Whitewater prof's novels mirror life

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Margaret Plevak | June 12, 2014

WHITEWATER — Ann Garvin is an author with a keen ear for dialogue and a writing style that's both funny and moving. Her first novel came out in 2010. “On Maggie's Watch” is the story of a pregnant woman coming back to her Wisconsin hometown, thinking it's a safe haven until she discovers the threat of a sexual predator in the neighborhood.

Garvin is  also a registered nurse and, for the past 16 years, a professor  at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where  she teaches diet, nutrition, exercise, research methods and other related topics to health educators and health promoters.

She will be at the Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave. in Milwaukee on Monday, June 23, to talk about her second and latest novel, “The Dog Year.”

During a recent phone interview, Garvin spoke about both of her books, what influences her style, and her experience as a writer.  Here's an edited version:

Q: You're an Easterner who lives in the Midwest. Talk a little bit about the journey.

A: ”I'm firmly a Midwestern girl. I actually was born in Pennsylvania, but after a short period, my family moved to West Virginia, then New Jersey and New York. My dad became the vice president of the largest copper mind in North America, and we moved to White Pine, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula, one hour away from a JC Penney. It was a great community to grow up in. It changed our whole experience. It was like living in the small town they portray in movies. There were no fast food places. There wasn't even a mailman.  I had the best middle school and high school there. Some of my biggest supporter come from there, and thanks to the magic of Facebook, we still keep in touch.”

Q: You've got a background in health sciences. What stoked your interest in writing?

A: “I've always been a reader my whole life. I've always admired authors. They're such rock stars to me.  I found an old notebook from when I was in middle school listing all the things I wanted to do, and one included writing a book. But I always wondered, 'How do I come up with the characters?'

“The prompt that stimulated my imagination was a Wisconsin Book Festival contest in 2004. You had 24 hours to create and submit a story about a painting they showed you. I received a second place award. I thought, 'That's cool. I'm going to try that again.'  Images spurred my imagination. Now I usually start with a character in my mind.”

Q: What was it like to pitch your first novel?

A: “I was a nervous wreck. It's so important to you that you think this is your only chance. But it's not like that. All the editors and agents I've met are lovely people, nothing like 'The Devil Wears Prada' or something. The editor in New York told me, 'I don't like your title very much.' I thought, OK. She said, 'You want to name it 'On Maggie's Watch.'  She named the book. I walked away from the meeting with a title, but I was expecting to get a book deal right then. When the book got published, and I came back to talk to her, she didn't remember that meeting. She said, “I don't even like the title.”

Q: “The Dog Year,” the story of a woman grieving the loss of her husband, deals in part with how women are treated in society. What shaped your ideas on that?

A: “Lucy, the main character in the book isn't particularly socially attractive, at least not in the way society thinks of as attractive—no long, flowing hair or a perfect face. She was named 'Luscious' by her mother.  She's the antithesis of luscious, but Lucy, like all of us, is beautiful in many ways. She felt Richard, her husband, was her only chance at love, and he truly loved her. When he dies, she feels she'll never find another man like that, and the rest of it didn't matter. It was the fact that she loved him and lost her love. She also lost her idea of happily ever after.

“I think women get a hard deal. We're only considered beautiful when we're young, and we're only considered beautiful in such a narrow way. Watch the women on the red carpet at the Oscars or scroll through 'People' magazine, and see how the idea of what society considers a beautiful woman is so homogenized. I think we're getting better about allowing women to be beautiful in other ways, but women still lose value in other ways in our society.”

Q: How did you develop your ear for dialogue?

A: “I've got great, funny friends, and I mine a lot of their dialogue and get the credit. I'm also aware of language—I make my living speaking to 200 to 300 students a day with all the classes I teach. When you spend a lot of time in class, you try to find pithy dialogue. You don't mince words with students or they fall asleep.  That helped my writing get to the point.”

Q: What's been the reaction so far to “The Dog Year”?

A: “Social media wasn't as heavy a presence when 'On Maggie's Watch' came out. I don't think I knew how so much of getting attention for the book was up to me.

“I don't mean it critically--I was a new writer and my manuscript needed work-- but I think the heart got edited out of my first  book. This time I really didn't get edited as much. I got to weave in all of the stuff that really created the heart of Lucy. Like all of us, she can sometimes be very irritating and at other times, very funny. For people to tell me they really understood the character makes me feel like I did what I wanted to do.

“I try not to read the reviews—it's like weighing yourself. You felt great before you stepped on the scale.  But one was very funny. There's a Dalmatian on the cover of the book, and one woman was so angry that there was no Dalmatian in the book. Five times she mentioned that there was no Dalmatian.  She was so invested in the book and it was wrecked for her. It made me laugh.”

Q: What do you believe writers do—mirror the human condition or stoke the imagination of readers?

A: "I think that people love to see themselves mirrored in the work because it's such a relief to see other people with the same worries, concerns and observations. It's enormously validating to read something and have that common experience because I think it makes us feel like we've been heard. Writing helps nourish humanity, so we can extrapolate some things and thank God we don't have to go through those things. We read about Lucy shoplifting and think, 'There but for the grace of God go I.'

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