Interview Series – Mette Ivie Harrison

61VyUIULBdL._UX250_Mette is an accomplished author, nationally ranked triathlete and a mother of five. She holds a PhD in German Literature from Princeton and was the Ezra Taft Benson Scholar in 1998.

She has written seven young adult books: The Rose Thorne, Tris and Izzie, The Princess and the Snowbird, The Princess and the Bear, The Princess and the Hound, Mira Mirror and The Monster in Me and one adult non-fiction book: Ironmom—Training and Racing in a Family of 7. You can read about these on her website.

Her newest series, The Bishop’s Wife comes out December 30th!

TheBishop's Wife

“Linda Wallheim is the mother of five grown boys and the wife of a Mormon bishop. As bishop, Kurt Wallheim is the ward’s designated spiritual father, and that makes Linda the ward’s unofficial mother, and her days are filled with comfort visits, community service, and informal counseling.

But Linda is increasingly troubled by the church’s patriarchal structure and secrecy, especially as a disturbing situation takes shape in the ward. One cold winter morning, a neighbor, Jared Helm, appears on the Wallheims’ doorstep with his 5-year-old daughter, claiming that his wife, Carrie, disappeared in the middle of the night, leaving behind everything she owns. The circumstances surrounding Carrie’s disappearance become more suspicious the more Linda learns about them, and she becomes convinced that Jared has murdered his wife and painted himself as an abandoned husband.

Kurt asks Linda not to get involved in the unfolding family saga, but she has become obsessed with Carrie’s fate, and with the well-being of her vulnerable young daughter. She cannot let the matter rest until she finds out the truth. Is she wrong to go against her husband, the bishop, when her inner convictions are so strong?”

Brooke Hargett: I’ve followed Mette’s blog for many years. She’s very well respected in the writing community and has a wealth of knowledge with regards to the craft of writing. It was a pleasure to interview Mette and get to know her a little better.

Brooke: Since most of your books have been young adult, what made you decide to switch to adult? How was the writing and publishing experience different for each?

Mette: I had reached a point with the YA world where I wasn’t sure I was going to have a career there anymore. After three years of books being canceled or doing very badly, I sat down and decided it was time for me to look for a job. I made an action plan that I would begin in September (of 2012) to seriously seek employment. That gave me nine months to spend writing anything that I still thought I had to write. The Bishop’s Wife was a book I wrote entirely for myself. I was sure that it was too dark for the local Mormon market and too Mormon for anyone nationally to want, but I needed to write this book about a Mormon mother who has doubts but soldiers on, helping other people.

Brooke: Tell us a little about your inspiration for The Bishop’s Wife.

Mette: Well, it was inspired by the Josh and Susan Powell story, which is just about the most horrific murder story I have ever watched unfold in Utah. That this man terrorized and killed his wife right under the noses of the Mormon congregation they both lived in, then murdered her and disposed of the body (which to this day has never been found) and then eventually murdered both of his sons and committed suicide in this wild act of terror—I just felt like it was something that was part of Mormonism and we needed to deal with as a culture. Of course, in my story, it doesn’t turn out to have the same ending at all, and there are lots of twists and turns, but I started at the same point: a man comes to his bishop and claims his wife has deserted him and their young daughter, but there is evidence he is lying right and left.

Brooke: What does your writing process look like? What program do you write in, do you have a word count or hour target for each day, where do you write, are you a ‘pantser’ or an outliner, do have certain habits or best practices while you’re writing?

Mette: I actually use a free program called “ywriter” that has certain things in common with Scrivener in that it allows me to manipulate chapter by chapter, scene by scene, and it enables tracking of certain objects, characters, and the like throughout the manuscript. But it also is just very basic, doesn’t correct spelling or grammar, and looks like something you’d have written on in the DOS days of PCs. That’s why I like it. I literally cannot send any manuscript in that format to my editor, and it’s important for me psychologically to feel free to play without anyone looking over my shoulder. I always know it’s bad writing, and that’s fine, because it’s a first draft.

I am utterly a pantser. When I started writing The Bishop’s Wife, I did not know who the killer was going to be. I thought it was going to be someone other than it turned out to be, and I was planting all the clues in that direction. Of course, it’s been through several revisions since then to smooth it out, but that’s part of the reason that I can lead the reader astray, because I also believe where I’m headed, even if it turns out to be a red herring.

