’d been to Gloucester, Massachusetts in the 1920’s.

The central part of Gloucester stayed “frozen” for a very long time, so the town I knew and wrote about was physically very like the town of Virginia’s childhood — different names and faces of course.

You can get the feel of the place in Wolfgang Peterson’s excellent movie The Perfect Storm (2000) starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. Some of the names on the wall of the Fisherman’s Memorial shown in the film are from families who appear in Virginia’s journals.

Did you ever live there or visit?

I visited Gloucester and stayed with my grandparents (Jennie and Doc Pettingill) several times when I was a youngster. The summer before I left for Stanford, I spent six weeks on Cape Ann, clearing out Aunt Sarah McMillan’s multi-story house at 69 Middle Street. It was sold to the YMCA next door, torn down and a modern extension and parking structure built there.

When going to graduate school at Indiana University, I traveled back with my wife and son for a week in Gloucester and stayed with cousins Ruth and Gilly Brown. I dropped in one other time after a business trip to NYC in the late 80’s.

The Marvelous Journals of Miss Virginia Pettingill was based on stories your mother told. What happened when that “precocious” girl grew up? I wanted to know what your mother did later in life!

Virginia graduated from Gloucester High School with many of the Maplewood Avenue Gang including her best friend Tibby. She then went to Tufts University on a vocal music scholarship (and the money “matched” by Roger Babson). While at Tufts, she entered a radio singing contest sponsored by the Atwater Kent Radio Corporation winning at the Massachusetts state level. She also met and married my father, Heywood (Beau) Mansergh. (You can watch Beau portrayed as a high schooler on stage as part of the Sixth Avenue Playhouse New Voices on the Vine one-act plays from May 22 to May 31. Virginia graduated with a teacher’s degree in English, and Beau went into Tufts Medical School. They were married at the Tufts Chapel on the Halloween Saturday following their 1932 graduation and met presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt as they were checking into their Honeymoon hotel in Boston. FDR congratulated the newlyweds and sent them a bouquet of flowers with a note reminding them to vote for him that Tuesday. The couple changed all of the wedding gifts into silverware and stuffed the secret corners of Virginia’s Model A Roadster with knives, forks and spoons before setting out on a cross country road trip to Florida and then West to California to reunite with Beau’s parents in Burlingame. Beau and Ginnie rented an apartment in Oakland, where Beau sold life insurance for Met Life (with Virginia’s predictions as guidance). They had a baby boy in late September, 1933 and designed and built a house in Millbrae and moved in December, 1939.

In WWII, Beau worked for EIMAC, a San Francisco company making radio tubes as well as serving as a captain in the Civilian Defense Corps. (In secret, Beau was the West Coast “finder” for the Manhattan Project — sourcing hard-to-find metals and materials needed for the A-bomb.) Virginia earned her lieutenant stripes as a Red Cross volunteer until announcing before Christmas in 1944 that she would be getting pregnant. I was born in October, 1945, my sister in July, 1949.

Virginia was a “stay-at-home” mother while her kids were growing up and like her own mother, Jane Pettingill, she was active in many volunteer organizations. She kept in touch with Tibby throughout their lives. They visited each other several times over the years.

You will be able to read about Virginia and Beau and their 1957 suburban neighbors in my newest novel Secrets on Sycamore Lane.

Was there a real life Eddie? 

Yes indeed. Everything about Eddie is true and accurate as possible. He really taught Virginia how to box and use the “Spittle Special.” He graduated from junior high with the gang, but is not listed as graduating Gloucester High School. Despite his distinctive last name, I have been unable to find out if Virginia’s premonition came true at some future time.

In the authors note, you talk about how memories are changeable and storytelling is an art. Have you ever read Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish? There’s a small part in your book that I particularly loved, and that was wondering how that samovar really did get its dent!

To paraphrase Daniel Wallace: “You’re not supposed to believe [the story of the Cossack’s sword] you’re just supposed to believe in it.”

Ha ha, well done. What was the road to publishing like for you?

My first piece was published (in the Millbrae Sun newspaper) when I was in 7th grade, but I really learned to write in graduate school where I was co-author with different professors of articles for several psychology and education journals. Each journal had its distinctive style, and so I learned to adapt my writer’s voice to match.

