Mandy Mikulencak on self-doubt, John Irving & writing in bed

Mandy Mikulencak stops by BookPeople Saturday, January 20 @ 2 PM to discuss her new novel, The Last Suppers. Set in 1950s Louisiana, the book tells the story of Ginny Polk, a penitentiary worker tasked with preparing final meals for death row inmates.

Mikulencak, Mandy - Credit McCaron Jones - Red Scarf Shots (1)
What are you reading these days?

MM: I just finished Into the Water by Paula Hawkins. I’ve always enjoyed reading (and writing) books with multiple point-of-view characters. I’m about to start Beautiful Flesh: A Body of Essays by Stephanie G’Schwind (editor), which is my book club’s selection for January.

BP: What’s the hardest thing about writing?

MM: Overcoming self-doubt. I thought it’d get easier after getting published but, like many authors, I will be in the middle of writing a book and think it’s nothing but crap, or that I’ll never be able to finish writing a full-length novel again. (I hit that point in all six books I’ve written. It’s usually around the 40,000-word mark.) Then, I take a break and come at it with fresh eyes, which helps me see more clearly what’s working and what needs cutting or revising.

BP: What’s the best thing about writing?

MM: Hitting the point in the story where it starts to feel like it’s writing itself, that I’ve tapped into some collective creative force that is propelling me forward. It’s very woo-woo; I guess what other writers might call their muse.

BP: What’s a sentence you’ve loved and remembered from a book?

MM: The opening lines from A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (my favorite book of all time) form possibly the greatest novel opener ever. “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

BP: Do you have any weird writing habits?

MM: Before I start writing new material, I have a horrible habit of re-reading and editing what I wrote the last time I sat down to write. I have never been able to follow the age-old advice of writing “the shitty first draft” and fixing it later.

BP: Who are your literary influences?

MM: First and foremost John Irving. He can find humor in the perverse and tragic. It really shaped how I thought about the duality of the human condition; that we can experience joy and redemption alongside pain and tragedy. Some people say my writing is dark, but I feel I write about real life. There isn’t always a happy ending and that’s okay. I also love books with unlikeable protagonists like Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.

BP: What’s your favorite place to write?

MM: It used to be in bed, early in the morning, using my laptop. Now that I have some nerve issues in my arms and back, I only write in my office where I have an ergonomic chair and a desk that converts to a standing desk. I have NEVER been able to write in public spaces like coffee houses or libraries. Too hard for me to focus.

BP: What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?

MM: I think I’d enjoy being a baker or caterer. Cooking, baking, and entertaining have been lifelong passions. When I’m in the kitchen, I’m able to use a different part of my brain. If I’m stressed about a deadline or having problems with what I’m currently writing, I will often take a break to bake. It’s like ferreting out the answers to a puzzle; very satisfying.

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