Joseph author and U.S. Forest Service employee Mary Emerick just saw her dream of becoming a published novelist realized with the release of her first novel, “The Geography of Water.”
The author recently discussed her life and new novel from the front porch of her log cabin in Joseph.
Emerick grew up in northern Michigan, eventually earning a degree in creative writing from Michigan State University. “At the time, everybody laughed and asked what I’d do with that degree, but I always knew I’d use it some day,” she said.
Emerick is a lifelong writer, starting in journals, before graduating to publishing in magazines, anthologies and online. “I’ve always enjoyed writing and publishing, but this is the first novel I’ve had published,” she said. She got her idea for the book from her travels on Baranof Island in the Alaskan Panhandle. “I was a wilderness kayaker,” she said. “We’d go out for five days at a time and pass these small towns and communities and meet people who really lived isolated lives, and I started thinking about their lives in such an isolated area,” Emerick said.
Although the book is not based on any specific people Emerick knew, it’s written with the idea that living in such isolation profoundly shapes the personalities of those who live in such areas. “The wilderness in Alaska is so fascinating. It’s so wild. It’s true wilderness in that everything that was there in the beginning is still there. When you’re out there, you feel very remote and wild.” Emerick said.
Although Emerick started the first chapter of the book while still in Alaska, it languished for some time as she pondered which direction to take. She is a six-year resident of Wallowa County and credits local writing organization Fishtrap and some local writers for helping her complete the book. “I went to the Fishtrap Writers retreat down on the Imnaha and really started seriously working on it and figuring out where I wanted to go with it,” she said. “Fishtrap was a great experience.”
The book took about five years of intermittent effort for Emerick to complete. “I have a regular job with the Forest Service, so I had to put it aside at times” she said. She works on a national team for the USFS, often all over the country, writing on such diverse topics as wild and scenic river plans (including the Wenaha before it burned), environmental analysis and wilderness plans.
“My writing background helps because I write really clearly and don’t write in government jargon,” Emerick said. She added that it can be difficult to switch gears from government writing to fiction writing, one of the reasons she participated in the Fishtrap retreats.
Emerick said the process of looking for a publisher was a lengthy process involving sending out queries and waiting for accept/rejection letters.
The University of Alaska Press expressed some interest, and two of their editors suggested some revisions. The UAP board eventually voted to publish the book.
“(The book) kind of wrote itself,” Emerick said. “The characters knew where they wanted to go. The most difficult part for me was the revision.” She said she had three different editors, all with different ideas of where the book should go.
She said putting the book out for public perusal also was difficult. “Now it’s out there,” she said. “What if nobody likes it? It is your thing, and you’re very vulnerable in putting out there what you write.”
The best advice Emerick offers for aspiring writers is not to give up. “I’ve wanted to do this for decades, and I’ve been diverted by different jobs, but this is a dream I’ve had since
I was a little kid,” she said. “I could have self-published, but I wanted a publisher to say, ‘This is good enough for us.’ There were times I despaired and thought no one would want to read it, but I kept trying and didn’t give up the faith.”