CM February 16, 1996. Vol II, Number 18

Interview: Jeni Mayer

author of The Mystery of the Missing Will

CM interviewed Jeni Mayer February 12, the week she came to Winnipeg to accept the 1995 Manitoba Young Readers' Choice Award for The Mystery of the Missing Will.

CM: How did you get started writing?

Mayer: Well, it was out of necessity when I was growing up, because I was in this town of 150 people and there was literally nothing to do. I used to hang out in this group of seven kids and we used to get together and tell each other stories -- you know monster stories, vampires, anything scary. And then afterwards we used to explore abandoned houses . . . And over the years it became a competition to outdo one another in your storytelling. So that's how the storytelling started, or at least the interest in stories.

But I think I was twelve years old before I discovered that Canadians could write. Literally. Because our library had no Canadian titles in it that I could find, just American things -- the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, that was what our library was full of. It was my belief that either Canadians weren't smart enough to write books or our lives were so boring that we had nothing to write about.

Then I read "The Cremation of Sam McGee." And when I got to the bottom of the poem, where it said that Robert Service was a Canadian writer, that just -- wow, you know, that was really something for me. It changed the way I looked at writing and I thought, "yeah, I have stories that I want to tell . . ."

So I started writing stories, mostly vengeful little pieces about being the youngest in the family. I'd have stories about my brother being eaten by monsters or my sisters being stolen by gypsies. . . .

CM: How very satisfying.

Mayer: It was, it was nice and vengeful. . . .

And I started publishing poetry, you know, sending it away, when I was about twenty-six. That was when my kids were little and I was writing a lot of poetry. But I never really thought of myself as a writer, never thought of it as a career, until The Mystery of the Turtle Lake Monster came out.

CM: That was your first book --

Mayer: Yeah, and it did really well. I wrote it for my kids -- we had spent the summer at Turtle Lake, looking for the monster, couldn't find it, so at the end of the summer my kids said, "Well, write us a story and pretend it's real."

So I wrote and wrote and ended up with a novel, and Thistledown was interested, and it outsold a lot of books that they'd had in the line for years. So that was great, and they asked if I wanted to write another one, and by the time they asked I already had one ready, so I handed it over.

CM: That was The Mystery of the Missing Will.

Mayer: Right.

CM: That book seems to reflect some of those childhood experiences exploring abandoned houses. . . .

Mayer: A lot of my childhood is in that book, the spooky part of it. . . .

CM: The Mystery of the Missing Will definitely has a mystery, and a touch of the supernatural, but it seems that thematically you were more interested in the lives of the girls who are your protagonists than in issues relating to crime, or spirits. It's their relationships with one another and with their parents that seem to be at the heart of the book.

Mayer: Yeah, the characters in that book kind of dictated that. Especially in a mystery, you sort of block out in your mind all the things that are going to happen and how you're going to get to the end of it. But the characters always sort of grow and they have these personalities and these problems that enter into it. And I think that's particularly true of The Mystery of the Missing Will.

The characters ended up dictating that these were the issues that they were dealing with in their lives. All this mysterious stuff is going on, but the mystery that runs through the novel is also about their lives. And the characters seemed to tell me that that's what had to be dealt with, along with the ghosts and everything else. But I didn't intentionally try to find those issues with my characters -- they just developed.

CM: The cover says "A Mayer Mystery," and when I started the book, I assumed that it would be at least be setting up continuing characters -- like the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books you read as a kid. But by the end, it would be difficult to bring those characters back for a sequel. I was impressed that you cared enough for the realism of what was going on in their lives to not return them to a point of stasis so that you could plunge them into another adventure next time. . . .

Mayer: I never have any intention when I'm writing a book of doing a second one. And that's one of the good things about working with Thistledown, because they've given me the freedom to do that. They said, "Do you want to write a series of mysteries?"

And I said "Yeah," but I didn't want to be held by the structure, to feel that I had to manipulate the story in this book so that they'll be available for the next book.

That's definitely been one of the reasons I've stuck with Thistledown throughout, and always think of them as my first publisher, because they allow me that freedom.

