Maelle, a botanist, believes plants communicate and nurture their young. Raised on her grandparents’ commune, Joyous Woods, after her mother died, she imbibed the commune’s utopian beliefs of love for all.
Maelle meets Zachary, the first man she’s cared for. But when Zachary tells her their parents perished together in his father’s medical research laboratory, Maelle is devastated.
Searching for answers just as a filmmaker arrives to make a movie about the last of the hippies, probing the commune’s secrets, Maelle must pierce a wall of silence to find the truth. What really happened in that lab – its role in her mother’s violent death and the commune’s possible complicity – challenges all she’s been led to believe, forces her to find strength she never knew she had, and to ask the question, if plants can protect their young, why can’t humans do the same?
Joyous Lies is a wonderfully written, heartfelt exposition of the way in which families will often bend the truth or outright lie to protect reputations or to soften the blow of mistakes for those who follow behind. Author Margaret Ann Spence has touched an exposed nerve with this story.
—Grant Leishman, Readers’ Favorite
Q and A with Margaret ~
Tell us a little about yourself and how you started writing:
Jill, I am delighted to be here on your blog. I love the way women writers support one another. I am particularly thrilled to talk to you today because my novel, Joyous Lies, launches today!
I did not get off to a good start. The first day of kindergarten, Miss Reid gave each child a scrabble rack with our names spelled out in the little wooden squares, a piece of paper and a crayon. She asked us to write our names, copying the tiles. I scrambled mine up. My friend Margie, who had exactly the same name, Margaret Ann, looked sideways at me and said, “You’re supposed to write them in a straight line.” I replied bossily, “No, you can put them any way you like.”
But gently corrected by Miss Reid, I soon got the hang of it. I always wanted to work with words. My first job was with Penguin Books (Australia) as a sales rep and over-the-transom reader. A few years later I earned a master’s in journalism from Boston University and worked in public relations, then did freelance reporting while my kids were small. At the time I didn’t read much fiction (no time!) let alone think I could write it. It is only now, looking back on a lifetime of experience, that I feel confident enough to draw on it to create fictional stories.
What are some things you enjoy when not writing?
I love to travel, but when I’m home, really get into it. Cooking, baking, crafting and gardening feature in my novels, too, as do different locations I’ve lived in and traveled to.
Where do you get your ideas?
I loved writing my first book, Lipstick on the Strawberry, imagining the life of a frazzled caterer. I loved even more writing Joyous Lies, especially learning about the latest scientific research on plant biology. Trees do communicate! Michael Pollan’s book, The Botany of Desire, about the amazing power of plants, sent me on a quest to learn more. Richard Powers’ The Overstory made me think about how we carelessly destroy forests, which, emitting oxygen, we need to breathe.
All kinds of thoughts bounced around in my head about idealists who want to make a better world, and the cost of doing so. And thus my book was born. My first viewpoint character is Maelle, a young botanist, and the other is her grandmother, Johanna, an old hippie, actually the driving force that turned a commune into a working organic farm. The story is set in Northern California. I researched that through some wonderful road trips.
Can you tell us about your challenges in getting your first book published (or this book?)
Like many authors, I have a first novel in a computer file and am thankful it never saw the light of day. However, I learned to pitch that novel, and subsequent ones, at the San Francisco Writers Conference in 2013. I submitted to agents, and while waiting for the call that never came on that first book, started writing what became Lipstick on the Strawberry. I’m pleased to say this manuscript won a novel contest in 2015 which surely helped me land my publisher, The Wild Rose Press. I do strongly recommend attending writing conferences, if you can. They usually offer pitching opportunities to agents and publishers. I never did get an agent. I’m an older writer, and agents are young. I decided that I would rather submit to a small but reputable publisher than wait years for an agent to (a) offer representation and then (b) try to sell the book. There’s no guarantee of that. I’ve been happy with my decision.
If you had to go back and do it all over, is there any aspect of your novel or getting it published that you’d change?
