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Writing as Lifeblood: An Interview with Marilyn Whitehorse, author of The Church of Unrealized Fantasies

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In the topside world, I teach academic writing to people who are learning English at Kapiolani Community College in Honolulu, HI. In the river that flows beneath, I am a writer, a photographer, and a collage artist.

You can buy The Church of Unrealized Fantasies here.
Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

The story of The Church of Unrealized Fantasies came from the main character, the Reverend Sweetie Bird Charles. She first presented herself on my doorstep in a short story years ago when I was taking a writing class in Santa Barbara, CA. The title of the short story is Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady and it was published in MacGuffin in 2008. After I’d finished another long writing project that had absolutely nothing to do with the main character, the Reverend rose up in my consciousness again, bound and determined to have her say. What could I do? She wasn’t going to leave me alone until I listened to her. So, one day I gave in, picked up my pen, and put it to paper. The first chapter of my book starts with the short story and it grew from there.

I was meeting with another writer at the time, and in order to have something to share at our weekly meetings over dinner, I just gave the Reverend her head (as they say in horse racing). Her adventures just poured out. It was really fun to find out who she would meet and what was coming next.

It was one of the voices in the Reverend’s head—Agnes—who named the church, and hence the title of the book.

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

I had a strong idea for the book cover because I had been to the location the book is based on several times when I lived on the central coast of California. After the book was finished and I was on vacation visiting friends, I purposely stopped by the campus to take pictures and get the feel of things from the Reverend’s point of view. From those pictures, I worked with a graphic artist friend to come up with ideas for the cover. When I decided to work with Atmosphere Press and shared my ideas with Ronaldo, he worked with me to come up with the final cover based on design ideas I sent him.

It always feels good to hold a finished copy of my endeavors: book birth, I call it. Finally it is complete—all the i’s have been dotted, all the t’s crossed—and it’s ready to present to the world. And then the work takes on a life of its own.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

What makes me want to write? I’m a writer. It’s what I do—it’s what I’ve always done. There are several ways to look at it: nature and nurture. Astrologically, it’s my Gemini rising sign and I’m happiest when I follow my star.

If I look at it in terms of nurture, I can thank my parents for understanding who I am. I learned to make letters on my chalkboard in the kitchen while my father ate breakfast when I was hardly old enough to hold the chalk, as he amused me in order to keep me quiet and let my mother sleep in. My mother wrote a weekly column for a local newspaper and gave me my first fountain pen—a black Sheaffer fountain pen with a level fill and a bottle of Sheaffer Skrip permanent blue/black ink. When I think back on it, I question whether any sensible parent would give a child a bottle of ink, but I distinctly remember the word “indelible” and being told not to spill it. Later, after I’d learned to write actual words and put them in some semblance of order, I composed stories about my grandmother’s chickens on my Big Chief tablets. When I think back on it now, I ask myself how many four-year-old kids know to do all that. But I did…it came naturally.

Years later—when, as Henry Miller said, I was over 40, had lived long enough to have life pile lessons on me, and had scribbled out a million words—I took a screenwriting workshop from Danny Simon. It was in that class—at one precise moment—when he opened the door about characterization for me and the whole world started to make sense in a way it never had before. That moment has forever changed the way I observe life, how I think of stories, and how I’ve carried on…

I always feel better when I’ve written, so most days it’s the first thing I do while I sip my morning coffee. A couple hours of writing makes the rest of the day so much more digestible.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

As a writer, I’ve had lots of jobs; it takes a lot of living to live a life and feed a body. I’ve been a custodian, a secretary (briefly), a nude model, a painter of walls (white mostly), a manager of a nursery, a manager of a picture frame shop, an orchardist, a shepherd. I’ve been a liar, a truth-teller, a filler of cream puffs, the person who stood at the bottom of the clanking line and threw away the rotten potatoes that were bound for the McDonald’s frier, and a sorter of asparagus in the middle of the night for the Jolly Green Giant (he never sleeps!).

I’ve also been a fine art photographer when I lived in the Pacific Northwest. I particularly liked darkroom work, feeling like some kind of mad chemist as the emulsion brought the images to life.

During one of the hardest times of my life, I picked up a pair of scissors and some rubber cement and began pasting—and thus I gained skill as a collage artist. Although I put most of my attention on the written word these days, I still “see” as a photographer and think as a collage artist—and have had many photos and collages published nationally and internationally—too many periodicals to name.

What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?

One of my acquaintances said, “I love Agnes!” That made me smile—he had really bonded with a character.

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

After this book was written, the Reverend Sweetie Bird Charles was not finished having her say—oh no! As I write this, in a drawer, cooling off, is the prequel to the current book wherein she tells us how she came to be. And the ink flowing out of my pen right now is the sequel, telling the adventures after the church has been open for a while—I mean, after all, inquiring minds want to know…

And I have other books waiting in the wings—about my times in the classroom with folks from other countries and cultures…true stories. And you talk about characters…why these folks are itching to show us a slice of their piece of the pie of life.

How was working with Atmosphere Press? What would you tell other writers who want to publish?

Atmosphere Press has been supportive from the first to the last. Walt Whitman, E.E. Cummings, Margaret Atwood—to name a few—all started out self-published, and so I’m in good company. What is the old saw? How old are you going to be if you don’t do it?

You can buy The Church of Unrealized Fantasies here.
Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

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