Today Norm Goldman, Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com is excited to have as our guest Mary E. Martin author of The Osgoode Trilogy comprising Conduct in Question, Final Paradox and A Trial of One.
Mary practiced law in a small-estates firm until 1999, when she became a full-time writer and photographer.
Good day Mary and thanks for participating in our interview.
It’s my pleasure, Norm.
You’ve written The Osgoode Trilogy, which is comprised of three legal suspense novels. What makes them different from the usual suspense, mystery novels?
All three novels, Conduct in Question, Final Paradox and A Trial of One are definitely not your usual whodunit, howdunit or whydunit. The focus is on the protagonist lawyer, Harry Jenkins, a tentative, dissatisfied middle- aged man stuck under his senior partner’s thumb and in a dead marriage.
The murder and fraud, engulfing him, force Harry to draw upon undreamt of strengths and abilities. As a result, he becomes an individual who can live his life with energy, conviction and passion. In addition to intricate plots of murder, fraud and deceit, I take time to explore contrasting issues such as love, forgiveness and compassion.
Please tell us something about your beginning as a writer, when you first became aware of yourself as a writer, and how you pursued that craft?
As a child, I think I was a pretty imaginative story-teller and this did not always please parents, teachers etc! I really liked to read. The first adult book I read, at the age of about fourteen, was The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
I was completely amazed at how a writer could create such a vividly real world on the page and keep me riveted. Reading promised me the chance to live many lives all in one and it was likely the greatest inspiration to write.
In my late teens, I sat down one afternoon to write a novel. It was set in Vietnam. Why there? Probably because Vietnam was always in the news at the time! I certainly had never been there. I got to the end of the first page and hadn’t the slightest idea what came next—thus proving the old adage write what you know. After that came University and law school, but that’s a totally different kind of writing.
When you first began as a writer, were there rejections and how did you react to this?
There was, of course, plenty of that. But it wasn’t so much the rejection as the length of time it took for a publisher to decide. Because multiple submissions were frowned upon, you had to wait until someone said “no” before you could send it elsewhere. To get through this slow process, it was necessary to develop a rock solid belief in the value of my own work.
I noticed you started writing at age 42. Do you sometimes regret that you did not start earlier?
Sometimes “yes”. But actually, my twenty-eight years of law practice inspired the trilogy. I think that a lawyer is in a wonderful position. Just think! Every day, clients come to you with stories, situations and emotions about every sort of human experience. In that sense, a lawyer has a window on the world and on humanity.
That doesn’t mean individual clients or cases ever found their way into the trilogy. They did not. But all the clients and their situations became a sort of bubbling stew in me and I turned to writing to use that material.
For example, in Final Paradox and A Trial of One, there is a major character, Norma Dinnick—Harry’s elderly client. Now she keeps Harry debating whether she is a sweet, vulnerable old lady in need of his protection, or a dangerous and treacherous shrew? Her trips between madness and lucidity keep him on his toes.
Norma was in fact inspired by a client of mine but I elaborated greatly! Fortunately, I never came across anyone like the serial killer, dubbed the Florist in Conduct in Question. His genesis came from one question I asked myself—what kind of person do I find most frightening? My answer was—a joyful sadist, one who takes extreme pleasure in inflicting great physical and psychological pain.
And so, Norm, the short answer is simply that I needed all those years of experience to get my raw material.
There are many attorneys who have either become full-time or part-time authors and writers. How do you explain this trend?
As I was saying, each and every day, lawyers hear the most intimate details of other people’s lives. It is the lawyer’s job to find legal solutions to whatever the problem may be—if it is a legal problem, but sometimes it is not.
Perhaps only a minister or a psychologist has greater access, not only to events in lives, but thoughts and emotions. In turn, a lawyer observing all of this can’t help but think about and react to what he or she hears. Again, this does not mean one uses these details, but such exposure can be a powerful stimulus to writing. For me, the question is how can a lawyer not respond creatively to what he or she encounters in practice? At least that’s the way it was for me.
