Welcome to the three hundred and eighteenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with creative non-fiction and educational author Mary Ellen Ryall. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Mary Ellen. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Mary Ellen: I am in love with the natural world in which I live. I am a Master Gardener, herbalist and food safety educator, published author and photographer, and executive director of Happy Tonics, Inc., a non-profit 501 (c) (3) environmental education organization and public charity. I have lived and worked around the United States and traveled to Europe and Mexico. I lived in South America for several years in the 1970s, where I worked with indigenous people, learned enthnobotany, and followed butterflies.
I am based in Northwest Wisconsin, United States. Minong, which means pleasant valley or it’s a good place in Ojibwa, is a village, with approximately 1,000 residents. There is no traffic to speak of, no box stores, fast food restaurants, and no light or noise pollution. Here I can breathe fresh air. My mind can wander and go within as I walk woodland trails and ponder deep connections to deer, fox, bear, birds, butterflies, and plants that I live among. This is the land of glacial moraines and at times big sky. Here one can see valleys, hills, pine and oak forests, and small farms. Lakes, streams, and rivers abound. Three glaciers passed through Northwest Wisconsin and because of this, Northwest Wisconsin has many unique micro environments. It’s a perfect place for a naturalist and writer.
I didn’t know I was a writer. My husband, Will DeJong, deceased (2010), used to tell me I was. I learned I was a writer quite unexpectedly. At the time I was an elder student at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College in Hayward, Wisconsin. I was enrolled in the Woodlands Wisdom Nutrition Project from which I graduated in 2003. As part of my course work, I used to fly around the country to attend Indigenous Wellness Conferences. While in the air, Anna Merritt, tribal college staff, told me that my assignment was to write about the Indigenous Conferences. My first reaction was, “What, me? I am not a Native American.” At the time, I learned from Ann Marie Penzkover, Dean of Students, LCOOCC, that one should write their own story not someone else’s. Of course, a conference is different. I think Anna knew I would have backed down if she had told me about the assignment on the ground. This is literally how my writing career took off. After we landed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and while driving home to Northwest Wisconsin, Anna asked, “What do you want to be when you graduate?” I thought about it and admitted for the first time, “I wanted to be a writer.”
Morgen: Wow, what a wonderful story… and I’d so love to live where you live (she says looking at next door’s hideous extension). What genre do you generally write?
Mary Ellen: Creative nonfiction and teaching books for children. I write in a narrative style often embracing plant and insect knowledge to create published works. I am a lifelong student who finds excitement and wonder in the discovery of plant and insect knowledge.
Morgen: You are in the perfect place, by the sound of it. What have you had published to-date?
Mary Ellen: Ryall, M. E. (2002). Thanksgiving Reflections. Debaajimong, Journal of the Lac Courte Oreilles Community. Ryall, M. E. (2005). Conquering the Dream Killers: Fear, Doubt, Worry, and Guilt. Tribal College Journal of Native American Higher Education. Ryall, M. E. (2011). My Name is Butterfly. Springbrook, WI: Salt of the Earth Press.I also have a newspaper column, “Butterfly Corner,” in Washburn County Register, a community newspaperpublished weekly in Shell Lake, Wisconsin, USA. Three of my stories were published in an anthology, Seeing beyond Ourselves, published online by Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College, creative writing class 2006.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections?
Mary Ellen: Yes. Wisconsin Writers Association (WWA) has not selected my work as a contest winner. I am a member, and I do sell books at WWA conferences.
Morgen: What a shame. Have you had any contest success?
Mary Ellen: Yes, I won a Creative Writing Award from Tribal College Journal (TCJ) in 2005. Wisconsin Writers Association did a spotlight column on my essay that was published by TCJ. The editor at the time, Boyd Sutton, mentioned that he thought I was unusual and that there was a lot more to me.
Morgen: That’s great! Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Mary Ellen: No, I don’t have an agent and I don’t think they are vital to an author’s success. There are so few writers who make it to the top 100 best sellers’ book category. The rules for publishing have changed dramatically; a creative writer can market his or her own book if one knows his or her audience. I would like to mention that a writer can gain an agent or marketing person if he or she participates in Twitter and other social network sites. I tried an experiment today. I chose writers, publishers, and authors on Twitter; within twelve hours a few book marketing consultants contacted me. I don’t know much about them at the moment. It may be as Stephen King has suggested, it may not be worth much.
