Friday, September 2, 2011

Men Like Pie: An Interview with Mary Pat Hyland

Today, I'm talking with former journalist, chef, and novelist Mary Pat Hyland about her latest novel, The Terminal Diner, a suspenseful character study about a woman discovering herself after the 9/11 attacks jolt her, and the entire United States, out of complacency.

Tell us about The Terminal Diner. 

This novel tells the story of a family that runs a diner near an upstate New York airport. The main character, Elaina Brady, is still recovering from the day her mother ran away with a trucker from Missoula (after he ordered a slice of her delicious lemon meringue pie). That very morning, Maria’s last words to her daughter were, prophetically, “men like pie.” Elaina, just 16, takes on her mother’s job as pie maker at the diner and finds her life stuck in its routine. A decade later, all she knows to be true about men are the words her mother told her. The story opens on the day before Sept. 11, when some new customers come into the diner who will change Elaina’s life forever, especially as the country tries to recover from the horrific acts of terror the next day.

Many authors often put a little of themselves into their leads. What went into developing your main character?

This novel started out as a short story called “Spice of Life,” inspired by the day I first tried the spice blend masala and thought, wow, how sad it would be to eat the same foods over and over and never try exotic flavors like that. In my day job I’m a personal chef and I’ve often daydreamed about what it would be like to run a diner. It was easy to imagine the routine.

An author's background often influences their style and choices of subjects. Does your journalistic background influence your fiction at all?

Definitely. I’m always looking for the story, the headline of the lives of people I know, meet randomly or observe from a distance. When I converse with someone, I shift into interview mode asking many more questions about that person than sharing information about myself. Can’t seem to help myself—I’m naturally curious. At the time I left journalism, my job was editor of the Op-Ed page. Sometimes it’s tough to hold back the urge to analyze or moralize the characters (like I used to with the news) and just let the story unfold in its own way. That said, I do come from Rod Serling’s hometown and have been inspired by his work. “Twilight Zone” episodes always reflected the morality in decisions of the characters.

The backdrop of one of the most seminal events in modern American history, 9/11, is a key aspect in forcing some changes in your main character. In a a little over  week, it will have been ten years since th attacks. Did you ever worry about people reacting negatively to you setting a book during this time?

No. I think it’s important to remember and record, accurately, what it was like to live through that day. Throughout civilization, the arts have always reflected what occurred during major historical events. Though the wound is still raw, I think enough time has passed and we’re at the point where can talk about it this way. That day changed everyone’s life in some way; it’s important to share those viewpoints.

My job at the newspaper on Sept. 11 was to pore over photos on the Associated Press wires and select the images that best told the story of what happened. The awful task was made more unbearable by the fact that my former boyfriend worked at the World Trade Center and I spent a good deal of the day trying frantically to get in touch with him. You couldn’t get a call through to Manhattan. I called his home and got his answering machine. I feared it would be  the last time I’d hear his voice. He worked in WTC 5, but I thought he was in WTC 2. So when the towers collapsed I was a wreck, but I had to keep my cool and get the pages laid out. Later that day, I sent an email and he responded immediately with a harrowing account of fleeing the falling towers. I was so relieved he that made it. That joy didn’t last long. Two days later I found out that another old
friend had an office in WTC 1 right above where the first plane hit. For ten years since his death I’ve seen his family work through the stages of their grief and try to reconnect with the world. It’s been so painful to
witness the depth of their sorrow. Writing this story has helped me process all of the tough experiences I’ve been through related to that day.

You set this book, along with, from what I can tell, your other novels and short stories in upstate New York. I'm assuming you're probably from there. Have you ever been interested in setting any of your works somewhere else? 

Write what you know, the experts tell us. I grew up and still live here and find upstate to be a continuous source of inspiration and fascinating characters for my work. It’s a working class area with a rich ethnic blend and keep-going attitude despite economic hardships lingering from the departure of the  company town industries. Sometimes you feel like you’re in an Edward Hopper painting when you drive past the empty factories. You can sense the desperation and resignation that the area’s heyday has passed.

I don’t just write about upstate, though. My many travels over the years are also woven into my works. For example, you’ll read many scenes set in the west of Ireland and part of The Terminal Diner was inspired by a trip to the Pacific Northwest that included a drive across Montana.

This is your fourth novel. How is similar to some of your previous work? How is it different?

 I think the aspect found in all of my writing is strong, unforgettable characters that readers relate to and genuinely miss when they finish the book. They’re woven together with the Irish sense of humor that rises up when times get tough. The Terminal Diner differs from my other works in that it’s my first suspense novel. Some scenes were very difficult to write and frankly made it hard to fall asleep some nights. It was interesting to take a walk on the dark side. I enjoyed the genre very much and hope to revisit it someday.

As a middling baker (yes, men do like pie), and given some of the elements of your book, I have to ask: What's your favorite kind of pie? 

I could tell you liked pie! Nothing beats a pie made with Cortland apples served warm from the oven with a slice of sharp cheddar cheese on a chilly fall day. (It’s an upstate thing.)


Thanks, Mary Pat.

You can find The Terminal Diner in both physical and electronic formats at Amazon.

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