I’m not a runner, so I’ll never run a marathon, but I definitely have the competition gene. I can relate to people who push themselves to do hard things, like run a 26+ mile race.

This morning, as I read about the recent 100th running of the Boston Marathon, I was reminded of Kathrine Switzer, who in 1967 competed in the 71st Boston Marathon, “illegally,” because women were barred from entry. A junior at Syracuse University who loved running, she craftily registered as K. Switzer.

Kathrine’s running partners were Arnie Briggs, manager of the Syracuse men’s track team, and her boyfriend Tom Miller, an ex-All American football player. The crowd, delighted to see a girl running with the men, at first cheered her on. But when the trio ran past the press truck, and video of Kathrine was captured, the manager of the race, who was on the truck, blew a gasket. He climbed down, ran after her, grabbed and yelled at her, and tried to rip her number (261) off her jersey. In one of the greatest examples of men supporting women, Tom Miller swept in, blocked the guy, and sent him to the curb instead. Kathrine finished the race in four hours and twenty minutes.

How do I know all of this? Because it’s the opening story in the fantastic PBS documentary, “Makers: Women Who Make America (Part 1).” The program, produced by WETA-TV in 2013, and narrated by Meryl Streep, is a little under 58 minutes long. I’ve viewed it many times.* Kathrine’s story always bring me to tears.

With remarkable vintage visuals and thoughtful commentary, MAKERS details the struggle for women’s equality in the United States during the last five decades of the 20th century. Part I, “Awakening,” covers the 1950s and 60s. Part II, “Changing the World,” covers the sexual revolution of the 1970s. Part III, “Charting a New Course,” ends in the 1980s and 90s with a look at issues facing women in the workforce, violence against women, the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination, and sexual harassment.

The Wikipedia entry for this series told me the documentary is linked to, a collaborative project between PBS and AOL featuring videos of hundreds of women who contributed to the struggle for women’s equality in the United States. I plan to dig in.

The issue of the New York Times that reported on this year’s Boston Marathon also contained a story about my fellow Iowan Caitlin Clark who, with her amazing, talented team representing the University of Iowa, has further and significantly raised the profile of women’s athletics.

Kathrine and Caitlin, running with torches.

*This link goes to an “unofficial” YouTube video of the documentary. Apologies I wasn’t able to find a better one.


Friends Face A Lot Together

During the couple of decades I traveled all over the US (and beyond), teaching and lecturing about quilts for quilters’ guilds and at conferences, I met hundreds of quilters every year. The conviviality among the students in my workshops was one of the many pleasures of my job.

Quilters told me often that half of what drew them to quiltmaking was the process itself (the fabrics, the patterns, the joy of making). The other half was the friendships they made with other quilters.

I made lots of friends myself in the quilting world over the years: students I clicked with, colleagues teaching at the same conferences, hosts who put me up in their homes, guests on “Love of Quilting,” and, later on, special friends I made during the seven years I served on the Quilts of Valor Foundation board of directors, my QOVF friends.

I also now have writing friends—fellow writers who discuss plot, character, and dialogue (among other topics) in the same enthusiastic way quilters talk about quilt blocks, border treatments, batting and binding (among other topics). I now count a number of novelists (published and not-yet-pubished) among my friends.

In 2019-2020, I was in a yearlong novel writing class via StoryStudioChicago. I traveled to the Windy City from Iowa (and other locations) once a month to meet in person with the twelve other members of my cohort. Our teacher was the wonderful writer Rebecca Makkai. By March, 2020, when Covid changed in-person everything, we had met eight times. Zooming wasn’t the same as being together, but it was better than nothing.

One of my Novel-in-a-Year friends is Marie. She’s a wonderful writer whose manuscript is now complete. I’ve have the pleasure of reading it, and though she does not yet have an agent, I’m confident her narrative will be published one day. Then, others will have that pleasure as well.

Marie recently launched Blanket Gravity Magazine—a free online literary publication for people who struggle with mental health. An offshoot of Blanket Gravity is Blankie, on Substack. Blankie publishes essays, fiction, and interviews on art and mental health. Marie recently asked if she could interview me about quilting and mental health, in an “Artist Chat.” I jumped at the chance.

Here’s a photo of me with one of my quilting AND writing friends, Frances O’Rourke Dowell, who visited Winterset last summer during the Iowa Quilt Museum’s Iowa Quilt Festival.

And here’s the interview conducted by my friend Marie.

In Memoriam: Valerie Fons (1951-2022)

She became my sister-in-law when I was 21, my ex-sister-in-law when I divorced her brother at age 39.

She remained my friend, championed my pursuits, cheered my successes, told me (when I was my family of four’s sole financial support) that if she ever had kids she wanted to be a mother just like me.

She was an athlete, kayaking the Baja, the Mississippi, the Amazon, and other waterways, clocking over 30,000 miles in a boat.

She was a quilter.

She became an ordained Methodist minister. She and her final husband adopted six kids out of foster care and raised them to adulthood.

She was my writing partner, my thought-partner, my editor and believer.

On Washington Island, she was my neighbor.

She was my oldest friend.

Lying in semidarkness on my yoga mat months after Valerie’s death, I heard my teacher say she would read a poem titled CANOE. I heard my friend’s voice in every word. I tracked down the poet, corresponded with her, told her about Valerie’s amazing, adventurous life.

Recently, I was asked by Valerie’s children to speak at her memorial service. Luckily, I had CANOE.

CANOE by Joanne M. Clarkson 2021 (used with permission)

The waxing crescent casts a tiny canoe on the water.

She is empty, enlivened by breezy waves.

I swim out into the midnight lake and climb within her nacre.

I take up a paddle painted with images of fish and birds.

She carries me into a perfect shadow.

Mayflies or snowflakes in starlight surround us.

I face fear and joy in equal measure, my honest life.

And in a minute or a month, when I return to shore,

All that needs to heal lies behind me in a wake.

And she sails off toward wholeness carrying the weight of my dreams.


