Today I have the honour of having a woman who has “fought the good fight” on behalf of all women out there. She was an instrumental part of the 1970’s Women’s Movement and helped get the first Woman Senator elected to her seat. She is woman who has worn many hats in her lifetime, amongst these being a lawyer at a time when women were rarely seen in court and when they were they tended to raise eyebrows. She still wears many hats and like all women seems to thrive on being the Multi-Tasker juggling many different balls in the air. Sit down with me while I chat to a woman who knows the true value and meaning of the term “Sisterhood” and what it took to give the Modern Woman her equal voice. Be prepared to want to ask many more questions of my fascinating and courageous guest…
I introduce Mary Lou Cassotto – a true Survivor, a courageous “sister” and a warrior of words and ideals.
girl with a quill: Hi Mary Lou. Lovely to have you here in the Dragonfly Scrolls studio. Take a seat. Get comfortable. Can I offer you something to drink while we talk?
Mary Lou: My favourite drinks would be Chai tea in cooler months, apple martinis or mango ones in the warmer ones.
girl with a quill: Who is Mary Lou?
Mary Lou: Mary Lou is the person who has looked for the perfect job her entire life, one that would give her time to have a real life and a stimulating professional one at the same time. If you know what it is, please let ME know! She is a dreamer/realist who was once the shyest person in her class but now teaches Public Speaking on the college level when she is not teaching College Writing mostly to criminal investigation students. She loves cats, dogs, children, attending writing, reading and library conventions and meeting other writers.
girl with a quill: You have been a lawyer, teacher, librarian, drama coach. What role was most challenging?
Mary Lou: You forgot to add that I worked as a counselor as well for a while! (My apologies..) I’d have to say the most challenging role had to be the one of being a lawyer, although each job had its challenges. When I practiced law in 1975, I was often the only woman in the courtroom. I think there were just three or four of us at that time in the state capital where I worked. A lot of men did not think we women should be in the courtroom, as well as most of the women. I am sure that has all changed now, although the lack of creativity one is allowed to express in the courtroom, I doubt, has changed.
(Now I can definitely see a compelling story here..)
Writing now has its challenges as well. Although I have taught writing in college, high school and junior high school for more than twenty years, the kind of writing I was taught in school and that I teach, is totally different from the kind one needs to know about to be a good creative writer. Writers today definitely are not following the formats of the classical authors. There is no time for readers to spend focusing on and absorbing the literature of the past. The writing craft is changing constantly, and I am continually learning.
girl with a quill: When did you decide to become a writer and how long have you been writing?
The only things I ever really wanted to be in my life were a writer and an artist, ever since grammar school. Being able to do those things seemed to me only for those born with talent, or the very brave. I was OK at those two disciplines, but to survive I took the safer route, I became an English and Art teacher, and a librarian.
I realized at age seven that the only way to have a lasting influence on the world was to paint or write, so I began then to write my first novel. I don’t remember, but I think my book was about a princess; I wanted to be one of those too! I read every fairy tale book there was in my public library as well as studied painting in the turrets there with professional artists. My mother worked part time to fund my art courses. The library was my bridge to a larger world. My mother hadn’t completed high school, my aunts never made it out of grade school; one of my grandmothers signed her name with an X, so you can see how much of an effect the library had on me. I wish I knew where that first book was.
(The young Mary Lou was wise beyond her years it may seem in reflection. How astute an observation! Yes the power of art and creativity can not only influence the world but change it. It is a path that is not a job but a calling.)
In the 1970’s, I later tried to write a play about the women’s movement. I had helped put together most of the women’s groups in my state; I and six friends worked on legislation, hired the first woman lobbyist, groomed women to run for public office and sponsored them. I flew down to Texas to obtain funds to help run the first woman for the state Senate. I also was instrumental in establishing the Permanent Commission of the Status of Women, sat on the first Board of Directors, was the first woman chair in my town of the Economic Development Commission, as well as the first day care and battered wives shelter. The play was about the women in my groups, my “sisters” we called ourselves, and how different we all were. Many of the women had switched sexual orientation after finding no support in their efforts at authentication. We often disagreed, because I wanted to find a way of reconciling the “old ways” with the new. I had been raised strict Catholic and was married. The play was called, “Where Do We Go from Here?” Unfortunately, I never finished it. It was written when Wendy Wasserstein first wrote.