Morgen: Wow. But they contacted you – that’s usually half the battle. Are your books available as eBooks? Were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Mary Ellen: My publisher, Lindy Casey, Salt of the Earth Press, is planning on making My Name is Butterfly available as an eBook. She loves Kindle and believes that color will be next stage of development for Kindle. My book is illustrated in color. I myself prefer books. There is something tactile in being able to check one’s sources using a pencil mark to acknowledge a source. I do so much research with a dwindling memory; I find it necessary to put my hands on my work. Tactile, auditory, and visual are my preferred learning styles.
Morgen: Most people I speak to do prefer paper books and I think they and eBooks will run alongside each other. Our bookcases would look rather silly with just an eReader sitting on them. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Mary Ellen: I am doing more marketing; however, my book is selling on Amazon. My publisher believes she is marketing to my niche. I think I have been branded by the public. People know me regionally as Butterfly Woman; this is my spirit name in Ojibwa, Memengwaa Ikway.
Morgen: Do you have a favorite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Mary Ellen: I love the children’s butterfly book. The story came about from a real life encounter of witnessing a monarch butterfly birth and the first three hours of its life. A published article about how the book was created can be read here. Frank Zufall, is the reporter, Spooner Advocate, p. 14A, 22 December 2011.
Tammy Temp is a character that I have written about for years. The manuscript needs to be resurrected if I am going to do something with it. My husband always thought this one would be a winner. I don’t see my work in films, nor do I see a leading actor.
Morgen: Some authors are criticised for writing in such a way that it would make a film but I think you do just have to write the story as it’s meant to be – the screenwriters can then adapt. Having done Script Frenzy in April 2010 I’d be happy to leave them to it. Did you have any say in the title / covers of your book(s)? How important do you think they are?
Mary Ellen: I had no say in the cover design for My Name is Butterfly; however, it is a perfectly charming cover created by illustrator Stevie Marie Aubuchon-Mendoza, Las Vegas, USA. Stevie Marie is the illustrator of the book. I will have some say in the cover design for a current book in progress, Monarch Butterfly Coloring Book. Cindy Dyer, graphic artist, Alexandria, VA is doing the photography for the book cover and layout. The illustrator and artist is Mora McCusker, Gordon, Wisconsin. I wrote the text and Valerie Jean Downes edited the book.
Morgen: What are you working on at the moment / next?
Mary Ellen: Field Guide Monarch Butterfly Habitat, Shell Lake, Wisconsin, USA. I want to create a field guide that embraces landscape design, hard structures and art. The guide will educate the public about symbiotic relationship between native plants and pollinators, such as butterflies. The guide will also include other insects, birds, and small animals that frequent the habitat. Photographs and art layout will be contributed by Cindy Dyer. We started a publishing house, Butterfly Woman Publishing, in 2011; the joint partnership will publish our collaborative work.
Morgen: I would imagine living where you do that you’d never run out of material. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Mary Ellen: I write an average of two hours a day. No, I don’t suffer writer’s block. I pretty much know the work I need to get published before I leave the planet. I am an elder now, nearly 67 years old (April 2012); time is precious. I want to focus on my field of knowledge while I am still able to do it.
Morgen: 67 isn’t old these days. A former neighbour was 103 when she died recently. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Mary Ellen: I get ideas first. Then, I get a visual picture in my mind as to how and what I will be writing. I can see chapters of topics, and I write them down, which makes an outline. I worked with national magazines in my career such as Smithsonian Magazine, Life, Food Chemical News and Pesticide News. Stories appear. An example: Last year, I saw a fawn under a bench, in the pergola, at the habitat. My heart sees the image later on, which leads to writing from heart center. I see the image and know then that I must include it in a story. After I start writing, it is as if the images are writing their own story. I have to do research to match facts with writing. I also use my own photography to imagine and outline what I am writing about. I have quite an extensive photography digital library.
Morgen: The joy of modern technology – that your digital library will take up no more room than your computer. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Mary Ellen: I choose people from a litany of past and present life. Somehow people give me unique gifts. I have learned to incorporate them into a story. I change a character’s name, personality, time period, appearance, location, and attire. I think my characters are believable because they portray a real circumstance. It is comforting to be writing from some inner source of knowledge.