My Published Writing Pals

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to make it into a special, yearlong writing class offered through StoryStudioChicago, a writing center located in the Windy City. The class, called “Novel-in-A-Year,” was to be led by one of my writing heroes, Rebecca Makkai, author of the hit 2018 novel THE GREAT BELIEVERS.

Prospective students had to submit ten pages of their WIP (that’s writer-speak for “work in progress”) to be considered, and we learned during our first class session there were a whopping 55 applicants—which means Makkai had to read 550 pages in order to narrow the group to just thirteen. Having “made the cut,” she told our cohort, we should not question ourselves as writers.

Each month from August 2019 to March 2020 I rode AMTRAK’s California Zephyr from Osceola, IA (a 40-minute drive from Winterset), to Chicago’s Union Station to attend a three-hour, in-person session in StoryStudio’s cozy parlor. We discussed fiction in general, absorbed craft wisdom from Rebecca, and critiqued each other’s work. We met up in bars before class and sometimes rode the el train together afterwards. By the time the global pandemic shoved us into Zoom we knew each other pretty well.

Getting one’s book-length fiction published is no easy feat, but it’s been happening recently for members of my Chicago writing clan. THE LOST SON, a novel by classmate Stephanie Vanderslice, is the story of protagonist Julia Kruse’s quest to find the son who was kidnapped as an infant by his father and the baby’s nurse. Julia’s journey takes us from Depression-Era Queens, New York, to the German front lines during the last days of WWII. I sped through the book from cover to cover, anxious for Julia to succeed, eager to learn just how she might. THE LOST SON is excellent historical fiction.

I devoured cohort-member Ryan Elliott Smith’s collection of short stories, FLY OVER THIS, STORIES FROM THE NEW MIDWEST, as I traveled to Chicago a couple of weeks ago to attend StoryStudio’s fundraiser, StoryBall. I knew I would see Ryan at the event and could get his autograph in person. I opened FLY OVER THIS as my plane lifted off in Des Moines, kept my place with my thumb as I hurried to the Blue Line station at O’Hare, and had my nose back in it as I jostled to my stop downtown. I loved all of Ryan’s stories, but especially the opener, “That Day Where You Live,” and the sweetly sad closer, “A Parent Life.”

You can purchase both of these titles from my favorite independent bookseller, Fair Isle Books, located on Washington Island, WI. Fair Isle is one of the smallest bookshops in the world, but its owner (Deb Wayman), has access to over 7,000,000 titles and will happily source and ship your order to your address. Just type the title in the search bar at the top of the page linked above.

Patchwork & Prose—You Can Access the Party!

UPDATE! A recording of the delightful launch party for Patchwork & Prose is available free here. It’s loads of fun, and Yanks like me will enjoy it if for nothing more than listening to Jenni Smith’s and Kay Walsh’s lovely Yorkshire accents!

I’ve been a fan of Quiltfolk magazine practically since its launch. Owner Mike McCormick visited Winterset in 2016, and Iowa was featured in the second-ever installment of the ad-free, quarterly keepsake publication that visits different areas of the US in each issue.

My amazing daughter Mary Fons soon began writing for Quiltfolk, eventually serving several years as editor-in-chief. Now, she’s a creative director.

Mary has lived in the UK off and on recently, and I loved seeing her join the lovely Yorkshire quilter Jenni Smith for some literature-related projects involving Quiltfolk, Jane Austen, the Brontës, and (I think) Beatrix Potter. As a fiction lover, anything that combines narrative and quilting makes me happy!

Imagine my delight when Quiltfolk offered, “Patchwork & Prose, a Bookish Block-of-the-Month Program.”

Wow, I thought, there are enough quilters (like me) that adore novels and quiltmaking in equal measure to do something like this? I signed up immediately—even though I’ve never participated in a block-of-the-month program in my life. Just hanging around with other literary quilting nerds would be worth it!

Look at how the team for this program (which starts April 6) are identified:

Jenni Smith, the eclectic quilter
Kay Walsh, the cheerful bookworm
Mary Fons, the passionate quilt historian
Margaret Fleisher, the calm educator

Thinking back over my decades of teaching quilting classes around the country, for guilds and at conferences, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Faculty members and students were always talking about what they were reading, recommending titles and authors. Hard core quilters are often hard core readers. I knew this.

Recently, I had the great pleasure of meeting Jenni in person. We were both at QuiltCon in Phoenix last month, and during our chat, I took the opportunity to gush about Patchwork & Prose. I told her I had signed up and that I couldn’t wait. The next thing I knew, Jenni invited ME to make a guest appearance. Wowza!

There’s a fee for the yearlong class, of course, but Jenni is hosting a free launch party tomorrow night (Saturday, March 19) from 7 to 9 EDT. She’s giving a tour of her Northern England sewing space (which she says she’s been tidying all week), and she’ll introduce some of the guests she’s lined up. The reminder (with Zoom link) that landed in my inbox yesterday included recipes for literature-themed libations (all with hilarious names) to sip during the party.

My favorite is the Turn of the Screwdriver.

Zoom in if you’d like to party with us!




With Homemade Pie, You’ll Never Go Wrong!

In the early 1970s, I was a young bride earnestly making a new home out of an old farmhouse seven miles from the nearest town (Winterset, Iowa, county seat of Madison County).

Not yet a mother or a quilter, my leisure time (when I had any) was spent embroidering flowers along the hems of my denim skirts. My companion (besides my also-young husband) was public radio. I listened to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday afternoons as I fashioned French knots from cotton floss.

NPR’s now-famous news program, “All Things Considered,” premiered in 1971; I was an instant fan. The following year, the program announced a quirky contest, “Commercials for Nicer Living.” The assignment was to promote (in 120 words) a product more personally meaningful than, say, a brand of toothpaste. Winners’ commercials would be produced by NPR staff and aired on Fridays. I hopped to it and wrote a 120-word jingle extolling the joys of homemade pie, drove to town, and mailed my entry off to to NPR headquarters in D.C (including in the envelope a self-addressed, stamped postcard so I could be notified if I were a winner).

