Mason Marshall: Let’s begin with some personal information.
Dee Mann: Let’s not.
DM: [Laughs] I’m a very private person, as you well know. I’ve never felt the need or desire to be famous. I can’t imagine what drives people to go on talk shows and reality shows and bare their whole lives to the world.
MM: Then how about just a little background information.
DM: Okay. I was born and raised in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. I’ve spent most of my life in the area. I’m married and have two grown children.
As I said, I’m a very private person. I would much rather sit and talk with a friend over a cup of tea or a glass of wine than attend a big party. I enjoy writing, of course, movies, reading, cooking unusual dishes, and trying new wines. How’s that?
MM: It will have to do. When did you first start writing?
DM: Hmm. The first piece of fiction I wrote was for high school sophomore English. It was a terrible science fiction short story about aliens coming to Earth. I’m sure the teacher had to hold her nose to give me a “C” for it.
MM: [Laughs] What about reading? Are you still into SciFi?
DM: Not like I used to be when I was younger. I still reread some of the old Heinlein, Asimov, and Niven novels I have, but these days I read a lot of romance, the occasional mystery, and even some non-fiction.
MM: What was the last non-fiction book you read?
DM: Inside the Plex. It’s subtitled How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives and I found it fascinating. But…not that I want to tell you your job, but do you think the people who’ll read this really care what I think about Google?
MM: [Laughs] Probably not. Let’s move on to your first book. In the prologue to Coffee in Common, you hint that it might be based on a true story. Is it?
DM: [Smiles] Everyone asks that question and gets the same answer. You’ll have to decide for yourself.
MM: There are five main characters and a bunch of minor characters in the story. Which ones did you like most?
DM: All of them! By the time the book was done, they all felt like friends. And like real friends, they’re all different. Except for the jerk who shows up during Jillian’s and Paul’s first date, I’d have them all over for dinner anytime.
MM: Speaking of their first date, you devote the entire first half of the book to them meeting and getting to that first date. Why so much?
DM: Truth be told, the book began as a story called “The Date.” It was really a novella that ended after Paul brings Jillian home. But everyone who read the story, to proof or just so I could get their thoughts, said some version of the same thing — “What happens to all of them?” That’s why there’s two parts to the book. Looking back, I probably should have re-written the whole thing to blend the parts, but the response has been mostly positive as it is.
MM: Speaking of response to it, judging from the Amazon reviews, it seems readers either love it or hate it. No middle ground. Any thoughts on why?
DM: I think people are expecting the usual kind of romance where there is lots of descriptive narrative with the occasional bits of conversation between characters. I don’t write like that, though. When I’m writing, I sort of see the story playing out in my head, like a movie, and all I’m doing is transcribing the dialogue and action.
Most romance is pure fantasy, like the billionaire who can’t resist the ordinary woman who can’t resist him even though they hate each other. There must be thousands of books out there that use that template and that’s fine. Lots of readers love it. But I’m not into that particular kind of fantasy. I find reality much more interesting so I try to make my stories feel as real as possible to the reader.
If you look at the Amazon reviews, one person was bored by it, one went into great detail about why she didn’t like it, and six others enjoyed or loved it. That second person, I have to wonder if she read the book or skimmed it. As I recall, she mentions Paul’s “change of heart” near the end, but Paul never had a change of heart. And though she claims to hate writing negative reviews, the last time I checked, she’d only written the one for Coffee in Common. Makes me wonder. In any event, the other reviewers got it, so I’m not worried about the two who didn’t like it. You can’t please all the people all the time.
MM: Okay, then. Moving on…
DM: Sorry, one more thing about reviews. I don’t have an exact number, but several thousand people have read Coffee in Common, yet only eight have written reviews. I really wish more would do so. Reviews, even bad ones, can be very helpful to authors. We write for our readers, and what they have to say is important to us and can make a difference in the way future books are written.
If the people who wrote those four- and five-star reviews had left different reviews complaining about too much dialogue, Plain Shane would have, by necessity, been a different book, more in line with the mainstream cheese in the genre, though, hopefully, better. But those folks let me know that there are people out there who like slice-of-life stories, who want characters with depth who tell the story, and who live ordinary lives and still manage to find love. Please, if you’re reading this and decide to try one of my books, please take a few minutes when you’re done to write a review. What you have to say really is important to me.
