From community comes 'Reliance'
By Lou Fancher
Except for their pinafores, female protagonists in author Mary Volmer's historical fiction novels are a lot like she is: resilient, educated, street smart, intrepid. The Moraga-based writer's second novel, "Reliance, Illinois" (Soho Press, $27), features Madelyn, a 13-year-old whirlwind of a girl whose mother, Rebecca, grasps the only brass ring available. In the 19th-century equivalent of online matchups, Rebecca moves in 1874 with her daughter to a small town to accept a written marriage proposal from a stranger.
The coming-of-age story harbors unexpected twists -- the biggest one is that Maddy is not supposed to be a part of the matrimonial package. She's introduced to Mr. Dryfus, the groom, as Rebecca's sister.
Circumstances lead Maddy to work for Miss Rose Werner, an early suffragette and the daughter of the town's founder. A young photographer, William Stark, haunted by his experiences in the Civil War, raises some love interest, but a port-wine-stain birthmark covering half her face and her spirit of independence dim Maddy's romantic prospects.
Volmer, 36, is a native of Grass Valley who attended Saint Mary's College in Moraga, where she played Division I basketball. Completing a master's degree at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, Volmer returned to Saint Mary's to earn her master of fine arts in creative writing and founded the College Honors Program. She is a professor in the Collegiate Seminar and Composition programs. "Crown of Dust" was her first novel.
"I wrote my first book while I was in England. It was my thesis. (Novelist) Patricia Duncker passed it on to her agent without my knowing about it. Six months later, I got an email from an agent who wanted to take it on," she says.
"Reliance" took far longer to produce: a seven-year stretch that had Volmer juggling a story she says was "bigger than I was capable of handling when I started it." For a long spell, she tried to make it perfect. "When you do that, all you see is the sentence, the perfect sounds. You forget to look at what it means. I had sentences that were collages of voices."
Impending motherhood proved to be the perfect catalyst for a writer who says she "loves details" and collects ideas in handwritten notes that fill stacks of 100-page spiral notebooks. She draws faces and locations incessantly in blank-page journals to slow her frenetic mental meanderings.
"I was pregnant, and I knew that this other entity was going to overwhelm the book's creation," she says, about the upcoming childbirth that compelled her to stop fussing and "get out of my own way."
From that point on, Volmer wrote 23 of the book's 37 chapters in nine months. "The first draft was 10,000 words longer than the final book. After I had my son, I went back to work on the book. I suffered from sleep deprivation, so the second draft was a mess, but it was a closer mess to the final," she recalls.
Her work entailed intense historical and experiential research and editing. "I often start with a place. That gives me a voice and a feel -- to know the trees, the dirt, the birds. For this book, I met a woman in Alton, Illinois, the city the book is roughly modeled on. She sent weather reports: She's the one who told me about the river freezing."
Other facts came from expected sources: archival documents, records, correspondence and first-person accounts. "I read history to discover who we are now by learning about who we were then. I feel helpless and cynical when reflecting on the current day situations of women but have more patience when I look back at the same things in history. It gives you a sense of how long we've been fighting these battles, but it also reminds you of people's resiliency and how long it takes for reform to happen."
Volmer says the women in her books are "the CEO's of their time," and she credits her mother and other women mentors for her freedoms and her urge to "be brave, even if it comes by proxy through someone else's story."
During her childhood, her mother told her not to get too comfortable, to be competitive with herself. It strikes her as funny that her best writing is done in two-hour sprints, much like the exhausting basketball practice sessions she recalls from her years as a college athlete.
The link to academia remains vital to the energy Volmer curbs only moderately by meditating and drawing. She and her husband, Chris Jones, a Saint Mary's math professor, live with their son Owen on campus as resident dorm directors. Surrounded by 18-year-old freshmen, Volmer says her circumstances -- and her book -- are all about community.
"Emerson's 'Self-Reliance' essay; I named the book in response to that," she says. "My book isn't an argument against community, but against isolation, the man alone with his hatchet. It's an argument for community. To find ourselves, we depend on other people. Other people deepen you, help you to understand yourself -- or how you don't want to be."