Margaret Maron is no stranger to awards. Her 1992 novel, Bootlegger’s Daughter, famously swept the Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, and Macavity awards — the only time in history that a single novel has won all four — and since then she’s won the Agatha for two more novels in her Deborah Knott series: Up Jumps the Devil in 1996 and Storm Track in 2000 (and that doesn’t include her awards for short fiction). In her native North Carolina, Maron also won the 2004 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction for a standalone, non-series book, Last Lessons of Summer.
In mid-November, Maron was recognized with a special prize for the body of her work: the North Carolina Award — the state’s highest civilian honor. The award, nicknamed by some the “Nobel Prize of North Carolina,” is presented in several fields: the fine arts, literature, public service, and science. Maron was one of two writers honored in the literature category this year, sharing the stage with Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain. The awards were presented on Monday, November 17, at the Sheraton-Imperial Hotel in Research Triangle Park. The following week, Maron took some time to discuss the honor and her work.
Your novels and stories have already amassed a fine collection of honors. What does this award mean to you?
It’s a very heady to be given my state’s highest award. It is an amazing honor to be so rewarded for doing what I love to do. It’s also a validation of the work that was totally unexpected.
The Deborah Knott books offer a portrait of a state undergoing sometimes rapid change, and each new title seems to tackle an important, often controversial issue: immigration in Hard Row and development in Death’s Half Acre, just to look at two recent books. What do you see as your role as a novelist: to capture on the page the reality of that quickly changing world? to offer enriched perspectives on those changes? or even to effect change — the novel as an instigator for action or activism perhaps?
First and foremost, I write to entertain. I just happen to also find the changes and the clash of cultures endlessly entertaining (and at times infuriating) so that they are natural topics to write about. I do want my readers — especially my North Carolina readers — to think about the changes and to think where we’re going, to be a part of it and not just mindlessly swept along. But I try very hard not to let my soapbox show.
Not trying to pull you up on that soapbox, but what do you think is the most pressing issue facing North Carolina today?
I really don’t feel qualified to say what I think is the most pressing issue. I’d love to see real planning for sensible growth and a better public transportation system instead of building more roads. I wish we felt more charitable to the strangers among us and could afford (and want) to educate everyone, especially the children. It troubles me when the haves act as if they have no compassion for the have-nots. But these are my own worries, not necessarily pressing issues for the state as a whole.
I recently taught Bootlegger’s Daughter to a college literature class, and my students found similarities between the primary race between Obama and Clinton and the run-off between Deborah Knott and Luther Parker in the book. Do you think that the challenges that Deborah faced a decade-and-a-half ago remain similar to the ones that women face today (political or otherwise), or has there been some fundamental shift in attitude?
I do think many of those attitudes were the same until this past year when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton definitely moved the goalposts. They have indeed created a fundamental shift in attitude. As so many of my Democrative friends have said, “It isn’t that I wanted a woman president. I wanted THAT woman as president.” Same for Obama: “I just wanted a smart, intellectually curious, non-isolationist for my president. The fact that he’s black is just icing on the cake.” I don’t know if we’re finally getting to MLK’s dream of judging people on the basis of character and not by race or gender, but I certainly hope so.
Finally, a quick question touching on an old, almost worn-out topic (one that you and I’ve discussed before, of course): Charles Frazier, also honored with this year’s North Carolina Award, writes what some might term “literary fiction,” whereas those same folks might call you a “mystery writer.” Does this award — this pairing — help to level that distinction? to prove that great literature is great literature, no matter how you label it?
I sure hope so! I really have quit worrying about how people label my books as long as they buy them! Here’s my current attitude, Art: It seems to me that all fictional writing falls into one genre or another. If it has a horse, dusty trails and an Winchester, then it’s a “Western.” If there are bug-eyed aliens, space ships or alternate universes, it’s “Science Fiction.” If it’s witty, funny, and everyone goes shopping, then it’s “Chick Lit.” Ghosts and vampires and spooky woo-woo? “Supernatural.” Ghosts and spooky woo-woo and heroines running around in wispy nightgowns? “Gothic.”
Other genres are Romance, Fantasy, Historical…. The breakdown into subsets goes on and on. Only if it doesn’t fall squarely in one of those easy categories is it called “Literature,” which is neither more nor less important than any other genre and usually partakes of aspects of the others. There is excellent writing in that category; there is also pretentious navel-gazing.
Same for all the other categories. Every subset has its classics that have stood the test of time as well as the duds that were remaindered two weeks after their pub date.
— Interviewed by Art Taylor