Okay, now we can move on.
MM: Thanks. In the acknowledgments for Plain Shane, you thank four people, then go on to thank M. and S. saying they know why. M. and S. as in Mark and Shane? Care to share who M. and S. are?
MM: Apparently not. You do understand the whole idea of an interview is to answer questions? Maybe you should be a mystery writer.
DM: [Laughs] Maybe so. Lots of people like them.
MM: Are the characters in your novels based on real people?
DM: Yes and no. They tend to be amalgams. Paul, for example, from Coffee in Common. His physical and personality traits come from several people I know, or knew, including one from my childhood. On the other hand, Paula, from the short story Moving On, came totally from my imagination as I wrote the story.
MM: Speaking of short stories, you included seven in the Beginnings collection and they’re all so different. Two of them are darkish, not at all what one would expect from a collection of romantic beginnings. Where did those stories and characters come from?
DM: That’s an excellent question to which I’m not sure I have a good answer. Sometimes, they start as a name. Sometimes, I decide to write about something, and the characters naturally appear. Other times, it could be a word or a phrase that gets me going on a story. Coffee Girl began that way, The title popped into my head as I was making coffee one morning. When I sat down at the keyboard later on, Keri was the name that came to me. As I started writing, she told me about herself.
[Laughs] I can tell from your expression you think that’s a little strange.
MM: Well, it does sound odd. The characters, even if they are based on people you know, come from your imagination, don’t they?
DM: They do, of course. I’m not sure how to explain it. It’s like my imagination is disconnected from my consciousness. When I write, I’m not generally thinking, ‘Okay, what will happen next? What will this character say or do.’ The characters decide where the story is going. I’m continually surprised as I’m writing. But sometimes, they can’t decide where to go next. That’s what happened earlier this year during a period of about a month as I was writing Plain Shane. So I took a break and wrote the seven stories in Beginnings.
MM: Getting back to the two dark ones I mentioned before, The Highway Man and Moving On are unusual additions to a collection of romantic beginnings. Why did you write them?
DM: I was experimenting with all those short stories. You may have noticed my two novels are very heavy on dialogue. My idea for the short stories was to work on telling stories primarily through exposition. As you saw, I wasn’t entirely successful. I think I may have to accept that my stories are always going to be dialogue-heavy.
MM: That may not be a bad thing. You do have a gift for natural-sounding dialogue.
DM: Thank you! I’ve always been a fan of character-driven movies with lots of good, sharp dialogue so I suppose it was natural for me to write that way. Several people have told me reading Coffee in Common and Plain Shane were like reading a movie. That pleased me to no end. One person said when she was done with Coffee in Common, it felt like she was leaving behind friends. Honestly, that made it all worthwhile for me, because as I write, the characters do begin to feel like friends to me as I mentioned earlier. That they could affect someone else that way tells me I did a good job developing them. [Laughs] Or they did a good job developing themselves.
MM: Either way, the dialogue comes from your imagination. How do you manage to make it sound so real?
DM: I listen to people. When I’m out in a restaurant or waiting in a checkout line, wherever, I watch and listen to the people around me; what they say, how they say it. I’ve been a people-watcher from as far back as I can remember, so I guess it all gets filed away in my head and even though I can’t remember it directly, my imagination taps into it.
MM: So why did you include those two dark stories in the collection.
DM: [Laughs] I never answered that, did I? As I said, because I was experimenting. All love doesn’t begin with smiles and roses. People meet all sorts of ways and I wanted the stories to reflect that. I wanted to try letting readers see that even bad things can have happy endings.
MM: Are those two your favorites in the collection?
DM: No. My favorite is the shortest one, The Duck Pond, which is a real place in Winchester [Massachusetts] I used to take my kids to when they were small. Writing it brought back lots of really happy memories of those days. Coffee Girl and All Dressed Up are tied for second.
MM: Where did the inspiration for Plain Shane and the Shane character come from?
DM: [Laughs] I’m not sure you’ll believe me.
MM: Try me.
DM: Well…do you remember The L Word? I watched it a few times when it was first on because I was curious and got hooked. One of the characters was named Shane. She was thin and sort of butch, you know, and I thought the writers naming her that was clever, since the only Shane I’d ever heard of was the mysterious gunman from the old novel they made us read in high school. The character in the book was tough and determined and so was the character in The L Word. She was also wild and promiscuous and didn’t give damn what anyone thought of her or how she lived and quickly became one of my favorite characters on the show.
