Before I was a writer, I was an avid reader. As a child, I adored any book that featured a plucky young girl, especially L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon, which I read repeatedly. Emily’s ambition to become a “poetess” struck me as lofty and romantic, the perfect choice for my beloved heroine. It never occurred to me that writing was a profession to which I might aspire. I wanted to be an archaeologist: traveling to exotic locales far from my small Pennsylvania hometown, digging up artifacts, and writing about my discoveries.
In college, I changed my mind and studied journalism instead. Then life kicked into high gear. I wrote and edited nonprofit and corporate publications, married my college boyfriend, and switched to freelancing when our first daughter was born. Two more daughters (one named Emily) followed. I gave up freelancing to be a full-time mom and, for fun, enrolled in a community college creative writing class. The following semester, I studied fiction writing, joined a writers' group, and applied to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. My acceptance letter arrived right after my husband accepted a transfer to his company’s office in Switzerland.
Four months after our family moved to Bern, I flew to Vermont for the conference, where a lot of people were talking about MFA programs. The night before my return flight to Switzerland, I called my husband and told him I was applying to graduate school. Yes, we’d just moved to Europe with three young children. Yes, it would be inconvenient. It was perhaps the most impulsive decision I’d ever made, but I’ve never regretted it.
I received my MFA in creative writing from Warren Wilson College shortly after we moved back to the States. I wrote fiction whenever I wasn’t busy with my daughters or working on a freelance magazine assignment. Awards from Clackamas Literary Review and the Houston Press Club bolstered me along the way. Residencies at Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, and the Writer's Colony at Dairy Hollow afforded the luxury of writing for long, uninterrupted stretches. Two manuscripts went into a drawer. The third, inspired by stories about my grandmothers’ lives in Pennsylvania mining towns, was Playing St. Barbara.
Ironically, writing the novel fulfilled my childhood aspiration to delve into the past—and I didn’t have to travel far. When I returned to Pennsylvania to begin research, I quickly discovered that the best digging—and the story that took shape around my discoveries—was within driving distance of my hometown.
“I am full of admiration for the authority with which Marian Szczepanski brings this world to life and the clarity with which she writes about the ways in which love, work, and politics shape our lives. A wonderful debut.”
—Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy