Photo Credit: Laura Burlton Photography

Samantha Mabry grew up in Texas playing bass guitar along to vinyl records, writing fan letters to rock stars, and reading big, big books. She majored in English at Southern Methodist University, where she completed an honors project in Shakespeare’s Roman plays and won an award for being the most promising Latin student of the year (there were only about ten other students of Latin, so the competition wasn’t particularly stiff). In graduate school at Boston College, she shifted her focus to environmental literary criticism and wrote a lot about parks. For the past few years, Samantha has taught English, including developmental writing, composition and rhetoric, and Latino literature at the college level. In the classroom, she rarely talks about Shakespeare or parks, but she tries to throw in a Latin phrase or two whenever possible.

Samantha lives in Dallas with her husband—a historian—and her pets, including a cat named Mouse. A Fierce and Subtle Poison is her first novel.

Author Q&A

1. Favorite books/authors who inspired you?

I love this question! For All the Wind the World, I was inspired by Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Passage by Justin Cronin. I was intrigued by the ways in which the authors of the novels listed above play with a post-disaster, future-as-past environment. There’s a sparse but also chaotic quality about that type of setting in which humanity can either erode or really shine. I like characters that teeter there, between falling and rising.

I should also say that All the Wind in the World was inspired primarily by a film, Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, which is beautiful and brutal and haunting, basically everything I want in a story.

2. What’s your writing routine?

I don’t really have a set routine. It differs on where I am in the process. If I’m drafting, I give myself some freedom. I don’t like having the goal of hitting a certain number of words per day. I much prefer carving out a block of time and devoting myself to working steadily, without distraction, for that entire amount of time. If I’m revising or editing, I get a bit more selfish with my time and carve out larger blocks because I really want the story to stay fresh in my mind. When I’m in between revisions and waiting on feedback or edits, I won’t force myself to write. Instead, I’ll read and watch films, trying to be a sponge and waiting for inspiration to strike.

3. What part of your book was the most fun to write?

I really enjoyed writing the action scenes: characters running to catch trains, running to catch trucks, riding horses. It’s fun for me to describe a physical body being…well, physical. I also liked writing the section when the prophet shows up to the ranch out nowhere and jostles the dynamic. It’s very fun to insert something –a character or a plot point –that takes the story to a place that’s a little more dangerous.  

4. Which part was the most difficult?

Without giving too much away, the most difficult section to write was toward the end of the novel, when James comes back from a trip away from The Real Marvelous. Something fairly significant has happened, and Sarah Jac confronts him about it. Sarah Jac has a lot of anger, just generally, but here she’s really angry, but also confused, hopeful, and scared. There’s an emotional riot happening, and it was tricky to balance that riot, if that makes sense, and to present it well on the page.  

5. Is there one particular character in your new book that you most relate to? Why?

After just having said that Sarah Jac is, in general, a very angry person, I’d probably still have to say that I relate most to Sarah Jac. I think at the time I was writing this novel, I was feeling very unsettled. It’s like I wanted things and wasn’t getting them, or those things were taking too long to get, or wrenches were getting thrown into those things, and I was feeling very not in control. I took those feelings and amplified them in Sarah Jac. I’m not a very impulsive person, so dis-ease just kind of sits in me and festers, but what if I was impulsive? I’d speak more bluntly, act out more physically, and make snap decisions that probably wouldn’t lead to the best results. Sarah Jac does all that. She’s really great that way.  

6. What advice would you give aspiring writers?

I’d encourage aspiring writers to not be afraid of wearing their influences on their sleeves. I get somewhat dismayed when I hear aspiring writers say they want to be “true originals.” I don’t even know if someone as avant-garde as, say, Mark Z. Danielewski, would claim to be a “true original.” Everyone is inspired by something, I’d like to think. Obviously, writers shouldn’t plagiarize, but they should figure out what conversation they are trying to enter and how they can offer an interesting point that takes that conversation in a different direction. Many times, if I’m stuck, I think to my influences and ask myself questions such as, “What would Terrence Malick do here with dialogue?” Or, “How would Isabel Allende describe this table?”

7. Cats or dogs?

Cats!

8. If writing weren’t part of your daily work, what career would you like to have?

When I was in high school, I was certain that one day I’d be a bassist in rock band. I still think that would be pretty great.

9. Which author would you most like to spend the day with?

Not to sound like a broken record here, but Isabel Allende. I bow down to this woman. She has an extraordinary spirit and a great sense of humor, and her skill as a wordsmith is outstanding. Maybe we could run errands together—like pick up our dry cleaning and then go to Target—stuff like that. Then we could go to her place and watch soap operas.

10. What is your secret superpower?

Huh. Good question. I’m quite good at being still. Do you remember your parents or teachers telling you to play the quiet game? The winner was the one who could sit quietly for the longest amount of time. I’d win that every time.