Former Editor of Elevate, Marissa Stapley-Ponikowski’s novel debut!

14 08 18 Marissa-Stapley

For long time followers of Elevate Magazine, Mating for Life, a dramatic work of fiction written by former Editor Marissa Stapley-Ponikowski  is a definite treat. The novel centres around the relationships in the lives of four women: three sisters and their mother and takes place in Toronto and Muskoka cottage country. From looking at issues of parenting, adultery, divorce, sisterly love and the importance of overall happiness and working through problems in our relationships rather than simply abandoning others, the book brings to life emotions with each word on the page, while bringing the message home that we are not all that different from the animal inhabitants of our natural world. We had a chance to sit down with Marissa and ask her about her venture into fiction writing that has now put her on the Globe and Mail Canadian Bestseller List.

1. A.D.: Explain the beginnings of your career as a novelist since Elevate readers know you more as a non-fiction magazine writer.

M.S.P: I have been writing fiction or trying to write fiction for several years, this is actually not technically my first novel, I did sell a novel to Key Porter in 2010 which was more of a chick lit book that was funny and fictional with an environmental message that was really important too, but made it a hard sell. Unfortunately Key Porter went out of business in 2011 before my novel came out and it never found a second home. I wrote another novel and none of the publishers were interested in it.

That was around the time I took the job at Elevate because I felt that I’d been spending so much time on this and I wasn’t making any money. I figured I had failed as a novelist. I really enjoyed switching gears because I felt so disappointed and disillusioned with fiction, but after some time of being at the magazine with the non-fiction writing, although it was great, I felt that something was missing. I felt a little depressed and realized I needed to do the fiction writing. So I started writing at night because I would take my laptop to bed. My husband always says he would hear clacking as I typed for hours at night.

It started as a short story and then it turned it into a book, I kept it a secret and didn’t tell anyone until I had written a few drafts and then I sent it to my agent. I think part of the reason it was so good was because I wasn’t writing it for anybody. I was in that place you have to get to with writing where you are just writing for yourself.

14 08 18 bookcover

2. A.D.: The female characters in the novel are all very strong women in their own ways, what character resonates with you the most and why?

M.S.P: The funny thing about those characters, there’s a small part of all of them that I identify with and there are things about them that are so different than me. In some ways I identify with all of them, I really identity with Fiona as a mother and that sort of painful way she loves her children and how it starts to break your heart as they get older. With Leanne when I was young I was a lot like her when I was in my 20s and in university, the reading side and the academic side, who I was before I got married.

With the character Isla I identified with her the least because she is so unattainable. But I feel like every woman is  seen by a man in that way at some point, and it doesn’t matter how beautiful you are or anything like that. If a man is attracted to you in that way you suddenly are only what you look like and become just about your sex appeal. I created her, as she is the embodiment of how a woman can feel in that situation when she becomes a sexual object. Her sexuality is a huge part of who she is and when sometimes men isolate that it can do strange things to us. 

With Helen she is not like anyone, she is not like my mom or anything. I kind of thought she was like Joanie Mitchell, [laughs]. She is the most absurd and not quite realistic.

3. A.D.: How did you get the idea to write Mating for Life?

M.S.P: Part of it was where I was in my life because I had kids, a house and a husband and you get to this point where you think everything is going to be perfect and on the surface it is.  I live in a nice neighborhood in Toronto and everyone around me technically has a perfect life with kids and a nice house, but I noticed that there is always a struggle. Your relationships take so much work with your husband and your kids, dealing with aging parents, and also especially as a woman maintaining friendships that go beyond ‘hi, how are you?’ in a school yard. And having those relationships that last for the rest of your life. I think there comes a time where you think it’s going to be easy and it not. That was part of it. 

Then I was at a cottage and I was looking at loons, and I kept thinking whether all animals mated for life and started to question “do all animals mate for life?” and whether if people did in fact mate for life.  This was the inspiration for the animal epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter. People think that penguins mate for life and they don’t and swans apparently get divorces. So I thought it was a neat idea to relate humans to the natural world because we are actually animals and then tell a story from that perspective.

4. A.D.: For you what does the title Mating for Life mean?

M.S.P: Its funny because I started to get online reviews and a few people took exception with the title of the book saying ‘this is anything BUT mating for life, but that was the point. IT IS it about mating for life, which is not what it looks like on the surface. For example, every one thinks loons mate for life, yet a male loon will come in and kill another loon and take a female for himself. And it’s not just mating, but also the other relationships we have: relationships with our siblings and our friends. 

The title also draws on the idea that we are animals and we forget our connection to the natural world. A lot of the things we do like get married and have kids actually have little to do with anything but our human instinct. We are biologically programmed to do what we do.

5. A.D.: Is there anything else you want to say about Mating for Life and your experience in creating it? 

M.S.P:  The book changed my life in so many ways: I can be the writer I want to be and I still write non-fiction, but now I get to pick and choose. I learned about love while writing as well. Marriages have ups and downs, and my husband and I were kind of in a down phase. At the beginning when I wrote I was trying to prove that the reason I was feeling unhappy is because we are human and we have these instincts and that as humans we are not meant to be monogamous.  But instead of proving that, I started to realise that it’s a choice to be in a marriage and likewise a choice to be a good friend, sister or a good anything. And that changed my life too and it really helped my marriage. We became closer because he read that book and he understood it. You don’t have to stay in a marriage if there are no ups, but there are cycles and some people don’t wait out the bad. Its natural to have ups and down and if more people realized it more marriages would stay together. 

6. A.D.: What are some beauty essentials you’d recommend for the summer for the woman who is spending a lot of time outdoors, but still wants to look put together and feel like she is still taking care of herself?

M.S.P:  Sunscreen, the number one essential, because it is so important to protect your skin from the sun, plus big sunglasses and a sun hat. I just got this big floppy, glamorous and dramatic hat that also covers my shoulders. I have combination skin and its gets worse in the summer so I started using a mattifying lotion because it keeps the skin matte, while leaving behind a mildly powdery surface. It holds everything together. Then finally my favourite is lip gloss.