In the Spotlight: Mary B. Valencia

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I love this story by Mary B. Valencia, and I have read an earlier draft of the whole story, because we worked on it together a few summers ago. I'm pleased to see that she's still working on it, and I'm so happy that she chose an excerpt to share on the site this month! Because this story is doing so many sharp, subtle things already, especially with characterization.

In this excerpt, Tasha and Jean are shown vividly through details, yes. And dialogue – check out Tasha's first line! A cliché, you might think, at first – but then it's turned inside out so abruptly, before the sentence is even finished. But Jean and Tasha (and Lynn) are also characterized through the verbs Valencia uses. For instance, Jean's shoulders "curbed inwards" and her finger "frisked the pack" of cigarettes. Weird verb choices... but now it's hard to not be interested in this character, no?

In just a few paragraphs, Valencia manages to invite interest, introduce conflict, and present compelling questions – so many questions, you can't stop reading, because you're too interested in the story to put it down. It's quite a trick: to mirror that quality of interest and alertness you feel when you experience hard-to-articulate relationship tensions in real life. Valencia creates real characters, and they have that inherent tension, but you feel it without her having to explain it. She makes the relationships be complicated – in and through her writing of them.


Mary B. Valencia

Meet Mary

Mary B. Valencia is a graduate of the Masters in Media and Creative Writing program at the University of Wales, Swansea. She has published in The Globe and Mail, Descant, PRISM International and Event Magazine. Her most recent work is for the popular parenting blog bunchfamily.ca where she appears as a columnist.


Handwriting or computer?

First draft always handwritten, then computer.


Page count or time count?

TIME count.


First drafts or revision?

They're so different. First drafts have great imagery I find, and revised drafts link up all those images seamlessly.


Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?

Mainly solo... But I love groups.


Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?

Classical music.


Why do you write?

I write because it connects me to the deepest part of myself, like a higher presence who knows more than I do. It also connects me to the world and makes me pay attention to it, its smells and touches and sounds. I find it one of the most satisfying creative things. It's like this spiritual massage and I always feel better after writing. Like any practice it isn't easy, but it is deeply satisfying and necessary. And this connection through writing, I hope, transcends to contribute to the social, political and interpersonal dialogue that exists.


Who are you reading these days for influence, and why?

Lisa Moore, Amy Hempel, Alice Munro – because their short stories are succinct, sexy and I recognize myself and the people in my life in these stories. They know how to pinpoint the fleeting emotions of the human condition.


Tell us about the excerpt you’re sharing today.

Loss has been a theme I like exploring – loss of a loved one, of a time, of oneself. This excerpt is from the beginning of the story, and is set in the Niagara region.


Exerpt from Tasha, by Mary B. Valencia

When I arrive at the wake, I’m uncertain if anyone’s left. Wayne’s bungalow emanates dark across the snowy field and only one car is parked in the long driveway. But pulling up, I see Tasha standing alone under the porch awning. She’s dressed in layers – knee socks over dark leggings, then a frilly sheer black skirt. A v-neck is under a bulky cardigan, and she’s got a glittery scarf wrapped loosely around her shoulders. I can’t figure out if she looks stylish, or like a bag lady, but that’s how it’s always been with Tasha. She digs her hand into a Ziploc bag, balanced on a window ledge. It’s half filled with cigarettes and she prods around for the perfect smoke, like it’s a cookie jar. She lights the thin white stick. Her lips pucker up in purple. They are glossed and a little cracked. She straightens, recognizes me and walks over.

“I didn’t think you’d come, Lynn.”

“Of course.” I give her a hug, but when she falls into me, it’s like she’s comforting me. She squeezes and pats my back, not letting go.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” she says, despite the loss being her mother, Jean.

She offers me a cigarette and I shake my head. “Where did you get those?” I point to the Ziploc.

“Native reserve on Fourth Line,” she says.

The last time I saw Jean was a year ago. She had aged significantly. Her hair was a dyed black, greasy thin and flat. It clashed too bright against her skin, more grey than her usual rich South African brown. In a loose flowered shirt, Jean’s rounded shoulders curbed inwards. She looked like she was playing dress up, fiddling with her clunky clip-on earrings. I was on a quick visit, just passing through. I had only been doing those types of visits lately, as an add-on to the baby showers and engagement parties.

Tasha had set the kettle while Jean and I sat at the dining table (once elegant with brass candle holders, and lamb curries in gold rimmed dishes). Now, it looked out of place, shoved in a dinette corner off the galley kitchen. We sat around the two available sides and chatted. A mini Boston Terrier yapped between our legs.

“Shut up, Brandy,” Jean said. “Bloody dog.” She stubbed her cigarette in a large crystal ashtray. “So, Lynn, you’re happy in Toronto.”

I didn’t like vague questions. Things weren’t so simple and I didn’t want to pool together all my intimate details. It felt self-centred.

Jean lit another smoke. She wheezed when she inhaled. Her finger frisked the pack, poked inside and pulled out the tin foil wrapping.


Note: These monthly spotlights showcase Mysterious Middle Drafts (MMDs). That means they are somewhere between first drafts and final drafts. This is a challenging stage! Emerging writers bravely share their work-in-progress here for discussion, but this is not a book review or critique: this is a venue for the appreciation of Mysterious Middle Drafts. Thank you for making this writing space safe and supportive.  

Discussion:

  • What remains with you after reading Mary's work?

  • Can you articulate what’s working in this excerpt – and more importantly, why it’s working?

  • How is your own writing practice like Mary's? How is it different?

Please leave a comment below. And thank you, Mary! 


Photo credit (top): Dallas Reedy on Unsplash.


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4 comments

Steve Bond

Mary, I really enjoyed this bit of writing. You expressed beautifully the contrasts of all the characters. Everyone does the dance of civility but no one expresses their true concerns. Tasha is smoking just like how her mom, Jean smoked. What was once elegant and regal with gold and brass is now old and out of place. To frisk the package like an officer looking for contraband or something illegal created foreshadowing of Jean’s ultimate death. Jean makes Lynn feel uncomfortable by stating that Toronto agrees with her. Heaven forbid we actually break the British code of a stiff upper lip and to “keep calm and carry on”. No, we are people with intimate wants and desires. We need to transcend and overcome proper manners and express emotion and passion. “What! You’re smoking?!? After watching your mom die, you still reach for those sticks of death?” And then slap it out of her hand. No instead we murmur, “Where did you get those?” and nod at the reply. I loved the tension masked by propriety. Great job!
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Kristin Offiler

What a lovely excerpt. What stays with me after I read it is Tasha's energy/life force. I think a lot of it has to do with the characterization like Sarah described, because the character doesn't say too much in this excerpt. I'm delighted by your descriptions, Mary, particularly how you first describe the way Tasha is dressed. I could totally see her standing there all layered up, and I know people like that myself. Great, vivid, smart writing! Thanks for sharing!
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Dorryce Smelts

Hello Mary, Thank you for this opportunity to eavesdrop on your writing process. What I found most intriguing about this piece, are the questions that arise about Lynn. Who is she? Why is she late to the wake? Lynn seems so unwilling to be a presence in other people's lives, she hangs around the margins, doesn't like questions. To balance this, her observations about Tasha and Jean are detailed and sensory. I think you've established a solid balance and contrast of characters and I would love to know more about Lynn, and who she is. Sincerely, Dorryce
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[…] Mary B. Valencia is a writer and comedian. She lives with her son in Toronto. […]
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