Then in 2009, NaNoWriMo came into my life and the rest is history. While everyone else worked on their novel, I tried writing a memoir about the true story of the women’s movement in my state. I wanted others to know the costs some women had to pay in order for other women to have their rights. After three attempts I gave up non-fiction, and switched to YA fiction. As I had worked with young people as a public defender for juveniles and as a teacher, it was a logical choice.
girl with a quill: In most jobs, we all have a water cooler area where we gather around the water cooler or automatic coffee machine and discuss the office news and gossip. Do you have a Water Cooler group?
Mary Lou: Without a doubt, my main Water Cooler group is the Warrior Chat group begun by Lia Keyes, who has been very active in the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I am absolutely addicted to the group and have learned so much about writing craft and the changes in the publishing industry from them. The members feel like “best friends” and I especially love commiserating with my Brit sisters from England, Australia, New Zealand, and my other European sisters from Holland and from Spain. My background, because of the times I grew up in, the literature I read, and my major in college, make me think more British than American. Communicating with the group is like coming home.
I also belong to two SCBWI picture groups, and a YA group that meets near New York City. Each group is so different.
girl with a quill: Who has been the greatest influence on your life and your writing?
Mary Lou: Gladys Taber, the woman who compiled the Stillmeadow books from her magazine articles in the 1960’s in Family Circle magazine, has had the most effect on my life, overall. She is my favorite author, and like me attended an all women’s college. She then went on to teach writing at Columbia, and like myself, became disenchanted with the city, so she and her best friend from college bought a little house in Southbury, Connecticut, where they raised prize-winning cocker spaniels and where she supported herself and the rest of their families, by writing cooking and gardening books as well as self-reflective books about the changing of the seasons. She was my hope and life line in my times of greatest despair. Like me, she wound up being separated from her husband, and how she continued to make herself happy has always been of the utmost inspiration to me.
I have also belonged to a couple of Jane Austen fan clubs, visited the homes of various women authors and male painters, and studied the Bronte sisters’ life in depth. Concord, Massachusetts, the home of Louisa May Alcott is one of my favorite places as is Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the home of Daniel Chester French, who sculpted the Lincoln Memorial. Literally, I decided to study and teach art and literature after visiting Alcott’s and French’s homes.
girl with a quill: If your life was a novel, what kind of novel would it be and what would be the story arc?
Mary Lou: My life would be a realistic YA novel as well as an inspirational one, because I have had to overcome many obstacles in my life, including being the first woman in my family to attend college, and the first woman in my town to attend law school. My being divorced after a long marriage and being a single mom also presented severe challenges.
(Those are some astounding “firsts”. You truly embody chasing after a dream!)
girl with a quill: Describe your writing space.
Mary Lou: Well, years ago I bought a table like the one Hemingway wrote on in Key West, but I write in the same place I used to write as a little girl, in my bed, with my electric blanket turned up full blast even in April, and with my dogs Cutie and Tia, and my cat Snowflake, by my side. There has to be a pine, lavender or grass scented candle wafting in the distance, complete silence, and a large block of time. I don’t know how others can write at their kids’ soccer practice! I also need my story outline and character motivation sheets at my side. Snow days are a God send.
(Wow…I am envious: A table like Ernest Hemingway..I am also a bed-writer. You have to love the invention of the laptop computer.)
girl with a quill: From the moment when you first get the inkling of a story, what is your writing process.
Mary Lou: I am afraid my writing process is not all that magical. Don’t tell anyone, but after all these years, I first start with a theme or lesson in mind, and create a main character who is a younger version of myself. I then write out a plot outline. Even though I am a writing teacher, making one of these has also been a recent requirement of mine, including indications of where quotations, recurring symbols and crises will occur. I also fill out painstakingly long character motivation sheets. I do not find using these constraining, but liberating; they free me to just focus on dialogue and the details.
