Meet Elizabeth Maggio, 3rd place winner in the Fall 2012 WOW Flash Fiction Contest

Tuesday, April 09, 2013
Good day, Muffin lovers! Today, we will be chatting with Elizabeth Maggio, 3rd place winner in the Fall 2012 WOW! Flash Fiction contest. If you haven't had the opportunity to read Elizabeth's story, Extant, Not Extinct, head over to the contest page. Then return to join us for a great interview!

Elizabeth Maggio parlayed a geology degree and her facility at explaining science to lay audiences into an award-wining science writing career. I twas an ideal fit, affording her a front-row seat at the cutting edge of research. Of all her experiences as a science writer, a few hold special memories: interviewing Carl Sagan about water on mars and hearing him say "torrents and torrents of rain" long before he became a science super star; snagging a one-on-one interview with Gene Roddenberry during the start-up days of Star Trek (after convincing hr newspaper editor that the assignment did fall within the bonds of the science beat.) Her career even led to adventures in Italy where she used both her science writing and Italian language skills working for an aerospace company and an astronomical observatory.

Now semi-retired, Elizabeth is transitioning into a second career as a fiction writer. She started writing flash fiction about two years ago and discovered it has helped her write her first novel, an archaeological mystery set in the Alban Hills outside of Rome.

Elizabeth lives with her husband in northern Virginia.

WOW:  Elizabeth, congratulations and welcome to The Muffin. After reading your story, I felt such a sense of wonder. The science tie-in hooked me! How did your science writing background lead to the story, Extant, Not Extinct?

Elizabeth: What led to Extant, Not Extinct, indeed, to my entire approach to fiction, came about when I was pursing my geology degree. While doing geological mapping in the limestone mountains of southern Arizona,  I sat down on an outcrop of rock to eat lunch, but it soon became terribly uncomfortable. I got up to see what I was sitting on and was amazed to find a fossilized coral reef…exposed on the top of a mountain... in the desert. For the rest of the day I couldn’t get out of my head that I had been sitting on something that once lived on the ocean floor, and the only dimension separating me from the live coral reef was time. My character Mona felt this too when she ran her finger over the 300 million year old fossil that Professor Millington had handed her, saying “Imagine what it could tell us if it were alive.”

WOW: I like the personal connection you included in the story. It added so much to the overall effect. To me, there's a double layer of meaning in this story: the scientific background/research element and then the application of science to real life. When you write fiction, do you try to combine these elements or was this a "first" of science principles and fiction? 

Elizabeth: I definitely try to combine both science and fiction. The boundary between the two is often blurred, and I want my writing to take science one step beyond what is perceived as the limits to reality. My first introduction to this genre was reading Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain. Crichton included so much convincing scientific documentation, including a bibliography of scientific reports, that I often had to look at the book cover to make sure it said “novel”.

WOW: I've read The Andromeda Strain and can relate! I like reading stories like this that include scientific research yet they are fiction. A line from your bio piqued my interest. You mention that confronting the challenges of flash fiction is helping with your novel writing process. Can you give an example and how it's made your fiction writing stronger? 

Elizabeth: For my science non-fiction writing, I do a lot of research on a topic. When I write fiction, I still do a lot of research but I have a hard time restraining myself from including all the fascinating facts I find into my story. What I really need to do is zero in on only those elements that move my story forward. Flash fiction forces me to do this; to write sparingly, to choose only enough background information to move the action along, and to slip background facts into dialogue or scene setting.

WOW: Great example! I've found that writing flash requires the writer to fine tune and tighten every element in a story. Naturally, that should carry over into fiction! Elizabeth, you have a varied writing background. You've written science non-fiction, flash fiction and fiction. Which do you find most challenging to write and why? 

Elizabeth: Both flash fiction and fiction are challenges because I’m still uncomfortable making up the facts after decades of building a reputation on the factual accuracy of my science stories. Flash fiction, though, is the hardest because of its format restraints. I really have to focus on scene, characters, and plot as well as on the word count. But surmounting that is so rewarding.

WOW: As a journalist who also dabbles in fiction writing, I understand being uncomfortable making up facts when your primary job is to relay only facts. Sometimes, I find it difficult to transition from writing non-fiction into fiction. Still, I never seem to have trouble finding ideas. I'm wondering what you need to feel inspired to write? 

Elizabeth: Inspiration hits me at the most unexpected times: reading the newspaper, day dreaming on the Metro, and of course in the shower. I wish I could control it to a certain degree, but I’ve learned to be ready. I carry lots of notepaper, and if need be, I’ll sit at my computer dripping wet in a towel to write down inspiration that hit during my shower!

WOW: Yes, you never know when an idea will emerge. My kids used to make fun of me for the "hopping out of the shower to take notes" routine, too. I'm fascinated with the breadth of your science writing career. You met a lot of famous and influential individuals. Writing fiction must have presented a new set of challenges. What has been the greatest challenge in your professional (writing) life? 

Elizabeth:Discipline, definitively. I’m still new to this second-life fiction career. Unlike my science writing career, I haven’t yet been able to set up a daily routine for fiction writing. It’s still pretty much hit or miss. I’m working on that.

WOW: A routine is extremely important for a writer! You'll nail it down and then, watch out! :) One last question, Elizabeth. What would you want to hear from readers after they have finished reading one of your stories? 

Elizabeth: “I want more!” I aim to end a piece with not-quite-closure, that is, to write a satisfactory ending but one that leaves a bit of room for the reader to imagine “what if…”, or for a book club to debate if something really happened or if it was a dream.

WOW: That's the perfect way to end a story...such a great discussion starter! Once again, congratulations, Elizabeth and thank you for spending time with our readers.

Interview by LuAnn Schindler


Margo Dill said...

Great interview. I once read some advice about avoiding putting too much "research/facts" in a fiction novel. Don't do much research until after you've written a skeleton plot and get that all down, and then fill in the research that you need to tell the story only. Okay, so the person, who I can't remember, had a much better way of saying it, but hopefully this makes some sort of sense. :)

Marcia Peterson said...

Congratulations on placing in the top 3, Elizabeth! We know you'll do great things with your "second-life fiction career." :)

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