The Bookshelf: Novelist Joseph Monninger on Writing Romance and Publishing

Jul 7, 2017

Heather Mulgrew is a young woman with a plan. She’s going to work at Bank of America, make good money, and live in New York City. But first, she’s off to Europe for a last hurrah with her girlfriends before real life begins.

Then, the unexpected happens. She meets Jack on a train to Amsterdam and the attraction is undeniable. Jack’s free-spirit is a counterweight to Heather’s meticulousness. He’s traveling through Europe, following his grandfather’s footsteps with his grandfather’s journal as a guide, and Heather joins him on his quest. But Jack has a secret, one Heather will not discover until long after they fall in love.

That’s the premise of the brand new novel by Joseph Monninger, a writer living in Warren who teaches English at Plymouth State University. The book is called The Map That Leads to You, and Joseph Monninger discussed the work with NHPR’s Peter Biello. Listen  to the interview below or scroll down to read Monninger’s top five reading recommendations.

Joseph Monninger’s Top Five Reading Recommendations:

1.   The Man-eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett. “This is a really important book for me. If you’ve never read it, it’s a masterwork of hunting. He’s the real deal. He goes into Indian villages up in the mountains and hunts tigers that have actually begun killing human beings, and he goes by himself and it’s him against a tiger. As a young boy, that was catnip to me.”

2.   The Travis McGee mysteries by John D. MacDonald. “Stephen King has talked about this. Carl Hiaasen has talked about this. John D. MacDonald is one of the great, great mystery writers of all time. The Travis McGee things are a little dated in the sense that they refer to women in ways that we wouldn’t today, but it’s terrific writing, terrific stories, and they have a wonderful sense of place and character.”

3.   Pretty-shield: Medicine Woman of the Crows by Frank Linderman. “This is one of a collection of books that I teach put out by Bison Books. A guy named Frank Linderman went around and collected the oral histories of Native Americans right at the beginning of the 20th Century. So at the end of the whole prairie/horse culture. They’re terrific books. Pretty Shield is one and Plenty Coup is another.”

4.   The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers. “I love this book. It’s compressed. I love to teach it. Students have a difficult time with it because not a lot happens, yet everything happens. It’s the story of three people in a kitchen through a hot summer somewhere down south.”

5.   The Orchard by Adele Crocket Robertson. “It’s about a woman—actually, her daughter found her diary up in the attic. It’s really one of those stories, that trunk book, this glorious writing about a woman who, on her own, tried to maintain an orchard north of Boston through the Depression, and it’s just exquisite writing and great determination. A wonderful memoir.”

Tell me about these two characters. Who is Jack, who is Heather?

Heather is the principal character in the book. She’s a young woman who just graduated from Amherst College, she’s off with her friends doing what used to be called “the grand tour.” She’s traveling around Europe, following also literary breadcrumbs.

On a train to Amsterdam, she meets this guy named Jack. Jack, in counterbalance, is a Vermont guy, he used to live on a farm with his grandparents.

The chemistry that they have on the page is just remarkable. They’re joking with each other, they’re sparring intellectually. Jack is showing off his tail feathers, so to speak. How challenging was it for you, as a writer, to make that chemistry pop on the page?

Honestly, it’s difficult. I wrote one full draft of it and my editor, Peter Harris, took a look at it and said, you know this could be a little bit sharper, a little bit better. So I rewrote it a number of times.

Punching up their personalities in some way?

Yeah, one of the things I always tell my writing students is, we have to figure out who people are before we can write about them. In grad school they used to do a little thing where you give a person a hat, give a person a pair of glasses—what would they wear that’s in concert with their personality?

Is that where Heather’s planner came from, the high-end planner that she maps her whole life out in?

Yeah, it’s interesting, I had her wearing an Apple Watch, she was going to be a proponent of the Apple Watch. But then, maybe I’m wrong about this, but I don’t think it’s done quite as much as Apple had hoped for. So I gave her a fancy planner instead.

Jack sort of ribs her about that, because he’s this freewheeling spirit who would never use something like that.

No, and one of the things I find in my own life and that I attributed to Jack is that he doesn’t take a lot of pictures. He’s traveling around Europe, and several times Heather pauses and wants to take a photograph of something to record it.

He of course challenges her and says, why not just be here in this moment and experience what’s going on? That’s something I feel pretty strongly about as well.

Why is that?

