Jo-Ann Mapson hates the word “mentor.” Why, I’m not sure. It’s an honorable calling. But for now, I’ll just call her my dear friend, although I’m convinced that without her guidance and support, my first book would never have seen the light of day.
I met Jo-Ann in early 2000. I’d accumulated a pile of letter and postcard responses from literary agents all saying, in essence, thanks for sending this, now please go away. After countless workshops, classes, and four years of writing and re-writing the manuscript that would become Bread Alone, I’d thought it was ready for prime time, but apparently not. Perhaps one more workshop…
At an open house for a new CE writing program at Cal State Fullerton I heard Jo-Ann speak about her class on novel writing for writers with a complete manuscript. I don’t actually remember what she said that night, but it inspired me to check out her books afterwards at the authors’ table. I picked up a copy of Blue Rodeo and it fell open to page 143, Chapter 9 which begins,
“Red chile ristras hung in drooping, snow-dusted arcs from the eaves of the café where Owen suggested they have breakfast.”
I read the page, and the thought bloomed in my mind…this is how I want to write.
The class was a revelation to me, mostly because, instead of telling everyone what was wrong with their story and how to fix it, Jo-Ann guided us to analyze and critique each other’s novels. As the weeks went by I discovered that you learn more by analyzing other writers’ work than you do by hearing your own work analyzed.
Towards the end of the course, she asked me if my manuscript was finished. She said, “I’m moving to Alaska as soon as this course is over, but if you can finish and get it to me by the last class meeting, I’ll read it and give you my thoughts.”
So I did. Even though my husband and I were leaving for a ski week in Big Sky, Montana. While he and our friends were hitting the slopes every day, I sat in the hotel room, slaving over a hot laptop. I finished my revisions two days after we got home, which was the day before our last class. I literally spent the day of the class printing it out and handed it to her that night—the Thursday before Easter. On April 23rd, Easter Sunday morning, I went into my office and found a fax from Jo-Ann that said, “It rocks. Call me.”
Over the next few days, she helped me smooth out the rough edges and then she sent it to her agent in New York, Deborah Schneider. Several weeks—perhaps the longest in my life—passed. I knew it would take time, but the wait was excruciating. Finally Jo-Ann called Deborah’s assistant Cathy and asked her to find my manuscript in the slush pile and put it on top. Deborah called on May 22 and asked if she could represent me. On June 8 I heard from Claire Wachtel at William Morrow. She was buying Bread Alone.
Over the years, my life has become entwined with Jo-Ann’s as we transitioned from teacher/student to mentor/mentee (sorry, girlfriend) to fast friends. We read each other’s works in progress, talk endlessly about writing, argue about books. We cook together, shop together, drink coffee together, talk silly to each other’s dogs. Her husband Stewart designed my beautiful book cover and formatted the first edition of Baker’s Blues. Of course, we have our differences. And I know I drive her nuts sometimes when I ask for her advice and then totally disregard it.
But the point of all this is…I am not the only one. Jo-Ann is a successful novelist, and she doesn’t have to be a booster for aspiring writers. She does it because she genuinely loves to help other writers find their own success.
This morning I was reading the sports section of the paper—a story about Serena Williams being poised to achieve a Grand Slam at the US Open, something no woman has done since Steffi Graf in 1988. When Serena won Wimbledon in July, Graf posted her congratulations and encouragement on Facebook. In response, Serena said,
“I really love that, when someone is trying to do the best that they can, that someone as great as Steffi is there to be supportive and be happy for the next person…”
Writers can be neurotic, envious and competitive, but there are also those who are generous, welcoming and encouraging. Fortunately for me and the many other writers she’s befriended, Jo-Ann Mapson is one of the latter.