WIPs Conversation: Marlene Olin on Her Work in Progress

Marlene OlinMarlene Olin’s stories have been published by Upstreet Magazine, Vine Leaves, The Saturday Evening Post, Emry’s Journal, Biostories, and The Jewish Literary Journal. In the coming months, her work will be featured in Edge, Poetica, Arcadia, Ragazine, and The Poydras Review. One of her stories will also be included in Love on the Road, an anthology distributed by Liberties Press.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Miami, Marlene attended the University of Michigan. She presently lives in Coconut Grove, Florida with her husband but spends part of the year in Jackson Hole, Wyoming as well. She has two children and two grandchildren. She recently completed her first novel.

Marlene, in “The Maid of the Mist” Blossom’s age has caught up with her; she’s begun having mental lapses and is unable to adequately care for herself. Spells or not, she’s still quite clever and keeps her sense of humor, despite a history of mental illness—her mother’s in-and-out periods in a sanitarium—and the “quart of milk left out in the tool shed. A set of keys thrown in with the wash.” Ultimately, her visit to Niagara Falls in the custody of her step-grandson proves likely fatal. How did you come up with Blossom, and did she have some say—even subconsciously—in her final exit?

I majored in English and was greatly influenced by a handful of very gifted teachers. There’s no question that one teacher can change your life. I wanted Blossom to be that sort of person. Placing her in a small town amplifies that influence.

Though I leave the ending uncertain, it’s clear to me that Blossom wants to wrest control of her fate.

When Cash arrives, she dismisses the warnings about him as nothing more than the travails of growing up, especially considering the places he’s called home and her own history of being abused. She comes to think of him almost as a son. Accordingly, her identity as a teacher remains intact, as he has much to learn. During their time together, do you suppose Blossom would have given Cash a passing grade?

Good question. I can’t imagine Blossom doling out an unearned grade to anyone. Or insulting anyone with lowered expectations. Let’s hope she would have found a way to motivate Cash in the classroom.

Astute as she is, and inspired by their bond of fishing, Blossom gifts the boy Norman MacLean’s story collection. However, it isn’t “A River Runs Through It” that connects with him as much as the story of the brave firefighters—so much so he starts researching the profession as he thinks about his own future. Is MacLean’s book a personal favorite of yours as well?

My husband is a fly fisherman. A River Runs Through It is his Bible.

Young Men and Fire was a perfect vehicle for this story. Like the firefighter who refuses to run from the flames, Blossom faces her infirmity and her uncertain future head-on.

I have great respect for firefighters. We try to spend time in Jackson Hole, Wyoming every summer, especially when it’s hurricane season in the south. In 2001,a forest fire came within three hundred yards of our log cabin. In trying to escape one natural disaster, we managed to find another!

“The Maid of the Mist” is part of a collection you’re putting together. Can you describe a few of the other stories? Do they include any of the Upper Valley/Hornell characters or back-stories mentioned in this one?

The collection is called A Crack in Everything. The title comes from a Leonard Cohen line. “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

I spent quite of bit of time in upstate New York when my daughter attended Alfred University which is just outside of Hornell. But most of my stories take place in my hometown of Miami.

Like Blossom, the main characters face challenges they need to overcome. They’re all cracked or damaged in some way. A rabbi suffers a stroke and can only communicate in song. An elderly woman converses with her dead husband every time she opens the oven door. An autistic boy loses his mother but manages to connect with a grandfather who’s just as alone as he is. The list is long. Some of the stories are surprisingly funny.

How has the book been coming along? Do you have a timeline you’re aiming towards as far as completion, sending out to publishers and agents, etc.?

The book is finished. In fact, I’ve been fortunate in that many of the stories have been published in journals this past year. One is slated for publication in an anthology. I’m still looking for an agent or a publisher who’s interested.

Do you have other creative projects currently in the works?

I recently completed my first novel. A Forever of Nows is told from the points of view of three characters. From the age of six to twenty-two, Tina chronicles her hopes and fears in a diary. Meanwhile, her mother and grandmother offer their version of events. The book is particularly meaningful to me. I have a high-functioning adult daughter who, like Tina, has Asperger’s Syndrome. There are few books on the market that show how people– especially women–with this disability tick. And I love multi-generational stories.

 Thanks, Marlene. Is there anything else you’d like to share with or explain to readers?

People tell me that my fiction reads like non-fiction and my non-fiction reads like fiction. I suppose that’s a compliment! I’m not interested in flip dialogue or clever conceits. My work is character driven. I want to introduce my readers to men and women who linger long after they have closed the page.

Feel free to contact me at: MarleneOlin@gmail.com.


 Read “The Maid of the Mist,” a story from Marlene Olin’s collection in progress.