Maria Dahvana Headley on Defeating Writers Block, Monsters

Maria Dahvana Headley took to reddit for a rollicking AMA full of monsters, women who are emphatically NOT monsters, and some terrific writing advice.

Check out the highlights below!

Headley’s latest novel is The Mere Wife (check out our very positive review here) which updates Beowulf by bringing it into the suburbs and looking at the roles of warriors and monsters in today’s society. Most of all, it focuses on the women in the story—Willa Herot, the most fabulous of the glittering housewives of the Herot Hall gated community, and Dana Owen, a military veteran suffering from severe PTSD who’s just trying to raise her boy, Gren, in peace.

You can see where this is going.


So…why Beowulf?

What’s your attraction to Beowulf? What in it begs for reinterpretation, and what is that you consider its heart? (JoshuaACNewman)

Maria Dahvana Headley: It was always Grendel’s mother for me, from first whisper of this story, which I encountered when I was maybe ten, in some kind of redacted children’s version. I was certain this was really a story about her, and I couldn’t imagine that the rest of it was relevant. So, fast forward thirty years, and now I know exactly why this story is relevant. I’m deeply interested in the way we’ve used hero myths to construct political narratives, and the ways we’ve used them to justify violence and injustice against “others” whomever the others may be. Though Grendel is monstrous, much of his problem in Beowulf is that Herot Hall is loud and disruptive, and he loses his mind listening to it. So…well, we know lots of stories on that theme in American culture, and certainly worldwide as well. I could name any place, and bring an example of a neighbor being categorized as a monster simply because one party wants the monster’s land. It’s a really relevant story.


Headley’s follow up to The Mere Wife will be a new translation of Beowulf! So again, why Beowulf?

Can you talk a bit about the translation of Beowulf you’re currently working on? How has The Mere Wife informed your approach to this? What existing translations do you prefer? (the_jest)

MDH: …[t]his translation actually came utterly out of the work I did to write The Mere Wife. Initially, when I started working on Mere, I was certain that I’d find a popular translation in which Grendel’s mother isn’t a monster, but a warrior. Um, no. The scholarship on this point dates to the 70’s, but it hasn’t made its way into most translations, with the exception of a few mentioned above—Elaine Treharne’s work has been great in this regard. [ed. note: see Beowulf in 100 Tweets and Beowulf By All] My translation, of course, has Grendel’s mother as a formidable noblewoman, a warrior, as is accurate to the Old English words used to describe her. The works that influenced most English language translation of this aspect of Beowulf rely on her being a monster, when in fact, she’s just really good with a sword. If she’s not a monster, the whole story changes, obviously. So, yes, the Beowulf By All mentioned above is wonderful. And I just enjoyed Meghan Purvis’s lyrical translation, though it is, in some ways, an adaptation. I will take it—it’s gorgeous. Heaney’s is the one I really dove into first, and it has lots of problems but it’s also a lot of fire and fun, and given that my deep project is to make these texts clear to those of us living now, I always find it interesting.


A Trip to the Underworld

Aside from Beowulf are there any other myths that draw your fancy? (CaptainOfMySouls)

MDH: Yes! Greek myths were my first love, but I’m fond of all kinds of myth and folklore.The history of humanity is written in all of this—or at least, it’s in the subtext. I’ve been fussing with a version of Eurydice, because I always hate that story. I often grab up stories I hate and try to transform them into stories I love. So…this one is about the problems with dating gods.

If you don’t mind me asking—what is it about Orpheus and Eurydice that draws your ire?

MDH: I think it’s that it’s so often used as an inspiration for romantic stories in which a girl gets sacrificed—or rather, left in hell. I don’t find that romantic. I find it frustrating. I basically just want Eurydice to be the protagonist rather than the object of Orpheus’s quest. I don’t know if it’s ire, exactly—I just think there’s lots of room to play in a story that tells only half the story. What has Eurydice been doing since she died? How does she feel? Sure, it’s pretty awesome that Orpheus goes down to try to save her, but it’s less awesome, the whole time, to be Eurydice.

Writing advice!

Do you have any advice for primarily-short-story writers who are attempting to write novellas/novels, and struggling with it? (visyap)

MDH: YES! Whee, I like this topic. Basically, the plot of a novel, in my version, is a skinny little thing that you have the luxury to fatten wildly with detail and depth. I try to make the one sentence version of my novels, the one paragraph version, and the one page version, but when I’m writing, I’m really thinking about what’s important in the one sentence. It’s the most basic plot, and when I’m writing, I’m always stretching my fingers to the next bit. I loved working on Beowulf for this reason—it is an epic poem, so making a novel out of it is essentially like expanding a short story into a novel. It can be broken down into three major events, and when I was working on it, that’s what I did. The wildness is fine as long as it leads to the major events. I think for a short story writer, it’s important to really keep yourself to the spine of the larger story when you’re working on a novel, and that doesn’t necessarily mean adding a shit ton of plot points to the spine. It’s going deeper with what you have. A novel can be really simple in plot as long as you ground it in reality and clarity as you go along, and that’s how I try to write mine. I find that it’s really easy to get lost in a novel, and ultimately stuck, if you don’t have that large arc structure to keep you clear. Sometimes people just shove events wildly into the thing, when they aren’t necessary to get the characters where you want to taken them—and that’s a danger for people who write shorts. It definitely was for me. there was a time when i thought more plot = better novel. Nah.

What do you do when you get stuck writing a story, or when you’re writing and writing but things don’t quite seem to come out the way you want them to?

MDH: I write the words I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO WRITE over and over until my brain feels bored with my complaints and learns how to invent again. Also, I sometimes switch POVS, like I’m a movie camera moving over the scene and see what else I might see that would be useful to play with. I switch to a character outside the room I’m writing about, or to a bird, or to a mountain—you can see versions of this all over my work, because sometimes it’s really useful to remind yourself that you don’t have to be stuck in one head when you’re writing a story. You can see things all over the landscape you’ve made. Sometimes that can really open a project up.


And finally, formative reading!

What were some of your favorite things to read as a kid? (Chtorrr)

MDH: I grew up gobbling Madeline l’Engle, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Elizabeth Enright—and then got to be a teenager and hit the aggravating moment when all the books being recommended to me were books by male beat poets. I wanted the women’s stories of transgression. The books I read when I was little were full of ferocious girls, brainy girls, weirdo girls, and I loved the notion of them, exploring the world. Ooh, and I read a lot of Margaret Storey, who never really took hold in the US. I found her book Timothy & Two Witches in an Idaho Salvation Army. She’s a bit in the Dianna Wynne Jones vein.


You can read more of Maria Dahvana Headley’s AMA over on reddit!


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