Mary Flodin’s debut novel, Fruit of the Devil, was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction and the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Competition. She was awarded a fellowship to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and has participated in numerous writers’ conferences, including BreadLoaf Orion and ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and Environment). Before settling into the writer’s life, Mary taught environmental education, English, and art in California public schools. A native Californian, she lives in a cottage on the Monterey Bay with her husband— a retired NASA climate scientist— and their dog, koi, chickens, and gopher herd. More at www.maryflodin.com.
About the book:
Ms. Aurora Bourne would do anything to protect her students from harm … even if that means going up against the most powerful corporation on the planet.
While getting her classroom ready for Fall, Aurora feels sick, and it’s more than back-to-school-blues: strawberry fields nearby have just been fumigated and pesticides are drifting into the classrooms. A spate of serious health issues crop up in children and adults around the school, the teenage sister of a migrant student goes missing from the fields, and Aurora realizes why farmworkers call strawberries Fruta del Diablo — the Fruit of the Devil.
When she starts asking questions and gets caught in a web of gangs, trafficking, and high-level corporate crime, a Catholic priest comes to her aid. She has no idea he’s actually an ancient nature god from Pacific Coast indigenous legends.
Fruit of the Devil was published on October 1, 2019, by Paper Angel Press. It’s multi-genre; as Mary says, “take your pick!”:
- contemporary fiction with elements of mystery, romance, and an edge of magical realism
- romantic suspense
- paranormal romantic suspense
- climate fiction
- socially engaged fiction
- environmental fiction
Now on to the interview….
What makes your book unique?
Fruit of the Devil is based on a true story.
Why did you write decide to this book?
One of my earliest memories is of a seven-year-old me explaining to my family that my purpose in life was to be the “secretary of the world” and “write down the things that happen to people.” I’ve written all my life —journals, poetry (some published in small presses and chap books), articles for magazines and e-zines—and I started several novels.
But when—as a teacher in a school surrounded by strawberries fumigated with deadly pesticides—I lived the story I knew I must write, it grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and would not let me go until I wrote it all down. Much had already been written in serious articles and scientific publications about the dangers of exposing children to pesticides, but I felt the story needed to be reframed as fiction—as a murder mystery—for people to truly feel the impact of this environmental and social injustice.
Do you plot ahead of time, or let the plot emerge as you write?
When I was just getting started on my novel, I read that a suspenseful murder mystery should have a “ticking clock”, so I went to the office supply store and bought one of those big one-year calendars, and I plotted every scene as it had happened in real life on the calendar. The story wrote itself. There were surprises – sub-plots and plot twists emerged out of the ether, and new characters appeared to me in dreams and even waking visions, telling me they needed to be in the story. But overall, I simply followed the actual events that took place in a little school on California’s Central Coast at the turn of the century—events which turned the tide for organic agriculture in the region.
Do you consider your book character-driven or plot-driven?
My first draft was almost entirely plot driven. But, as I edited, received feedback, and revised, the characters—their complexities and emotions—deepened, evolved, and became more important to the story. I learned a great deal about human nature and about myself watching my characters develop. See my blog about “Agency” for more on how I came to understand the character arc of my protagonist.
How did you decide on the setting?
Fruit of the Devil is a true story about a community’s struggle to protect their children and one of the most beautiful environments on the planet—the watersheds of the Monterey Bay. Setting is a key element in Fruit of the Devil: one could almost say that the setting stands as a character on its own.
How do you develop names for your characters?
I obviously had to fictionalize the names of actual people, corporations, and most locations—although readers familiar with the Monterey Bay will probably recognize many of their favorite hang outs in the book. The fictional names just came to me. I reached into the ether, and they were there. However, one real character—Destiny—had such a perfect name that, with her permission, I used her actual name in the novel.
Do you have a writing mentor?
I taught English literature and writing in grades third through twelve for decades, and have always been an avid reader, so you’d think I’d know how to write a novel, right? But when I was given the task by the Universe to write the true story of Fruit of the Devil in a murder mystery genre, I realized I had no idea how to even begin writing a novel, much less a mystery.