Imagine my delight the day my postcard returned! “Dear Mrs. Fons,” Ira Flatow wrote, “We have played it 3 or 4 times . . . if you keep listening, you might hear it again.” I kept listening but, alas, I never heard my winning ad for pie.

On Thanksgiving Day 2021, when two of my three children were home in Winterset for the holiday, we got to talking about National Public Radio (over our pie), how formative NPR had also been in their lives, how as adults public radio is their source of information, their comfort, their companion when walking, driving, and sometimes even sewing. I put down my fork, dug into my archives, and produced Ira Flatow’s congratulatory message from 1972.

Rebecca, my youngest, a genius at searches, said, “May I see that, please?” Soon she was keyboard-deep in NPR’s audio archives, and in much the same way that my 22-year-old self inclined my ear toward the plug-in radio in that old farmhouse, we listened raptly to the winning commercials—one promoting the joys of wading, another eschewing noisy alarm clocks in favor of one’s internal clock, and MY PIE JINGLE!

With permission from NPR, have a listen!


PS In corresponding with NPR for permission (thanks, Mason and Jenna!) to publish the audio clip, I learned that my jingle was first broadcast on on September 29, 1972.


MONUMENTS Available To Watch or Own Starting Today!

Once upon a time, while meandering through the Egyptian Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, I noticed an elevated sarcophagus—without a lid. “Goodness,” I thought, “a person could easily reach up, drop any sort of thing in there, and no one would ever know.” My imagination went to work, and I wrote a short story titled “My Ashes at The Met”—about a grieving young widower trying to fulfill his deceased wife’s wishes for her remains.

A few years ago, I showed the story to my son-in-law, filmmaker Jack C. Newell. He had been mulling a somewhat related plot-line suggested by a colleague, and asked for my permission to develop “My Ashes at The Met” into a feature-length movie. I jumped at the opportunity, and in 2019 I wrote a post about receiving payment for the story rights. I got to help out with the development of the script, which was huge fun, and Mark and I traveled to Boulder, Colorado, to observe one day of the shoot.

If you’ve been keeping up with me, you’ll remember that the completed film, titled MONUMENTS, won spots in several film festivals last year. At the prestigious Nashville Film Festival, where MONUMENTS premiered, it won an Audience Award.

This past May, MONUMENTS got theatrical releases in Los Angeles and Chicago, quite an accomplishment during a pandemic! In Chicago, where it screened at the Gene Siskel Film Center, director Newell participated in a Q & A with the film’s primary actors, David Sullivan (Ted), Marguerite Moreau (Laura), and Javier Muñoz (Howl). Muñoz, who took over the role of Hamilton in HAMILTON on Broadway after Lin-Manuel Miranda’s retirement, spoke enthusiastically about his first film role, and how great it was to work with Jack.

Today, MONUMENTS becomes available on Apple TV and via Amazon Prime Video to rent or own! Here’s the link to make the transaction. 

I describe MONUMENTS as a dark romantic heist + road chase comedy. Here’s what some reviewers have said about the film:

” (A) wonderfully weird, decidedly offbeat gem . . . Monuments is at times grounded, at times almost hallucinogenic — and always smart and entertaining.”
Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper

“An amalgamation of quirky humor and genuine heart . . . subdued and proudly awkward comedy.”
Film Threat, Andrew Stover

“This dippily surreal existential comedy . . . feels like it’s born of the exact middle ground between the big-budget escapist mainstream and the hardcore arthouse “coasts” of American cinematic output . . .”
Variety, Jessica Kiang

If you want to read all of Jessica Kiang’s super rad review in Variety, here it is.

Finally, here’s the trailer.

By the way, on subsequent meanders through the Egyptian Wing at the Met, I noticed plexiglas lids have been added to all the sarcophagi.

Stream MONUMENTS (A Movie with Cows!)

Last year, I mentioned in a post that my (unpublished) short story (“My Ashes at The Met”)* had been adapted into a feature film by Jack C. Newell.

In the now completed movie, titled MONUMENTS, a bereaved young man (Ted) stops at nothing to honor what he thinks are his recently-deceased wife’s (Laura’s) wishes. This means stealing her ashes from her wacky family and racing across the country in a muffler-less pickup truck (also stolen) so he can (illegally) entomb her remains inside Chicago’s Field Museum—all while being pursued by the man who was trying to woo Laura away from him when she died. It sounds dark, but it’s actually a (darkly) comedic heist picture.

I had the pleasure of consulting with Jack on the script at several stages, and my husband Mark and I traveled to Boulder, CO, last fall to watch a key scene being filmed. (We got to walk on as extras in another scene.) A few weeks later, when the film crew came through Iowa, I was tasked with locating a field in which cows could be herded close to a roadside fence to appear in the background as the truck sped by. (A success story in itself, thanks to Peggy Casper.)

Good news! MONUMENTS has gotten into several film festivals. (Winning spots in festivals is an important step in marketing a film.). In other good news, because film festivals are currently virtual, you can attend no matter where you live! In still more good news, MONUMENTS is up for audience awards at two important festivals, Nashville and Heartland (Indianapolis). You can help us win!

Please, watch MONUMENTS this week or next—and vote for it if you like it. Winning these awards would help tremendously as Jack goes forward with distribution conversations. The film could get sold for nationwide theater screening or, like Jack’s wonderful documentary 42 GRAMS, be purchased by Netflix. You have to pay a small fee to stream MONUMENTS ($12.80 for Nashville, $9 for Heartland), but either amount is less than a typical movie ticket.

Click here to watch MONUMENTS via the Nashville Film Festival between now and October 7. When you get to the page, click on the blue “Unlock Now” button to proceed to secure payment.

Click here to watch MONUMENTS Heartland Film Festival between October 8 and 18. When you get to the page, click on the blue “Unlock Now” button to proceed to secure payment.

At either of the above links, you can watch the trailer for FREE.

