Playing the Long Game. An Interview with Marcia Butler.


Marcia BUTLER is that rarest of unicorns – a polymath accomplished and lauded across multiple fields in the arts. She’s a professional oboist performing for almost thirty years with many high-profile musicians and orchestras. She’s also an interior designer published in numerous magazines from New York to Miami and is a documentary filmmaker. Her film The Creative Imperative, which explores the essence of creativity, premiered at The New York Society Library in 2019 and is available on YouTube.


Marcia has taken the literary world by storm with her memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, two novels, Pickle’s Progress, and most recently Oslo, Maine. Her books are critically acclaimed by NPR, The Washington Post, and the National Book Review, to name a few. She’s given interviews with and has work in PANK, HuffPost, LitHub, and The Kenyon Review.


Marcia was kind enough to share some of her time with us. We wanted to learn more about her writing life and how she got to be so darned accomplished.


INTERVIEWER

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia! How did you come to the oboe to begin with? Was it one of those “Find an instrument” sort of things in middle school, and you just chose it on a whim, or did you come to it more intentionally?


BUTLER

Yes, yes, yes! The Brady Bunch is, by now, a persistent worm in my brain, so thank you for that! As was the custom in the 1960s, the music man came to our fourth-grade class in Pittsfield, Massachusetts to demonstrate three instruments: flute, clarinet, and trumpet. The flute appealed to me, and it was this teacher who taught me my first valuable lesson about learning to play an instrument. He said, “If you don’t practice, you won’t like it.” And for many reasons, I very much wanted to like the flute. Then came my initiation rite into junior high school band, where I was one of about twenty older and embarrassingly large-breasted flutists. Still quite undeveloped, I was not happy. But mostly, I didn’t much care for being part of a crowd scene.

At the end of our first band rehearsal, the teacher held up a thin black instrument which, from a distance, looked similar to the clarinet. He said, “I need one person to play this.” My hand shot up. Bingo. Later that day, I found out it was an oboe. He demonstrated by playing a haunting melody, the solo from the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony. I’d found my muse.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about how the discipline of being a top-performing musician has influenced you as a writer in your writing practice.


BUTLER

The music business, particularly in New York City, is demanding and stressful. I worked for almost thirty years as a freelancer. Though I had an immensely satisfying career, the pressure to be completely on top of my game at all times necessitated daily discipline. There is competition, of course. But more so, there’s an implicit understanding that when you walk onto the stage at Carnegie Hall, much is at stake. Your job is to render the music in a way that is in service to a great composer, which is both a daunting reality and humbling task. It was this imperative that drove my rigorous practice schedule. And early on, I learned that cramming to learn a piece of music in a day or two is never ideal. Rather, it’s much better when you incrementally chip away at the difficulty and explore nuance over a longer period of time. In this way, the music is more successfully fleshed out. I find this to be true with regard to writing as well. For instance, working every day, if only for a short period of time, will push you much deeper than three or four hours on a weekend. I consider my writing similar to a relationship; to achieve its greatest potential, it requires love and attention every day.


INTERVIEWER

When you first started as a writer, how did you build a community for yourself? Were there some minor miracles that happened along the way that kept you going?


BUTLER

I began writing later in life, and building community has been essential. I didn’t have formal MFA training, so initially, I took writing classes in New York City. Later I attended weeklong workshops, such as Aspen Summer Words and Tin House, where I established relationships with fellow participants that have lasted years. And many of the teachers I workshopped with supported me when I began to publish. Speaking of miracles, some even read my books and blurbed me! I am indebted to a literary community that has championed my work again and again. That generosity has been immensely inspiring, and I’ve tried to give back as much as I’ve received. That said, one needs to build a thick skin to survive emotionally in the publishing business because rejection, lots of it, is a given. I find the best antidote for a dose of bad news is to throw off the bed covers and keep writing.


INTERVIEWER

Talk to us about how you queried and how you landed your literary agent.


BUTLER

First, I wrote the best query letter I could, which is no easy feat. Remember that agents receive up to 100 queries a week, so that email must be exceptional. Then I went at it like a scientist. By perusing the Barnes and Noble shelves for books similar to mine, I assembled a long list of literary agents. (Authors always acknowledge agents.) Then I researched each one and culled the list to about forty. I spent a solid week writing emails to each agent, referencing the books that brought me to them specifically. The email needs to be personalized somehow; if it even remotely smells like a form letter, the agent will probably send it to the delete folder. It is vital to get all the queries out in a short period of time (three weeks max) because if you send them in dribs and drabs, you’ll be waiting FOREVER. (Note: an actual scream here.) Once they are floating in agent land, I recommend diving immediately into your next project. Or you might just go MENTAL.


