Mary Akers is one of those writers who just gets better and better while at the same time staying true to what makes her storytelling special. I hope you get a chance to read her latest collection, “Bones of an Inland Sea,” if you haven’t already.
I’ve known Mary and her writing for years. Her work is sharply intelligent, creative and passionate. Nature and science play a prominent role in her work and though the narratives speak of the laws of science, they are not always bound by them. Mary is an accomplished author, a three-time Bread Loaf scholarship recipient, and this is her third published story collection.
Q: The stories in this work are connected, either by the sea, or by science, or by the characters who are all related in some way, some of whom show up again. How do you classify this work? Is it a novel-in-stories or a linked collection?
Mary: Labels are tough, aren’t they? I never know what to call a thing I’ve made. I’m the queen of blurring genres and styles. And frankly, it’s the spaces that exist between the labels that are most interesting to me anyway. When I was first writing “Bones of an Inland Sea,” I referred to it as my marine ecology collection. Before I had even written the first word, I imagined a group of stories all connected by the sea. But when I completed the first version of the manuscript in 2007 and shopped it around to agents, I had no takers. Then I read three wonderful, tightly linked collections (that their respective publishers never called collections): “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” “Olive Kitteredge,” and “Let the Great World Spin.” Those three books really made me rethink the loose connections in my stories. So I made a conscious decision to strengthen “Bones” by assigning the existing stories to a group of repeating characters and have the stories follow a narrative arc. This required extensive reshaping, reorganizing, reimagining, and the addition of four entirely new stories to more tightly link the whole. The result ended up as something I like to think of as a composite novel.
Q: In these stories the sea plays an important role, both terrifyingly powerful and magnificently beautiful. What is your relationship with the ocean?
Mary: In a word, complex. Also mysterious. A lifelong love affair. I feel utterly at home in the ocean, all the while understanding that at any moment she could turn on me with ruthless force and indifference. The ocean is a lover you always understand could kill you, and yet you can’t stay away.
Early in my college career, I set out to be a marine biologist: chose my college based on their graduate program in marine biology, took lots of biology and science courses. Then, halfway through, I failed a botany class, met clay, and switched my allegiance to fine art. I became a potter—a career I pursued for more than ten years, but always I loved the ocean. In the 1990s I worked for a marine ecology study abroad program in Turks and Caicos but felt it was poorly managed. In the late 1990s, I joined forces with a co-worker from that time in the TCI and together we co-founded our own marine ecology school in Dominica that operated for ten years.
To help me understand my theme, I will adopt a song that embodies each book—just in my mind, but it exists there as a touchstone. And an observant (and musically savvy) reader could find song references in each of my books. For my first collection, “Women Up On Blocks,” it was Wild Horses (Couldn’t Drag Me Away) by The Rolling Stones. That book is full of stories of longing, of characters who feel trapped by circumstance, love, or duty. For “Bones of an Inland Sea,” it would be a toss-up between Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd and A Pirate Looks at Forty by Jimmy Buffet. I relate to the lines, “Mother, Mother Ocean, I have heard you call. Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall. You’ve seen it all.” And of course the title of my strange logbook story “Treasures Few Have Ever Seen” is a line that’s taken directly from that Jimmy Buffet song.
Q: In the way you successfully inhabit many different voices and many different settings, and cover different themes and premises, “Bones of an Inland Sea” reminds me of Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” What was the most difficult aspect of such a varied work?
Mary: Thank you. I’m thrilled with the comparison. And you must be an especially observant reader because I actually looked to “Goon Squad” as a guide when I was trying to convince myself that what I wanted to achieve with “Bones” could be done. “Goon Squad” is linked by theme (the music industry) and also by repeating characters, two of whom really carry the book. It contains stories that shift point-of-view in the middle, a second-person narrator story, a first-person plural story, a story set in the future, and even a Power Point story. It was a thrilling book to read and I wanted to be as fearless and open in structuring my book as Egan had been in hers. I had the theme of the ocean and then after-the-fact I linked the characters. I ended up with three main characters: Leslie, Jack, and Dani. They each have multiple stories in the book, and like “Goon Squad,” we track them over many years and changes in circumstance.