If I have any muses, they are my pets, who continue to love me, even when I am too tired to walk them. Their antics also give me ideas for my picture books.
girl with a quill: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Mary Lou: During NaNoWriMo, I was a pantser, but I have found that plotting is the best way to write. I jot down the skeleton of my story first, and over a period of a few weeks I tweak it. Then usually, without trying, the details, like dialogue, come to me in my sleep at night. I am usually thinking about what should happen in the next few chapters when I am writing, and I keep a notebook near my bed to record whatever ideas inevitably wake me up at 3AM.
girl with a quill: What genre are you writing in now? What genre would you choose to write in?
Presently, I am really focusing on a YA realistic novel, but I also am writing first drafts of picture books about the adventures of my pets. Next, I have a great idea for a YA historical novel about the times of Mary Lincoln, a comic boy-girl YA book based on a girl’s experience with her history teacher mother and her mother’s love for Winston Churchill, and a paranormal sequel to Jane Eyre.
(Sounds fascinating…Get writing on the new idea..sounds like a keeper.)
girl with a quill: I hear that you are challenging yourself by writing in three different categories right now. Tell us about the three genres you are writing in right now.
Mary Lou: I am afraid I gave up trying to write a memoir a long time ago, but instead decided to make a fictional character in my YA realistic fiction book that like myself was very active in the women’s movement.
My YA book began with a quote from Louisa May Alcott and a trip to Concord, Massachusetts. It was heavily influenced by some heroic girls I once met who decided to carry their unplanned pregnancies to full term and put them up for adoption. My novel is about a young girl putting her baby up for adoption. I wanted to say that girls have choices if they find themselves pregnant. I know how hard it was to be a single parent, yet being a mother was my favorite job. I think babies are a treasure and that there is more than one way to deal with babies if a girl finds herself in a situation of becoming a mother before she is ready to.
Anyone who knows me knows I am a bit eccentric about my dogs. We do all crazy things together, go to dog costume events, dog Easter egg hunts; we even belong to Dog Scouts of America and do reading therapy work for our badges. My picture books are about them and my “good cat Snowflake” to borrow an appellation from my favorite early chapter book author, Cynthia Ryland.
girl with a quill: Is it a challenge to write three different stories for three different markets? Which category was the most challenging, and why?
Mary Lou: It is very challenging to write in three genres both because each one is so different and because of time constraints. When I teach college expository writing, there is a different story structure for process, cause and effect, classification, and comparison and contrast essays, for instance. The same is true for the genres. One has to look at samples of each category to see the difference and study the differences in how the stories open up and hang together.
Although I focus on my realistic YA novel, I belong to two picture book critique groups and write first drafts of picture books, because I want to write books about my pets while they are still alive, and not later when sadness might enter my stories.
As I said, I have given up writing a memoir for now. I am afraid that my story just wouldn’t be sensational enough in today’s competitive market with all the celebrity stories out there. I also had difficulty figuring out how to present my story in a novel engaging way. Russell Baker chose to write about himself by focusing on how the three women in his life, his mother, mother-in-law and wife effected him. I tried this but it wasn’t exciting enough.
(I don’t know about “not sensational enough”…I am sure you were at the heart of a lot of sensational dramas in those times. Your story is a real story and I think that many people would prefer to read about a story that they can relate to than one based in Hollywood…I know I would.)
girl with a quill: If you found a genie in a lamp and could have a wish granted to be a character in you own book or in another author’s, what character would you choose?
Mary Lou: That is not a difficult choice at all. I would be the newly divorced female character, or maybe not so newly divorced when her feelings were so raw, in Under the Tuscan Sun. My divorce impacted me much as it did that author, but she got to live it out by buying a home in Italy. Wouldn’t that be every divorced woman’s dream?
