Winter Light by Martha Engber / #Interview #BlogTour @rararesources @marthaengber



Fifteen-year-old Mary Donahue of suburban Chicago is a kid on the cusp of failure during the brutal blizzard winter of 1978-79, the end of a hard luck, hard rock era sunk in the cynical aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Though a smart, beautiful kid, she’s a motherless girl raised by an uneducated, alcoholic father within an extended family of alcoholics and addicts. Aware that she’s sinking, she’s desperate to save herself and so reaches out to an unlikely source, Kathleen, a nice, normal kid from English class.

But when the real storm hits, the full force of a harsh adult world almost buries Mary. Only then does she learn that the only difference between life and death is knowing when to grasp an extended hand.




  • When and where do you prefer to write?

I’ve been writing almost daily since I was 13. A kid who liked to be on the go from birth, I learned immediately that writing had to be done when and where I had time, rather than when I felt the muse strike.

I now work part-time, but before the pandemic when I was working full-time, I’d write in coffee shops or lobbies during any breaks I got.

My preferred time is between 6 and 9 a.m. And my preferred location is my office, which is so distinctly me, including a high desk that faces a window out into my beautiful backyard. I’d write every day then and there if I could!

  • Do you have a certain ritual?

I do! After getting up, I get my favorite coffee from a place down the street and go home to eat my breakfast. Then I take my coffee into my office, where I sip for the next two hours.

  • Is there a drink or some food that keeps you company while you write?

If I get a second two-hour session during the afternoon, I get a second coffee, this one a not-too-sweet mocha.

The Warm Drink Ritual offers me four things:

  1. The calories give me a bit of energy during a normally sleep time of the day.
  2. The drink bribes me to work on tough writing segments.
  3. I find the warmth soothing.
  4. The occasional action of sipping often leads to a crucial moment of free association where my mind — delivered from having to type words — solves a problem, such as how to handle a tricky element within a scene.
  • What is your favourite book?

That is such a hard question! I’m going to define “favourite” as a book that I think of long after I’ve read the story. By that definition, my answer is “House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski. I still think about the narrator, caught within a house a tiny bit bigger on the inside than the outside, and forever tormented about that impossibility. Not to mention the book’s extremely crazy formatting in which you have to literally turn the book to read the sentences that run around the edges of the pages, and flip back and forth between the footnotes and the pages they refer to.

  • Do you consider writing a different genre in the future?

I think that’s my problem, that I write in all different genres. Writing is a lot easier if a writer sticks to one genre, because she can build a consistent audience over time.

But to me, writing = freedom. I let my imagination go where it wants. Once my mind settles on a subject, the subject chooses the best format.

My first book “Growing Great Characters” is a nonfiction how-to for writers. My second, “The Wind Thief,” is a literary book. My current book, “Winter Light” (Oct. 6, 2020) is a gritty teen teen/YA novel with a crossover into adult literary. My next book, “The Falcon, the Wolf and the Hummingbird” is a historical novel set in pre-colonial New England, US. The next will be “Bliss Road,” a self-help memoir.

Marketing to all of those different groups is tough, but following my interest is non-negotiable.

  • Do you sometimes base your characters on people you know?

I’m an observer by nature. I think most writers are, which means we’re constantly watching and picking up details about people. Occasionally I begin with one quality I see exhibited by someone I know, then I build on that until the character becomes someone completely distinct.

In “Winter Light,” I based the character of Mrs. McCarthy on my mother’s exceptional empathy, then I kept evolving the character until Mrs. McCarthy became her own person.

  • Do you take a notebook everywhere in order to write down ideas that pop up?

No, and for a specific reason. So many ideas pour into my head on a constant basis that I need a way to weed out the weaker ones.

My survival-of-the-fittest method: If I see something of interest, I try to burn the image into my memory for later recording. If the thought disappears before I can write down the concept, the idea isn’t particularly strong, whereas those that stick with me are compelling enough to follow.

  • Which genre do you not like at all?

Surprisingly, I like the classics in all genres: romance, science fiction, historical, etc. Great storytelling is great storytelling!

I tend not to like books that tell me what I should be thinking and feeling at all times. I like to figure things out on my own, whereas too much telling doesn’t allow for that.

  • If you had the chance to co-write a book. Whom would it be with?

Another tough question! I would co-write a novel with a scientist based on human behavioral biology, and the most interesting person I know in that field is Robert Sapolsky at Stanford University.

  • If you should travel to a foreign country to do research, which one would you choose and why?

I’d go to Wales. My grandmother moved with her parents from Wales to the US when she was 2 or 3 to upstate New York so her dad could manage a slate quarry. A lot of people from Wales migrated to that region at that time for the same reason. I’d like to see the rocky landscape from which they came and where my grandmother was born.

Thank you, Martha Engber


About the author 

Martha Engber’s next novel, WINTER LIGHT, will be published Oct. 6, 2020, by Vine Leaves Press. She’s also the author of THE WIND THIEF, a novel, and GROWING GREAT CHARACTERS FROM THE GROUND UP. A journalist by profession, she’s written hundreds of articles for the Chicago Tribune and other publications. She’s had a play produced in Hollywood and fiction and poetry published in the Aurorean, Watchword, the Berkeley Fiction Review and other journals. She’s also a freelance editor, workshop facilitator and speaker. She currently lives in Northern California with her husband, bike and surfboard.


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