When I had the chance to see an early screening of the film last summer in Iowa City, I entered the theater with trepidation. Jack had taken a story of very few pages (set in Iowa and New York City) and expanded it into a road-trip-heist film set in Colorado, Chicago, and parts between. What if I didn’t like it? Added to the stress, Jack is my youngest daughter Rebecca’s husband! What would I say to my son-in-law if I were disappointed?

I’m happy to report that when the final credits rolled, I was wiping away tears. MONUMENTS, like “My Ashes at The Met,” is the story of a human being struggling to make peace with loss. Jack and his team added humor and beauty to an already touching story.

*In addition to my short story, MONUMENTS drew inspiration from a concept idea by Ben Fout.




Literature Lovers: Come (Virtually) to Washington Island!

If you read my posts regularly you know I love books and writing as much as I love making quilts. You probably also know I live in two places—Winterset, Iowa, most of the time, and Washington Island, Wisconsin, from time to time.

The annual Washington Island Literary Festival (WILF) is a celebration of books and writing, and I proudly serve on its selection committee. (In January, our festival’s “back office” relocated under the beautiful umbrella of Write On, Door County, a creative writing center located in Door County, Wisconsin, near the town of Fish Creek.)

As with so many events this year, months ago the WILF leadership team made the difficult decision to cancel our in-person event, convince our 2020 authors to pencil us in for 2021 (success!), and figure out what we could do instead. We decided to create a small buffet of online offerings for the weekend our event would have taken place, September 18-20. Among other presenters, three committee members will offer virtual workshops—poet James Scannell McCormick, writer Paula Carter, and me.

My session, The Novelist’s Survival Kit, Sunday, September 19, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., is a conversation with Write On’s wonderful artistic director, Jerod Santek, about the stamina required to start and finish a full length, approximately 300-page, manuscript (and I mean writing one, not reading one!).* Budding fiction writers or those who’ve always wanted to take a stab at The Novel will acquire tools that will help them stay the course; avid readers will get a fascinating glimpse into what we novelists go through to present them with a (hopefully) great read.

Workshops are free, but we are asking participants who can do so to pay $65 (or any amount they can, even if it’s only $10 or $20) to join. Register for The Novelist’s Survival Kit here.

To promote the virtual festival, various members of our team have recorded short videos of us of our work and have posted them on the festival’s Facebook page. Click here to watch me read a four-minute excerpt from my first novel, My Life with Shelley.

*My Life with Shelley is represented by New York literary agent Stephany Evans. I’m currently at work on a second novel, this one set in my own small town in Iowa in the late 1950s.

Back to (Writing) School!

For several years, now, as I’ve pursued my love of fiction—as a writer rather than a reader—I’ve taken lots of classes, most of them at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in Iowa City, a production of the University of Iowa, and I’ve learned a lot. Some were a weekend in duration, others a full week.

Now, I am embarking on a yearlong course of study called, “Novel in a Year,” offered through StoryStudioChicago, a writing center in Chicago (natch). To apply, hopefuls submitted ten pages. I sent the first ten of the novel I am currently drafting, working title: WINTERSET.

My teacher is Rebecca Makkai, author of the 2018 hit novel, THE GREAT BELIEVERS. Rebecca has been teaching the Novel in a Year class for around ten years, from back when she was not the literary sensation she is now, when she had only a single book of short stories (MUSIC FOR WAR TIME) in print. (Her stories, by the way, are some of the best I’ve ever read.)

I was over the moon when I learned I made the cut. The class was to be limited to twelve persons, but the welcoming email from Rebecca said she had made an exception and expanded to thirteen. Our “cohort” of thirteen meets once a month in person with our teacher in Chicago, but there will be online assignments and interactions all along the way.

Last week at our first get together, we learned there were fifty-five applicants, the most that have ever applied. Rebecca said the selection process was the most challenging ever in her years of conducting the class. She said that she had to pass on several writers that in any other year would have made it. She said if any of us have any doubts about ourselves as writers to throw those doubts out the window—we all belong. Our lesson for the evening was on the beginnings of a novel, the concept of orientation, how much we ground the story in its early paragraphs, how to decide what to reveal, or conceal while (hopefully) hooking the reader in. The first paragraph of each cohort member’s novel was read and analyzed. What a blast!

And so, for the next eleven months, I’ll be traveling to Chicago—by car, train, bus, or plane—for the in-person sessions, and in between those times spending my early morning hours writing, writing, writing. In February, my turn for “workshopping” will come. Everyone will read the first twenty pages of WINTERSET prior to class, and I’ll be subject to a full hour of input and critique. The motivation I feel to hold up my end, to give as good as I get, is huge.

Writing a full length novel is a years-long exercise in concentrated effort. I know, because I’ve done it before. It’s a voyage of discovery—discovery of what the story is truly about, discovery of the characters and their motivations, discovery of the self.

Bon voyage to me!

THE KEEP by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan’s The Keep was recommended by one of my teachers in a workshop at this year’s University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival. The class was on point of view, and my teacher used excerpts from The Keep and another of Egan’s novels, A Visit from the Goon Squad, to illustrate shifting point of view in the novel.

Egan’s writing is jaw dropping good, which is stating the obvious, since Goon Squad won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. In The Keep, her ability to put me way, way, way inside the head of one character in particular, Danny, practically made my head spin.

I doubt I’m the first person to envision M.C. Escher’s artwork when following The Keep’s plot lines—the main and sub stories fold back and in upon themselves so seamlessly I became unsure which one actually was the main story, the one taking place in an ancient castle in an unnamed country or the one set in a prison.

In Danny’s story, the one in the castle, point of view is third person limited (mostly), told in past tense. With third person limited, the reader generally only learns the interior thoughts of a single character, but in Danny’s sections of the novel, a narrator busts in from time to time with comments such as “I’m taking a pause here to tell you Danny wasn’t listening.” The prison sections are in present tense, first person, with prisoner and budding writer Ray telling us what’s happening in the prison in (mostly) real time, but gradually we realize Ray’s the one writing Danny’s story, i.e., the intruding voice in the castle story is Ray, who’s in a prison writing class taught by Holly, a woman with her own backstory of crime and punishment.