(Great Choice! I think that would be any woman’s dream….loved Under the Tuscan Sun.)
girl with a quill:What is more important to you, plot or character, and why?
Mary Lou: I’d have to say they are both important. We live in an action packed world today, and there definitely is no story without conflict, but characters are what make stories timeless and universal. I have read many stories about the Civil War, but what would Gone with the Wind be without Scarlett O’Hara. Setting is important too, but what would the moors be without Heathcliff? People read stories to understand human nature.
girl with a quill: Who is your favorite character in your own writing? Why?
Mary Lou: My favorite character would have to be Emma, the new friend my main character meets after she has been set up by the popularity hungry girls she has been friends with since grade school. Emma is half-American Jew, half-Brit. Both of her parents are English teachers and the family loves the classics. Emma is the perfect friend anyone would ever want to have. I named her Emma after my adorable five-year old grand-niece, but then, of course, there is Jane Austen’s Emma. I unconsciously modeled her a little after two older “adopted big sisters” I had that were Jewish, and my best friend from college who was an atypical army brat who spent her formative years in England. We shared the same interests, but then she went off to be a nun and work with AID’s patients in Haiti. She died at 53 of cancer. I miss her, but made her come alive in my book.
girl with a quill: Who is your favorite character in the literary world? Why?
Mary Lou: This is difficult to answer, because there are so many: Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre, Hermann Hesse’s Demian. The first two had integrity and a will to endure. The latter shows a more vulnerable person another way of living and protects that person from bullies. I like Carrie Jone’s YA main characters a lot; they care about other people, maybe even more than themselves and have some of the same qualities as those classical characters.
girl with a quill: If I was throwing a dinner party and told you to invite five famous creative people or literary characters, whom would you invite and why?
Mary Lou: The answer to this might have been Van Gogh in my youth; I taught art and loved his work , or Michelangelo. It might even have been Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, or my favorite author, Gladys Taber. But lately, I’ve met other heroines who are extremely creative and talented. I’d rather invite the men and women I’ve met in my Facebook Warrior Chat group. They are so creative, so diverse and so supportive, and have lived such interesting lives. They’ve been international journalists, set designers, artists, directors, special education teachers, computer geeks. They have their pulses on the future.
Only thing, I want to meet in a warm place like Brisbane, Australia, where authors know how to party and where I can feed the kangaroos, and not in cold New England.
(I am sure Sheryl Gwyther would be tickled pink at the idea of us all showing up in her home town…mmmhhh maybe an idea is percolating…)
girl with a quill: What one piece of advice would you give yourself at the beginning of your writing career?
Mary Lou: I would say, “Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Life is what it is; don’t worry about what others think or say. Use your real voice.
girl with a quill: What one piece of advice will you give yourself as a writer at the end of the next ten years?
Mary Lou: I would tell myself, “Remember those distractions that kept you from writing all those years? The dogs being sick or having to walk them, having to keep a job to make a living, exercising, reading, visiting your friends? That was your real life.
To use all the clichés: ‘This isn’t a dress rehearsal; it’s the real thing, and you only go around once.’ You made memories; use them in your books. It’s all you really have.”
girl with a quill: What is the lasting legacy you would like to leave as a writer?
Mary Lou: I would like my books to reflect the value of the classics and knowledge of history, as well as the joys of my traditional simple life style. I would also like future young women to understand that the women in my generation valued “sisterhood” and that my generation paid a price to ensure the choices in theirs. That is enough.
girl with a quill: Where can we find you on the web?
Well Mary Lou it has indeed been an honour having you in my studio today. This is what I love about doing these “Warrior Wednesdays”: No matter how many times I run these interviews, I never tire of learning something new and being freshly inspired. I would also like to put forward my vote that you do write a memoir, whether it be in fiction or non-fiction format – just listening to you talk now has left me wanting to know more. Looking back at all you and many other women have accomplished that I may be able to hold my head high and have an equal voice leaves me humbled and filled with gratitude. You still have a lot to teach us younger women and I look forward to the stories you create. Thank you.
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