Working as a writer-for-hire, I had already written or co-written over 60 non-fiction books or curriculums before novelizing The Marvelous Journals of Miss Virginia Pettingill.

Even so, getting the book turned into a publishable novel was a 17-year journey — starting with a couple of short stories written for my mother’s 85th birthday, then a full-length, annotated and footnoted historical memoir and finally as a novel. The idea for turning the stories into a novel came from a Redwood Writers workshop where I learned the advantages of being able to move things round time-wise to tell a better story.

The events novelized as Virginia’s seventh-grade school year and summer, actually occurred over a three-year period. For example, the Admiral wasn’t anchored in Gloucester Harbor in 1922 because he was serving as Military Governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands that year. He (and his granddaughter) visited Gloucester the following summer.

I shared a draft of my completed 53-chapter novel with a writer colleague (Patricia V. Davis) to get a woman’s perspective on the story. Unknown to me, she had just acquired a publishing company and offered to buy Gloucester Girl (as it was then entitled) as part of her first book launch. I worked with her editor over the next few months tightening the story and adding the long-kept secret of my mother’s ability to see people’s futures as a hook for the story arc.

Do you have any advice for authors?

The best advice I have ever heard about writing is to “put your butt in the chair and write.”

The best thing I learned personally was after I took the job as a film columnist for the Sebastopol Times and News. — WRITE FOR A DEADLINE (even a self-imposed deadline). If the column wasn’t written and submitted by noon Friday, it didn’t get printed (and I didn’t get paid!).

As a result, I learned to prioritize.

Where can we find your book?

Copperfield’s has it in several of their stores, or you can shop on Amazon or check it out from the Sonoma County Library.

You can find out more about Gilbert Mansergh, his books, and his radio show at gilmansergh.com.

Is It About the Journey?

Random post! Here’s an essay I wrote.

The Destination by M.L. Millard

Depending on which website you visit, the quote regarding life’s being about the journey and not the destination is attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Pastor Lynn H. Hough, Constantine Cavafy, and Aerosmith. Regardless of who said it, some people might think, “If it’s all about the journey, then I am hopeless.” They might not be able to put into words what they’ve learned along the way, or how they’ve changed. They might not have changed for the better. They might think that this journey, frankly, sucks.

This journey has children born to abusers. It has cancer and dementia and mass shootings. Heartbreak. Yes, it also has moments of hope. Moments of joy. But even when we individually have those moments, there are the nagging reminders that many others are suffering. Some people might be thinking, “If this is the journey, it had better have one hell of a destination.”

Maybe “hell” is the wrong word.

Who wants to ride in the car with a whiny, stinky toddler for eight hours and turn around at the gates of Disneyland? “Time to go home. It was about the journey!” Not me.

So for those others of you who, when asked about your life’s journey, can only honestly say, “Well, I’m still standing,” I want to tell you that it’s okay. It’s okay to not be able to sum up what you’ve learned, or accomplished, or overcome. It’s okay to feel like you’re in the same damned spot you were in twenty years ago.

Maybe “damned” is the wrong word.

Is it about the journey? Even the toddler at the gates of Disneyland knows that it is not.

So what is the destination? According to the Bible, it is a place where there is no mourning, crying, or pain. No night. A place with a river as bright as crystal, and streets paved with gold so pure that it’s clear like glass. A place where God himself wipes our tears, and we live forever with our new bodies, worshipping our creator and enjoying the gates of precious stone, the fruit trees, the freedom from everything that made our journey here on Earth so painful.

Some people think that a loving God wouldn’t let bad things happen on our journey. They prefer to think that there is no God. But I prefer to think that He had His reasons for giving us the free will that so many used for evil, and that when we get to heaven, all our burning questions about our journey will disappear, replaced by a sudden and complete understanding.

Some people seem to be satisfied with the here and now – with the good they can do today. And I admire them. But if that’s not you, it’s okay. It’s okay if the promise of heaven is the only thing that gives you the strength to get up and make what little difference you can in your neighborhood. God made us all different, and in some of us He created a need to believe that the destination is worth the journey. That is not to say that only such people believe in God. Believers come from both of those groups – those who work happily and think little of heaven, and those who cling to the promise of heaven every hour.