CM: They've done a good job promoting your books too. . . .

Mayer: They've done a wonderful job. It's a good gang of people to work with; they're very open to new ideas. I've done a lot of tours; I've probably spoken at three hundred schools in the last few years. They really promote authors not just titles.

In some houses you're just another book and you're never able to get your name out there. But because Thistledown promotes authors, it's sort of opened up another career for me of doing readings and teaching.

CM: You've written other things beyond these Young Adult mysteries; I'm wondering which you're more attached to, the Young Adult part, or the supernatural mystery part?

Mayer: Like a lot of Young Adult authors, it's not that I write specifically for that age group, it just sort of happens . . . Though when I'm writing I understand that those are the people my work is going to appeal to.

And I certainly have an interest in the supernatural. When I was growing up witchcraft and all of those things were really important to the storytelling process; that was the material, and I can't separate myself from that background. Ideally, every mystery I ever write will have some facet of that, whether it's psychic ability or whatever, because that to me is exciting. I like to explore that, I like doing research about it and talking to people about how they feel about those different phenomena, and I like to talk to people who are on both sides of the fence.

So from a research point of view, when I'm working on a novel, that makes it interesting, but it's also something I'm really firmly grounded in from my childhood. You know, when we were kids we had seances, and we really believed we were calling up spirits; it's something that every kid experiences, I think. Certainly growing up in rural Saskatchewan, going through old houses, you're totally convinced that these shadows that you see, that these things that might have moved a quarter of an inch when you turned your back are being moved by a spirit.

And then as an adult, you just put it down to being kids, but I don't allow myself to do that; I say, "Oh, yeah, wasn't that a neat experience," and don't lose the wonder of childhood.

CM: So these things aren't divisible for you. You wouldn't want to write an adult Steven King or Anne Rice horror novel; it's that childhood experience of what might be supernatural that --

Mayer: -- That fascinates me. Absolutely. I've never had any plans of writing a supernatural novel for adults. I write what I write and I don't look beyond that and say "What should I be writing?"

CM: You also seem to be happy to write about the real places you've been. There's no ambiguity about you're setting in The Mystery of the Missing Will: it's a rural community outside of Saskatoon; it's not some place that could be in middle America. . . .

Mayer: Yeah, that's really important to me. As I was saying, I grew up believing that nothing could ever happen here, and it's important to me that when kids pick up books that they recognize their own home place, that they recognize those things that are Canadian.

It's getting better, but we have had a problem in this country in recognising that our own lifestyle, our own settings have value. And when we don't have our stories in our schools we're continuing that little nightmare of telling our kids that they're not worthy either. So I don't have any doubts about putting my stories in very specifically Canadian places, and I'm happy to do it.

CM: It seems that we deprive our kids when we don't invest the landscape they live in with the possibilities of romance and adventure.

Mayer: And adventure is there; I tell my kids about my childhood and I tell them about going through old houses, and going through graveyards at midnight, and they say, "Wow, I could neveranything exciting, and yet I look at their lives and I see the exciting things they're doing -- because they're living in a rural setting -- and they don't realize it yet, but I think they'll appreciate it more when they think back. . . .

CM: There's some question whether there's too much horror and supernatural fiction being published for kids these days; what are your thoughts?

Mayer: Well, there's a lot of well-written stuff out there --

But the problem isn't so much that there's an overload of the subject matter, as there is a corporate machine that's producing this mass of literature on supernatural themes. I don't think we have a problem of too many writers dealing with these subjects; we have a problem with too many corporations selling product disguised as books. . . .

CM: This might be a touchy subject, but you were living in Martensville, writing supernatural mysteries, at the same time the town was going through a nightmarish legal case relating to Satanic cults and who knows what else. Did that impinge on your imagination? Was it something that you ignored, or something that affected your writing?

Mayer: It didn't affect my writing, and I didn't have time to spend a lot of time on it, because I had two small children who were growing up in this insane series of events. And as a parent, I really had to focus so much attention on their not being damaged by what was happening, that my writing was irrelevant.

