Maria Mann: Writer, M.E. Survivor, Hero, Inspiration and Wonder Witch
Maria Mann is a ME sufferer and even though she has this awful and often severely debilitating illness, she is the author of the popular Verity Red’s Diary: A Story of Surviving M.E. and Love & Best Witches. One would expect the books to be extremely depressing, given the daily plight of people afflicted with this illness, but the stories are wonderful. Yes, they show the awful reality of living with this chronic illness but with humour, magic, fantasy and light, which make them a great read for both people suffering from a chronic illness and for those that are not.
I was extremely lucky to have been granted an interview with Maria Mann who is something of an idol to me. If you would like to read more about why I am such a fan, read Why ‘Verity Red’s Diary’ is a Must-Read Book.
What follows are the words of Maria Mann in response to my questions and some of her beautiful artwork.
Did you always know you wanted to write?
“My first memory of enjoying writing is when I was about seven years old. I wrote short little stories about witches living in the woods, and illustrated them. I think I must have been inspired by the first film I ever saw at the cinema; ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’. We didn’t have a TV.
When I was 13 I started writing and illustrating poetry for my school’s magazine. I thought I’d like to write a book one day, but fancied being a songwriter, poet or artist. At the age of 16 I decided to go to Art College and get my diploma in illustration and graphic design. I thought about writing a book and illustrating it, but nothing inspired me at the time.
Soon after leaving college I got married and worked as a freelance artist for a while. Then I found a job in a drawing office, working for a national energy supplier. In my spare time I wrote and performed my songs, or played percussion with bands. I almost got a recording contract with an Indie label, but it didn’t work out.
I always felt depressed working in an office and used to daydream about writing a book about how awful office life can be. Thirteen years later I became ill with ME and had to leave my job. After a year of lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, I wanted to help others with my illness; so I decided to write a book, describing what it’s like, day after day, to have ME. It had to be a diary.”
Can you tell us a little about your health?
“Well, I’ve had ME for 19 years. I was severely ill and bedridden for the first 4, then I started seeing a wonderful healer, Seka Nikolic, who magically helped me to be able to sit upright again. Slowly over the years, the pain of fatigue in my muscles lessened, though I easily went downhill if I overdid it. I could only work a little on my writing every day and all the illustrations in my book gave me migraines. I recall lying on the floor dictating what I’d written to my partner, (on days that I could talk) because I couldn’t type. Although this was very tiring, it was wonderful to have something to do.”
How are you able to retain a sense of humour even with the ME related health problems? As one of the most striking elements of your books is the humour contained within the stories.
“I’m not sure! I think humour has always been my way of coping with life. Before I became ill, I would write and perform funny songs. I think I’m like Victoria Wood, because if I didn’t write humour, I would sink into deep depression. I guess writing must be my therapy, if I didn’t write I would constantly dwell on the sad things in my past. Oh, and I love to make people laugh, because laughter is so healing.”
What inspired you to write ‘Verity Red’s Diary’ & did you realise what an impact it would have? Much of it must be autobiographical, but as a fellow sufferer, I know it is not always easy to write down ones experiences with ME.
“I’m delighted and amazed my book has become a companion and comfort for people with chronic illness. I’ve received so many wonderful e-mails of thanks from people all over the UK, America and Australia, I still find it hard to believe. I reply to everyone; I love them all. And yes, much of my first book is autobiographical, and no way did I realise that it would make any impact. There were no humourous books about coping with chronic illness (that I knew of) and I was so unsure, feeling that I may be barking up the wrong tree. I worried constantly. Also the book turned out bigger, heavier and costing more than I had planned. I honestly thought no-one would buy it.
You ask what inspired me. Well, I think I may have answered that after your first question. Just lying in bed day after day, knowing there were thousands of others just like me, not being believed or understood, made me want to do something to help. Scientists were not taking ME seriously, and I thought, well, I’m no scientist but I can write, and I’ll have a go at a book.”
How long did it take you to write ‘Verity Red’s Diary’?
“It took 8 years. I did what I call a J.K.Rowling. I spent 2 years writing the first draft, then I put it away in a cupboard for 3 years because I didn’t feel anyone would want to read it; just like Ms Rowling. I was clearing out my cupboards and about to throw the manuscript away, but showed it to my partner’s brother. He’s a writerly sort, and thought it was worth another re-write. I spent the next 3 years doing 2 re-writes and drawing the illustrations, when I felt well enough. Though to be perfectly honest I never felt really well enough, but it was something I just had to do.”
Did it take you long to find a publisher for ‘Verity Red’s Diary’?
“I spent 2 years contacting various publishers. They all said the same thing, ‘We don’t publish medical books’. I tried to find an agent. One chap said my website (with extracts from the book) and the book were rubbish, and I shouldn’t have written a funny book about a serious illness, and no-one would take me seriously. That was encouraging wasn’t it?!
I eventually decided to pay to have the book published with all my savings. The process took 2 years because, although the editor said it was the best manuscript he’d ever seen, when he left his job and a young chap converted it onto a computer, he made so many mistakes, I had to correct the whole book. I decided to make the most of this by adding new ideas! Then there were problems with their computers and again I had to check through the whole book, correcting mistakes on most pages. Again, I made the most of this by adding the odd new bit. When eventually it was published, I was really unhappy that many of the drawings were so small. I wanted them full page, so the reader could rest his or her eyes. After this followed, how can I say this, not very complimentary reviews in this country. Luckily a review in America was wonderful, they understood what I was trying to do. Unfortunately, when it came out, my publisher hadn’t got it together to make the book available in the country. At this point I wanted to give up, I was ill with exhaustion and disappointment.