INTERVIEWER

Tell us a little about what the process was like to write a memoir versus a novel?


BUTLER

I view them both as storytelling—one fact-based, one from my imagination. That may sound simplistic, and of course, there is nuance. But whether memoir or novel, all stories succeed with these common factors in play: pacing, propulsion, inciting incidents, character development, tension, relaxation, resolution, and a solid narrative arc. I believe I am, at heart, a fiction writer because when I began writing my first novel, I noticed a palpable sense of relief. Finally, I could relax and write a story I did not already know. Now, even writing personal essays makes me somewhat cranky!


INTERVIEWER

Can you share your experience of working with a big five publisher versus an indie?


BUTLER

I was very lucky to have published my memoir with Little, Brown. I received a sizable advance and worked with a rock star editor. They threw PR and marketing bells and whistles at me. And I was reviewed by big outlets, which put me on some sort of map as an author. In one breathtaking swoop, I learned a ton from this experience. But a novel is a much harder acquisition for a publishing house. Little, Brown passed on my first novel. I’ve now published both novels with a small indie press, Central Avenue Publishing. It’s proved a completely different experience, and in many ways, quite wonderful. I feel like I can call my publisher at any time to discuss all aspects of the process, which feels more like a partnership. The author is kept at an arms-length with a big house, and you feel like your book is committee-driven. My current publisher is dedicated, compassionate, super smart, and a highly strategic businesswoman. It’s been a very good fit for me.


INTERVIEWER

What is your daily writing life like now? What is your subsequent work going to look like?


BUTLER

After working like a Clydesdale for many years, I’ve gotten myself to a place in life where, if I live like a church mouse and my teeth don’t fall out, I can write full time. During an average week, I write for a couple of hours in the morning, go for a walk, eat lunch, and then return for about two hours in the afternoon. That is pretty much my mental limit for one day. At the moment, my WIP novel is a lukewarm mess (as it should be in the first draft), and as such, I’m loath to speak about it. Admittedly, I fear the jinx!


INTERVIEWER

Talk to us about doing a book tour in the current times...are you cautiously optimistic we will return to a world with in-person readings, or are we stuck in Zoom Land forever?


BUTLER

Doing Zoom events on a book tour has distinct advantages; anyone in the world can attend, and I don’t have to spend any money. Yes, publishing houses do not pay for travel unless you are a star. I predict that as the pandemic recedes, a hybrid will develop. To be sure, there is nothing like an in-person book event, but expediency about cost and greater outreach will likely come into play. So, for better or worse, I believe Zoom is here to stay.


INTERVIEWER

Who are some of your favorite writers and why?


BUTLER

My sweet spot is a character-driven novel with complex people who do good and bad things. A few rock stars are:

  • Bill Roorbach – Incredible storyteller

  • Richard Russo – Unbelievable character development

  • Junot Diaz – Genius and his books presented possibilities regarding POV (point of view) for my writing

  • Maggie Nelson – A ferocious intellect—The Argonauts broke me in two

  • Sigrid Nunez – Just all, all, all of her

  • Joan Silber – Discovered her in the last few years and immediately read every novel


INTERVIEWER

What are your favorite literary journals, and what function do you think they serve in our modern world where attention spans must be divided exponentially among digital sources?


BUTLER

I don’t read nearly enough of them, but LitHub is a daily go-to. The Kenyon Review. The Millions. Catapult. I like Brevity for non-fiction. Now that I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Five South, I’ll be adding it to my list! The great thing about literary journals is that one is introduced to new voices that have not yet had a platform, especially POC (people of color) and gender-diverse writers. But competition for clicks is just a way of life for lit journals, and though the paradigm is changing all the time, and ability to pivot with the flux is probably smart.


INTERVIEWER

Any advice for all the aspiring writers out there?

BUTLER

Just that there are never enough voices in storytelling, so you all are very much needed. And there are plenty of authors who’ve started publishing later in life, so don’t ever give up. Develop your discipline. Build your community. Be a good literary citizen. And know that though writing is a long game, someone is waiting for you.


To learn more about Marcia, her work, and buy her wonderful books, please visit her website: www.marciabutlerauthor.com



Interview conducted by Mina Manchester, Fiction Editor

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