Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Mary Pascual Interview - The Byways

Photo Content from Mary Pascual 

Mary Pascual is a writer and artist who believes finding magic is only a matter of perspective. She loves stories about characters with heart and fantastical settings that are more than meets the eye. She grew up in California and enjoys reading, art, traveling, exploring outside, and building elaborate stage sets for Halloween. Writing has taken her on a number of unexpected adventures, including working in high tech, meeting psychics, interviewing rock bands, and even once attending a press conference for Bigfoot. She got hooked on reading adult science fiction and fantasy in the fifth grade—so in retrospect, much of her reading material was completely inappropriate (which probably explains a few things). She lives with her husband, son, and assorted demanding cats in San Jose, California.


When/how did you realize you had a creative dream or calling to fulfill?
I think the idea of being a writer started percolating when I was five. As soon as I could read, I devoured books by the dozen and I remember writing one of my first stories in 2nd grade. By the time I was 15, I knew I wanted to go to college, study literature, and become a novelist. I wrote short stories and poetry all the time. But given that, I was still reluctant to call myself a “writer” or an “artist” for years. In my head, I felt like I couldn’t claim those titles unless I was actually published or making money for art, and it always felt like I was just putzing around — my writing projects didn’t count or my art projects weren’t “real” art. In actuality, most of my jobs were centered around writing, and I blogged and wrote online. I also constantly crafted gifts and decorations, or I made displays for Halloween or props for parade floats. People had begun to make comments about how they looked forward to my displays every year or they liked the funny posts I had written. It wasn’t until I looked back over the cumulative years and realized that I was always writing and always making art, and that other people (not just me) enjoyed those pieces… then it truly started to sink in that I might have a creative calling.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
People keep telling me they’re proud of me. I wasn’t expecting that. It’s very touching.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to have a life in writing? 
 Publishing is a really long journey. Keep going and don’t be hard on yourself if it doesn’t happen overnight or if it doesn’t happen the way you expect it to unfold. Also, remember that every piece of writing will help you build toward your writing dreams. I wrote as a marketing writer for a long time in high tech, and I always considered that writing to “not count”. I felt the same about my online writing. But it does count! Any writing you’re doing, even if it’s not part of your dream writing, will still teach you skills that will benefit you in the long run. It’s all practice and it’s all opportunities that can support you.

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
Family life. Not to say that’s a bad thing! But there is always something to clean, manage, or fix when you’re a mom. It’s really easy to put everyone and everything else first and put the writing last, and by the end of the day, you’re tired! But, ironically, family life was also one of the greatest sources of inspiration for The Byways, so it was an interesting push/pull. On one hand I’d think, “Oh, I have to fold laundry,” but on the other, I’d notice something one of the kids did at school or I’d have a lyrical turn of phrase in my head and I’d try to write it down before I forgot. I tried to get up early to write, like so many writing pros recommend, but that was a dismal failure on my part. I’m more of a night owl, and the need for sleep will trump creativity at any time! However, writing also got easier as my son got older and more independent. Then after a certain point, my son and his friends became excited that I was writing a book and that inspired me to keep going.

Has reading a book ever changed your life? Which one and why, if yes?
There have been many books that have changed my life! It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with books and writing. I think an argument could be made that every single book changes you in some small way, even the ones that you don’t like! But some of the big ones for me were books that changed my perception of what a story could be. I’m a huge fan of Neil Gaiman and Sean Stewart. I really loved Geoff Ryman’s The Child Garden, and Out on Blue Six by Ian McDonald. Emma Bull was another favorite, and the Borderland books edited by Terri Windling. All of those expanded my ideas of what I could do with writing.

Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
Communication is an essential part of being human. Speaking is one of the first things we learn and we use language every moment of the day. But so many people struggle with putting their feelings or perceptions into words. Sometimes we’re just too close to our own experience. Storytelling is a way of extending our communication vocabulary. By seeing characters or other people in stories, it gives us the distance to also see and recognize ourselves. And because we recognize ourselves, we can also see circumstances and points of view that might be different from our own lives, yet we still intrinsically understand how we share that breadth of experience. Storytelling often celebrates the individual character, but it’s a profoundly unifying act.

