Mary Sharratt's debut novel, Summit Avenue, won critical acclaim and was a Book Sense 76 Pick. In The Real Minerva, which Houghton Mifflin will publish in September, Sharratt evokes the Minnesota of the 1920s a world of hard lives, easy violence, and small, everyday beauty for a story of reinvention and the remarkable circumstances that can reshape the most unpromising lives.
The Real Minerva introduces us to three exceptional women, each unconventional for her time. Cora Egan, a Chicago society matron, has fled her abusive marriage to raise her child alone on the family farm outside Minerva, Minnesota. Young Penny Niebeck, scorned in town as the daughter of a woman with a mysterious past and dubious present, finds a new life of possibilities when she runs away to work for Cora. Penny's mother, Barbara Niebeck, whose deepening affair with her employer causes the rift with her daughter, is shaped and held down by the rules of the world around her.
Cora, Penny, and Barbara share a determination to overcome the constraints and hypocritical repression of Minerva and a strength born of facing down everyday adversity. When the reappearance of Cora's estranged husband threatens their survival, that strength is called upon in a dramatic and shocking fashion. Stunningly detailed, suspensefully plotted, and emotionally engrossing, The Real Minerva is a remarkable read.
Mary Sharratt has taught at the Loft Literary Center in St. Paul and gives workshops around the country on the subject of women and fairy tales. A native of Minnesota, Sharratt drew on her mother's and grandmother's stories of farm life in the early twentieth century for The Real Minerva, her second novel. Sharratt currently lives in England.
A Conversation with Mary Sharratt
What inspired you to write The Real Minerva?
The germ of the story began bubbling up inside me while I was camping in Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia nearly ten years ago. It seemed impossible not to create a story about a character who had been born in that raw, wild landscape. This was how Cora Van den Maagdenbergh came into being. The initial burst of inspiration culminated in a short story, yet even after it was published in a literary journal, the characters wouldn't stop haunting me. The reason was that I wasn't finished with them, or rather, they weren't finished with me. I decided to develop the story into a full-length novel.
Around this time I became intrigued by the idea of the female outlaw and wasn't aware of any novels that dealt with the subject. Contemporary films exploring "outlaw women," such as Monster, Thelma and Louise, and Baise-moi, are depressing, defeatist stories with tragic endings. They almost appear to serve as cautionary tales warning women what will happen to them if they step out of line. In most of popular culture, rebel women end up dead. The opposite extreme is "chick lit," which seems to find humor in presenting women as neurotic, insecure Bridget Jones parodies.
As a reader and a writer, I am tired of victim/chick lit; I don't want to see women either dead or trivialized. I chose the form of a historical novel, set in the 1920s, to present three heroines struggling against the kind of overwhelming social strictures that many of us today would have a hard time imagining. I wanted to write a book about strong women that packed the same punch as Thelma and Louise, except one that had a positive message behind it and a believable happy ending. In short, I wanted to write about women who fight for their independence against all odds . . . and win.
The Real Minerva poses the question: Can you leave your past behind and become someone wholly different? What if you are a woman living on the fringe of society in a repressive small town? I wanted to take the great 1920s myth of the self-made man and recast it through a female lens. How could my three heroines attempt to reinvent themselves?
How did you research the book?
I started by reading two great novels of the era: F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the seminal novel about the self-made man, and Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, the classic portrait of a small Minnesota town and its secrets. Then I turned to researching Emile Coué, the first self-improvement guru of the twentieth century and the man who coined the phrase "Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better."
In portraying rural life in this period, Steven R. Hoffbeck's The Haymakers, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, was very helpful. Mostly, however, I drew on my mother's and grandmother's stories of farm life in the early twentieth century. My mother recounted in graphic detail how my grandmother used to butcher chickens and then wash them with Dreft soap.
