Mary DesJarlais

I fell in love with the art of creative writing in 1969, in the 5th grade at a small Catholic elementary school in a suburb in Minneapolis. Ms. Brown was our teacher and we all agreed she was just the coolest thing to land in our midst; a parochial school populated by elderly nuns. She was the first “Ms.” I had ever encountered. She wore boots, and short skirts, had shoulder-length hair and round wire-rim glasses and she was Jewish! Ms. Brown gave us an assignment to write about a plane crash on a remote island and the saga of the stranded survivors (maybe Ms. Brown went on to write the pilot for the television series, Survivor! I’m not quite sure.) Anyway, I turned in a 12-page story, written in cramped cursive on loose-leaf notebook paper. I remember the thrill of being given license to make things up (not exactly a Catholic School value) and the rush of ideas that circled in my head as I spun the tale.
In my junior year of college, I took a creative writing class from Jonis Agee who taught at the College of St. Catherine in the 80’s. Jonis encouraged us to write everyday and keep a notebook of interesting things to use in writing like eavesdropped dialogue, place names and descriptions, news stories, dreams, photos, maps etc. This was my first introduction to the workshop format which helped edit and shape the fiction pieces we prepared for the class. I liked the idea of a writer’s life, but being practically minded, I knew I couldn’t complete my B.A. degree and declare that I was a novelist because I had to support myself. People asked me if I would consider journalism as a career, but the idea of telling the truth held no appeal for me. At that point, I didn’t think I had enough life experience to write an entire novel, but the allure of a creative life stayed with me.
Life went on; I married and had two daughters. I loved being a reader: John Irving (A Prayer for Owen Meany—is that not just the most perfect novel?), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Pat Conroy, Jonathan Franzen, Ann Patchett, Wally Lamb, Joyce Carol Oates, Louise Erdrich, William Styron, William Kent Krueger, Tim O’Brien, Margaret Atwood, Audrey Niffenegger, Sue Miller is the short list of favorites.
 I was a stay-at-home parent, and when found myself having heated discussions as to why Fred Flintstone didn’t wear pants, and knew it was time to reengage my creative side. I took a mystery writing class at the Loft and five of us from the class formed what would be my first writing group. I started a novel about a pregnant woman who tries to solve the murder of her childhood friend (that one still lives in the bottom drawer) and then a young-adult novel about two teenage girls who get drawn into a murder plot when someone mistakenly leaves a confession on their answering machine (that one lives on top of book #1, at the bottom of the drawer). It was fun to hang out with other wanna-be writers and share ideas, favorite novels or go to readings. During that time, I was privileged to meet and become good friends with writer, Ann Bauer. 
In 1999-2000, I had the chance to audit the same writing class with Jonis that I had taken those many years ago as an undergrad.   During those two semesters, I started what would become my first novel, Dorie LaValle. As a writing exercise, we were charged with finding an old family photograph and using it as a seed for telling someone’s story. I selected a photograph of my grandmother and her five French sisters, probably taken in the early 1900’s. In the photograph, five sisters are posed pressed back-to-shoulder, but the youngest sister, Dorie, stood on the end, facing the camera. There was something about her bold pose and take-no-prisoners expression that made me ask more questions about her. I found out that she had been married, divorced, widowed over her life and that she had made and sold moonshine in Osseo in the 1920’s. This photograph became the inspiration for first scene I wrote for the book where Dorie plays hostess in her kitchen to the farmer’s who come to drink her hootch. Jonis encouraged me to turn these scenes into a novel. 
I applied and was awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, took classes at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Program (summer camp for writing nerds) and joined the Blue Moon Writing Group. All of these influences helped to keep me energized and inspired enough to stick with this project through the years it took me to finish the manuscript, and then the challenge of how to get it to a publisher. My point to other writers who think they have a book in them too, is that I raised two daughters, went back into the non-profit workforce full time, battled breast cancer, my husband died and I managed to get the book to market. Really, if I can do it, you can too.