Can you tell us when you started THE BYWAYS, how that came about?
My son has sensory processing disorder (SPD) and ADHD. He was diagnosed with SPD around three years old. He was an incredibly active child, but also very joyful. When I would take him to Gymboree, all the other toddlers would sit quietly while my son ran around the circle, laughing with glee. ADHD runs through our family (I was diagnosed as an adult), and I also had a brother with developmental delays so I’d always been around kids like my son. But it was when I reread Alice in Wonderland that the idea for The Byways started. I was re-familiarizing myself with classic children’s books that I could read to my son, and as soon as I read Alice, I recognized her. I thought, “This child has hyperactivity and impulse issues!” Then, as my son and I went through his neurodiverse journey, going to therapies and navigating the school system, ideas for The Byways kept unfolding and developing, especially as I saw other children, particularly girls, go through their own experiences. Eventually, I realized I wanted to highlight a girl’s journey, because the reputations that attach themselves to girls who acted up seemed to last much longer than it did boys. Rewriting Alice as neurodiverse and using a reframed Wonderland as a jumping off point let me explore some of those societal expectations and the resulting emotional response that I had seen kids go through, or that I, myself, had experienced.

Your Journey to Publication
My road to publication was one that kept detouring into my head until I got out of my own way. The book had been living in my mind a few years but I started seriously writing The Byways in 2016. At least, that’s when I started a writing log so I could keep track of my progress. Four drafts later, in 2018, I felt ready to start querying. I did all the usuals… I polished my pitch, query letter, and synopsis, I went to writer’s conferences to meet editors and agents, I sent out letters, I lurked on Manuscript Wishlist trying to find a perfect match, I participated in twitter pitch events, any opportunities I could find that made sense for my project. Nothing I did seemed to make any traction. Although, out of the slew of “no’s”, I had two to three really sweet rejections. (That says something about this writing journey, when you have favorite rejections!)

By early 2020, I was working on my second novel, as well as pitching The Byways, and I had hit a bit of a low point. I was questioning all my choices and skills. Maybe my writing is terrible and no one will tell me! I thought. Why am I working so hard? That person over there isn’t chasing a dream, and they look so relaxed! I could be that relaxed! I just have to stop. But deep down, I knew I didn’t want to stop. I thought about self-publishing eventually, but that was an overwhelming amount of work and I wasn’t ready to take that on. I wanted a partner on this journey. I happened to stumble across SparkPress, a hybrid publisher and an imprint of SparkPoint Studio, while I was doing research on publishers. Part of SparkPress’s submission process, at the time, was an assessment where they would tell you where your manuscript fell in terms of level: ready to publish, needs copywriting, needs coaching, or go back and hone your craft. I thought that at least if I submit here, I’ll get a good idea if I’m close to ready and where I can improve if I’m not. I pulled out my manuscript and spent a couple of months doing another draft, really honing it, and then I sent it in. But, to be honest, I hadn’t really thought through the ramifications of submitting at SparkPress. I had gotten so many rejections (thirty at that point), I was expecting to get rejected again. To my great surprise, Brooke Warner, the publisher, came back and said you’re ready for publication! Would I like to set up a meeting?

I admit, even though I felt incredibly heartened by the positive assessment, I dithered on doing anything about it. We were in the early part of the pandemic, and BLM protests had just started across the country. I, like many people, was glued to my TV set much of the time. My head was swimming in free-floating anxiety and it was difficult to move or plan beyond ordering groceries and sitting on the couch. And again, I hadn’t thought through the ins and outs of hybrid publishing and I needed to learn more. I went back and forth about what to do for months.

Finally, I had an epiphany… of sorts. One of the ways, I stay grounded is to regularly practice mindfulness and meditation, especially during the craziness that was 2020! One night I was meditating and I visualized myself in a meadow surrounded by trees, with a river in the near distance. It was very peaceful and I felt myself relax. Suddenly, a large wolf came out of the woods. He came up to me and said, “Let’s take a walk.” I said, “Um, okay.” The wolf led me to the river, stopped, and looked me dead in the eye. He said, “You can’t catch a fish if you don’t jump in.” I came out of the meditation with a start, thinking, Okay okay, I’ll set up a meeting!

