Maggie Ginsberg on the exciting, vulnerable, terrifying road to becoming an author

Q&A with Maggie Ginsberg, author of the novel 'Still True,' out Sept. 27
A woman in a sleeveless blue dress holding a book and smiling at the camera in a cafe
Photo by Andrea Behling
Maggie Ginsberg holds up her new novel, "Still True," inside of Brix Cider.

It’s been a very interesting and pleasant experience to watch Maggie Ginsberg become an author. Well, obviously I haven’t been there for the entire process — Maggie’s likely been destined to become an author since the moment she found her voice as a middle schooler with a diary. But I remember sitting down with her at True Coffee Roasters pre-pandemic — during her time as Madison Magazine’s star freelance writer, before she became an associate editor — to go over the stories we hoped she’d write for the upcoming year. Back then when her book came up in conversation, what I remember most was how the octave of her voice dropped a bit lower; she was discouraged about finding a publisher to say “yes,” and the rejection letters stung. She was already years into the process, and her strand of hope, while still very much intact, was fraying.

Fast forward to a different coffee shop post-pandemic. Maggie and I sat on Barriques’ patio to talk about her joining the magazine’s editorial team. We didn’t know it yet, but Maggie’s novel — “Still True” out Sept. 27 — was about to become one of only 34 works selected by the University of Wisconsin Press for publication in the Fall 2022 catalog — and one of only three by Wisconsin authors. She was becoming a published author and a magazine editor at the same time.

As she learned the ropes at the magazine — falling into the role with ease — she was also making revisions and submitting edits on her book. The early riser would sometimes put in a full day’s worth of book changes ahead of her magazine work day. This was all while she was also developing a beat for covering the local literary scene.

Then a few months ago, I was in the office with Maggie when she got the email showing her what cover art had been selected. (Jump to the Q&A for details on the cover.) She ran into my office and we celebrated together. The excitement and joy on her face was priceless. I’m a quick and easy crier, and the moment made tears well up to see her so happy.

Then earlier this week, Maggie and I sat down for a working lunch at Brix Cider. (True, Barriques, Brix — we meet at a lot of fun places, OK?) I forced her into taking a picture of her holding her advanced reader copy for a Q&A — an interview she’s usually on the question-asking side of. Come to find out, the finalized copy of “Still True” was waiting for her in her mailbox that day. Her social media post with her daughter, Eva, featured the same kind of excitement I got to see when Maggie first saw the cover art — a far cry from that True Coffee conversation, I’m realizing.

It’s been a joy to be a bystander in Maggie’s book publishing process, and I look forward to her first reading on Sept. 21 in conversation with another of Madison Magazine’s own, Doug Moe. It’s also been fun to put Maggie in the hot seat for an author Q&A. Read on to hear directly from her about her novel, “Still True.”

After nearly 20 years as a nonfiction writer, you are publishing your first book—and it’s a novel. Where did that come from?
First of all, thank you for turning the tables on me with this Author Q&A, Andie — I can’t quite believe it. It’s surreal to be sitting on this side of the interview.

As for fiction, I got a late start; I’m about to turn 47. This is embarrassing, but for whatever reason, I always thought of fiction writers as some other species born with magical unicorn brains — and I didn’t have one. I find the boundaries of journalism comforting; if you get stuck or the work is thin, it just means you haven’t talked to enough people or unearthed enough facts. The paradigm shifting, forehead-slap moment for me came in 2016 when I took Kathy Steffen’s fiction track at Write By the Lake, one of the fabulous week-long workshops we lost when the UW–Madison Continuing Studies in Writing program was eliminated (an absolute travesty, don’t get me started). Steffen helped me realize that sure, a great novel feels magical when you read the finished product, but it’s the result of messy hard work and it’s absolutely a craft that can be learned and honed — and it has just as many tools and rules as journalism. Two months later, in January 2017, I enrolled in a four-month-long program called The Fifth Semester with authors Erin Celello and Ann Garvin, and emerged with the first draft of “Still True” and a veteran agent. Then I became the next Stephen King! 

Just kidding. Then came years of revisions, rejections and more classes, including several through Madison Writers’ Studio, a fabulous resource founded by Michelle Wildgen and Susanna Daniel. Madison is home to some incredible writers who run top-notch programs that are accessible to people like me who maybe don’t have an MFA or haven’t taken the traditional route to a writing career. I’ve also had the good fortune of connecting with so many local authors, editors and writers who’ve helped me or this book in some way, including the fine people I gained access to at the University of Wisconsin Press after they offered me this publishing contract in 2021.