Until I read the final section of The Keep, which is Holly’s, in first person, present tense, I was going to say reading the novel was like listening to an incredible violin cadenza, a tour de force of virtuosity that blows your mind until you realize you’re not crazy about the concerto itself. Holly’s thirty pages tied up loose ends in mostly satisfying ways, but my takeaway from The Keep still has more to do with the incredible way Egan told the story than the story itself, which is after all why my instructor recommended I read it.


New Acronyms + HELLO?

In the quilt world, common acronyms are FQ (Fat Quarter), UFO (Unfinished Object), QM (Quilt Market), and QOV (Quilt of Valor).

My new career in fiction introduced me to a whole new set of shortcuts. WIP is one’s Work-in-Progress—and (BTW) it’s not cool to refer to one’s WIP as a novel or a book. Until your WIP has a publisher, it’s a manuscript or a draft.

POV is the very important Point of View. Choices include First Person, Third Person Limited, Multiple (alternating), and Omniscient. In my WIP, I’m attempting omniscience—the most challenging of POVs due to potential head-hopping. Head-hopping (which doesn’t have an acronym, but should) happens when the writer switches clumsily from the internal thoughts of one character to another, losing the reader.

SF (Science Fiction) and YA (Young Adult) are genres, neither of which I know much about, but this morning I finished Hello?, a YA debut by one of my new writing pals, Liza Wiemer of Milwaukee, who I met this spring at the “Paths to Publication” event sponsored by Write On, Door County.

Set on Washington Island and in Sturgeon Bay, WI, Hello? follows the lives of five high school seniors. It’s been a long time since I was a teenager, but I remember the emotions (often the most powerful of one’s entire life), and Wiemer captures them well. As for POV, she used five, putting me inside the brain (and heart) of each character in turn in alternating chapters. One girl’s POV comes through her poetry, which is private and closely guarded. The POV of Brenda, a playwright headed for writing school in New York (NY!) is handled in the form of an ongoing screenplay.

Though I’m not the novel(!)’s intended audience, Hello? kept me turning pages for two mornings and two evenings, anxious to see how the characters came to terms with their individual crises and whether the right couples would connect. Wiemer, a longtime K-12 educator and the mother of teenagers herself, writes plausibly and compassionately about kids with true love in their hearts and real issues in their lives.

Scribble, Scribble Every Day

As those who know me know, I spent a decades-long career in the world of the American quilt—designing, writing, teaching, publishing, traveling the U.S. (and beyond) to connect with quilters everywhere and help them hone their skills.

Writing—in the quilting industry—meant writing instructions, mostly: “Sew Piece A to Piece B to form Unit C,” for example. Occasionally, I got the chance to write something a bit more exciting, like a feature article or humor piece, but not often. Writing and publishing non-fiction copy, however, helped me build solid syntactical and editing chops, not bad skills to have under my belt when I undertook fiction a few years ago.

That said, I had loads more to learn. Creating my novel My Life with Shelley took five years of concentrated, daily effort—months of reading book after book on the craft of fiction, researching the life of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley (her letters, journals, and other novels), actual writing, and of course revising, revising, revising, and revising again. I joined and formed writing groups, found writer friends, took writing classes in Iowa City and elsewhere, plus consumed volumes of quality published fiction.

Now, with My Life with Shelley agented, and encouraged by my agent, I’m at it again in the early hours of the morning, writing, revising, researching, working on a story, this one set in Winterset and with a darker theme, scribbling, scribbling, every day—6,453 words down so far, 85,000 (approximately) to go.

Story Rights—Check!

A few weeks ago, I wrote about landing my first-ever gig as a fiction writer. Soon, at the “Paths to Publication” conference in Egg Harbor, WI, I’ll present “How I Found My Agent: One Writer’s Story.” Here’s the description:

After you complete the long, sometimes lonely journey from Page One to the final draft, a whole new and arduous journey begins when your goal is publication. Iowa writer Marianne Fons offers proof that the planets do sometimes align and agent acquisition does actually happen. Tips for potential success and agent/author etiquette included.

I plan to relate query letter embarrassments and demoralizing non-responses, and of course the story of the fresh query I shot into cyberspace last year on my birthday, eventuating in the golden words of Stephany Evans (now my agent): “I finished reading your novel today, and I really loved it. Can we talk on Monday?” Who knows, maybe we’ll get Stephany on the phone during my session to prove to my audience she truly exists.

Now, for almost the first time* in my life, I’ve been paid for a piece of fiction.

“My Ashes at the Met,” a short story I wrote years ago, is being adapted into a feature length movie by filmmaker Jack C. Newell. The film, titled “Monuments,” is about a young man’s quest to honor what he believes are his deceased young wife’s wishes by entombing her cremains within Chicago’s Field Museum. It sounds dark, but I’ve read the script at many stages, and it’s actually a (darkly) comedic heist-plus-road-trip kind of story with stellar cast members including Javier Muñoz, the actor who played Hamilton on Broadway after Lin-Manuel Miranda retired from that role.

Newell, Head of TV, Film & Digital at The Second City in Chicago, is a versatile writer-director. His documentary “42 Grams,” about a restaurant that goes from popup to the talk of Chicago, is available on Netflix (and from other sources) and has been called one of the best food documentaries ever made. That Jack happens to be my son-in-law is beside the point—though if he weren’t he probably never would have read my unpublished story.

“Monuments” is now in edit-stage and will in the coming months begin its own path to publication, which for a film can include film festival submissions and/or pitch sessions with distributors. I hope one day to announce its premier and of course watch it myself. On the big (or small) screen, the words, “Adapted from a short story by Marianne Fons,” will I am sure flash by way too fast!