By the time I contacted Brooke, the window for the next publishing season had closed. Yikes! But she was still interested, if I was willing to wait. After speaking with her and learning about their process, I really felt like SparkPress could be a great match. Soon after, I signed the contract. (It still didn’t feel completely real, though. That took a long time.) Since then, it has been amazing working with SparkPress.

My family and friends have always been my biggest cheerleaders. When I announced I was getting published, most of them said, “Finally!” I couldn’t agree more. I almost missed a huge opportunity. I just had to get out of my own way.

What is the first job you have had? 
First under-the-table job was as a daycare assistant. First official job, I was a grocery store bagger.

Best date you've ever had? 
My favorite dates are the ones in sticky toffee pudding. Dessert rules!

What is the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning? 
What day is it? And sometimes… where I am? Often when I’m traveling, I lose track of where I am, and there have been many groggy mornings where I needed to figure out which room/house/hotel I was in.

Which incident in your life that totally changed the way you think today? 
I did a spiritual retreat in Sedona that completely changed the way I viewed the world.

Which would you choose, true love with a guarantee of a heart break or have never loved before? 
True love. Every time.

What do you usually think about right before falling asleep? 
 My mind is usually a swirl of chaos as I’m trying to sleep so I’m not sure. All sorts of things are floating around in there. Sometimes I’m thinking about art pieces, sometimes I’m going over a story I just read, or my to do list for the next day, other times it’s super random and starts merging with dream elements but I’m still not totally asleep. It’s confusing!

What was your favorite subject when you were in school? 
I really loved English or anything writing related, no surprise there. But I wasn’t always the best student in high school! I’d get an attitude and not do the homework, so my grades weren’t great. But I’d always do the reading, so I did well on tests, even if I was basically flunking the class. My next favorite class was metal work and jewelry making. That class was the first time I realized I really liked working with my hands.

First Love? 
Indiana Jones.

Most horrifying dream you have ever had? 
I am quite good at repressing horrifying dreams! Unless there is an obvious life lesson in it that I’m supposed to pay attention to, I see no need to remember bad dreams.

What decade during the last century would you have chosen to be a kid? 
That’s a hard one. Either turn of the 1900s so I could be a flapper as a teen. Or the 1950’s because I’d love to experience that cultural shift from the 50s to the hippy 60s.

At a movie theater which arm rest is yours? 
The right! My husband and my son are both left-handed and we always have to do the seat shuffle so no one is accidentally elbowing anyone else.

What is one unique thing are you afraid of? 
I could tell you but then other people would know, and I’m secretly afraid that someone will learn what I’m secretly afraid of and then will use it against me. Probably in a supervillain lair type of situation. Wait, maybe that means I’m also secretly afraid of secret… fears? That doesn’t sound right.

What is the weirdest thing you have seen in someone else’s home? 
Shag carpeting in the bathroom! We were house hunting and this particular open house had carpeting in every single room! Including the kitchen, the laundry room, and yes, shag carpeting around the toilet. *shudder* I mean, I get the appeal of wanting a cushy surface in the bathroom, it sounds nice. But I’ve lived with too many people who can’t aim, especially in the middle of the night, and it just grosses me out.

High school student CeeCee Harper has special needs, a temper, and a reputation for trouble. Angry at the rumors and afraid she’ll never fit in, she makes a wrong move—and lands in the Byways, a world of alleys, magic, and forgotten people . . . some that aren’t even human. And if she doesn’t escape quickly, CeeCee learns, she’ll be trapped for good.

Searching for a way out, she gets lost among monsters, drug pushers, the homeless, and political upheaval, and soon finds there are those who will stop at nothing to keep her from leaving. But the Byways pull people in for a reason. CeeCee must figure out why she got stuck in the first place—before her loved ones are put in danger and she loses them forever.

A dark retelling of Alice in Wonderland meets Neverwhere, this contemporary fantasy will enchant Neil Gaiman and Christina Henry fans.
You can purchase The Byways at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you MARY PASCUAL for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of The Byways by Mary Pascual.


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