#debooze: Mary Helen Specht

Article by debut-author

Let’s set the scene: You’re a debut author. It’s the magic hour—that time in the afternoon when the sun has set but light still dusts the sky. After years of struggle, your first book is forthcoming, about to enter the world. Tomorrow, there will be time for more stress—for interviews, for readings, for sleeping on couches as you tour the country and share your work with the world…but for now, take a deep breath, put on some music, and grab yourself a drink. It’s time to relax. It’s time to reflect. It’s time for #debooze.

In #debooze, we ask a debut author to reflect on their road to publication, and to also recommend some booze.

The Debut: MIGRATORY ANIMALS by Mary Helen Specht

The Booze: Palm wine


My parents are both librarians, so I was raised surrounded by books. While I loved to read growing up—in fact, I sat in the living room with my parents pretending to read Tropic of Cancer long before I actually could—books made me want to live within them rather than to write them. I wanted to be Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time, playing with Bunsen burners after school and saving my father from the tesseract. Carl Sagan’s Contact inspired me to subscribe to Astronomy magazine (until I learned you had to be plausible at math to become an actual astronomer); after reading A Separate Peace, I dressed like a boy and begged to enroll in boarding school. I grew up in a small and conservative town in West Texas, and books were my wormholes to the wider world.

I didn’t begin writing fiction seriously until my sophomore year at Rice University, and it only took fifteen years for me to publish a book. My first tattoo—inked on my eighteenth birthday during a trip to Austin—was of a stylized turtle, which, randomly chosen at the time, turned out to be appropriate. I am certainly the tortoise, not the hare. I revise a lot, and I make a lot of mistakes, and I learn as I go.

It didn’t help that I allowed myself to be convinced by folks in the book industry that a memoir of my time living in Nigeria would be more marketable than a novel. I tried that for a while and did end up with a few essays I’m proud of, but, ultimately, I was more interested in writing about what if than what was. I’d left Nigeria, but what if I were a different sort of person and had stayed? What if there was an American scientist who felt she’d finally found love and a home in West Africa but wasn’t allowed to stay? We probably only get to live one life; writing fiction allows me, for a time, to embody what it’s like to be someone else born into a different context, with different desires and challenges.

Then, there was the learning curve of moving from (ten years of writing and publishing) short stories to the novel form itself. In the first draft of Migratory Animals, each chapter was essentially a self-contained piece, with its own radically sharp plot arc, exhausting to read. Slowly, I found ways to weave the various strands and characters together into something that, I hope, is smoother and more sustained. The prologue was the most challenging, because I felt I had to give both the big picture trajectory of Flannery’s time in Nigeria while also rooting the reader in scene. I decided I needed a concrete object to use as a touchstone: palm wine.

I first encountered palm wine in a book before I going to Nigeria: The Palm Wine Drunkard by Amos Tutuola, the first Nigerian book written in English to receive international acclaim. In the novel, the protagonist’s only and entire job is to drink palm wine, tapped from the budding red fruit of the towering West African palms. When his tapper dies falling from a tree, the drunk makes a perilous journey to Dead Town in the hopes of finding and bringing him back.

In Nigeria, tappers spent entire afternoons and evenings climbing palm trees—often using nothing more than their feet and a thick strip of woven bark to hoist themselves up—tapping into the flowers at the top of the palms and tying plastic jugs underneath to catch the liquid sap. At its freshest, the white cloudy liquid is sweet, but as it begins to ferment it becomes stronger. For me, the ideal cup of palm wine contained half fresh palm wine and half what people refer to as “overnight,” which has been allowed to ferment, well, overnight. I’ve found it impossible to find fresh palm wine in the States, but sometimes I close my eyes and imagine the feel of a cool harmattan wind, and I can taste that punch of sweetness on my tongue.

Palm wine:

Travel to a part of Asia or Africa where the raffia or oil palm tree grows
Climb and tap a growing palm (or better, find a professional tapper)
1 cup of fresh, sweet palm wine
1 cup of “overnight”
Best to drink from a lidded cup to keep out flies attracted to the sweet, sweet nectar

Migratory Animals: A Novel By Mary Helen Specht Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062346032
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Harper Perennial - January 20th, 2015

Mary Helen Specht signs MIGRATORY ANIMALS at Brazos Bookstore on Thursday, January 22


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