*Another of my stories, “Crazy Quilt” appeared in the short-lived Quilt Digest back in the 1980s. There’s a good chance my writing buddy Frances Dowell will be reading it later this year on the Quilt Fiction Podcast, so stay tuned!








(My Novel Hasn’t Sold) But I’m Booked!

I’m not sure how many times I traveled away from Winterset to teach or lecture about quilting over the years, but from 1993 to 2004 I kept a file titled Old Jobs.

Scrolling through the document just now, I count one hundred and forty separate gigs, including Vermont Quilt Festival, Mid-Atlantic Quilt Festival, Quilt Colorado, Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show, and many guilds across the country as well as trips to teach in Australia, England, and France. Each invitation brought joy, as the booking enabled me to support myself and my family and confirmed that my quilting skills had value.

After my partners and I sold Fons & Porter in 2006, I went on the road again from time to time, lecturing only, racking up some thirty additional trips. Just last fall rockstar quilters Victoria Findlay Wolfe and Paula Nadelstern came here to Winterset so we could present together on the stage of the Iowa Theater.

Representing a satisfying tectonic shift in topic, I was confirmed just yesterday as a presenter at the upcoming Paths to Publication conference in Egg Harbor, WI, sponsored by Write On Door County. My presentation is titled, “How I Found My Agent: One Writer’s Story.”

Working in the quilt world, I was always a quilter among quilters, talking quilt-talk, sharing tips for better patchwork—methods I learned via mistakes and successes in my own work. Now, I’m often a writer among writers, talking writer-talk, enrolling in classes at venues like the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and StoryStudio Chicago, participating in writers’ groups in Iowa and Wisconsin, and practicing the craft of writing—revising, re-writing, and un-writing in the same way I use my rotary cutter, sewing machine, and seam-ripper to carry a quilt from concept to completion.

In April for the first time, I’ll receive a stipend for talking about writing to other hopeful, avid writers. That I’ll do so a hundred more times in the future is unlikely, but the opportunity to do it even once thrills me as much that first away-from-home quilt gig I accepted more than thirty years ago.






My Place in the World

“A girl can dream, Eric,” responds protagonist Grace Zacharias during a mostly-whispered scene in a public library in my novel, My Life with Shelley. Grace’s colleague, fellow high school English teacher Eric Hagermeyer, has asked Grace if she thinks the book she’s writing (the fake memoir of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley) is publishable. A few minutes later, after sneaking a peek at her manuscript, Eric asks, “Was Mary Shelley really such a—pardon me—bitch? And such a ginormous snob?” Grace, whose left leg is in an immobilizer, and who will have surgery the next day, doesn’t take Eric’s constructive criticism well.

Whether My Life with Shelley will ever be in print is unknown, but, like Grace, I dream, especially in bookstores, especially when traveling. Something about being in the famous Strand (“Eighteen Miles of Books”) in New York, or an airport book shop branch such as The Tattered Cover in Denver or Barbara’s Bookstore in O’Hare, re-stimulates the wannabe in me, and I browse my way to the area where my novel might be shelved if one of the editors currently considering it jumps on it.

Now that my book is agented, and since I always carry a Sharpie and sticky-notes in my purse, these days I perform a little ritual that feeds my ambition while harming no one. I glance around the store to make sure no employee is nearby and casually remove my office supplies from my bag. I print neatly, affix my message, check my surroundings again, and slip away.





The Many Faces of FRANKENSTEIN

Because 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein,* articles about Mary Shelley and her famous novel are popping up everywhere. Having spent years studying Shelley, almost five writing my novel about her, I read them warily. You could say I know too much.

Today, Lit Hub Weekly pointed me to a piece titled “My Odious Handiwork,” by Ed Simon. In the very first paragraph, Simon says Mary eloped to Europe with Shelley at eighteen, which is incorrect—the couple ran off to France two years earlier, shortly before Mary’s sixteenth birthday. The same paragraph claims Mary began writing her novel late in 1816. Actually, she started it in June, during the summer Mary and Shelley famously hung out with Lord Byron on Lake Geneva.

Despite the errors in Simon’s open, I like what he says about Frankenstein—that it is not about science, but art. “Frankenstein is about the writing of Frankenstein,” he suggests.

Mary’s novel is in fact one of the most interpreted, written-about works of literature in the world. Frankenstein has been described as a metaphor for the French Revolution, an allegory for the Christian story, and an expression of Shelley’s maternal guilt and/or postpartum depression, to name a few. That Frankenstein can be read in so many ways explains its 200-year endurance.

My own novel, My Life with Shelley, is “about” many things—including, at its heart, what it means to be a mother—but it’s also about making art, as my modern-day protagonist Grace Zacharias struggles to follow through on her cherished dream to write Mary Shelley’s imagined autobiography while learning to walk again after an immobilizing accident.

Early in my narrative, Grace lies in an MRI suite, wondering what Mary would think about a machine capable of scanning the human body, painlessly, to opera music. As Grace drifts into sleep, she imagines the moment of creation Mary described in her 1831 introduction—the watery, speculative eyes of the monster opening to her one night in a dream.

Yes, Grace muses, when Mary described Victor’s Frankenstein’s euphoria of creation, she was writing what she knew. I know it, too. After a life of creativity myself, I found constructing a full-length novel more satisfying than even the very best quilt I’ve ever made.

*Actually, Mary received her author copies on a bitterly cold December 31, 1817.

A Girl (A Writer) Can Dream!

A friend—a quilter who’s working on his first YA* manuscript himself—recently reminded me of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling debut novel THE HELP. We were discussing our respective projects, and I described my agent’s early-on request for “comparables” (successful novels similar to mine).

My book is structured (like FRANKENSTEIN itself) as a story within a story. The inner narrative is Mary Shelley’s first-person memoir, written as she might have written it the summer of 1850—the year before her death. The exterior story features the foibles of English teacher Grace Zacharias, the FRANKENSTEIN-obsessed mother of three who constructs Mary’s memoir after breaking her leg.

