October 18, 2013

Associate Professor of English Mary Elizabeth Pope Releases “Divining Venus”

On October 17th, Emmanuel College Associate Professor of English Mary Elizabeth Pope released her first collection of short stories, Divining Venus, from Waywiser Press. To celebrate the launch, Newtonville Books in Newton, Mass., hosted a release party on Thursday evening, during which Pope read her story, "The Club," and signed copies of her book.

"The collection," Pope said, "is linked by characters who are all trying to discern, from their own experiences, something true about love. They all come to some sort of conclusion by the end of their stories."

Their stories include "Reunion," in which a divorced woman attends her 25th reunion and faces the boyfriend she dumped in high school, though she ultimately experiences a reunion with her former self, and "Junior Lifesaving," in which a woman conceals her competence from a man who is threatened by her strength in order to save their relationship. In "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," a recent college graduate caught between adolescence and adulthood must make a choice when she finds herself drawn to her boyfriend's father. And in the title story, "Divining Venus," an eleven-year-old turns to an unlikely source for answers to questions about love.

While the stories are linked thematically, the collection presents a wide range of protagonists, from ages eleven to eighty-something, and moods that are sometimes dark, sometimes funny and frequently a mix of both.

"I didn't set out to write a collection," she said. "I wrote a story. And then I wrote another and another. It came together very organically."

Pope, whose fiction and creative nonfiction have been featured in literary magazines such as The Florida Review, Bellingham Review, PoemMemoirStory, Passages North and many others, draws inspiration from her own life, but often redresses events from the past with a new perspective.

"In fiction, you get to have do-overs," she said.

As a full-time professor in Emmanuel's English Department, Pope does most of her writing in the summer, but stays in touch with her work during the academic year when she can carve out blocks of uninterrupted time.  She is diligent in writing down her ideas--which often come while she is doing ordinary things such as driving or washing dishes--when they're fresh in her mind, a practice she also tries to instill in her students.

At her encouragement, many of Pope's students have already met success in the publishing world, an accomplishment that is uncommon at the undergraduate level. They have been published in literary journals such as Whiskey Paper Review, Stepping Stones Magazine, Jersey Devil Press, Bookends Review, Bengal Lights, Epiphany Magazine and Imitation Fruit, among others.

While she does keep her writing life and her teaching life separate, she does not hesitate to share her struggles with her students if she feels it will help their writing processes.

"I try to demystify the idea that writing can't be taught," she said. "So many of my students think, 'I can't do this if I'm not a prodigy.'"

Pope articulated her thoughts on the issue in a December 2012 edition of Passages North, which featured her essay, "A Case against Genus," in the "Writers on Writing" section.

"I show students unflattering comments that editors have made on my manuscripts," she wrote. "I pass around my rejection slips. I project my Submittable account onto a movie screen so they can see that even for someone who has earned promotion for her publication record, there are far more red Declined than green Accepted notices there."

"What I want them to know is that it's as hard for me now as it was when I was their age," she said.

She emphasizes first drafts are exactly that, constant revision and rewriting are the most important steps in the writing process and that a difficult piece may need to rest for months or years before it can be revisited.

"It took me eight years to write this book," she said. "That's not meteoric. That's not sexy. You just have to keep going."

In the end, she is proud of her first collection and that she remained true to herself through the publishing process.

"This is the collection I always wanted to write," she said. "I'm so happy that I honored that."