As a fiction writer, you can write about anything under the sun — why did you decide to tell a story that rings so true to real life, touching on very realistic themes of marriage, divorce, trust, family secrets and alcoholism?
It’s funny, I don’t think I set out to write about anything when I started “Still True” — but I’m not surprised that the themes that came out are the things I spend the most time thinking about in real life. I love to ponder the gray areas. I love to read books about ordinary people making questionable decisions that create all kinds of drama to distract themselves from what they might not like about their lives. 

“Still True” is definitely a character-driven book; I had the characters before I ever had a single plot point. Lib Hanson came to me first: a fiercely independent woman living alone in a Driftless farmhouse because she refuses to move in with her husband of nearly 30 years. What sort of partner would be cool with that? Enter Jack: a stickler for honesty who stays busy with his own endless projects and is charged up instead of threatened by a woman like Lib. They’re madly in love — what could ever threaten their mutually respectful, long-term, happily wedded bliss in separate houses? Enter Matt Marlow, the baby Lib abandoned 40 years ago who’s just shown up on her porch demanding answers. What if Lib had never told Jack about him, or about the rest of her life before they married, including a first husband? Who was this woman who would make a decision like that? How did she see herself, and what did she look like to everybody else? Enter Claire Taylor, a younger, unhappily married mom who looks at someone like Lib and thinks she has what she wants — but does she? What if Claire was drinking too much? What if Claire spotted Matt (not knowing who he was to Lib), and he became the subject of her fantasies to escape her life? And what did Claire have to lose, besides a husband she’s on the fence about? Enter Charlie, her 10-year-old son.

As each of these characters became real and began interacting, tension built, stakes began to rise and the plot points slid into place. But really I was captivated by the themes you mentioned: What makes a marriage? What does it mean to be truly independent? In what ways do we hold other people responsible for our own misery, and what lengths do we go to to protect our own narratives? 

Is Anthem, Wisconsin, a real town? What inspired you to place your story there?
Anthem is fictional, but it’s a very real amalgam of the towns I grew up in and know best. It is set in a vague pocket of the Driftless around the Richland and Juneau county lines and I sketched out a detailed map that lived next to my desk as I wrote. Anthem became so real to me that I sometimes forget it doesn’t exist, and I’ve even had dreams that I’m there. I’ll likely return to it in a future book.

Does this story draw from your own life?
Everything is made up — but I admit to some parallels that people might be tempted to read more into. The two most obvious inspirations are that I don’t live with my (second) husband and I quit drinking in 2010. But those are really just jumping off points, things I have some experience thinking about. Lib, Jack, Claire, Matt, Dan, Charlie, Kit, Franny — they’re entirely fictional. The things they struggle with are real, and I think that’s what readers will relate to.

Your scene-setting makes a reader slow down and really visualize the world you’ve created. What was your process like for capturing all of the little details you include in each scene?
Thank you, that is really kind. I think writing long-form magazine articles for so many years made for a natural transition to fiction writing. As you well know, evocative scene-setting is a hallmark of both fiction and creative nonfiction; you want your reader to feel like they are there so they can connect with the people and places they’re reading about. I also believe that if you’re intimately familiar with small town life in Wisconsin, you know that place can be as much a character as the people that live in these towns. You might not always consciously note the details that make it so — the flannel-clad farmer hunched over the bar next to the poker machine, or the chemical crunch of the city-sprayed thistles growing up through the cracked pavement of the parking lot at the abandoned factory — but you know them when you see them, they’re a part of you.

The precocious 10-year-old in your story is fun to meet. What inspired Charlie Taylor?
Without naming any names, there are two real-life boys I’ve watched grow up who sort of melded in my brain and came out in Charlie’s voice. But Charlie’s character was also influenced by his interactions with Jack, and how and why Jack relates to him so well despite their age difference. Jack is a guy who finds comfort in figuring out how machines work. He’s a tinkerer and a black-and-white thinker and he’s drawn to Charlie’s innocence and simplicity — but then he becomes challenged by him, too. Theirs was a really interesting relationship to watch unfold because it’s kind of an unlikely pairing, but they become very important to each other.

It’s always fun for me to discover in the first few pages of a book what kind of narration the author has chosen. Why did you decide on third-person narration that reveals inner dialogues of multiple characters?
“Still True” is told from the rotating point of view of Lib, Jack and Claire. I chose close third person because it’s intimate but still allows for a little narrative license — with first person, you’re so limited to what each character personally knows, and this is a book about people not knowing themselves as well as they think they do. I chose rotating point of view because one of the things I find most interesting about people in general is the difference between who we are on the inside versus how we present on the outside, as well as how differently each of us sees one another. Who is a person? Well, that depends who you ask — including that person. 

Your closest family members have read “Still True.” What has it been like to have people who know you so well read this story you’ve created, and soon, a much wider audience?
Believe it or not, I’m a relatively private person by nature and I feel vulnerable every time I publish anything, even after all these years — but this is definitely the most personal writing I’ve ever done, which is ironic, considering it’s fiction. So, not gonna lie, it’s a little bit terrifying to think of strangers reading and judging something I wrote over the course of several years while I was locked in a quiet little room just me and my computer. On the contrary, the experience of my closest people reading this book has been powerful in a way I never expected and have yet to articulate. My husband isn’t much of a reader, but he devoured this book in three days, and the private conversations we had during that time are now among the most treasured of our entire relationship. It was similar with my parents — who unbelievably read every single draft of the book as I wrote — and my daughters. I’ll leave it there, but I will say I feel closer to all of them than I ever have, as a result of this book, and nothing from here on out will ever top that.

I love the cover, did you have any say in choosing that?
Sort of, but not really — and thank you, I love it too. It’s a piece by Driftless artist Jamie Heiden. Long before I knew I’d write a novel, Heiden’s work meant a lot to me for personal reasons. I discovered her work during a particularly dark period of my life shortly after my divorce while I was navigating a new apartment and missing my two daughters half the time. One day in Mineral Point I stumbled upon a piece of hers that depicts a woman and two girls joyfully jumping on a trampoline in the prairie. I bought it, framed it, hung it on the wall of that sad little apartment, and stared at it every day while trying to keep the faith. Fast forward all these years to 2021, when the UW Press design team was brainstorming covers for “Still True.” They checked in with me just to gauge my style and tastes, but it was all their decision. I pointed them to Heiden’s work but I didn’t hear anything after that — until the moment they revealed the finished cover to me. They went with an existing piece that fits the book perfectly: two houses connected by a wire sitting on hills that look like a heart. I couldn’t be more thrilled.

You’re Madison Magazine’s resident author Q&A writer, and a super passionate advocate for the local literary scene. Has anything surprised you about being on the other side of the interview?
Listen, I don’t even pretend to be impartial about this: BOOKS ARE EVERYTHING, WRITING IS HARD, SUPPORT BOOKSHOPS, LIBRARIES, PUBLISHERS AND AUTHORS! (OK, phew, thank you for indulging that outburst.) As far as whether anything has surprised me, not really — I’ve always suspected that it’s really hard to be on this side of the interview and I’ve always felt a ton of gratitude to the sources I’ve interviewed over the years for trusting me with that. I guess I’m surprised by how difficult it is to talk about my book succinctly and on the spot, considering how well I know the darn thing. And despite having a headful of industry knowledge now, I’m freshly shocked by how much work goes into putting a book together beyond my role as the author (and the critical role of booksellers, librarians and publicists after it’s out). Dozens of editors, designers, publishers, marketers, production managers and others, all working over the course of one to two years to produce each book — it’s bananas. And those who choose to self-publish are navigating all of that by themselves, which is amazing. I cannot express how grateful I am that UW Press chose to invest in “Still True.” Please, the next time you’re wandering a bookstore or library, think about the mass collective effort that each one of those sweet little books represents. I used to feel guilty for buying so many books until my agent said that readers need to think of themselves as philanthropists. That was all the excuse I needed — haven’t felt guilty since. There are ways to help besides spending money, too: request books from your library. Show up to readings. If you like a book, write a positive review and tell all of your friends. It all adds up and it’s so important.

Where can people buy your book or attend a signing?
The official Madison-area pre-pub launch event is Sept. 21 at Mystery to Me bookstore, where people can buy “Still True” six days ahead of the official release date. I’ll be in conversation with the one-and-only Doug Moe and I’m super excited about it. I’ve got several other events on the calendar with other fabulous writers and we’re scheduling more every day, so I created a page on my website that I’m updating as regularly as I can. 

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