Morgen: Do you write any non-fiction, poetry or short stories?
Mary Ellen: Yes, I write a lot of non-fiction. The short stories that I created with St. Croix Writers have not been published to date. When I have time, I intend to publish some short stories on my Blog.
Morgen: And you could do what I did and make an eBook collection out of them. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Mary Ellen: I know that I will always need a proofreader, I am dyslexic. I will always need an editor. When I have worked with one particular editor in the past, Jackie Remlinger, I was able to improve my writing and incorporate some of her editing skills. On the whole, I am a writer but not a polished editor. Luckily I do have editors that assist me. One such person is Valerie Jean Downes, an international English teacher, now retired. Fortunately Leslie Carroll, former teacher, has volunteered to proofread my work. I appreciate a good proofreader’s and an editor’s expertise. I know my work would not go very far without professional services.
Morgen: I think everyone needs a second (third…) opinion. My editor has picked up errors (fortunately not many) but has also come up with some wonderful suggestions. You mentioned research earlier, do you have to do much?
Mary Ellen: Yes. Why I would choose to write about natural science, with its own language at times, is beyond me. It is not an easy style of writing. One has to embrace scientific terminology and Latin words. I am a person who loves to study and research.
Morgen: You write about your passion though don’t you… and that will usually come across in the writing. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Mary Ellen: In creative nonfiction books, I write in third person. Essays I write in first person.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Mary Ellen: There are two projects that are questionable; one is a creative nonfiction adventure book and the other is a book on herbology. I have completed the first draft on both manuscripts, but never got back to the second draft. I don’t know if I have enough life span left to complete the work. Will the desire be there to complete the books? I don’t know. I put a lot of time into writing both manuscripts. Right now my priority is to publish two immediate books, a monarch butterfly coloring book, and a field guide for the Monarch Butterfly Habitat, in Shell Lake, Wisconsin, USA.
Morgen: I have over a dozen display books (80 sides each) with newspaper cuttings as well as a multi-page idea document and I wonder if I’ll write everything that’s in them… especially as I keep coming up with new ideas. I guess you just have to pick what appeals. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Mary Ellen: I love the writing process. I turn on Hearts of Space, an Internet radio broadcast, from San Francisco, California, USA. The music helps me go into an inner writing world. I love writing the first draft. This draft I write for myself. I don’t even feel alone when I write; often I can sense my ancestors looking down or over my shoulder. The second draft, the nuts and bolts of writing, which is for sharing with a trusted reader or two, comes later with proofing and editing.
The second draft is when I try to remove all unnecessary words, as William Strunk Jr. suggests. It can become laborious to get from beginning the writing process to the end result of a polished manuscript. I feel fortunate that my writing group, St. Croix Writers, is good at critiquing. Many times they make suggestions that make sense in clarifying a meaning or sentence. It is good to have another person read your work, especially a trusted individual who will be honest with you. A reader, proofreader and editor see with different eyes than the writer.
Morgen: They are. Actually anyone will be because we know what we mean by something – I’ve found that out all too often. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Mary Ellen: Write each day for a couple of hours. Set a time frame and stick to it. Start with small writing goals. Write articles for a newspaper and get some published. Work your way up to a magazine or respected journal. Your confidence will grow with publishing. After a while, writing will become a good habit. Join a compatible writers group that critiques work; network with other writers, publishers, editors, and proofreaders. This is all possible now on the Internet.
Recently, Lori Pirone, a young visual artist contacted me from Brooklyn, New York, USA. She read my book, My Name is Butterfly, and asked me to read a short visual art story that she wrote. I not only read the story but called her back. I gave her a few pointers on how to market her budding work. Cindy Dyer, graphic designer, also gave her some copy editing advice. After critiquing and changes, Lori Pirone created Cute Little Caterpillar. I think her visual art is vibrant. I believe she will go on to learn how to create her own Blog and start using social network sites to build her own writers network community. It is important that aspiring writers use social networking sites to expose their work to Internet marketing opportunities.