When you realize that you might have a worthwhile destination, you perk up about the journey a little. “Now how exactly do I get there?” The short answer is “Believe, and show your belief by loving God and loving others.” You’ll be led on a journey in trusting God for your eternal future. There will not be a test about the big bang theory at the gates of heaven.

“But,” you might say, “I’ve seen plenty of Christians who say they love God but clearly don’t love others. I don’t want to be like them.” Jesus’s disciple John says that anyone who doesn’t love his brother whom he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. He says that if a person says he loves God but hates his brother, then that person is a liar. We have all seen those hateful people, and though I’m sad that they give Christianity a bad name, and though I pray that they see the light, they are irrelevant on your journey. God loves you. Those people are imperfect, uninformed, and need prayer, but do not let them stop you from getting to heaven. Maybe they have not fully understood God’s grace, and therefore have trouble extending grace to others. Maybe they haven’t yet read the part of the Bible where Jesus says to love your enemies.

“But what about other religions?” You might ask. “What do they say about our destination?” Although I have read about the other major religions, I cannot claim to be an expert on them. I have read the Bible many times and even written a short book about every verse that mentions the kingdom of heaven, and all I know is that it is enough for me. Jesus was the sacrifice for my sin, and all He leaves for me to do is to accept that gift and continue on my journey loving God and others.

Heaven is better than Disneyland. No broken down rides, no measles, and no long lines – or at least if there are long lines, we won’t mind because we won’t be trying to cram our fun into three days and four nights. We’ll have eternity. And when we get to the gates after this long, long, drive, I don’t know about you, but I am going in.

Interview with C.T. Markee

Third in this series of interviews with authors of young adult books is C.T. Markee. His novel for middle grade and young teens, Maria’s Beads, tells the gripping story of Maria, whose best friend Hannah is deathly ill. Maria must find her own inner strength, passed down to her through her ancestral Huichol culture, in order to save Hannah when no one else will.

The story in Maria’s Beads is similar to one that happened to your wife when she was a child. Does your wife also have Huichol roots? How did you learn about the culture?

The idea for the book came from my wife’s experience at age 11 when her best friend, who lived next door, contracted kidney disease. My wife is neither Huichol nor Hispanic. However, the Cortez family in the story is modeled after her family that worked in the fields around Salinas during the Great Depression, like so many other families that immigrated to California.

Serendipity played a major role for me. Researching Hispanic culture for the book, I interviewed friends, other writers, checked the Internet and read books, in particular the classic Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. Just as Anaya did, I used a curandera as Maria’s mentor and it became the perfect archetype for spiritualism in my story. When I searched for information on curanderas, I discovered Huichol Indians. Their location in northeast Mexico and their culture and bead art also fit into the story I wanted to write.

Maria is very frustrated with the adults in her life. Do you think this teetering between frustrations and loving trust is common to all young teens or specific to Maria and Hannah’s difficult situation?

It’s a common problem. The teen years are a time of breaking away typically implemented in anger. At the same time teens rely on their parent’s love and support. Maria’s quest to save her friend, Hannah, exacerbates this conflict. I tried to capture this conundrum, and then let Maria solve it.

Two things I love about your writing are your details about the setting and your ability to keep us turning the pages to see what happens to Maria’s friend. Do you have any tips for other writers about setting and about suspense?

I immersed myself in the setting. We drove up and down Alisal and neighboring Salinas streets taking photos as my wife drove. With permission from the Salinas school district, I visited and took photos inside the school. In that way Salinas became my virtual childhood neighborhood.

Once diagnosed as a type “A” personality, I now use that “time urgency” in my stories. As the author, I create time urgent obstacles for my character. The overall timing crisis for Maria is Hannah’s potentially fatal illness. Once setup, I turn the problem over to Maria and wait for a solution. She never fails me.

What are you writing now?

I’m about seven chapters into writing the third book of the Otherworld Tales Trilogy. These adventure-action stories target ages 10 – 13 and are set in three worlds in the three books of Celtic, Northern Californian and Kauai mythologies, respectively. Otherworld Tales 3 should be available in 2016.

Where can we find Maria’s Beads?

The paperback is available from Amazon at https://www.createspace.com/5044111 or from any bookstore in the U.S. with access to IngramSpark. Just give them the ISBN 9780982898734.
Maria’s Beads is also available for Kindle.

You can visit C.T. Markee at charlesmarkee.com.