After finishing my English literature degree, long ago, I went on a decades-long sci-fi binge. Then I discovered fantasy (Robert Jordan!), and wanted to read nothing else. One of my favorite novels of all time, which influenced the evolution of Fruit of the Devil, is Outlander by Diane Galbadon. Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula LeGuin, Marion Zimmer Bradley and many more authors have influenced me. But ten years ago, when I realized I needed to write a mystery and I had no idea where to start, I began reading mysteries voraciously, and watching cop shows and mysteries on TV. (Love the BBC mysteries and Tom Selleck in the Jesse Stone series!) I devoured all of Tony Hillerman, Nevada Barr, Margaret Coel, C.J.Box, and Laurie King.
I bought lots of books on writing, and on crafting mysteries, including Steven King’s On Writing, Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird, many books by Orson Scott Card including Characters and Viewpoint, James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure, Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure, Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel & The Fire in Fiction, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, Writing Yourself Home by Kimberley Snow, Writing Mysteries an anthology edited by Sue Grafton, Manuscript Makeover & A Writer’s Guide to Fiction by Elizabeth Lyon, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, Don’t Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Publilshed by Eckstut & Sterry, and The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.
I also joined the local chapters and attended meetings of Mystery Writers of America and Romance Writers of America, joined Sisters in Crime and Guppies (offshoots of Mystery Writers). I took many writing workshops and attended at least one big writing conference a year, including San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Pacific Northwest Writers’ Conferences, Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, Algonquin Write to Market, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, BreadLoaf Orion, and more. I met other writers, and agents and publishers. I found talented editors, a wonderful critique group, and Beta readers, and I learned and learned!
In my writing space I have photos of some of the writers, artists, and crusaders for social and environmental justice I most admire— Mentors Jack London, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, Annie Dillard, Cesar Chavez, Mark Twain. But my most precious writing mentor and muse is my foundling husky, Sarah Bella, who mysteriously appeared in my life just as I started writing Fruit of the Devil, and has been sitting at my side, day after day, for all the years I’ve been on this writing journey.
Do you have a writing schedule and a favorite place to write?
As soon as I retired and returned from my celebratory trip to Hawaii, I started working on my novel with the same daily discipline I’d developed over nearly thirty years of teaching.
Now and then, something will wake me before dawn and I’ll feel compelled to rush to my writing space with a new scene, a character who has spoken to me in my sleep, or a revision. But most mornings, I’m up at 7:30. While I grind beans and wait for water to boil, I stretch, review my dreams, and watch for hummingbirds to show up at the feeder outside the kitchen window. Then Sarah, my Siberian Husky, follows me—my coffee cup in hand—into the little back room of our house, which I co-opted years ago for my writing space.
After taking a few moments to greet and honor the spirits who visit me there, and occasionally to smudge with sage, I review lists and notes I left for myself the previous afternoon, open my current manuscript, and begin. About 11, I take a short break for a bowl of oatmeal with my husband and a walk around the garden and pond, listening to my characters and whatever muses show up. Then I’m back at my writing space, usually until 2. Most afternoons, I walk to the beach with Sarah. Sometimes while walking, I get “messages” about the story I’m working on and I have to return to my writing space. I usually don’t look at email, answer phone calls, or schedule appointments until after 1 pm.
It took me three years to write the first draft of my manuscript. Since I had the story all plotted out on a calendar, I knew the end I was writing toward. I believed that when I wrote that final scene and finished my first draft, I would be done, and finally free to clean my garage and get on with my retirement.
Alas, I soon discovered that “Writing is re-writing.” Thus, I embarked upon five more years of daily work with editors, attending workshops, revising and editing with my critique group and Beta Readers, and sending queries to agents. I’ve revised my entire manuscript—with a poet’s attention to every word—countless times. At the Breadloaf Orion Writers’ Workshop last summer, a mentor advised me to forget about the Big Five New York publishers and look for an independent small press.
By the time I met my wonderful publisher, Steven Radecki of Paper Angel Press, all that revising and editing proved worthwhile. Digital, paperback, and hardcover editions of my debut novel, Fruit of the Devil, were released for pre-order on all digital marketplaces and on the Paper Angel Press website on September 15!
Soon, maybe I’ll finally get around to clearing out my garage.
Anything else you’d like to add?
You probably have a story inside you, bothering you, asking to be written. Do it! But realize your story (or poem or play) won’t get written without dogged perseverance. Carve out a private writing space; establish a routine. Show up every day, as faithfully as if it’s a job you’re getting paid for. Believe in your story and in yourself. Good Luck!
Where can readers find you?