Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Tue 19 Aug 03 14:30
Joining us today is Mary Mackey. Mary is the author of four collections of poetry and ten novels. Some of her works have been published by small literary presses; some have made The New York Times bestseller list. "The Stand In," her most recent novel, is a hilarious look at the Hollywood pecking order based on Mark Twain's classic "The Prince and the Pauper." Mary, who is related to Twain through her father's family, published "The Stand In" under her new pen name "Kate Clemens." While "The Stand In" was still in manuscript, the film rights were optioned by director Renee De Palma. She and De Palma have recently finished writing the screenplay. Leading the conversation with Mary is Kathi Goldmark. Kathi is the author of "And My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You" (a novel published by Chronicle Books in 2002), "The Great Rock & Roll Joke Book" (with Dave Marsh), and (with her author-bandmates) "Mid-Life Confidential: The Rock Bottom Remainders Tour America With 3 Chords and an Attitude." She likes to think she is ready for anything. Welcome, Mary and Kathi!
Mary Mackey (mm) Wed 20 Aug 03 15:28
I'm happy to be here, Cynthia, and looking forward to this interview. I think I did one in Inkwell in about 1998, and a lot has happened since then.
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 22 Aug 03 09:03
You're so prolific, Mary. I bet that includes new titles and travels. OK, I know it does, because you've announced some of your book events in the WELL news conference. Looking forward to hearing all the details!
Christy Smith (tinymonster) Fri 22 Aug 03 09:25
Where's Kathi? Mary, I really enjoyed the book! It was my first one of yours. I'm glad to hear that the film rights have been purchased and the screenplay is done, because all through the book, I kept thinking what a fun movie this would make.
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Fri 22 Aug 03 09:33
Mary, what drew you to the Prince and the Pauper? How is your tale different from Twain's?
Linda Dyer (lin) Fri 22 Aug 03 11:21
i heard mary (kate!) read from this book at Cody's in Berkeley. great humor -- the audience loved it. can't wait to dive into my copy this weekend.
Mary Mackey (mm) Fri 22 Aug 03 14:37
I'm glad to hear you're enjoying "The Stand In." Right now one of my major goals is to give people something to laugh about (in a time when there's precious little). I was drawn to Twain's "The Prince and The Pauper" for several reasons. First, I'm related to Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens through my father's family and my dad read P&P to me when I was so little my pj's still had feet in them. I've always loved Twain's sense of humor, his take-on-prisoners and suffer-no-fools attitude, and his endless with. It's something I aspire to. Also I loved the way he showed the different between the social classes in P&P. As you probably know, Twain's novel is the story of a little beggar boy who looks exactly like Henry VIII's son. The two switch places.
Mary Mackey (mm) Fri 22 Aug 03 14:41
So I got to thinking "Who are our aristocrats in America? Who are our serfs?" I realized that our aristocrats--our kings and queens, as it were-- are either rock stars or Hollywood stars--people with money, fame, power, and everything else most people only dream of. And who are our serfs? Well there are lots of possibilities, but I thought community college teachers might qualify. I've always admired their dedication and skill, and I've always thought they should be paid a lot better. So I created two characters who look exactly alike and who switch places: Jayne Cooper, the megastar who has never washed a dish in her life; and Mary Lynn McLellan, a community college teacher who is so poorly paid she has to moonlight at a big discount store. As an added attraction, I gave Mary Lynn stage fright, so when she has to act in one of Jayne's films, she freezes like a deer in the headlights.
Mary Mackey (mm) Fri 22 Aug 03 14:43
by the way, I am the Queen of Typos. I meant, of course, Twain's take-no- prisoners attitude and his endless wit (not with).
Moist Howlette (kkg) Sun 24 Aug 03 09:26
Hi gang, so sorry to join in late. My computer crashed, and I have been standing by, biting my nails in the wings, waiting to get back online. Mary, I adored your book: it's funny it's funny and real. I'd like to know more about how a serious writer of historical fiction comes to write such skillful comedy. Can you tell us a little about your previous books?