I write for 3-4 hours a day, 5 days a week, during the morning after my kids are off to school. I try to write the first sentence of the next chapter before I leave for the day. But I feel like it’s very important for me to leave the writing behind when I close my computer for the day so that I am present for my family the rest of the day. I will sometimes go back to deal with emails or interviews like this one, but I talk a lot about the importance of boundaries for moms with kids. It’s not about balance to me. It’s about letting myself be fully focused on my work when I do that, and fully focused on my kids when it’s their turn.

Brooke: I have to bring this up because it’s fascinating how many words you write in a short period of time. Tell us how many words you typically crank out a day/month.

Mette: When I started writing, I would try to set a goal to write 1500 words a day. I can type 100+ words a minute (using my own unique hunt and peck method), which helps. I put myself through graduate school by working summers at big corporations as a secretary. Anyway, over the years, I’ve gradually increased my word count per day to about 5,000. But when I was writing The Bishop’s Wife, something special happened and I found myself writing 10,000 words a day, finishing the whole book in less than 3 weeks. It was as if my subconscious had already written the story and I was just taking dictation.

Let me tell you, this does not always happen. I get stuck on books like anyone else and have to put them aside to work on something else. I work very hard to do the mental work of making sure I turn off the editor inside my head and can really just draft without interruption. It’s a bit of a trick, learning to use that switch. And because I started to be nervous about the impact of the media attention on The Bishop’s Wife, I decided I wanted to get rough drafts of all the books in the series I had planned in my head before other people’s ideas and opinions started to mix in. So I wrote 8 more books in about a 12 month period.

I will say that I know other writers who claim that they never give up on a book. I think the disadvantage of writing the way that I do is that because I turn off the editor, I have no idea if the book I’m working on in is any good or not. When I finish, I come up for air, put it aside for a few weeks, and look again. I wrote 20 novels before I got the first one published, and I’d say that since then, my ratio has gotten better, but it isn’t a 1-1 correspondence. I probably write 4 books now for every one that gets published. The others just aren’t very good.

Brooke: Barry Goldblatt is your agent. Can you tell us about how you connected with him?

Mette: I found Barry through Rick Walton, who is a big part of the children’s writing community in Utah. In fact, when people ask me why there are so many published children’s writers here, I point directly to him. He has done a lot for all of us, keeping us connected through an early list serve, and generally doing service for the group, as well as for individuals. I sent Barry a fantasy proposal in 2000, then got an offer from Holiday House for The Monster In Me, which is contemporary. Before I agreed to any terms, I called him to ask if he would represent me, and he said yes.

We’ve been together ever since, through thick and thin. He is the kind of agent who sticks by his clients, even through the hard times, and he believed in me more than I believed in myself. In 2011, I remember distinctly sitting down with him at World Fantasy Con for a dinner together. I asked him what I needed to do for my career, if he had one piece of advice for me. He told me I needed to have more confidence in myself and my writing. Two months later, I had finished a complete draft of The Bishop’s Wife. At first, he wasn’t sure about it because he isn’t much of a person for religion, but when he read it, he fell in love and was a huge advocate in making sure I got the right deal at the right house. And Soho has definitely been the right house for this book.

Brooke: Knowing what you know now about the writing/editing & publishing process, is there anything you would do differently if you could go back and do it again?

Mette: I actually spend very little time thinking about questions like this, and tend to think they are destructive. Move forward, rather than thinking about things in the past that you can’t change. You can waste your whole life obsessing over mistakes you’ve made, but they get you to where you are today. That said, I think I’ve learned to trust people a little less in the publishing world when they promise you too much. And that’s all I’m going to say.

Brooke: You’ve given lots of helpful writing tips on your website. What’s the top piece of advice you have for aspiring writers?

Mette: Probably 21 Reasons You Think You Don’t Have Time to Write, which you can google and see in a short list form. I was on Writing Excuses with Brandon Sanderson and Howard Tayler and Mary Robinette Kowall and talked about this. People are always asking me how I find time to write while raising 5 kids with lots of extracurricular activities and being a nationally ranked triathlete. I feel like a lot of the time, people are looking around, waiting for time to hit them in the face. That’s not the way it works. You grab time, not the other way around. And also, you give up things that you decide don’t matter as much. I have a presentation I give where I show how I clean my kids’ rooms. I close their doors so I don’t have to look at the mess. But it’s their responsibility, not mine. That’s one of the keys. You refuse to take on responsibilities that aren’t yours, and it frees up a lot of time—but more importantly, it frees up your mind and your creative soul.

