Today I’m interviewing Mary Benton, one the contributors to Leaves from the Valley Oak. She’s a longtime member of Visalia-Exeter Writers.
Question: Tell us about yourself.
I was born and raised in Visalia, California, the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. My entire life has been spent on a farm. As a kid, my parents had a dairy. I had a horse and started riding when I was five. As a teenager, I rode with the Visalia Rockettes when they first started.
Through the years, my husband and I raised cotton, alfalfa, vegetables, fruit and nut trees. At one time we had a fruit stand on our ranch. We did a thriving business selling sweet corn, melons and fruit. I helped start our local Farmers’ Market and managed it for twenty-two years. Our small acreage is now all in walnuts. My husband has passed on, but I still love it here in the country. We were blessed with three wonderful children, who in turn gave us caring and loving grandchildren.
When I get up in the mornings, I take a walk to admire the trees and plan out my day. My walk is twofold. It gives me my daily exercise, while enjoying the comradeship of my two dogs and one eleven-year-old cat who thinks he’s still a teenager. Wouldn’t it be great to still be able to climb a tree, play jungle cat by hiding in a ditch and waiting for the unwary to stroll by and then pounce, scaring the bejeebers out of the hand that feeds you.
Question: How long have you been writing?
I've written off and on since I was a teenager. I didn't write seriously until I started taking writing classes at the College of the Sequoias in 1997.
Question: How many books have you written?
Tony Hillerman has always intrigued me with his ability to describe not only the sight, but the smell surrounding the scene he has created. Larry McMurtry is also good at getting into his character’s head. Also, Mark Twain, with his ability to capture his character’s dialect.
Question: How have you done your research?
Primary research is done on the computer. The library, personal research books, and physically going to the location that is the background to my story. If the location is out of State, I research the real estate ads to get a sense of the terrain, trees, grasses, and general feel of the area. Old newspapers is a good source for timely events. Maps are a great help to pinpoint travel distance.
Question: How do you develop your characters?
I get an idea for a story or plot, decide who will be telling the story, then sit down and start writing. I let the character tell me the story. As he or she rambles on, they reveal their personalities, just as someone would if you were to meet them for the first time and engaged them in conversation. I might add some background to flesh them out, but I really find it’s easier to let them have free rein. Side characters seem to leap in, insisting they’re part of the story, and lo behold, they sometimes become such a big part of the story that they almost overpower my main character.
Question: Why did you choose a particular setting and time period?
I’m interested in history and I often wonder how the world looked when the pioneers and trappers moved west. Great characters can be created from these men and women who faced the unknown, the hardships, and sometimes overwhelming grief to establish new homes, farms or businesses.
Question: How did your upbringing color your writing?
When I was small, children were seen, not heard. My favorite past time back then was to eavesdrop on the adults’ conversations. I developed an ear for dialect and can “hear a person speak in my head,” whose accent or speech pattern is a bit different.
Question: What is your latest project?
I’m currently working on my latest novel, Cantu Crossing, a Western, set in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1870’s. It involves a gold shipment stolen by the notorious Vasquez gang from the Visalia Stage near Elkhorn Station. To research this project, I took a drive through the area where the old stage route ran. I also poured over books in the library and have found references in some of my personal files. As I write, my characters are stepping out of the shadows and telling me how it was. I can’t wait to hear more.
Question: What inspired you to write The Headgate featured in Leaves from the Valley Oak?
This story is based on a true near-drowning I experienced when I was about eight years old. While my parents were picking tomatoes some of us kids went swimming in a nearby canal. Only one problem, I couldn’t swim. My older brother pulled me out by my hair. He was thoroughly embarrassed by the whole incident, as there were some really cool girls swimming and his idiot sister had to mess up the whole afternoon by nearly drowning. The rest of the story is pure fiction.
Question: Where can your books be found?
Winds of Time can be purchased through Avalon Books, or Amazon.com. Dulsey can be purchased through iUniverse as a soft cover, and is also available through Kindle. Leaves from the Valley Oak can be purchased through Amazon.com. All books can be purchased through me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also read excerpts from my books at my website. http://www.mmbenton.com/.