Thursday, February 19, 2015

Mary Helen Specht Author Interview

Book Nerd Interview

Born and raised in Abilene, Texas, Mary Helen Specht has a B.A. in English from Rice University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College, where she won the department’s fiction award. Her writing has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes and has appeared in numerous publications, including: The New York Times; The Colorado Review; Prairie Schooner; Michigan Quarterly Review; The Southwest Review; Florida Review; Southwestern American Literature; World Literature Today; Blue Mesa; Hunger Mountain; Bookslut; The Texas Observer; and Night Train, where she won the Richard Yates Short Story Award.

A past Fulbright Scholar to Nigeria and Dobie-Paisano Writing Fellow, Specht teaches creative writing at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.

Her first novel, Migratory Animals, will be published by Harper Perennial on January 20, 2015.

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Was there a defining moment during your youth when you realized you wanted to be a writer?

My parents are both librarians, so I was raised among books. While I loved to read growing up—in fact, I sat in the living room with my parents pretending to read Tropic of Cancer long before I actually could—books made me want to live within them rather than to write them. I wanted to be Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time, playing with Bunsen burners after school and saving my father from the tesseract. Carl Sagan’s Contact inspired me to subscribe to Astronomy magazine (until I learned you had to be plausible at math to become an actual astronomer); after reading A Separate Peace, I dressed like a boy and begged to enroll in a bucolic boarding school out east. I grew up in a small and conservative town in West Texas, and books were my wormholes to the wider world. It wasn’t until a college creative writing class that I began to understand the wonder of being able to create these worlds myself.

Why is storytelling so important for all of us?

Unless the data is off, we only get to live one life; writing and reading fiction allows us, for a time, to embody what it’s like to be someone else born into a different context with different desires and challenges. Storytelling is one of the ways we gain empathy for other human beings.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?

Live cheaply!

In your book; Migratory Animals, can you tell my Book Nerd community a little about it? 

In Migratory Animals, I explore the lives of a group of thirty-something friends struggling through the recession. The characters in this novel are all old friends who met in college when they were ambitious and full of dreams and fairly naive about the world. They’re now in their thirties and, while they’ve had some successes, their lives have also taken unexpected turns. One is struggling with a possible genetic illness, another is emotionally disconnected from her children and husband; several others, second generation immigrants, are finding that the recession has exposed how the system is still rigged in favor of the privileged. And then there is the protagonist, whose name is Flannery because her father is a writer and named her after Flannery O’Connor. She has been living in Nigeria as a climate scientist when the novel begins. I was thinking a lot about place when writing this book. How do we find a home in the world? And this is central to Flannery’s conflict in the novel.

What are some of your current and future projects that you can share with us?

I’m working on the draft of a new novel, though it’s still in the playful infant stage where anything could happen. Right now it is told from the point-of-view of a young man who has become the assistant, promoter and protégé of a famous painter at the end of her career. So far the book explores how the narrator (and each of us, to a degree) must come to terms with mediocrity in the face of greatness.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?

I would like to introduce Santiago to Faulkner’s Quentin. They both overthink things, but Santi might be able to cheer Q up a little.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating Molly?

That she was much flintier than I’d given her credit for at the beginning of the novel.

What’s the best advice you can give writers to help them develop their own unique voice and style?

Miles Davis said, “It takes a long time to play like yourself,” and it’s the same with writing. You don’t choose a unique voice rather it chooses you. All you can do is keep practicing your craft while continuing to read the writers you love, letting them filter through you.

What's the most memorable summer job you've ever had?

I waited tables at a restaurant that was filling station themed, so we had to wear pin-stripped shirts like at old filling stations and sell food named things like “The Diesel Dog.”

Where can readers stalk you?

At Barton Springs in south Austin. I like to float there on my back and imagine new ideas for stories.

A powerful debut novel about a group of 30-somethings struggling for connection and belonging, Migratory Animals centers on a protagonist who finds herself torn between love and duty

“An ambitious, highly accomplished debut.” —Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

When Flannery, a young scientist, is forced to return to Austin from five years of research in Nigeria, she becomes torn between her two homes. Having left behind her loving fiancé without knowing when she can return, Flan learns that her sister, Molly, has begun to show signs of the crippling genetic disease that slowly killed their mother.

As their close-knit circle of friends struggles with Molly’s diagnosis, Flannery must grapple with what her future will hold: an ambitious life of love and the pursuit of scientific discovery in West Africa, or the pull of a life surrounded by old friends, the comfort of an old flame, family obligations, and the home she’s always known. But she is not the only one wrestling with uncertainty. Since their college days, each of her friends has faced unexpected challenges that make them reevaluate the lives they’d always planned for themselves.

A mesmerizing debut from an exciting young writer, Migratory Animals is a moving, thought-provoking novel, told from shifting viewpoints, about the meaning of home and what we owe each other—and ourselves.

You can purchase Migratory Animals at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you Mary Helen and Harper Collins for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht.

*JBN is not responsible for Lost or Damaged Books in your Nerdy Mail Box*
a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. to win the lottery so I could stay home and read!!! Thank you!

  2. I'd wish to do over certain periods of my life.

  3. I would wish for the world peace. Situation nowadays is horrible..