Michael Perry, author, Population 485, was a speaker at a WWA’s conference a few years ago. He mentioned that New York publishers don’t realize how out of touch they are with a Midwesterner’s book market. In the Midwest, one cannot simply jump from airport to city and back home again easily. The Midwest is spread out between towns; usually there is no mass transportation, meaning there are no buses, trains, or airports between rural towns. Michael indicated that he would be open to self- publishing books, now that the venue is available. This doesn’t mean he will, but I took that nugget of wisdom and started looking at options to get my work out to the public. If I had to wait for a big publisher to stumble upon my work, I doubt that I would find a big name publisher who would be interested.
Yes, I have a publisher; however, it is a small independent publishing house. I want to learn the publishing side of business. There are wonderful opportunities and partnerships for an aspiring author to explore. I like CreateSpace through Amazon. There are publishing costs with this publishing house, but they do sell books and there is another advantage, books are printed on demand. There are many small self-publishing houses that a new writer can publish under, and it costs nothing to publish a book. Instead, writers receive a small royalty fee for each book sold. I recently came across this informative writers guide for books.
I once was told that in order to make money, one must own the product. Cindy Dyer, who I mentioned earlier, and I decided to start our own publishing house for our creative collaborative work, Butterfly Woman Publishing. The business side of publishing is often Internet driven. I understand that the Internet sells more books than Main Street bookstores. Do I think it is all about money? No, I doubt much money can be made by a relatively unknown author, considering that the business of publishing costs money. None-the-less, Stephen King says, “I’d suggest that if you’re that anxious to get published, you skip agent-hunting or query-letters to publishers and go directly to a vanity press. There you will at least get a semblance of your money’s worth” (King, 2000, pp. 247-248).
An aspiring writer might ask, “Why do you write?” I write to understand and explain the world I live in. I want to give environmental knowledge to others. I believe it is important to save the natural world: its creatures, insects including pollinating butterflies and bees; plants as host and nectar sources for pollinators; crops for food and fruit production; wild edibles for food; and herbs for medicine. This is the world I live in.
Morgen: I write because I’m addicted. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Mary Ellen: Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson and Annie Dillard. I would have someone cook (not me). I would serve Roast Beef with all its aromas and trimmings, with a beautiful table setting, classic old china, lit candles, and delicious red wine. The first invited guest, Edgar Allan Poe, wrote The Bells, which I love. Poe was an honored guest and wrote at The YADDO, an artist retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York, USA, my hometown. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a cherished book, A Child’s Garden of Verses. I loved his positive attitude towards when he was a sick child. Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrims at Tinkers Creek, is a kindred spirit who writes eloquently about nature.
Morgen: I don’t know Annie but the other two would be intriguing… and inspirational. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Mary Ellen: “Nothing lasts forever,” Anna O’Grady Sullivan-Cunningham said this.
Morgen: Sadly true. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Mary Ellen: I do volunteer work to publicize events for Happy Tonics, Inc. I also volunteer at the local Minong Senior Center and promote senior events through newspapers, flyers, and social network sites. I believe in sustainable local agriculture, be it gardening and preparing my own foods from the garden, or supporting local farmers. I write to promote local food security. Our nonprofit co-sponsors an Environmental Film Fest during the academic year, at LCOOCC. We also have a garden plot at the LCO tribal farm. Both projects require writing and marketing skills. I am also involved with the newly established Chamber of Commerce in the Minong area, which will soon begin marketing events.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
Mary Ellen: I love to be outside. I take meditation walks or garden on my village property of a half acre. I also love to work outside at the Monarch Butterfly Habitat in Shell Lake. I could spend hours outside learning from nature. In 2012, Happy Tonics will be assisting a few local nursing homes to implement butterfly gardens in raised beds outside in a garden setting. I also got involved in planting an herb garden at the local food pantry. We plant a Native Three Sisters Garden at the habitat consisting of corn, squash, and beans. I enjoy being an exhibitor at local garden events and public speaking at environmental and writer events. I love to meet the public and learn their stories of butterfly conservation, gardening, and personal transformation. I like to snowshoe, but snow has been scarce this year. I also love Tai chi and Yoga. These forms of exercise help balance my life.
Morgen: “snowshoe” – that sounds intriguing. Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful?
Mary Ellen: I am delighted that I have connected with your Blog.
Morgen: Why, thank you very much.