After Coffee in Common was published, I decided I wanted my next book to take place primarily in Medford, though I had no idea who or what it would be about. One day, I was in the library, and behind the counter was someone new, a young woman probably from some college doing an internship or something, and I got the idea of the library being the place where two people would meet cute, as they say. So I kicked the idea around in my head for a couple of days.
The lead character I came to envision was early twenties, mid-height, boyishly thin, very plain, and terminally shy around guys. I was out walking the next day when the opening scene came to me, of her standing in front of a mirror lamenting how plain and boyish she looked. I thought the scene might make a good book cover and began to think about possible titles when I remembered Shane from The L Word and, bingo, Plain Shane. I liked that it rhymed, but I also liked that besides the physical similarities, the TV Shane was such a strong character. I wanted my character to overcome her shyness and transform herself from a mouse into a strong woman.
Was that more than you wanted to know? [Laughs]
MM: No, that’s good. I remember the show and the character and can see how it all came together for you. What about the other characters in the book? Where did they come from?
DM: [Taps head] From here, obviously, but they just appeared when it was time. When the front door to the library slid open that first day, I didn’t know who was walking through or his name or what he looked like or anything about him until it happened. [Laughs] Again with the strange look.
MM: Well, many writers, most, probably, at least outline their plots before they begin writing, if for no other reason than to know where they’re going as the story advances.
DM: I know. I’ve tried that a few times but got nowhere with it. I enjoy writing. It really is fun for me. And a lot of the fun is discovering where the story goes and who the characters really are. If the whole thing was plotted out in advance, the writing would become work to make it fit the outline. I work hard enough at my job. I write to relax and have fun.
MM: In both your novels, chapters are days and the days are broken down into time segments. Why do you use that device to tell the story?
DM: Originally, it was to help me keep track of what was going on. Then, as I was reading through the first few days of Coffee in Common, I realized that knowing when things happened during the days made me feel like the proverbial fly on the wall. And I thought it might help readers to feel that way, too, as if they were watching, or reading about, real things as they happen.
MM: You sound like you’re a reality junkie.
DM: [Laughs] I guess I am. I like reality. The movies I most enjoy are those where the characters and situations feel real, even if they do have a touch of fantasy tossed in.
DM: Love, Actually, Music and Lyrics, Before Sunrise, About a Boy, When Harry Met Sally. Oh, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. There are lots of really good movies with characters who feel real, even though there may be an element of fantasy involved.
MM: Do you see yourself writing more mainstream stuff in the genre?
DM: You mean like Dirk Savage rescues the beautiful Amanda from being forced into a loveless marriage to the scheming Perfidious Black, who wants her only to get his slimy hands on the millions in cash and property she doesn’t know are rightfully hers thanks to a long-lost aunt who died?
MM: That may be a bit too cliché, but toned down a bit, yes.
DM: Probably not. I know lots of people enjoy such stories, but Dirk and his ilk are a bit too much on the fantasy side for me.
MM: Isn’t Mark, in Plain Shane, a fantasy character?
DM: Not at all. Yes, he’s handsome and well-off, but he’s also a little pudgy around the waist and flawed, or maybe emotionally scarred is a better word. Both Shane and Mark are scarred by their pasts, in different ways, to be sure, but it’s those scars that make them interesting, at least to me. People are not perfect beings. I like to celebrate the imperfections and show that true love can happen to anyone, to everyone, even people with warts. That’s why I especially like My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The ordinary girl gets the cute, but otherwise regular guy.
MM: Have you begun your next book?
MM: Care to give us a preview?
DM: [Laughs] I can’t give much of one. The working title is the name of a character, Jenny, but that will probably change. Right now, she’s on a bus headed to Boston along with another character, Rob, who she met in the station while waiting for the bus. They’ve spent most of the ride so far talking. No surprise there, huh?
MM: [Laughs] No surprise at all. Well, thank you for taking the time for this.
DM: It was my pleasure.
DM: [Laughs] How well you know me. Okay, not exactly a pleasure, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and I’m happy for the opportunity to let readers know a little about me and the books and how I write them.
MM: Does that mean you’ll sit for another interview when your next book is released?
DM: [Smiles] Remember how people like mysteries…?