Old photographs helped shine some light on a lost era. The Minnesota Historical Society's photographic archive is a goldmine. A photo of a small-town creamery and sodapop factory, housed in a former brewery, became the model for Laurence Hamilton's business. I also found great photographs of twenties farm machinery and of migrant farm workers riding across the country on the tops of boxcars.
A friend taught me how to load and shoot a Winchester rifle. I also visited a lot of antiques shops, because I like to see and touch exactly the sort of physical objects my characters would have around them.
Where did the characters come from?
The characters are wholly imagined. I have never been interested in writing autobiographical fiction; I'd rather invent an "other world" that I can step into at will. That's the magic of writing for me. As a character in Margaret Atwood's novel Lady Oracle once said, fiction provides as much of an escape for the writer as for the reader.
Is Minerva a real place?
No. Like the characters, it is imaginary. However, it was influenced to a large degree by the town of Glencoe, Minnesota, where my grandmother lived. Cora's farm is based on my childhood memories of my aunt's farm. As a kid, I used to climb in the hayloft of the big red barn. I followed the horses around the pasture, played in the woodlot, and collected eggs. The rural world always seemed so close, my mother being the first in her family to leave the country and move to the city.
Myth plays a large part in your fiction. Why did you decide to interweave Homer's Odyssey with the narrative in The Real Minerva?
My fiction, to a large degree, is a homage to the power of stories, myths, fairy tales, and great books. The Odyssey is one of the greatest stories ever told and one that has endured for nearly three thousand years. There's a sense of the weight of eternity in it.
I have always loved myth and folklore. My previous novel, Summit Avenue, explored my immigrant heroine's coming of age through the prism of fairy tales. In The Real Minerva, I turned to Greek myths. I wanted to retell the classic hero's journey from a female perspective. What shape does the journey take if the hero is a woman?
Where would Penny, a small-town girl with an eighth-grade education, learn about great heroines? What role models existed for girls like her? When she gets her hands on a copy of the Odyssey, her whole world changes. Suddenly she's living her life on a larger canvas. She realizes she can wed her dreams to the figure of Athena/Minerva, who gave her town its name. This is the goddess of the intellect, of civilization and learning, yet she is also a warrior. She emboldens Penny to stick up for herself, fight for her rights. Penny also learns the secret power of her own name as she comes to unravel the real significance of Homer's Penelope and her weaving and remembering.
Why did you start writing fiction?
I didn't choose writing. It chose me. I have always had a story playing somewhere in the back of my head.
I started writing fiction seriously when I was living in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1988. I had gone over to teach English at a Catholic girls' boarding school as part of the American-Austrian Fulbright Program. I didn't have a television and soon ran out of books to read. For relaxation after work, I started writing a story that had been lingering in my imagination for quite some time. This was the first draft of what would become my first novel, Summit Avenue.
My novel-writing habit began as a luxury, an escape, a secret indulgence. In Austria, I was living in a rented room where the heating didn't work properly. There was mildew on the walls. I wrote in the empty evenings, in longhand, in a spiral notebook, sitting in bed with the down comforter drawn up against the cold. In the next room, my housemates' television blared. Writing was my sanctuary. I experienced the act of writing as a very real enchantment I could step into at will, in which my outer life and mundane problems fell away.
What do you like to read?
I admire novels that balance style with substance, that feature powerful storytelling, a deeply rendered sense of place, and unforgettable characters. I love Willa Cather, E. M. Forster, Isabel Allende, James Baldwin, Louise Erdrich, Gabriel García Márquez, Alice Munro, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. John Crowley's magical family saga Little, Big is one of my all-time favorites. Self-important literary novels that try to get by on style alone don't satisfy me.
What's next? Do you have another novel in progress?
I have just finished my third book, The Vanishing Point, a literary novel of suspense set in colonial America. It is a sleight-of-hand story of love and betrayal, and of two sisters, one lost and the other searching. Imagine Margaret Atwood meeting Daphne du Maurier in the Maryland wilderness. This is a complete departure from my previous work. There are no Minnesota references in sight!