And maybe that was lucky, because I wonder if I'd given it any thought when I was living in the midst of that, if it wouldn't have made me nervous writing about the subjects. If it wouldn't have given me a block about what I was writing, and made me very cautious not to get lumped into all of that craziness.

But simply because I was a mother, that was my primary role; being a writer was so secondary that there wasn't time to get caught up thinking about it. There were so many issues to deal with the kids, and so many talks that needed to happen. The parents only heard what was in the newspapers, but the kids heard a lot more. So every day you had to deal with something else. . . .

It was very traumatic, I think for the whole country. In a one-year period, I travelled to Toronto, P.E.I., Manitoba, and all over Saskatchewan and Alberta. And it didn't matter where I went, when I was introduced as someone from Martensville, you could see a ripple go through the crowd. . . .

CM: In general, do you like the business of going around and doing your readings and promoting your books or is it just a necessary chore?

Mayer: Oh, absolutely not. I love telling stories, and the bigger the audience, the happier I am. I love telling ghost stories. I like the audience response to that. Doing a reading is sort of like sitting around the campfire with a bunch of your friends and their kids and trying to scare everybody.

That's what it is for me, and then I get that feedback from the kids about my books -- they have a lot of questions about how I write, or why, or what they really liked about the book. And that gives me the things I need to look at as a writer, and I go home and keep those things in mind while I'm writing. I love that part of it. I wouldn't want to do it month after month, but I love it.

CM: That sounds tremendously rewarding.

Mayer: Yeah, it is. It's the best part.

CM: Tell me about your job with the Saskatchewan Writer's Guild.

Mayer: I work as the Education Officer. It's actually close to what I'm doing right now as a writer; my job is to promote Saskatchewan and Canadian Literature. Our biggest challenge in Saskatchewan is encouraging the use of Saskatchewan books in the curriculum list. The schools are really supportive of the guild program as far as having readings and workshops -- there's about 250 sponsored through the guild, and then of course there are other writers doing it independently. We look at different ways of promoting the literature in the schools, whether it's by giving them information about the writers so they can do novel studies, or even information about how to get the books -- giving ISBN numbers, anything we can do to make it easy for them to use the literature.

CM: Have you written other mysteries since The Mystery of the Missing Will?

Mayer: The third mystery was Suspicion Island. I have written other novels -- one's set in Egypt, one's set down in the 'States. I was interested in the stories while I was writing them, but I don't really have an interest in publishing them, so I've sort of left them on the shelf. And now I'm concentrating strictly on When Eagles Dance.

CM: Would you talk about that project a little?

Mayer: I met the man who's now my husband three years ago at an elders' gathering. And at that time we just started telling each stories -- we're both real storytellers. And over a period of about six months, just as friends, we started talking about writing a short-story collection.

I grew up in this small town in Saskatchewan, and he grew up in Red Pheasant reserve by North Battleford, so there were only a hundred miles between us, and yet our lives and the way we grew up were so totally different.

We decided to write back-to-back stories -- I would write a story about my first day at school, what it was like my first date, you know all of those experiences of childhood, and he was going to write them about his, and we'd just put them together that way. But we did it through fictionalized characters, and the main character of his stories became so powerful that it just whited out the stories that I was telling. So we decided to switch tracks and work on a novel. The whole process has taken two years, but now we're down to the final edit.

It's been really fascinating. And then we got married in the middle of the book, in April of last year.

CM: What a great way to get to know someone. . . .

Mayer: It's been interesting. And I've learned an awful lot about his culture, not only through the exchange of stories, but we've spent a lot of time on the reserve, and I've learned a lot about his spirituality.

Even sweat-lodges: I didn't know what they were, I'd never heard of them, and then to suddenly be in one and experiencing that -- it's been really great. To have grown up so close to it and have no awareness, it's sort of startling when I think about it. . . .

A review of The Mystery of the Missing Will is reprinted in this issue of CM

To comment on this interview, send mail to

Copyright © 1996 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364

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