Do you write from your own experiences? If so, how did in fit into The Osgoode Trilogy?
Since The Osgoode Trilogy features a lawyer as the protagonist, I drew upon many experiences in my practice and my reflections upon it and human nature. Interestingly enough, I have never written about family [I have a husband and three adult children] or friends and that is likely just as well!
I do love to travel. The second half of A Trial of One is set in Venice, where I spent ten days by myself seven years ago. Venice has seeped into my soul and I hope you are moved by the magic of that city when you have finished that novel.
What kind of research did you do to write The Osgoode Trilogy?
I guess when you practice law for so long, it’s easy to create that world of the law. There is nothing in the trilogy that will send you running for a legal dictionary and so, it is the life experience of practice and dealing with clients which is the research. When you write about a familiar world in which you are comfortable, then you don’t need formal research. And conversely, that’s why the Vietnam novel was only one page in length.
How do you know when a book of yours is finished?
That’s a tough question! Sometimes it’s hard to deal with all the “advice” you get—good, bad or indifferent. When I was writing the first novel Conduct in Question there were many, many drafts and redrafts. I often say that it is the one which had the most “surgery”. And so, I wondered when do you stop writing the book for the most recent reader/critic? When do you say enough is enough? The writer must learn to decide for herself.
When you have critically examined your plot structure, deepened your characters and expressed the ideas you wanted, I guess you are done. Right now, I am at least two thirds through a first draft
of a new manuscript. I know much work lies ahead, but the most challenging, creative and most exhilarating part is producing that first draft.
After you have the first draft, then a different kind of work begins. The first step is to get an overview of your creation, before delving into the detail. I call that developing the third eye. In the early stages, I found it very hard to step back from the writing to see what kind of effect I was creating.
When are you “done”? Not until the book is published and you can’t make any more changes.
Is your work improvisational or do you have a set plan?
It’s a bit of both. I tend to make a lot of notes as I go along. For example, for my new novel, I may well make notes about what will happen next and what I want to accomplish. But I often surprise myself and find that I have written something quite different from what I expected.
Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?
Someone said that a writer has a duty to be intelligent. To me that requires the writer to bring all his or her experience, heart, soul, intelligence and craft to create the very best novel possible for him/her. That much is owed to the reader.
Has your environment and/or upbringing influenced your writing?
My upbringing was quite unusual for a girl in the 1950’s. There was never any doubt that I had to make something of myself, just like my two older brothers. It was much more than “girls have a right to be whatever they have the ability to be.” I understood very clearly that I had a responsibility to achieve. That took me to law school and on to almost thirty years of practice and eventually to writing.
Do you ever suffer from writer's block? If so, what do you do about it?
Writer’s block usually means that the well has run dry. Time to refill! When we keep trying to write under those conditions, the result is often second or third rate. I usually back off and do something else, trusting that my subconscious will do the heavy lifting.
But since I wrote the trilogy over a period of twenty years while practising law and raising three children, there were always other demands on my time. In fact, I had to “steal” time to write, usually late at night or early morning. It would have been an unwelcome luxury to sit at the computer until inspiration struck.
What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing? As a follow up what tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
The Canadian writer, Robertson Davies, said that the most important element was shamanstvo and I have to agree. The writer must be an excellent story teller and have the quality of an enchanter. It is human nature to learn about and understand the world through story. Just think of all the great myths and fables which have been told throughout time. I have the image of the shaman and the tribe congregated around the campfire, all riveted by the story. That’s the quality of shamanstvo.
A writer must have complete command of the language, its grammar and all the nuances of meaning. Also, an ear for dialogue is a big help. You need a sense of effective plotting and, again, that is related to shamanstvo. In addition, a deep and abiding interest in individual human beings and a fascination with all humankind is a great asset. You must have a burning desire to express yourself and a steadfast belief in your work to walk the path toward completion of your novel and publication.