Mary Mackey (mm) Sun 24 Aug 03 14:30
Interesting question, Kathi. "The Year The Horses Came," "The Horses At The Gate" and "The Fires of Spring" (the three novels I wrote before "The Stand In") were an attempt to recreate life as it might have been lived in Europe some 6,000 years ago, before invading nomads introduced warfare as we now know it. I spent years doing research about the European Neolithic period (helped immensely, I might add, by the work of the late Marija Gimbutas), and spent an even longer time crafting a story where the personal and emotional lives of the characters were seamlessly integrated into the historical research. This proved to be quite a challenge. My goal was to produce something that had the literary merit of Mary Renault's "Persian Boy," plus the good old fashioned story-telling of "Clan of the Cave Bear" or "The Mists of Avalon." Now these were, I hope, exciting books, sexy books, books you could learn a great deal from; but except for some scattered incidents, they weren't comic novels. But my first commercially published novel, "McCarthy's List," was comic-so comic, in fact, that at least one reader told me she was thrown out of the library for laughing too loudly. So, I guess it's time to come clean and admit that I've been a closet writer of comedy for years. Anyone who knows me knows can tell you that I am constantly cracking jokes and making people laugh. But for a long time, I've mostly been doing that in my poetry (for example, my poem "If Love Were A Potato, I'd Probably Be Idaho").
Mary Mackey (mm) Sun 24 Aug 03 14:42
What inspired me to return to comedy was tragedy. In the weeks that followed the September 11th attacks, I was very upset. I became obsessed by those horrible images of the World Trade Center towers falling and very worried about my friends in New York and D.C. It seemed obscene to write fictional tragedy when there was so much real tragedy in the world. Gradually, I realized that what people needed-what I myself needed-was laughter, relief, and some way to simply forget about it for a few hours, so I began "The Stand In"-as an assertion of the joy that can exist even in the middle of pain. It was an immense relief to be writing comedy in the fall of 2001. For hours at a time I was able to put aside the grim realities and enter a world where the worst that can happen to you is to be photographed under florescent lights without mascara. This isn't to say that "The Stand In" doesn't bring up some serious issues, especially about class in America, but it's a vacation for the soul, funny, and, I hope, healing.
Hoping to be a goddess, but settling for guru (paris) Sun 24 Aug 03 16:22
I loved the book, Mary, perhaps most because I could hear your voice in so many of the wonderful metaphors/analogies. It's true - you're a past master at making people laugh!
Moist Howlette (kkg) Sun 24 Aug 03 18:45
I'm also remembering a couple of essays you contributed to collections...I was privileged to hear you read your contribution to "Dick for a Day" for example, and then there was the story of the army ant attack in "I Should Have Stayed Home." Your marvelous sense of humor seems irrepressible, and in a world that will never be the same after 9/11, that is as just about as life-affirming as it gets. I'd like to know more about your take on the serious issues that are underlying, not only in your comedic writing, but in others' too--which brings us to the second part of the next question: why did you choose to do a modern update of Mark Twain's the Prince and the Pauper? What does that story (and author) have to say to us that is especially relevant to our time and place? And, of course, to you personally?
Mary Mackey (mm) Mon 25 Aug 03 17:44
"The Stand In" was inspired by one of those random chances that sometimes result in an idea that keeps on developing in my creative consciousness long after the initial event is over. While I was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in 1998, I picked up a copy of "The Prince and the Pauper" which I hadn't read since I was a child, and found it as funny and witty as ever. But this time, as an adult, I also saw Twain's more serious agenda. He's examining class, power, illusion, cliques, and a whole host of other things that, for better or worse, oil the social machine. I've always been a fan of Twain's writing, and as I read this remarkable novel, I realized that I wanted to do the same thing for my own era. As I said earlier, I started thinking about who the aristocrats of our society were: who were the princes and who were the paupers. I filed this idea away in my journal and didn't come back to it for a long time, but when I did the result was a novel which was designed to be both serious and not serious at the same time. That is to say, "The Stand In" is funny, fast-moving, and silly in places; but at the same time, I created it as a comment on (and good-natured analysis of) class in America.