Q: A family tree of characters speaks also to the way we are all related however distant or tenuous the thread. How did the idea come to you?
Mary: Honestly? I had to make the tree for myself. There were so many dates and details and connections that were crucial to each story and couldn’t be fudged—the webcam in “Like Snow, Only Grayer,” for instance. I wanted that story to take place in 1994, but there was no way that was going to work with a personal webcam and the webcam was crucial to the whole turning point of the story. Even setting the story in 1996 was pushing it, but in the end I had two military installations make the connection by webcam and it became at least plausible (the military used webcams before they became widely available to the public). Leslie’s father Quinn also had to witness the Bravo hydrogen bomb testing in The Marshall Islands for that story to work, so he needed to be an older father. And Leslie was caught up in the Asian tsunami later in life, so there were inflexible dates (based on real events) that had to correlate with the ages of my characters. That’s one of the big challenges of using real events, but I believe it’s very satisfying for readers when you make it all work.
Q: These stories are so rich with intelligence and imagination. Every sentence is polished and clear. The settings and situations beautifully rendered. The characters flawed and interesting and fully formed. Please talk about your revision process. How much were these stories revised? Over what period of time? How do you approach revision?
Mary: Wow. Thank you for that. As for how long the collection to took write…um, ten years? Maybe? Like childbirth, I think I’ve blocked out the uglier details. I do know that I started Viewing Medusa in 2003 and that became the first story of the new collection and the book was published in 2013. After I decided to more tightly link the collection, I found that I needed to write a few additional “connecting” stories to tie everything together and bridge some gaps. So in the last three months before the book was finished, I cranked out four brand new stories. They’d been in the hopper of my mind for years, but still needed lots of coaxing to come out.
What’s interesting about the process of writing these later stories is that I didn’t overthink them and I didn’t have time to heavily revise them over months (the way I usually work). I made a conscious effort to trust my gut and trust that readers could handle some tricky transitions. Not only are readers smart, but they like to feel smart when they read, so I just threw myself headlong into writing the quirky sorts of stories that I would like to read. For readers who are curious as to which stories I wrote this way (it would be interesting, I think, to examine the difference in style), the newer stories are “Treasures Few Have Ever Seen,” “Vieques,” “Collateral Damage,” and “Madame Trousseau.” I really had fun with them. At that point in the writing, after so many rejections from agents and editors, I just felt that it was time to write for me. If it was all going to be rejected anyway, I might as well have fun writing it. Readers can judge for themselves if that approach was successful or not.
Q: Which story was your favorite to write?
Mary: Maybe Viewing Medusa was my favorite to write. I wanted to have a narrator who was not the main character—a Nick Carraway sort of character. And I had to believe in that story more than the others because it kept getting rejected no matter where I sent it. I submitted to 120 journals before it finally found the right home at The Good Men Project. Before they accepted it, the story won an award, earned me a prestigious fellowship…and took 119 nos to get to a yes. The moral of this story’s story? Don’t give up.
Q: Who are the writers you look to for inspiration when writing short stories?
Mary: Margaret Atwood is probably my biggest literary influence. I’m a huge fan of her work. I feel like I really get it when I read her stuff—fiction, poetry, non-fiction, all of it. It speaks to me. Two of her story collections, “Wilderness Tips” and “Bluebeard’s Egg,” thrilled me as a twenty-something reader, well before I had any ambition to write professionally. And then “The Handmaid’s Tale” absolutely rocked my world when I was a college student.
Ray Bradbury’s writing has been a great source of influence and inspiration that I’ve only recently come to recognize. I first read “Something Wicked This Way Comes” when I was young and impressionable, at about the age of 12, ironically the age at which Bradbury himself has said that future writers are forming the obsessions that will follow them for the whole of their writing lives. He wrote two great linked story collections, “The Martian Chronicles” and “The Illustrated Man” and of course the wonderful dystopian “Fahrenheit 451,” all of which I devoured as an early reader.