Do you have a local writing community or fellow writers that you look to for support and advice?
I have been a member of the Crime Writers of Canada and Vice President of the Canadian Authors Association [Toronto Chapter]. But when it comes down to it, writing is a very solitary occupation. Group criticism, however well intended, is not necessarily helpful. Writing and reading is a highly personal affair—an intimate contract between the writer and the reader. Of course, it’s sometimes great to talk with other writers but one has to adhere to one’s personal vision.
How did you go about creating Attorney Harry Jenkins in your trilogy?
Harry is inspired by or modeled upon my deceased law partner, Robert Gray. When I started practice in 1973, Bob was in his early sixties. We practised together for almost twelve years until his death. He was a kind and true gentle man. Many of our conversations about life and the law were starting points for some of the plots in the trilogy. For example, Bob once told me that his senior partner had “kept him in the backroom” for the first ten years of practice. And so, Harry Jenkins starts out under the thumb of his senior partner and part of the trilogy is about freeing himself from the old “ghosts”.
Do you agree that to have good drama there must be an emotional charge that usually comes from the individual squaring off against antagonists either out in the world or within himself or herself? If so, please elaborate and how does it fit into you novels?
Yes indeed! In fact, that is what The Osgoode Trilogy is all about. In the first one, Conduct in Question, the protagonist, Harry Jenkins, has numerous antagonists. But the main one is the Florist, a true Jekyll and Hyde character, right in our midst—and frighteningly charming! Harry is the first to connect the dots and realize who this person is. And he does that only because he is a man of considerable intuition and intelligence.
In Final Paradox, Harry has an antagonist much closer to home. It’s hard to tell about his client, Norma. With her trips from madness to lucidity, he has to decide if she is harmless and vulnerable, or a dangerous menace. Tough for Harry, because he must, as her lawyer, obtain clear instructions!
Then in A Trial of One, we meet Dr. Robert Hawke. Although cloaked in the legitimacy of medical research into Alzheimer’s, this man is a charming madman. With a hidden agenda, not revealed until very near the end, Hawke gives new meaning to the term “a trial of one.”
But the most interesting aspect of the trilogy is that Harry’s greatest antagonist lies within himself and threatens to keep him from living the best life he can. In Conduct in Question it is his uncertainty about his own values. The question— how much money is enough—must be answered by him alone. He is put to the test when he must extricate himself from a money laundering scam.
In Final Paradox, it is the emptiness within himself, caused by the emotional abandonment of his father, which keeps him from finding real love. Fortunately, Natasha, the love of his life leads him to better times. I just realized that Natasya or Natasha means resurrection. I did not give her that name in any conscious way. It just “flew” into my head and, given her importance in Harry’s life, it is most appropriate.
When he meets his adversary Dr. Robert Hawke in, A Trial of One, Harry must confront his own homophobia, which stands in his way of understanding love and compassion.
Are you working on any books/projects that you would like to share with us? (We would love to hear all about them!)
Right now, as I said, I am working on a fourth novel, which is entirely different from The Osgoode Trilogy. I have always feared getting trapped with one protagonist and writing the same story over again too many times. So, Harry and I are having an “amicable separation” for awhile. The new protagonist is a famous British landscape artist, Alexander Wainwright, about whom I am still learning.
In this novel, which is provisionally entitled, Fleeting Moments, I am taking the opportunity to explore such human aspects as love, forgiveness and compassion. Those are themes which have ridden along beside the plots of murder and fraud in The Osgoode Trilogy and now, I’m trying to give myself enough scope to explore them through an array of different characters.
Just to give you a taste—this famous artist has painted the most beautiful and engaging landscapes of the English countryside. Suddenly, he begins painting “troll-like” characters on a riverbank. His art dealer is aghast and begs him to take a break. The novel is partly about this painter’s journey from the confines of fundamentalist religious thought and onto a more universal level. But much work lies ahead and ideas may well change.
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