Insects buzz in the heavy air, and sitting in her ’85 Ford, saleswoman Maggie Black can barely breathe. Glancing at the little boy asleep behind her, she prays the van will start. Dirty, beat and shaking with fear, she thrusts the key in and twists hard, frantically pumping the gas. Homeless and on the run, she lands in Lincoln, Nebraska—hoping to earn some money. Pitching her wares door-to-door as dusk falls, she’s stopped by the police. Broke, her son ill, she accepts the help of a lonely park ranger—only to become torn between his love, her dreams and the stark reality of her past.
Will Maggie be able to move from the sins of her past towards her dreams? To explore the past, present and future of Maggie’s path, Howard Petote, author of ‘The Sins of Maggie Black’, has kindly set aside a few minutes to chat. Starting with the past, Howard, can you share with us what inspired you to write this tale?
The inspiration or seed for this novel came from a memory I had of an incident that occurred ten years prior. We were traveling through Deadwood, SD and I stopped to chat with the father of a young family traveling in a VW minibus. I only realized later they must have been homeless. That family became Maggie and her son in my story.
This chance meeting obviously had a huge impact on directing this book, but do you feel that you used additional experiences from your life to create complexity and reality in the story?
Absolutely — all writers must do this. In fact, my advice to young people wishing to become a good writer is to not write. Well, I’m being dramatic—sure go ahead and write, and read—but what is more important is to get out and experience life. Travel, try new hobbies, join a sports team, hitch-hike, listen to people’s stories, volunteer to help people, try new jobs, leave your electronic device at home and talk to strangers—always interact, interact, interact.
With advice like that, I’m almost 100% sure that you’re going to tell me that your characters came from that golden advice of interaction. Can you tell us a little bit about some of your character inspiring interactions?
I can tell you how I came to name them. I met a young lady in a local park who liked my dog and then went on to tell me a series of personal stories in 20 minutes. A friend of hers was fixing the brakes on her little car right there in the parking lot. Her name was Maggie. I named my character Jim (a ranger) after a very friendly campground host we met in Scottsbluff, Ne. And as for Lena, well I just liked that name.
Wow, a series of personal stories over 20 minutes is interaction at its finest. I can see why you decided to name a character after her after you received so many threads of interesting stories in such as short amount of time. Do you find that you like to mull over the people that you’ve met like the real-life Maggie or Jim when you are writing?
Writing takes intense concentration, but what must be done is to try and get into a character’s mind and body. As well, one has to remain cognizant of how readers will react to the way you arrange your words. Somehow, you must keep them turning pages.
Do you find the challenge to keep the reader turning the pages as an idea that energises your writing, or does the responsibility get overwhelming and exhausting?
Using one’s creativity is always a beautiful and mysterious gift, but it can be intense at times. Often you have to think really hard, with no guarantees that anything will come of it. But I couldn’t exist without it.
You did end up publishing a book, so you obviously made something out of the mysterious gift that is creativity. If you reflect back now, what do you feel is the central or most important idea you want to share with the readers through ‘The Sins of Maggie Black’?
That is an excellent question. In addition to my desire to create a story that is, at the least, interesting enough to finish, my writing is an exploration into the mystery of human nature. In this novel, I portray three young people and how they deal with their burdens—the bruises and wounds that typically make up anyone’s past—while confronting (or avoiding) the everyday challenges, opportunities, and decisions we all face. Nominally, the “most important thing an author is saying” in a novel revolves around the protagonist and some decision or change they must make to resolve a conflict. Also called the premise or main theme, I prefer to call it the core, dramatic issue. While my novel explores several themes, the most important being the mysterious nature of love, I will not divulge Maggie’s core, dramatic issue here, as it flows powerfully throughout the story, and should be left for the reader to discover.
Of course, we won’t share all of Maggie’s secret’s today because that takes away the fun of the journey. Without getting into the details of her journey, can you share with us what you learned from getting Maggie’s journey onto paper?
Since this is my first novel, I learned how to write a novel. What a fascinating discipline. In the past I have built models from blueprints, created blueprints, designed commercial and industrial products, designed conduit in a nuclear power plant, composed and executed fine and graphic art, carved wood, made fine jewelry, etc.—but writing a story is the most challenging. Unlike some writers who don’t tread outside of things they know well, which is fine, I like to learn new things and explore new places. Otherwise, I’m getting bored. In this novel, I learned about the world of door-to-door sales, police and court procedures, and the geography of my settings.
Have you taken this love of new places with you to explore geography from the point of view of a literary pilgrimage?
Not really. What I do enjoy is reading about a place—it’s history, geography—then visit that place. I think that enjoyment is universal.
I agree I think that kind of enjoyment is more universally appealing than through the lens of a book or other literary work. Even though this is your first novel, can you share where you feel that you’ve seen a progression in your style as you continued to explore the world of writing?
I become more aware of what doesn’t make sense.
Having a book that makes sense is a fantastic first start. It makes it much easier to win the hearts of readers if they’re not constantly confused! Has your awareness of making sense influenced the author brand that you’d like to build? It is hard to know much about your author brand when this is your first novel, but what can you share with us about your thoughts on this so far?
This novel lies within the realm of the overall themes and subject matter found on my website, Tales of Misfits & Dreamers.
When I hear the word ‘realm’ I also hear the words ‘next book’ and ‘sequel’. What can you tell us about your next literary exploration into this realm or another?
My next novel. It takes place in Indiana, New York, and Rhode Island. My current logline, subject to change, is: While searching for her father, a disgraced school teacher is swept into the anti-war protests of 1968, and into the life of a traumatized vet.
Oh, there are many questions I’d love to quiz you on about that logline, but if I start asking them now you’ll never finish the novel, so I’d best let you go. Howard, thanks for sharing your first novel, ‘The Sins of Maggie Black’ with us today, and I hope that this is just the first of a long line of books for you!
Excited to read the book we discussed today? Find it here on Amazon: ‘The Sins of Maggie Black ( ASIN: B079P8R9KD )‘.
Want to find out more about Howard Petote? Connect here!