A few months later I received a lovely e-mail of thanks from a woman who’d suffered ME for 4 years, and wonderful reader’s reviews started to appear on the Amazon books website. I continued to advertise my book in ME magazines, and eventually I received more e-mails of thanks. I’ve sold over 2000 books now, and every penny has gone into ME research, because I still put costly adverts into magazines. Although I haven’t made any money for myself, every single letter, e-mail and customer review on Amazon makes me feel like a millionaire.”
Your latest book ‘Love & Best Witches’ is a magical and fantastical tale. What inspired you to write it?
“My beautiful niece Louise was my inspiration, she was nine years old at the time. She would visit me when I was well enough and we’d dress up as witches to do healing spells with herbs and candles. It was great fun! Mostly Louise would write to me though.
When I told her about my first book, she was disappointed that it was a book for grown-ups, so I said I’d write a book for her about our witchy spell making. The following Halloween she wrote ‘Love and Best Witches’ at the end of her letter, and I knew this had to be the title for my book.
I’ve been interested in healing witchcraft for many years, so I had a few books for reference. The book was going to be very short, about fifty pages, with a few sketches, but it sort of magically grew. After the experience with my first book, I decided I was capable of editing, proof reading, and putting the illustrations into the text myself. Epic Press sorted out the printing and distribution, without any problems at all – this was magical too!”
Which writers are your inspirations?
“There are so many I’m not sure where to begin. My first loves were C.S. Lewis, A.A. Milne, Charles Dickens, John Wyndam and Douglas Adams. In my twenties I discovered wonderful funny women writers like Sue Townsend, Jilly Cooper, Isobel Wolff and Helen Fielding. Then in my thirties I fell in love with Terry Pratchett. His books, not the man! Though I met him once at a book signing and he was very sweet. He makes me laugh more than any other writer (apart from Victoria Wood’s songs) his Discworld book series are such amazing fantasy, especially the ones with lots of witches and wizards. His funny witches Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlic, in the ‘Wyrd Sisters’ and ‘Witches Abroad’ were an inspiration for ‘Love & Best Witches’.”
Are you working on any new projects that we should look out for?
“Oh yes! I’ve written a sequel to ‘Verity Red’s Diary’ called ‘Verity Writes Again’. It’s another diary, but just the last four months of the year, because Verity has been busy writing ‘Love and Best Witches’. I thought, just four months would make it another small book, but like my last book, it has magically grown. It won’t be as big and heavy as the first though.
I’ve never suffered from writer’s block, I get what I call writer’s diary-ah. I constantly get ideas, or I hear or see something funny and think “oh, I must put that in chapter 1 or chapter 2.” It’s a bit like eating crisps or chips, I find it hard to stop!”
Have you any idea when the book will be out? Have you found a publisher?
“My partner and I have decided to set up our own publishing company. I’ve got a great witchy name to register under, but that’s a secret for now. I’m in the process of editing and proof reading the first four chapters, and I’ve started work on the cover. I’ve completed 150 illustrations, and really looking forward to putting them into the text. That’s the best part, when all the graft is done. Though I’ve got a ‘thing’ about, how can I say it, the drawing being on the right page, to match the text. This can be difficult, so I’ll probably write a new bit on some pages, like I did with ‘Love and Best Witches’, so it all fits perfectly.
My partner has his own musical projects to work on, so he only has limited time at the weekends to do the ‘computer stuff’ for me. But hopefully the book will be completed in time for Xmas 2014 reviews.”
When you are not writing or drawing, do you have any hobbies or interests, health allowing, of course?
“Well, I’ve already mentioned witchcraft. I love to keep lots of cats, and curl up with them listening to audio books – mostly Terry Pratchett and J.K. Rowling. I used to write songs and play percussion (which I think I’ve already mentioned as well) but I’m too tired to perform these days; though when my partner is composing, I do like to shake the gravy granules if I’m in the kitchen.
Recently he liked what I was playing to a Cuban rhythm, so he called the tune ‘Gravy Granules’! I’m going to record my playing for the track (just a few bars and he’ll repeat it). I can’t really say I’m recording again, but it’s something!”
If you could say anything to your fans and other people suffering from a chronic illness, what would you say?
“Well, the first words that pop into my head are “I LOVE YOU”. I’ve always felt this great love for everyone in the world who has ME and any chronic illness, since I became ill. Like Verity in my first book (in the final chapter, December) I want to stand on the top of the mountain and scream, “I love you and I believe you” to everyone who has ME; they hear me and have a happy Christmas.
To my fans I’d like to say; thank you, thank you, thank you, to everyone who has sent me e-mails and letters of gratitude – so much appreciated! The first e-mail I received really did feel like the best day of my life. I reply to every e-mail and letter, but I can’t keep in touch with everyone, I’d never get another book completed!
I also like to say, try to never give up hope. Though after years of illness, I know how terribly hard it can be to do this. And try not to let what I call, insensitive-comment-type-people, get you down. Their ignorance is THEIR problem. There are so many people who have made a reasonable recovery from ME after 5, 10, or even 20 years. We’re all different. I think the support you get from your family, friends and doctor helps considerably. If you’re like me and didn’t have this in your early years, hopefully like me you’ll gain support from charities like Action for ME or the ME Association. If you can find friends on the internet who have ME, even better!
There are so many people who have gained a huge positive, and ended up doing their heart’s desire (often creative work) after years of coping with ME. But even if you don’t do this, I’ve read that lots of people have made the best friends they’ve ever had, since contacting others with ME. I just hope that as many of you as possible are as fortunate as me, and have been able to do both.”
Love and best witches, Maria Mann