Mary Sharratt’s latest novel, Ecstasy, explores turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna.
Mary Sharratt recently visited Reading Group Choices to read and discuss her work with an audience. She also took the time to answer our questions about her favorite books and music, and growing up in the Midwest.
Reading Group Choices: What book changed your life?
Mary Sharratt: When I was a teenager I read Nor Hall’s book, The Moon and the Virgin, which I treasure to this day. It opened me up to the living reality of myth, archetypes, and fairy tales, especially as they relate to women’s lives and reclaiming women’s lost stories and inner power. I used a sentence from The Moon and the Virgin on the frontispiece of Summit Avenue as the epigraph in my first novel: “I refer to myths and fairy tales as essential psychic facts rather than as false stories or stories for children.” Mind-opening stuff.
RGC: What book(s) are coming out this year that you’re looking forward to reading?
MS: It already came out in March, but I’m dying to get my hands on a copy of Amy Bloom’s White Houses.
RGC: What books are currently stacked next to your bed/on your desk/in your pile-to-read?
MS: Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister, The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, and A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland.
RGC: What was your favorite book when you were a child?
MS: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I loved everything about that book and yearned to enter into that beautiful garden hidden behind the wall. I also lived inside the world of Marguerite Henry’s horse books. As a horse-crazy but horseless child, they were my refuge.
RGC: Who are your favorite writers?
MS: Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, and Elena Ferrante are my hallowed trinity.
RGC: What books could you never part with? Think “stranded-on-a-desert-island” books.
MS: Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Beyond their deceptive simplicity, each tale is a hologram filled with depth and meaning. These stories were passed down in the oral tradition and give voice to the deepest hopes and fears of ordinary people. And they very often feature strong female protagonists. In fact, I think girls and women are better represented in Grimms’ Fairy Tales than they are in today’s popular children’s literature!
RGC: Were you ever embarrassed about a book you loved?
MS: When I was in high school in the 1980s it wasn’t cool to be bookish. You had to be embarrassed about loving any book. For girls, it was all about being popular, preferably a cheerleader. Girls had to play dumb if they wanted to have lots of friends and admirers. I stubbornly clung to my books through it all. But I knew very brainy girls who forced themselves to live behind giggly masks for the sake of peer pressure. I hope those days are gone forever.
RGC: Do you have a favorite genre of music?
MS: I grew up with classical music and played violin from elementary school through my college years. I always write with classical music playing in the background to put me in the zone. When I was living in Germany in the 1990s, I fell in love with the sheer passion of Gustav Mahler’s music, the way he isn’t afraid to delve deep into the heart of human darkness and suffering, and how he brings you out again into sheer transcendence. When I discovered that Alma Mahler was also a composer—one who was forced to live in Gustav’s shadow—I bought recordings of her work and fell in love with her passionate lieder. She plunges you straight into a maelstrom of emotion and longing. Her work truly evokes the heart and soul of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Vienna.
RGC: What do you wish you knew more about?
MS: I wish I could read medieval church Latin. It would be such a boon for my research.
RGC: Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
MS: It would take some otherworldly powers, but I would love to have tea, or possibly tequila, with Frida Kahlo.
RGC: Vinyl, cassette, CD or digital? Typewriter, notebook, tablet or computer?
MS: My husband and I still have our vinyl albums from the 80s and 90s and listen to them every night while making dinner. I love vinyl. I listen to classical CDs while writing and in my car. I love digital recordings for spoken word and podcasts. I write longhand in a notebook with a fountain pen before transcribing my work onto my PC. I am very attached to my fountain pen. I have only just entered the daring new world of tablets and smartphones. I am very, very old school.
RGC: What is your most meaningful place?
MS: Out in the English countryside riding my beautiful Welsh mare, Boushka, aka Mistress Boo. If you friend me on Facebook, you’ll see lots of pictures of Her Welsh Majesty. I love being out in nature with animals. It recharges me and helps me forget the stresses of our world.
RGC: What’s your favorite bookstore?
MS: I love Drury Lane Bookstore in Grand Marais, Minnesota. During my last book tour, there were too many people to fit in the little store, so we had the reading outside on picnic tables, right on the shore of Lake Superior.
RGC: Can you share a favorite line from a creative work (book/play/film/song)?
MS: “We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust. This is not your fault or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed into the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing. That is why I became a footnote, my story a brief detour between the well-known history of my father and the celebrated chronicle of my brother.”—Anita Diamant, The Red Tent
Anita Diamant is an author who inspired me on my quest to write women back into history.
RGC: What do you enjoy most about doing a reading or talking about your book?
MS: Writing is such a solitary pursuit. When I get to emerge from my writing cave and meet my readers, I feel that my creative process has come full circle. It’s a real sense of completion. I absolutely adore meeting readers.
RGC: What is something you know about or have heard about Madison or Wisconsin?
MS: I grew up in Bloomington, Minnesota, and always thought of Wisconsin as the magical forest on the other side of the river. I remember happy childhood days spent tubing down the Apple River and visiting Door County. During my last book tour, I had a fantastic time with Kristen Sandstrom at her fabulous store, Apostle Island Booksellers. I haven’t been to Madison in a very long time and am so excited about visiting again..