Mary Mackey (mm) Mon 25 Aug 03 17:58
In my previous novels I have dealt with serious issues like the value of friendship, the need to foster compassion, the human position with regard to other life on earth, the corrupting-and sometimes deadly--influence of political power unrestrained by democratic principles, and, of course, the position of women in society. I've always been a egalitarian feminist. That is to say, I am a feminist who is interested in a society where men and women operate as equals, real equals, both sexually, emotionally, and politically. I am not under the illusion that, if women ran the world, it would be a peaceful paradise. I think we need one another to be in balance. Some of these ideas appear in "The Stand In"-but once again they run beneath a plot which is hilarious and characters who don't always act like they have all their marbles. For example, Jayne and Mary Lynn start out as adversaries and end up as close friends; both characters become more compassionate; both mature and change; both fall in love with good men who are their equals and who treat them well. Actually, my favorite moments in the book are when the women try to fake it: for example, the moment when Mary Lynn (the teacher) tries to act in front of cameras and fails utterly, and the moment when Jayne (the movie star) tries to teach a Freshman Composition class and ends up defining a "gerund" as a "small fuzzy animal, which unlike a ferret, is not illegal in California."
Moist Howlette (kkg) Mon 25 Aug 03 23:05
I think those moments are wonderful. And I'm sure it's no accident that these weaknesses may end up reversing themselves and become triumphs. I think of times in my own life when I've screwed up so totally and whole-heartedly, that a kind of inside-out success was achieved. Tell me more about the "related to Mark Twain on her father's side" thing. What were you told about him (and this relationship) as a child?
Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Tue 26 Aug 03 14:09
Mary, I'm joining late as things are crazy for me at the office right now. I did want to say that I enjoyed "The Stand In" quite a bit. And I had some trepidation opening the book, I'll admit, because to me so many Hollywood satires ring completely false. (I do live and work in Hollywood, though my particular job is only marginally connected to the world of movie stars - it's more connected to the world of camera rentals and crew members.) But I thought the farce hit exactly the right note - ridiculous enough to be farcical (sp?) but not ridiculous in that straining-to-be-hip-and-failing way. If I'm making any sense. (Was the Salome stuff a reference to Sunset Boulevard?) As someone who has read "The Persian Boy" about 1,000,000 times, I must say that I'm a fellow fan of Mary Renault and I'm now interested in checking out your earlier works!
Mary Mackey (mm) Tue 26 Aug 03 16:08
As for being related to Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens through my father's family, I knew about it from earliest childhood. My grandparents and my father spoke of it from time to time; we had a bag of letters from his family (which were burned in a fire that also destroyed letters from my great great uncles who went out to Colorado for the Goldrush); and my dad read me "Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer" before I knew how to read. I used to pretend I was Tom (the girls--even Becky--just didn't have enough adventures for my taste). I think the main thing this knowledge did was make me understand that ordinary people could be writers. It also encouraged me to give fiction a try.
Mary Mackey (mm) Tue 26 Aug 03 16:09
Also, when I became an adult and reread Clemens' works, I was struck by how many of the customs he described were similar to those of my Kentucky relatives. Twain's narrative voice could easily be the voice of my Uncle Wid or my Aunt Ebbie or my Great-grandmother sitting in the porch swing after dinner, swatting mosquitoes, drinking lemonade, and telling tale after tale. I came from a Scotch-Irish background where the oral tradition was alive in every sense. People often recounted scandals and tall tales that dated back to the 1780s. Mark Twain tapped into that tradition. I think it's part of what makes his narrative voice so powerful.
Mary Mackey (mm) Tue 26 Aug 03 16:11
and Anne you are absolutely right: the Salome stuff is indeed a reference to "Sunset Blvd." You're the first person to notice, so you get the "Perceptive Reader Award." Way to go.
Moist Howlette (kkg) Tue 26 Aug 03 21:22
OK, as another way of reminding readers that this book is published under the name "Kate Clemmens" (not Mary Mackey) let's talk about the Twain theme a bit more. How are the main characters in The Stand-In similar to his characters? What traits did you change (or not have to change) in order to make these characters work in a contemporary setting?
Linda Dyer (lin) Tue 26 Aug 03 21:27
miss mary mackey: have you ever stepped yourownself barefoot on a banana slug?
Linda Dyer (lin) Tue 26 Aug 03 21:29
oooops, meant kate clemens, up there...
Moist Howlette (kkg) Wed 27 Aug 03 09:24
Woops! And I just realized I made a typo spelling your name up there. It's one "m" not two...in Clemens.
Suttle (su) Thu 28 Aug 03 00:28
mary, why did you choose a pen name for this book? and, I just have to repeat what I heard from my family many many times in my youth: Scots are people, Scotch is drink.
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