Mesha Maren: How I Write

"I never thought: I want to write a book about West Virginia. It’s just where my fiction comes from – a natural extension."

Mesha Maren
Mesha Maren. Photo by Jesus Perez

Before its release, Mesha Maren’s debut novel, Sugar Run, was included on many lists of must-read or most-anticipated books – for good reason. Since its publication, it has continued to gain momentum, accumulating glowing reviews. The story centers on a young woman who gets out of prison after serving 18 years and tries to rebuild her life. Written in alternating timelines in 2007 and 1988, the book takes readers into the heart of West Virginia (where Maren is from) and into the lives of her characters. Maren’s prose and plot create palpable tension, and that makes Sugar Run hard to put down. Although this is Maren’s first book, she is also an accomplished short story and essay writer.

Alternating timelines

I didn’t write in the order of the book, but I didn’t write all of one time period first and then the other. I started working on the novel’s first sections, which were the 1988-89 sections, back in 2010, when I started drafting some scenes for the book. I knew that the whole book wouldn’t take place during that time period, so I drafted the other parts simultaneously, but not in the way they appear now. I played around a lot about where to bring in the ’88 sections – in trying to make it into the right shape. Once the story was on the page, I thought about the architectural shape of each chapter. How long can the reader stay in 2007 before going back to 1988?

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West Virginia setting

It’s less thought out and more of that’s where the stories just came from. I never thought: I want to write a book about West Virginia. It’s just where my fiction comes from – a natural extension. All my previous fiction was set in West Virginia also, not because I wanted to but because that’s where the stories came from.

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Transition to novel writing

When I first started writing about Jodi, I didn’t know it could be a novel. I just knew I was really interested in that character. My process, whether it’s short fiction or a longer piece, is to start with handwritten notes in a cheap spiral-bound notebook. I realized after about three years of note taking that I had more material than just a short story. So in 2013, I started to form it into a novel. The biggest challenge was figuring out the structure of the plot and how to maintain the storyline over that length of pages. I wrote about 100 pages and threw them all out, then wrote 190 pages and threw out 150 of those.

“I never thought: I want to write a book about West Virginia. It’s just where my fiction comes from – a natural extension.”

Revision

I had a willingness to throw out anything that wasn’t working. I start out writing in longhand and draft that way, then transfer it to the computer, print it out, read it out loud, and then make edits. I sort of do it scene by scene and then move on to the next scene.

 Writing routine

It depends on where I am. When I was working on the book in Iowa City, I was waitressing and wrote anytime I wasn’t working. I mostly worked on it at the public library. I liked going there because it was devoid of anything to distract me. I worked from three to six hours each time, five or six times a week. When I went back to West Virginia toward the end of the book, I worked in a cabin that my dad and I built together. What’s important is being somewhere that I won’t be distracted.

 

Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.