Welcome to the six hundred and nineteenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with non-fiction and scriptwriter Mary Batten. 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.
Mary: Hello, Morgen. Thank you for this opportunity to be featured on your blog.
Morgen: You’re very welcome. I’m delighted you could join me. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Mary: I write nonfiction books, magazine articles, and television shows for children and adults. Most of my work deals with nature and science, although I get quite political in my blog. I’ve been writing since I was eight years old and I knew I wanted to be a writer at that early age. I don’t know why the writing bug bit me, but I know my grandmother played an important part. When I was in the second grade, I lived with my grandparents, as my mother was expecting her third child and our family doctor thought it would be less stressful for me (I had had rheumatic fever the year before and everybody was worried about my heart) and my mother if I lived with my grandparents whose house was just five minutes down the road. During that year, my grandmother and I played a storytelling game almost every day. She would make up a story and then I would make up a story. In retrospect, I realize we were “writing” with our imaginations.
I live on the East Coast of the United States in Virginia.
Morgen: What a wonderful grandmother. I totally understand about the writing bug biting, it got me in my late thirties. With your non-fiction, how do you decide what to write about?
Mary: Sometimes an editor calls me and asks whether I’d be interested in writing about this or that topic. Otherwise I write about things that fascinate me. Nature is always a great source of ideas. I’m drawn to unusual, often bizarre behaviours of animals and plants, such as mating behaviour and pollination.
Morgen: The great thing about nature is that there’s so much of it. You’d never run out of inspiration. What have you had published to-date?
Mary: To date, I’ve published some 15 books. These include my new eBook, How To Have Sex If You’re Not Human: Intimate Journeys in Natural History, Sexual Strategies: How Females Choose Their Mates, Aliens From Earth, Hungry Plants, Anthropologist: Scientist of the People, Please Don’t Wake the Animals: A Book About Sleep, Hey, Daddy!, and Wild Cats. I also have a short story, “The Rabbit”, in the forthcoming edition of IN GOOD COMPANY, a short story anthology published by Live Wire Press.
Morgen: A great variety. You’ve self-published, what lead to you going your own way?
Mary: Only one of my books is self-published, How To Have Sex If You’re Not Human. I decided to step into the digital publishing world and self-publish my first eBook. Digital technology makes it so easy for writers to publish their work. It’s a whole new publishing arena that gives writers control of their work, higher royalties, and elimination of the middle level of agents and publishers. I find it very exciting and it’s clear that digital books are the books of the present and the future. However, there’s a tradeoff. The writer must take on the challenge of marketing her work. You aren’t going to sell any books unless you climb the steep marketing curve. Marketing is time consuming and difficult. It definitely cuts into writing time. You have to become your own publicist, interact with social media, blog, do podcasts, and anything else you think will help sell your book. Some writers hit it big by self-publishing digitally, but most writers who go this route don’t. Most of my books are published by traditional publishers. I think pursuing a mixed publication strategy is best for me.
Morgen: I think you’re very wise. Authors these days have to do plenty of marketing, needless to say more so when they go it alone but then we get to contact our readership directly which is great. Are all your books available as eBooks?
Mary: I have two eBooks: How To Have Sex If You’re Not Human, which I self-published, and Hungry Plants, which my publisher, Random House, released in digital format.
Morgen: For the traditionally published books, did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Mary: Yes, I come up with most of my titles and others evolve from brainstorming with my editors. I sometimes make cover suggestions; in other instances, my editors and publishers come up with the cover idea in collaboration with the illustrator. I am so fortunate to have wonderful artists like Higgins Bond, Paul Mirocha, and Beverly J. Doyle who have illustrated my books. Titles and book covers are extremely important in catching a reader’s attention. They’re the first thing a potential buyer sees.
Morgen: They are indeed, and you have striking titles and covers (Sexual Strategies is my favourite of the three you’ve sent me). What are you working on at the moment / next?
Mary: I’m working on a two-part memoir project.
Morgen: Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Mary: Usually I write something every day. I’ve never had writer’s block.
Morgen: You’re very fortunate. I rarely get stuck but then like you, I write a variety so it does make it easier. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Mary: I revise extensively. I have a wonderful writing buddy with whom I meet each week. She’s also a published author and we critique each other’s work. This is such a valuable relationship, and I feel so fortunate that we share the same background and live close enough together to meet weekly. My husband is also a great constructive critic and he reads everything I write, often numerous times. I do find that my writing improves over time, as I am constantly pushing myself to employ new techniques.