Mary Ellen: I also appreciate Wisconsin Writers Association’s writing tips and through an archival newsletter. I enjoy reading books such as Stephen King, On Writing; William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style; Natalie Goldberg, Writing down the Bones and Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. I couldn’t write without my Instructor’s Copy, Pocket Guide to APA Style, by Robert Perrin. Pat Shields, my English instructor at LCOOCC, gave me the book. I use it pretty much on a daily basis.
Morgen: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Mary Ellen: I connect to my publisher’s Facebook page, Salt of the Earth. I also participate on Salt of the Earth, SotEP at (Salt of the Earth Press Author Discussion). Other writers and publishers have linked to my Blog, Facebook and Twitter. I find social network site networking is broadening my writing horizons. At one time I was connected to Wisconsin Writers Association online roundtable forum. I became bogged down with too many emails from the group.
Morgen: I have some of mine coming in once a week but it’s till time-consuming to read them all. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Mary Ellen: Limitless possibilities. Books were once the domain of large publishing houses. Budding writers didn’t have much of an opportunity to be taken seriously for their unknown work. After listening to author Michael Perry, Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors one Siren at a Time, a speaker at a WWA conference, I am exploring self publishing opportunities. Matter-of-fact, www.butterfly-woman-publishing.com plans to publish a Monarch Butterfly Coloring Book, in spring 2012. The work will be published using CreateSpace, owned by Amazon. Publishing on this platform will provide an ISBN number and enable to me publish on the world’s largest booksellers site. A writer needs to learn what book distribution sources they will use to market their book. Here are good marketing ideas on CreateSpace.
Morgen: Where can we find out about you and your work?
Mary Ellen: I am on Google, just type my name Mary Ellen Ryall in the browser; Amazon where one can see my book, open a few pages, or purchase the book at $12.98, FREE SHIPPING over $25; Twitter; Facebook; Digg; and WordPress at www.butterfly-woman-publishing.com and www.insectamonarca.wordpress.com
Morgen: Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Mary Ellen: Why did you start a writer’s Blog? Why do you want to help writers and published authors?
Morgen: I’d heard it was a good thing to do. Little did I know it would take over my life (literally!) but I really enjoy it. At the back of my mind was (and still is) getting my writing seen (and sold) but I love everything writing so I get a buzz every time I receive a new enquiry, although going through the emails can sometimes be a full-time job. Thank you, Mary Ellen.
I then invited Mary Ellen to include an extract of her writing…
“One warm, sunny morning in June, my mother landed on a native common milkweed plant in Sarah Reynolds’ flower and vegetable garden. Sarah was a child with brown eyes and honey blonde straight hair. She was in the garden one morning pulling weeds when she saw my mother. Sarah stood very still. She blinked in wonder as she watched my mother deposit eggs on the underside of the leaves.”
After my mother flew off, Sarah sat down on the ground. She thought about what she had just seen. Excited, she turned her baseball cap around backwards and ran to the house to tell her mother, “I saw a black and orange butterfly tap milkweed leaves with its tummy!” Sarah said.
A few days later, Sarah went back to visit her garden. She touched some black-eyed Susans, which were pretty yellow flowers with dark centers. Then she turned to the milkweed flowers and bent down to smell the sweet scent when she saw something.
Sarah looked right at me. I was now a tiny caterpillar munching a milkweed leaf. She figured out that when my egg hatched I ate through the leaf and climbed to the top.
With an explorer’s eye she looked more closely. Sarah saw several caterpillars munching away on different leaves. She looked at other milkweed plants and saw that the whole garden was a nursery for tiny monarch caterpillars.
Mary Ellen Ryall grew up in Saratoga Springs, New York, USA. In pursuit of butterflies, she worked and traveled in South America in the 1970s. In the 1980s Ryall completed the Masters Gardeners Program, University of the District of Columbia, and became involved with community gardens. Living in Southern Maryland in the 1990s, she wrote about the environment and founded Happy Tonics. Ryall moved to Wisconsin in 2000, graduating from the Woodlands Wisdom Nutrition Project at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College in 2003. In 2006 Ryall relocated the organization to Shell Lake, Wisconsin, where she spearheaded the implementation of a Monarch Butterfly Habitat. The photograph of Mary Ellen is c. Cyndy Dyer. Cover picture c. Lindy Casey.
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