Back in August, all I could come up with for my agent were titles like THE OTHER EINSTEIN, LOVING FRANK and THE PARIS WIFE, carefully researched narratives told from the point of view of an historical figure—Albert Einstein’s first wife, Frank Lloyd Wright’s lover, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife of four. These narratives compare well to the memoir I wrote for Mary Shelley—but none involve a twenty-first century writer writing a book about a nineteenth century one.**

Like millions of people, I read THE HELP in 2009 (and watched the Oscar-winning movie in 2011), but I had forgotten about the writer-writing-a-book angle, so consulted the oracle that is Wikipedia. The principal protagonist, Skeeter, has just graduated from the University of Mississippi. In her quest to become a writer, she lands a job penning a household advice column for the local newspaper. Eventually, she convinces the maids her white friends employ to collaborate with her on a book about what it is to be a colored maid in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s. The final chapters of THE HELP describe the impact of Skeeter’s book’s appearance in Jackson.

THE HELP isn’t, after all, an adequate comparable to MY LIFE WITH SHELLEY. That said, as a hoping-to-be-published debut novelist, I ate up the following info: Stockett spent five years on her manuscript, which was rejected by 60 literary agents over a period of three years until one finally agreed to represent her. THE HELP was subsequently published in 35 countries and three languages. By August 2011, it had sold seven million copies in print and audiobook editions. It was on The New York Times Best Seller List for over 100 weeks.

*Young Adult

**In the script for my fantasy interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, one of Terry’s lines is, “So, Marianne, your novel—which I loved—is about a writer writing a book about the writer who wrote FRANKENSTEIN. What was your inspiration?

Driven to Read . . . FRANKENSTEIN

Who drives two-plus hours to read three pages of FRANKENSTEIN aloud?

Part of Iowa City’s annual Book Festival (tenth annual this year for the UNESCO City of Literature) was a continuous reading of Mary Shelley’s famous novel. Other events were a panel discussion at the public library and screenings of “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” at FilmScene, Iowa City’s art house cinema, where my daughter Rebecca is Programming Director.

I learned about the public reading only a couple of days ahead of time. When I signed up, only one slot—the final one—was left. As I drove from Winterset, I advised myself against disappointment should the reading conclude before I got there. I need not have worried. The brilliant Anna Barker, experienced in such things, monitored readers all day long (from 9 a.m. to almost 6) so everyone had a turn.

Around 5 p.m., the little group, clustered on the stone steps of the Old Capitol building in a hot, punishing wind, edged the narrative ever closer to its dramatic conclusion—the unnamed Creature’s final pathos-drenched polemic, his indictment of Victor Frankenstein, the man who gave him life but didn’t bother to give him a name. The second-to-last reader, seated at my left, handed over the book just a handful of paragraphs shy of the final sentence. As I read the words nineteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley put in the mouth of the soon-to-suicide Creature, I felt my voice shake with emotion.

An hour later, I was at the library for the panel discussion. Interesting enough, its focus was on the authors (Milton, Plutarch, Goethe), the Creature reads in the formative months following his catastrophic birth. As I listened, though, I wished the conversation had instead focused on Mary, the teenager who created the character (Victor Frankenstein) who in turn built the nameless monster. Of greater interest—to anyone I would think—is how this girl (the best-read woman in London at the time), with a young child at her side and pregnant with another, managed to produce, in nine months, the work she later called her “hideous progeny.” After all, without Mary, where is FRANKENSTEIN?

Having spent years studying Mary and the life she herself described as disastrous, I’m biased of course. Stay tuned for my own progeny, my novel MY LIFE WITH SHELLEY, hopefully to be published soon, Within my book’s pages, Mary lives!


Top! Notch! Agent!

Tomorrow, I leave for New York City—to spend the weekend with my oldest, Hannah Fons, and to meet my agent Ms. Evans in person. Hannah and I have some neat plans, including Friday night’s Art Battle New York, (a live painting competition with artists as contestants), a wine-and-cheese tasting yacht cruise, on which I hope to catch up with longtime family friend Captain Greer, and some serious Lower Manhattan traipsing.

Plans for Tuesday with my agent Ms. Evans aren’t finalized yet, but I’m guessing they’ll include lunch. I simply can’t wait to meet her! What writer wouldn’t be jazzed to meet the person who, when queried, responded, “Why don’t you go ahead and send me your full manuscript?” And who said when we talked on the phone, “We’ll want to get you a two-book deal.”

Earlier this week, I happened to touch base with BJ, a longtime friend who works in publishing in New York, a specialist in craft and fashion genres. Years ago, when Quilter’s Complete Guide (coauthored by Liz Porter and myself) was on its way to becoming “the bible of quiltmaking,” BJ was crafts book buyer for Book-of-the-Month Club and chose our title as a main selection. I had the opportunity to visit her at Time, Inc., when in New York once upon a time and got a tour of offices on her floor. (I’ll never forget us stepping into a small conference room that had a counter piled high with coverless, pre-publication novels where employees could take as many as they wanted.)

In corresponding with BJ on Monday, I mentioned the name of my agent, to which my friend replied:

She is a top agent, and well respected. I am sure she will get your book in the hands of the right editors. I haven’t worked with her personally, but she has a great background, has great authors, and has agented books that have done very well!  I don’t know much about the agency because I haven’t worked with them, but they are top notch also.

Reading this from BJ put me in a state of euphoria I’m still enjoying. Apparently the NYC publishing world is not unlike the US quilting industry. People who’ve spent a career in it know who’s who. I feel the way a budding quilter might feel if she found out her new quilting friend was Alex Anderson, Barbara Brackman, or Tulia Pink! See you soon, Ms. Evans!

My Novel—Looking for Another Lover!

Now that the Labor Day holiday is over, my literary agent will begin shopping MY LIFE WITH SHELLEY to editors of publishing imprints in (I assume) New York. (Go, Ms. Evans, Go!)

