The Secret to Her Artistry

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| Source: Southern New Hampshire University MFA and Creative Writing
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Novelist Ann Garvin, author of "The Dog Year," was well along in a very different career. Then she discovered the narrative power of empathy.

MANCHESTER, N.H., June 12, 2014 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- For Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, and Muriel Spark, writing was a second act, a career begun in middle age. So too for novelist Ann Garvin, who was twenty years into a different career—one she still maintains—before she learned how to begin as a writer.

Today Garvin is a faculty member in Southern New Hampshire University's low-residency MFA program in fiction and nonfiction, and also the author of an acclaimed second novel, "The Dog Year." Penguin published the novel early this month to rave reviews.

For most of her life, though, Garvin was one of those people who compose such sharp and witty letters that friends urge them to write professionally. "I had always been good at biology and chemistry, but I never had a good writing teacher all through school," Garvin said. "I enjoyed writing—but publication? I had no idea what to write about, or how to tell a story."

Instead she went to nursing school in Duluth, Minnesota, and worked fifteen years as a registered nurse. In 1997, she earned a doctorate in exercise physiology and psychology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and then joined the university's faculty at its Whitewater campus, teaching health and nutrition.

"My 'ah-ha' moment as a writer occurred in a contest that challenged entrants to write a story about a character in a certain photograph they posted," Garvin said. The image was of a couple embracing at a drive-in movie theater kiosk, while a handgun loomed on the screen behind them. Garvin found that given a character—or at least the image of one—she did know something about how to tell a story. She told that story well enough to earn second place in that 2004 contest.

So she entered more contests. "And I was winning sometimes," Garvin said, laughing. "Soon I was arrogant enough to think I could write a novel."

She began that first novel in 2006, writing late at night and early in the morning. She sent the manuscript to agent after agent, and the manuscript came back, but often with comments and suggested revisions. One day in 2009, the reworked manuscript didn't come back. That same year Garvin's agent sold "On Maggie's Watch" to Penguin, and the novel was published the following year.

The comic story of an expectant mother, Maggie Finley, who becomes obsessively concerned with the potential presence of a sex offender in her suburban Wisconsin neighborhood, the novel was praised by one critic as "surprisingly poignant and sinfully rich with plotline and personality."

An obsessive personality is at the center of "The Dog Year" as well. And as was the case with Garvin's first protagonist, in that prize-winning short story, this character's germ lay in a glimpse into another life.

"This happened sometime in the '90s, and I could never forget it," Garvin said. "I saw a woman try to shoplift a purse from T.J. Maxx. She was in her forties, very well dressed, nice hair. You'd never expect it from a woman who looked like this. When she knew she was caught, she looked like she was going to make a break for it, but then gave up on that immediately. And I felt so sad for her. I just kept thinking, 'My God, what's going through her mind? And what now?'"

In "The Dog Year," that woman is Dr. Luscious (Lucy) Peterman, who loses her husband and unborn baby in an accident, and who subsequently descends into kleptomania.

Why the obsession with obsession? "Well, we live in a world where it's required of women that we be good girls—likable, kind, nurturing," Garvin said. "When we follow the rules, and things still go wrong, we become angry and fearful, but that's not allowed either. So we look for an outlet, one in which we can assert control. And that's when people whom we consider healthy start making bad choices."

Garvin is still a healer, though, and her stories of dysfunction also come around to redemption. "Engrossing characterizations and unexpected complications permeate 'The Dog Year,' a novel that addresses serious issues of loss and self-actualization in a very entertaining way," said Shelf Awareness.

"The book is a roller coaster of emotions—laughter, tears, anger, and fear," said the Open Book Site. "If you are looking for a book that fills every nook and cranny of your heart, then read 'The Dog Year.'"

The success of "On Maggie's Watch" brought Garvin to the Southern New Hampshire University faculty in 2011 (though she still also teaches at Wisconsin), and eco-journalist Richard Adams Carey—the assistant director of Southern New Hampshire's MFA program—is not surprised by its lauded follow-up.

"Ann writes with a light, comic touch, but her themes reach into areas where her readers are challenged to either judge or to empathize," Carey said. "Ann herself empathizes, and that's the secret to her artistry."

And to begin with a character with whom to empathize, Garvin found, was the key to the gates of fiction.

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Richard Adams Carey

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