Brooke: Who is your favorite character you’ve created and why?

Mette: Well, I’d say Linda Wallheim, the bishop’s wife, except that authors have this need to champion their own least loved books, so I will say Issa from The Rose Throne. She was just so hard for me to understand that when I finally dug down deep and figured her out, I really loved her. She is a very dutiful character, and very feminine in ways that I’m not, and in some ways she reminds me a lot of Eleanor from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. She’s the quiet one, and I thought for a long time that she was going to end up with an unhappy end to her romance, but she doesn’t.

Brooke: You’re a nationally ranked triathlete. How long have you been competing? What/where was your favorite race?

Mette: I did my first marathon in May of 2004 and my first triathlon in August of 2004 at Jordanelle run by TriUtah. That is probably still my favorite race. My husband and I met on the swim team at high school. He was a decent swimmer, but I was really not very good. I was dedicated, but it didn’t seem to matter much. I had a goal my senior year to go to state, and ended up just missing it, despite swimming for 5 hours a day. As an adult, I had a lot of knee problems and when I finally went to a doctor, he told me I needed to do running, as painful as it was (and some stretching). I followed his advice, and 6 months later, ran a marathon (though he probably wouldn’t have recommended that). I was so excited, I just kept going. I ended up taking first place in my age group at my first triathlon, and it was the first time I’d won a medal in anything athletic in my life. I was hooked after that.

Brooke: Recently I had the amazing opportunity to join you and your esteemed editor, Juliet Grames with SoHo Press for a Writing Retreat. I learned so much from this experience and also had a lot of fun. How can other aspiring writers find out about your upcoming Retreats?

Mette: I do a series of one day retreats with editors and agents I invite to come meet the great writers here in Utah. I’m off-line for the winter and until The Bishop’s Wife tour has finished. We’ll probably start again in March. If anyone is interested, my group on facebook is called One Day Writing Retreats or you can just message me to get put on my information list. In the summer, I usually do one a month.

Brooke: You’ve been integral with planning and running Writing for Charity. Tell us about this amazing annual event.

Mette: I swore I would never be involved in organizing Writing For Charity after I watched from the sidelines and saw how much work was involved. I struggle with group committee work, so it is perhaps ironic that I realized the only way I could do this was to get a whole committee of people involved who are really good at one thing. I tend to focus on programming and guests. Everyone else does the registration, food, donations, etc. Shannon Hale actually organized the first one in 2007, as a way to give back to the community. Since then, we’ve grown a lot and have focused on donating money to get books into the hands of needy kids internationally and right here in Utah. If you want to know more about what we’ve done in the past, go to:

Brooke: When and where is the launch for The Bishop’s Wife?

Mette: December 30, 2014 at the Provo Library is a sort of pre-launch party with what I’ve planned in my head to be a twinkie temple day, and then January 3, 2015 at The King’s English is going to be the chance for everyone to bring pot luck ridiculous Mormon jello salads to share.

Brooke: I ask everyone the same wrap-up questions to get a glimpse of their personality aside from writing…

The Nitty-Gritty Six

Something about you that will surprise us: I never learned to type properly, so I use my modified hunt and peck method, but type upwards of 100 words a minute.

Guilty Pleasure: I like eating the Oreo cookie part and leaving the extra fluff for my kids when I pull them apart and put two back together, so they are double stuffs.

Favorite Movie or TV Show: I am going to say instead that I am obsessed with the actor David Tennant and that I planned a trip to England and Scotland for 3 weeks with my two oldest daughters who also love him, just so we could see him live in Much Ado with Catherine Tate.

Item you couldn’t live without: myfitnesspal—I’ve logged in every day for about 5 years.

Favorite book you’ve read this year: I discovered Tana French and have read everything by her. Ditto Stuart Neville. I loved The Humans by Matt Haig. Also Erasing Sherlock by Kelly Hale.

Three things you love to do besides write: crochet, knit, and quilt

Thanks so much for taking the time to share your insights with us Mette!

If you missed any of the previous Interviews you can get caught up here:

Interview with Author Teri Harman

Interview with Editor Lisa Mangum

Interview with Author Jo Noelle

See ya next time!



Comments are closed.