During the years I spent writing—even though publication was always my goal—I didn’t think too much about agents or publishers. I spent my precious early-morning hours each day with Mary Shelley and her world, studying books on the craft of fiction, and of course writing (revising, writing, revising, writing, revising). Until I actually had a completed manuscript, delving into the publication process seemed foolhardy and premature.

Last summer, after my instructor at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival said the sweet words, “You’re ready—seek publication now,” my research hours shifted to agents, agencies, and publishers. When I wasn’t paging through agency websites, I was reading current fiction, checking each novel’s spine for its publishing imprint, reading its author acknowledgements to find the author’s grateful nod to her or his agent.

In JEFF HERMAN’S GUIDE TO BOOK PUBLISHERS, EDITORS & LITERARY AGENTS, I learned about “The Big Five,” a term I’d heard mentioned here and there, but didn’t fully grasp. In case you don’t know, the familiar publishing brands many of us lifelong readers recognize (Penguin; Scribner; Knopf; Little, Brown and Company; St. Martins; William Morrow; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, etc.) are now all owned by just five huge publishing conglomerates, each using these and other imprints for the various types of books they publish. There are also independent presses, but only a few (Grove, W.W. Norton) have the name recognition of those encompassed by The Big Five.

I have no idea what the perfect imprint for MY LIFE WITH SHELLEY may be. I don’t know much (yet) about how Ms. Evans works, but I’m guessing what she’ll be doing in the coming weeks is looking for an editor who will love my novel as much as she does, a “someone” who thinks thousands of readers will love its characters, too—from my exterior-story protagonist Grace Zacharias and the other modern-day people that surround her (including the antagonists, of course), as well as Mary Shelley herself—the nineteenth-century novelist whose real life was fraught with more tragedies than most creative writers could make up.

I hope one day, Dear Reader, you’ll have the opportunity to love my novel, too. Until then, keep your fingers crossed for Ms. Evans and me!

My Novel Has An Agent!

After months of knocking on the doors of various New York literary agents, my novel MY LIFE WITH SHELLEY has found its advocate! I queried Ms. Evans early in the morning on my birthday June 27, and before noon she requested my full manuscript. (I sat on my hands for several hours before shooting the file through cyberspace!) True to her word, she responded within six weeks, with this beautiful message, “Dear Marianne, I finished reading your novel today and I really loved it. Would you have time to talk this coming Monday?”

I DID! I did have time to talk that coming Monday!”

Our conversation ranged from fun topics like her clever identification of two (unnamed) New York restaurants where scenes in the narrative are set—to how much she liked the way I blended the historical and modern-day parts of the book—to the Agency/Author Agreement she’d be emailing me as soon as we hung up,

Literary agents receive as many as 200 unsolicited query letters every week. In addition to servicing the clients they already represent, they sift through these book pitches, passing on 99.9% of them, always hoping something perfect for them will float to the top. Ms. Evans, as far as I can see, is perfect for me. I mailed the signed agreement to New York from the tiny post office on Washington Island, WI, where I’m currently enjoying my annual Sojourn of Solitude.

The most beautiful comment Ms. Evans made during our phone chat was, “I didn’t realize how interested I was in Mary Shelley until I started reading your book!” No, wait a minute, it was, “After Labor Day, editors will be looking for something just like this!”

I promised Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley I would tell the story of her disastrous (in her words) life to the world. The writing process took years, but I didn’t give up. Now, there’s a publishing professional enthusiastic about Mary Shelley’s story as well as the story of Grace Zacharias, the nerdy high school English teacher obsessed with the author of Frankenstein, who fabricates Mary’s memoir after disaster befalls her own life.

“Mary Shelley”—The (Terrible) Movie

Anyone who knows me reasonably well knows I’m a huge fan of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Mary completed her groundbreaking novel at just nineteen, went on to write other, far less popular works, was widowed at twenty-five, and never remarried. Pregnant five times, only one of her children reached adulthood.

Because this is Frankenstein’s bicentenary year (the book’s publication date is January 1818, though Mary received her author copies on a bitterly cold December 31), articles about Mary and her “hideous progeny” (Mary’s own term for her instantly-popular novel) naturally keep popping up. I approach each one with trepidation . . . because I know too much.

I spent years researching my own book about Mary, reading and studying her five other novels, her journals and letters (many times!), every biography about her, plus biographies of Shelley Circle luminaries—Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori, Edward John Trelawny, and others. It’s safe to say that even top notch, highly-credentialed writers like Harvard University history professor Jill Lepore have probably spent less quality time with Mary than I have, single-focus amateur historian that I am.

I found only a few nits to pick in Lepore’s February 12/19, 2018, New Yorker piece, The Strange and Twisted Life of ‘Frankenstein’. (For example, Claire Clairmont became pregnant by Lord Byron in London, not Geneva; the child Percy Shelley’s wife Harriet was carrying when she drowned herself probably was not Shelley’s.)

On the other hand, everyone who’s even a junior member of the Mary Shelley fan club is moaning about “Mary Shelley,” released May 25. As one reviewer wrote, “This is a movie that abandons virtually all pretense to historical accuracy in the opening five minutes.” In one absurd instance, Percy Shelley, whose work and person were unknown in his lifetime, is recognized by fangirls and complies to their request for an autograph using what appears to be a ballpoint pen.

Writing a work of fiction, learning how to do it capably, tops every other pursuit in my own personal life of creativity. After some five years of writing, revising, re-writing, classes, writers groups, critiques, readers, and further revisions—added to my decade-long study of Mary—last summer my teacher at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in Iowa City urged me to seek representation immediately, so MY LIFE WITH SHELLEY could be released during Frankenstein’s monumental year. I have not succeeded, but perseverance is in my makeup so my own lovely progeny still breathes.

The sad truth about “Mary Shelley”-the-movie is that its gross inaccuracies about a life fascinating and dramatic enough without an overlay of Hollywood paint will be believed by most of those who watch it, adding further disservice to the reputation of perhaps the most brilliant woman of the early nineteenth century, my hero—Mary Shelley.