Family drama offers rich material for a novel—not to mention a lifetime of bittersweet anecdotes. Marissa Stapley’s first novel, Mating For Life (Washington Square Press, $19) makes hay out of that eternal source material, focusing on the relationship between free-loving matriarch Helen Sear, and her three very different daughters.
But for Stapley, a 35-year-old former journalist, the high drama wasn’t just confined to her novel. Getting published presented its own nail-biting moments, too.
“I sold a novel in 2010, called Saving the World in Sensible Shoes,” she says. “It was about an environmental justice lawyer—it was like Bridget Jones goes to the Arctic!” Then, disaster struck. A few months before the book was to come out, her publisher went bankrupt.
That story never made it to print, even after a YA rewrite. But four years later (and with another manuscript collecting dust in a drawer—“it had some interesting ideas, but it wasn’t good enough to get published”) Stapley is enjoying the payoff of perseverance with Mating for Life.
She spoke to FLARE about the prickly path to publication, the fraught nature of intimacy and what she really thinks about “women’s fiction.”
You started out as a journalist. What was your beat? I was trying to make a living as a freelancer so I would take anything. What I wound up liking the most was feature writing for magazines.
Any takeaways from journalism that helped you as a fiction writer? That I need to have a deadline in order to finish something! So I always give myself deadlines with drafts. I find the editors I work with now are really impressed by this.
Mating for Life started as a series of short stories. How long did you work on them? About two years, and then once I spoke to my agent, I took another year.
The novel focuses on a family of women in the thick of adulthood—getting married, getting divorced, dealing with infidelity and raising kids. What is it about all of this that interested you? When I started writing the book, I had come to a place in my life where, on one hand, I felt that I had this dream [of being an author] that had died, but on the other hand I had two children, I lived in a nice neighbourhood, I had a great husband and good friends. Yet I was still feeling dissatisfied because of the [failed] book thing. I looked around me and saw that nobody’s life was simple. Everybody was struggling with different things. There’s a lot of divorce in my family—my parents, aunts, uncles—and I suddenly noticed that everyone around me was working on their relationships. It wasn’t like the ’70s where people were like ‘I’m going to get a divorce because I can.’
Your book will undoubtedly be classified as “women’s fiction.” How do you feel about that? I’m fine with my writing being called women’s fiction but there is sometimes this dismissive tone that I don’t like. Jennifer Weiner has been very vocal about the fact that chick lit doesn’t get reviewed as widely and that it sends a message to women that what they’re reading doesn’t matter—I really fight against that. I think what women read matters so much. Women are keeping the publishing industry afloat!
A fair chunk of Mating for Life is set in Muskoka. Does that place have special meaning for you? Definitely, yeah. A lot of my childhood was spent there. We never owned a cottage, but my dad would rent one and take us every year. It’s a magical place. Now that we have our own kids we rent a cottage there every July, which is actually where I came up with a lot of the ideas [that are in the novel]…even just looking at a loon on the lake and thinking, Wow, loons mate for life, and then learning the real story, which is that they don’t! Loons are super-territorial and though they’re always in male-female pairs, the male has usually fought another male to death and then taken the female from him.
Wow. There goes that romantic notion. It’s not easy to stay in a relationship. Even these beautiful stories that we tell ourselves about animals are not true.