Morgen: It’s great having that support, especially in person. Many authors don’t have that. I belong to all (four) the official writing groups here in Northampton (England) but I’m sure there are many more authors here who don’t belong to a group for one reason or another. For others, there aren’t the groups available so I recently set up online writing groups for critique on short stories, novel / script extracts and poetry. They’re only two weeks old but I’ve already had submissions for all of them (and welcome more!). I also post daily writing exercises on each one and it’s great reading the pieces that people do for it (and post on their blogs). The writing fraternity is (on the whole) so friendly, it’s great having the interaction, especially when I’m contacted by authors I’ve not dealt with before. Each group has a Facebook group so we’re chatting away in there too. I love technology. Do you have to do much research?
Mary: For my science books and articles, I do extensive research that often involves travel and/or interviews with scientists. I enjoy the research phase, as I am constantly learning something new.
Morgen: I say my least favourite aspects are editing (I’d still love not to have to do any – my favourite is the writing) and research, but we’re so lucky now that we have the internet, with every conceivable piece of information at our fingertips. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Mary: Oh, sure. Some of them are tucked away in files where they belong.
Morgen: 🙂 You mentioned earlier being commissioned to write, do you also pitch for submissions?
Mary: Both. I pitch ideas that originate with me; editors commission me to write on certain topics.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Mary: Lots of rejections. Anybody who can’t stand rejections shouldn’t go into any of the arts. Early in my career, I learned not to take rejections personally. That’s the key to dealing with them.
Morgen: It is, absolutely. It’s just the wrong person for the right thing. Do you enter any non-fiction competitions?
Mary: I don’t enter nonfiction competitions. Sometimes my publishers submit my books for various prizes and some of my books have won awards.
Morgen: Congratulations. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Mary: Yes, I have an agent. I think agents are very important to an author’s success. Agents can take your manuscript directly to editors with decision-making power. This means your manuscript is moving through the publishing pipeline much faster than if you sent it in cold. Although some writers do succeed in getting books published without agents, these writers are the exception rather than the rule. An experienced agent with a good track record is invaluable to a writer.
Morgen: I think you’re right, certainly for mainstream publishers. Smaller presses do tend to prefer to deal with the author directly and I know many authors who’ve been happy with that contact, although I can’t remember any unagented author saying they’d never want one. I’m self-published and I’d never say never. How much marketing do you do?
Mary: I do as much marketing as I can. I feel I’m in the learning stage of marketing.
Morgen: I think we all are. I’ve had a few authors writing guest blogs on marketing – I think it’s an endless subject, the internet’s evolving continuously. One thing’s for sure; saying nothing other than “please buy my book” is the quickest way to get de-followed on Twitter, but there are plenty who do. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Mary: The creative process is my favourite aspect of the writing life. Least favourite aspect is a rejection. Since I’ve been making my living as a writer for many years, nothing surprises me anymore.
Morgen: 🙂 What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Mary: Be persistent. You’re in this for the long haul. You need to be organized, observant, and continually developing and improving your craft. Develop different kinds of writing techniques so you don’t get stuck in a box. People like to categorize writers. If you develop proficiency in a variety of styles and genres, you will have more opportunities for your writing.
Morgen: I’m fortunate in that I’ve always written a variety of genres so I don’t think I’m pigeon-holed, although I say I have a dead body in most of my stories (even if it’s just the mention of someone being a widow). 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: Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), Flannery O’Connor, and Charles Darwin. I would serve beef bourguignon with tiny roasted potatoes and fresh string beans, a robust red wine, French bread, and apple pie a la mode for dessert. I think they’d all like that.
Morgen: I certainly would (minus the red wine). Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Mary: In the sixth grade, I learned the phrase, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I’ve been saying that to myself ever since.
Morgen: Indeed. It’s how we learn. Do you write fiction? If so, are there any differences or similarities between writing non-fiction and fiction?
Mary: I’ve written a bit of fiction in the form of short stories. There’s a huge difference between fiction and nonfiction. In fiction, you make up characters, plots, environments. Fiction is a convincing lie. With nonfiction, you don’t have to make up a story; you just have to get the facts right, and sometimes that’s more complicated than it might seem. Years ago, I was invited to give a talk at a writers’ conference. The title of my lecture was “Problems of Telling the Truth.”
Morgen: “Fiction is a convincing lie” I love that. Do you have a favourite of your books?
Mary: I have two favourite books: Sexual Strategies: How Females Choose Their Mates, and Aliens From Earth.