At about that same time, I read lots of Edgar Allan Poe. His short stories always felt linked, if only by the specter of death and the dormant macabre inside us all.
On a somewhat related note, I loved to watch The Twilight Zone on television when I was young. Those episodes always felt like visual short stories. The characters changed week-to-week, but they were linked through their exploration of bizarre and abstract issues of the day. I think you can find influences from all of these sources in my body of work in general and in “Bones of an Inland Sea” in particular.
Q: Going back to the variety, which simply amazes me, how did you embody such disparate voices?
Mary: Well, now that’s the fun of writing, isn’t it? Becoming someone else for a time. Writing is immersive in the same way that reading an engaging book is immersive, but it’s also imitative because you inhabit the life of another. Instead of reading the book you want to read, you are writing the book you want to read. It’s like method acting—but for introverts. I get to inhabit a character, think like him, talk like him, be him, but thankfully no one watches my transformation.
Q: You read so much in the news lately about the ongoing battle between theology and science. Your book seems to not only make room for both, but also embrace science, the quest to understand everything, while at the same time own our incapability of knowing everything. Which of your characters would you like to meet in the afterlife and why?
Mary: Thank you. I’m glad this came across. It’s a good description of my approach to life: inclusion.
As for who I’d like to meet? Josie, perhaps—the jellyfish researcher—but I think the afterlife she’s earned would probably be some version of comeuppance hell, so maybe I don’t want to meet her, and certainly not there. Maybe Dani, who I became very fond of, or Jack who I really understood on some basic level. Say, here’s a thought. Can I have them all at a giant heavenly cocktail party for a few hours? Just me and my characters hanging out …Unless of course they are coming to the party so they can hold me accountable for their difficult lives. It’s tough being the omniscient creator of a cast of troubled, unruly characters.
Q: If you could change one thing about our impact on the environment right now, which would it be?
Mary: Plastic, hands down. I would go back in time and uninvent it. Yes, plastic has made many things easier, cleaner, more convenient, more sterile, fleecier, less immediately sharp and dangerous, but it is wreaking havoc on our world. The oceans are littered with plastic, and it photodegrades, which means the pieces just break down smaller and smaller in sunlight, but they stay chemically the same. So sea life of all kinds—birds, mammals, fish, invertebrates—are ingesting tons of the poisonous stuff (if they aren’t getting trapped by it and drowning). The beaches are littered with plastic. (It used to be seaglass—pollution still, but pollution that at least broke back down into silica—essentially sand.) Each of the world’s major oceans has a massive garbage patch trapped and floating in its gyre that grows in size every year. The farthest point from any major landmass, Midway Island, is nothing but a plastic trash collection site. Tragically, Midway is the primary nesting site for albatross, and their chicks die in the thousands from being fed by parents who’ve mistaken plastic cigarette lighters or bottle caps or assorted gewgaws for brightly colored fish or squid. The plastic fills their stomachs but it doesn’t break down or pass through their systems so they slowly starve to death while their bellies bulge with indestructible plastic. What’s even scarier? The chemicals found in common household plasticware (and therefore also found in our landfills and waterways) mimic estrogens in the environment. Fish and amphibians are already feminizing. Can humans be far behind? (Hint: that’s the subject of my new novel.)
Q: Your life is full; you’re a writer, an editor, a mother, a wife. How do you weave everything into your days?
Mary: Am I? Do I? Honestly, it’s all a blur. I don’t know how I do it. Or even IF I do it remotely well. (Please don’t look in my kitchen right now.) I really don’t know how any of us do it, but we somehow manage. Secretly? I believe we should all just slow the heck down and get off the crazy hamster wheel that is Modern Life. Unplug. Go for a swim in the ocean. Plant a butterfly garden. Take a walk in the woods.
While we still can.