It’s a funny thing. I lived in Africa for a number of years in the Peace Corps and working for USAID, and occasionally we’d see these remarkable things and rather than watch an elephant, for example, we’d put this thing up between us and the thing that we’ve traveled to see. Which is a very peculiar thing, so that we’ll look at it later I guess is the idea. I like pictures but it’s never been a thing I’m very comfortable with.

This is considered a romance, but it’s not what anybody would call a bodice-ripper kind of romance. Would you call it a literary romance?

I think it is a romance, I don’t think we have to dodge that, but then again Anna Karenina is a romance. A lot of different stories that we read are romances.

When you put two characters together, something has got to happen with them. If they just live harmoniously, it’s not a very interesting story. One of the funny things you see in film is when two people fall in love, you often have a montage. It’s a bunch of shots of them running across meadows and having picnics and all that, because being in love isn’t really that interesting. It’s the before and after that brings an impact.

And the management of time, because love doesn’t often happen instantly. You see it develop, and we see Jack and Heather develop over many chapters, measuring how they feel towards each other.

Right, and of course the last thing in the world either one really needs is to be with the other. She has a job to come back to in New York, a lucrative job that she’s worked hard to get. He has his own thing, which I can’t say because it’ll give away the whole book.

Let me ask you about meeting the way they met. They met by chance on a train on the way to Amsterdam. As I was reading that scene, I kept thinking that it must be increasingly rare that people meet by chance nowadays. Does that make it more romantic in some way?

Well, I don’t know about that. You make a good point, people do orchestrate their lives a lot more with texting and everything else. But I do believe people still bump into each other, it still can happen, and Heather, traveling across Europe, is open to romance. And by romance, I don’t mean she’s thinking about a guy or anything like that. She’s thinking about the romance of Paris, and cafes, and great literature, and great music. So she’s open to that sort of thing and Jack just happens to bump into her.

Tell us about the origins of this book. Where did this idea come from?

This is an interesting story. I was approached by Temple Hill Productions, a movie company. They’ve done things like The Fault in Our Stars, so they wanted to develop a book that they thought could have potential for a movie.

They approached us with a brief outline, and they said, what would you think about writing this? They gave me a timeline and said go ahead and give it a try. I submitted a bunch of pages and then we were all in accord that this was what we’re going to do.

Then I had periodic check-ins with them as we went along. It was a long process, took a couple of years, and we had a lot of cooks looking over my shoulder. But it came out, I think, pretty well.

What was it like for you, as a writer, to have so many people involved in the process?

Well, it’s interesting. I’ve been in this writing game for a long time, my first novel came out in the seventies. So I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s changed. The writing life has changed for anybody who’s doing it on at least a somewhat commercial basis.

Because there’s more money involved, because there’s people are putting money into these things, editors and publishing houses in general want to have more say in what a story is about. The purist writer can stand up and say no, I’m not going to do that, but that’s the rare person who gets to go his or her own way.

And that’s what’s changed since you started in the seventies?

Profoundly, completely changed. Everything from cover art—I mean, people always say, is it your cover? No. Is it your title? Not necessarily. A lot of these things are done by committee now and that, when I first started out, wasn’t the case.

In a story like this, are things like having two apparently well-off white people go to safe-for-travel countries and do x, y, and z, are those things that were decided for you?

Not quite that prescriptive, but certainly the elements of it are there. For example, they were very interested in having European sights to visit. At one point I felt like my story was a little too static, it hadn’t traveled enough, so the editors and people looking on said yeah, you should broaden it and spice it up a little, get more travel in there. They were right about that, as it turned out.

Are we moving, as a literary world, to a place where editors describe everything they want up front and writers deliver what they want?

Well, no. If you stop and think about it, you have in this day and age roughly a hundred and fifty thousand books published last year. You’ve got Netflix, you’ve got Amazon Prime, you’ve got television, you’ve got sports. You’ve got everything else. So to get some sort of notice for a story, to publish something in print and get a wide distribution, has become more and more difficult. The investment up front is greater too, so publishing houses of a commercial bent are having a different approach to this whole thing.

You teach at Plymouth State University. What do you tell your writing students before they enter this publishing world? What advice do you give them?

They’re at a different level. They’re just starting out and learning their craft. I would say read as much as you possibly can and write as much as you possibly can.

I also don’t want to go too far out on a limb of just saying commercial property is the only thing. I write a variety of books. I also write young adult literature, and that’s closer to my own control. It’s a slightly different set of muscles I suppose.

Which do you prefer?

I like both actually. I like writing, I’ve been writing a long time. I get up early, I try to write a thousand words a day, I’ve been doing it a long, long time, and I stay at it.