Since Hamline’s own Lady Em Fak (otherwise
known as Marsha Q) has generously interviewed grads and faculty members about
their most recent books, it seemed only fair to turn the tables and interview
Marsha about her new novel, Venom and the
River: A Novel of Pepin
. The novel is available as an e-book through Untreed Reads. —Liza Ketchum

Q: Please describe the story. 
A: Leigh Burton, a former, disgraced journalist working and living under the
radar in tiny Pepin, Minnesota, faces exposure and gets sucked into mayhem when
several hundred ardent (and adult) fans of a children’s book series descend on Pepin,
the hometown of the series’ author.
Q: This new novel is written for adults, rather than for
your usual YA audience. What were the major differences in writing for an adult
vs. a teen reader? Were you conscious of a different approach in your choice of
subject matter, voice, or characters?

A: My first steps were the same steps I take when writing a YA: envisioning the
scenario and the main characters. The differences emerged once that daydreaming
work was done and I understood the set-up (the fans and the woman trying to
avoid the fans and why they were in the same town). Those differences all grew
out of character: Leigh, a forty-something woman, will respond to situations
differently than a teenage girl, and she will create and require different
complications. Also, there’s more wine drinking.
Q: As the story progressed from
inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those
changes come about? When did you first begin work on Venom? When did you finish?
A: It took me about three years to finish the draft, longer than any previous
novel. Then I had to find an agent. Another year, maybe. Once I did, she
requested and I delivered a revision. The major change was a huge one: Originally
the novel had 5 POV characters, and my agent told me to make it Leigh’s story.
So I deleted two of those characters entirely and pushed another two into secondary
roles. This required me to deepen Leigh’s story and to kill more than a few
darlings. The blood was flowing in my office, I tell you.
Q: Venom takes place in Minnesota, in a region you know well. Did you
need to do additional research for this novel? If so, how did that research
inform or change the story?
A: It’s set along the Mississippi River, near a section called Lake Pepin, and
I made quite a few day trips to the area as I needed to know what Leigh would
see at the river’s edge. I focused on the town of Wabasha, Minnesota. Though
Wabasha is larger than my imaginary Pepin (the real Pepin is in Wisconsin, across
the river) it served nicely as an anchor. BTW, Grumpy Old Men was filmed in Wabasha.
Q: We have often heard you
speak about your passion for the Betsy Tacy series of books, as well as your
interest in the
Maud Hart Lovelace Society How did that
involvement influence the story?
A: I’ve been very involved in the MHLS since the mid-nineties, and that
involvement triggered the whole darn thing. Well, that and my burning desire
after writing nine novels about teen girls to write about a mother of a teen
Q: Without naming names,
tell us who your first readers are (e.g., live-action writing group; online
writing group; editor; agent). When do you share a piece of writing?
A: I share only when I have a completed draft. As for readers … once upon a
time my editor—I had only one during my YA writing years—was my first reader. Then
she and a couple of book-world friends and a daughter were Venom’s first readers. And now? Thank goodness for people you meet
when teaching in a low-residency writing program.
Q: Venom and the
reads more like a traditional mystery than some of your previous
novels. Did your story grow more from plot than from character, or did those two
elements work together?
A: Plot grew out of character, and it’s related to the adult v. YA question
above. I needed the story to have some energy, and that sure wasn’t going to
come from a plot that focuses on a middle-aged woman who’s being forced to
confront the mistakes she’s made, which is pretty much the emotional scenario
of this and so many other adult novels. So to conjure up the energy, I delved
into what would happen because Leigh’s an outsider (a stranger arrives!). It
was natural her involvement would unravel the fan’s world just as those fans unravel
Q: You use humor to good effect in Venom. Is it hard to “write funny”? Do
you have a favorite funny word?
A: Thank you. For me humor is partly the result of a good vocabulary and a
sense of rhythm. The right word at the right moment—zing. I think putter is a funny word.
Q: Venom’s
subtitle—A Novel of Pepin—makes me
wonder if this is one in a series. If so, would subsequent novels feature any
of the same characters?
A: No plans for a series. The title was a gift from the editor, and the subtitle
is more about marketing as we wanted to catch the interest of Little House
Q: What are your favorite books to teach? What titles
would you recommend to a student working on a mystery?
I love teaching books where structure is obviously in play—where the chapter
stops and starts are exemplary, where devices and POV choices are used well, where
Time is a factor. Mysteries or suspense stories I frequently recommend include Blank Confession (
Pete Hautman), Trapped
in Death Cave
Bill Wallace),
and The Rules of Survival (
Nancy Werlin).
Q: You mentioned, in a blog post, that you are writing
a “space opera murder mystery” with your daughter. Interesting! Could you
describe your collaborative process?
A: At this point, she’s educating me. I’d never heard the term “space opera”
before. Now I’m reading lots of
Neil deGrasse Tyson and some fiction. We’ve
already discarded one effort (a dystopian thingee that we both lost interest in
quickly). But we’re gathering steam now as we bat plot and character ideas back
and forth. That’s about as far as it’s gone, frankly. I’ve already insisted
suggested to her that we use the writing process (MFAC faculty member)
Emily Jenkins
described to me. When she (as
E. Lockhart) and
two other writers were collaborating on How
to be Bad
they took turns adding fresh stuff, the material making the
rounds with no editing and no critiquing until they were well into the first
draft. Until then, everyone’s contribution was deemed fabulous. How wise was
Q: Venom and the
has been published as an e-book. Do you feel you’ve embarked on a new
adventure in publishing?
A: Oh, Liza, every new novel is an adventure. But, yes, I do. Just the speed of
this takes my breath away. My agent negotiated the contract in April 2013, I
was doing copyedits at residency, and the e-book was released in late July 2013.
This post-release period is odd. How does one launch an e-book? How does one
gather one’s friends to celebrate? What if one’s friends or relatives don’t
have a reading device? I’ve had some complaints about it not being a real book,
which is true, I guess. But it is a real novel, and I’m holding on to that.
For more information about Marsha Qualey’s books, visit her website.


Marsha Qualey is the author of several young adult novels, including Just Like That, Too Big of a Storm, One Night, and Close to a Killer. Her books have appeared on numerous best-of-the-year lists, including ALA Quick Picks, ALA Best Books for Young Adults, IRA Readers' Choice, New York Public Library's Books for the Teen Age, and School Library Journal's Best Books of the Year.

Marsha retired from the Hamline MFAC faculty in 2017. 

Visit Marsha's website.