Morgen: With your fiction, do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Mary: I just get an idea and free associate to see what happens.
Morgen: It’s how most authors I’ve spoken to (“pantsers”) write, and it works for me. What do you do when you’re not writing?
Mary: I love to read, walk outdoors and garden.
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Mary: I love Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
Morgen: Ah, yes. It’s the most-recommended book in these interviews. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Mary: I use Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. They’re great for announcing new projects and for keeping up with others’ activities.
Morgen: Aren’t they great. Did I say I love technology? What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Mary: Richer opportunities for publishing with the option of continually updating your digital books. Textbooks in particular are undergoing a revolution with interactive digital books such as Life on Earth, which was developed for the iPad. Science and technology move rapidly and the ability to keep these books up to the minute is extremely important.
Morgen: That’s the joy of eBooks. I’ve had a couple of people pick up on errors in my eBooks and I’ve just gone into the Word documents, tweaked them, and re-uploaded. It’s great, and why I’ve hung fire on publishing my chick lit novel in paperback. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Mary: My books are available on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com:
Morgen: Thank you, Mary.
I then invited Mary to include an extract of her writing and this is from Sexual Strategies: How Females Choose Their Mates…
“Depending on the context of time, place and culture, woman has been considered goddess, madonna, witch, Earth Mother, temptress, nursemaid, whore, gatherer, healer, priestess, servant, slave, and sex object. She has been viewed as sexually insatiable, anarchistic and mysteriously powerful. At the same time, she has been considered the weaker sex, the domineering sex, the gold-digging sex, and the castrating sex. She has been looked on with awe, superstition, lust, fear, ridicule, and hatred.
In the Christian religion, she has been blamed for original sin, reviled as the seat of evil and, at the same time, enshrined and worshipped as the mother of the son of God, albeit conceived by immaculate conception. In the Muslim religion, she is viewed as omnisexual, insatiable. Muslim men define woman in terms of her vagina and believe that because of her voracious sexual appetite, she should be circumcised—the clitoris surgically removed—and kept hidden in her quarters. The ideal of female beauty in Islam is obedience, silence and immobility—the same attitudes a believer has in relation to his God.
Pregnancy and childbirth put females in an extremely weak and vulnerable position. Although women seek and need additional support and assistance at this time, perhaps a bad bargain has been struck by both sexes. In many cultures marriage is a reproductive contract: women lease their uteri and men pay the rent. This kind of marriage is not an intimate relationship, nor is it one in which men and women can respect and enjoy each other as friends.”
And a synopsis of one of her books…
How to Have Sex if You’re Not Human reveals the intimate lives of animals and plants. If Freud had known more about the birds and the bees, he might never have fantasized his theory of penis envy. In fact, a lot of theories about what sex is or ought to be might be vastly different if they were more firmly grounded in biology than in romance. The truth is: What passes for the story of the birds and the bees is a bedtime tale for innocents that leaves out more than it tells. In the reality of the wild, birds, bees, butterflies, snails—even orchids and avocados—“do it” in ways that would make the erotic Hindu sculptures at Konarak blush all the way down to their stone toenails. A tableau of nonhuman sexual strategies includes cannibals, transvestites, hermaphrodites, homosexual rapists, males with two penises, and plants that deceive, seduce, and kill. When it comes to mixing genes—and biologically, that’s what sex is all about—anything and everything goes. Despite all our love songs and romantic fantasies, reproduction is the name of the game in biology.
Mary Batten is an award-winning writer for television, film and publishing. Her many writing projects have taken her into tropical rainforests, astronomical observatories, scientific laboratories, and medical research centers. She’s the author of many nature / science books for children and adults. Her magazine articles are published in a variety of publications, including Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, Modern Maturity, Shape, International Wildlife, National Geographic World, and the children’s science magazines, ASK and MUSE. Her magazine article for Science Digest, Sexual Choice: The Female’s Newly Discovered Role, won The Newswomen’s Club of New York’s Front Page Award for best feature story.
She hosts a podcast, EXPLORING NATURE, on BlogTalkRadio.
Mary Batten was nominated for an Emmy for her work on the Children’s Television Workshop’s science series 3-2-1-CONTACT, and she has written some 50 nature documentaries for television series, including the syndicated WILD WILD WORLD OF ANIMALS (Time-Life Films) and others for National Geographic and Disney Educational Films.
She is married to composer Ed Bland. They have two children: dancer / choreographer Stefanie Batten Bland and writer Robert Bland.
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