Only that I wish I’d had the courage to start when I was younger. Then again, I do have fragments of writing from earlier days and they sometimes make their way into my current work. I’ve kept an intermittent journal over the years, and that helped clarify my thoughts. As far as the process of getting it published is concerned, each person’s experience is unique, and we can’t learn except by going through that experience. I feel grateful I didn’t have to go the self-publishing route. That would be hard and lonely, I feel. My experience at Penguin Books showed me that publishing a book is like an inverted funnel. But hats off to anyone who actually completes a book and has the courage to show their work to the world!
What are you working on now?
Each novel I write is different (and I have another percolating away) but the basic theme always seems to be, “family ties, family lies.” Don’t ask me where that came from. It’s not autobiographical! But the difference between private thoughts and actions and the public façade is a rich vein of human behavior to explore, don’t you think?
Is anything in Joyous Lies based on real-life experiences?
When I moved to Phoenix, I took the master gardener course offered by the University of Arizona Maricopa Extension to learn to garden in the arid desert. It offered wonderful classes on botany, about which I knew nothing when I started. I met so many dedicated gardeners who loved the challenge of producing food in the desert, and I learned about organic farming and perma-culture.
Do you have a favorite chapter or scene?
One of the truths that came to me as I researched and wrote this book is that life will go on, despite what we as humans might do to straitjacket it to our own ends or to destroy it. In the first chapter, Maelle meets Zachary, and, as a habitual loner, is startled by her attraction to him.
She twirled her fork in the salad bowl. A piece of radish and a vibrant red beet nestled amongst the arugula under goat cheese and a dusting of nuts. Nature’s vibrant colors, created to attract pollinators. The libidinous plants, sluttishly exposing themselves for fertilization by any passing bee. Good grief, what a thought to strike her. How embarrassing.
Do you have a favorite character?
As I started writing Maelle, I needed to know how she became like she is. Since she had lived on the commune, Joyous Woods, since the age of ten when her mother died, the commune’s visionary, counter-cultural beliefs were drummed into her. But what is the cost of Utopia? So, the character of Maelle’s grandmother, Johanna, came to me. Johanna had left Berkeley with her boyfriend Neil when his draft number was called in 1970, and ever since they and their friends had lived a hard-scrabble life up in the far reaches of Northern California. Johanna’s idealism, her strength and also her blindness unfold through the story.
What was the most unique research you had to do for a book?
The first thing my editor at The Wild Rose Press asked me was for verification of the scientific research behind the botanical claims made in the story. I am no scientist, but thanks to the internet, I had volumes of material. The Authors’ Guild, to which I belong, offers members a discounted membership to JStor, an online reference library for academic researchers.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Keep going and don’t give up! Then again don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t succeed when you set yourself an artificial deadline. Persistence, which means both writing every day and submitting through rejection after rejection, is the key. This is a very competitive business. Keep your day job.
It will stimulate you and get you out of your own head, as well as pay the bills. Also remember that while writing is a solitary activity, it doesn’t have to be a lonely business. I have been blessed to be a member of a critique group for about ten years, and belong to several writing groups, local and national, including the wonderful Women Fiction Writers Association. Their encouragement has been invaluable.
What are the downfalls of your writing career? The best parts?
If I tried to write novels to earn a fortune, I would be sadly disappointed. On the other hand, I get to do what I most love to do, each and every day. I write to know what I think, I write because if I don’t I feel frustrated. It’s sort of like hunger, it needs to be satisfied.
Margaret Ann Spence is an award-winning essayist and writer of Women’s Fiction. Her debut novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, published by the Wild Rose Press, won the Romantic Elements Category in the First Coast Romance Writers 2015 Beacon Contest. It was a finalist for the 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Award and in the 2019 Next Generation Indie Awards. Joyous Lies, her second novel, also published by The Wild Rose Press, released on February 15, 2021.
After working in publishing, as a journalist, as a consular officer and as a real estate agent, Margaret found that writing fiction was much more fun. Born in Australia, she's lived on three continents and both coasts of the United States. These places find their way into her fiction. Though she loves to travel, the theme of home is central to her fiction, and when she is not at her desk, she tends an unruly garden, cooks up a storm in the kitchen, and cherishes time with her family. A believer in the sisterhood, Margaret reviews books by women on her blog and elsewhere, and when inspired, sends a favorite recipe to her subscribers.
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