Monica Wood is an award-winning, bestselling novelist and memoirist.

Born in Maine, New England, to an Irish Catholic family, she worked as a guidance counsellor and in a nursing home before becoming a full-time writer.

She is also a singer, and travelled the New England circuit singing jazz, country, pop and gospel for many years. She lives in Maine with her husband.

 

 

Monica Wood on creating THE ONE IN A MILLION BOY

How did the novel come about in your head? And, from there, what was the initial process of writing the novel?
It’s so hard to speak about process because so much of it happens outside the conscious mind. Ona, my 104-year-old Lithuanian lady, is likely an oddball combo of my childhood landlady (who was scary and forbidding) and my dear friend Mary Berry, who was still driving at age 98 and so spirited she made me feel like an old mule. Often I begin with an image, and in this case it was a bereaved parent (a mother, in my first iteration) arriving at the door of this old woman. That was all I had. It amazes me how much can come from almost nothing if you just stay with the creative impulse.

Why does ‘The Boy’ remain unnamed throughout the novel?
It’s funny that nobody – not one person – has mentioned that fact. He didn’t have a name at first because I couldn’t pin him to a name. Then I realized I couldn’t pin him to a name because he is a presence, not an actual person, and to name him was to give him a corporeal quality that seemed wrong. He does, in fact, have a name. But only I, my husband, and my oldest sister know what it is. She named him.

THE ONE IN A MILLION BOY has both a physical and psychological ‘road trip’ at the core of the story – did you have an itinerary from the start or did you go on the journey with your characters while writing?
Who doesn’t love a road trip? Ahhh, that sense of beginning, that sense of not-knowing, that sense of moving toward! I love the idea of a “psychological road trip,” because of course all these characters are both going and being taken somewhere so different from the place they’re in when we first meet them. The actual road trip came when it came. Ona wanted something, and the only way I could give it to her was get her into a car.

What were your main influences surrounding Ona’s unique personality and life story? How did her character form in your mind?
Ever since I was a kid I have loved old ladies. My first job out of college was in an old folks’ home where the ladies fawned over me in a way I found comforting and comical. One of my best friends was a very old woman who died at age 98. I also loved researching the aged for this novel. “Supercentenarians” – 110 plus – are everywhere, it turns out, and some of them are still mowing their own lawns. I’m not kidding.

Birds’ song and music play an important part in this novel. Why?
Writers’ obsessions work their way into every book. You can find birds, singing, at least one cat, and a reference to sports in almost all of my books.

‘The Boy’ had a dream – one that was rather difficult to accomplish – whereas Ona has lived her life day by day, as it happened, until she meets ‘The Boy’. Which method do you aim to live by? In your opinion, which makes life more fulfilling? Which would you encourage your readers to aspire to?
Hmm. What a provocative question. I’m not a “in the present moment” person though I try and try and try. I’m an inveterate worrier. But I’m not a regretter, generally speaking, so that’s good. I believe in endless second chances for myself and everybody else.

Do you write to a specific audience?
If you mean my cat, Minnie, who stares at the keyboard while I type, then yes. Otherwise, I try to write a book that I myself would love to read.

Why ‘THE ONE IN A MILLION BOY’ as a title?
That wasn’t my original title. My publishers came up with it and at first I hated it but now I love it. I also liked my original, which was The Wakening World.

 

 

WHERE I WRITE

I live in Portland, Maine, in a white bungalow perched on a small city lot. The house isn’t large enough to accommodate an office, though for years I wrote at a rolltop desk squeezed beneath a gable, a space so small I cracked my head every time I stood to celebrate a good sentence.  All that changed when my husband, who can build anything, built me a backyard studio.  It affords me a place to write away from the house – and the laundry and the bills and the meowy cat and the doorbell and the phone. Only paces from the back door, my studio might as well be on Mars.

Dan began by digging a huge hole, a back-breaking task considering the dense red soil common to our former-brickyard neighborhood. The family who built our house in the twenties must have been a sickly pack, judging from the number of tonic bottles we found mummified in the clay. I kept some as a talisman of sorts, placing them among my other charms: a witch doll made by a writer friend, a wind chime from another writer friend, a couple of posters from favourite events in my career.

The finished space looks a bit like a doll house from the outside. Inside, I have a built-in writing surface made of birch; some paintings; a single bookcase. In this cosy room I write. I read. I watch the willow in the neighbour’s yard fill with warblers in spring and bend to the fierce Maine snows in winter.  On the other side of the wall is Dan’s office, a nest of technology that could not contrast more with my Victorian quarters. To send or receive an email, I must make the choice: get up, open my door, walk around the corner, open his door, get on his computer, do my online work.

This is the sweetest part, I think. The unconnectedness of my life inside my studio. Interruption is the enemy of creative thought, and in this anointed room I can close the door, take a long breath, and let my thoughts unspool.  

 

 

HIT THE ROAD, JACK

Who among us doesn't love a road trip? The American literary canon is packed with them—Kerouac's  On the Road and  Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie head a long and venerable list. Something about the road ahead keeps characters and their readers deeply engaged in the story.

Early in the writing of The One-in-a-Million Boy, the plot stalled on me. I wanted to get three of my characters in the same room. But how? After several dispiriting false starts, I packed them into a car and sent them on a little trip. Belle, a grieving mother; Ona, a 104-year-old woman; and Quinn, a feckless guitar player.  As soon as the ignition turned over, my mind, too, ignited. Stuffing three unlike entities into a small, moving space is one of the best ways I know to find out who's who.

As physical space shrinks, metaphorical space expands. Dialogue becomes more targeted, more loaded, because the characters have lost their option to not listen. They can't wander off or storm out. There's room for comedy, too: most people are terrible drivers, and in any triad someone is always odd man out. Quinn, who at first feels like a hero for taking Ona to the state of Vermont to see her son, soon finds himself stranded in the back seat as his ex-wife and new friend chatter away: "They were on a first-name basis now, united in female solidarity after a twenty-minute conversation about cats."

The end point of a road trip is destination: always fraught and often surprising. As I let my characters disembark, I realised they'd completed three separate road trips, all of them at cross purposes, expecting a different  metaphorical landing. What a juicy outcome for me, their author! The rest of the book, while not easy to write, took on welcoming layers of story and character that traced back to the revealing rhythms of the road.