Writer Maureen O’Leary is having a moment. Her poem “Winter Valley,” which she came up with during a morning commute and submitted on a whim to a writing contest sponsored by Heyday Books, won best of category and will be published in a forthcoming book about the culture, history and landscape of the Sacramento region. And there’s more. In July, O’Leary will release her third novel, “The Ghost Daughter,” which is informed by her near-death experience in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, when the brick building she was working in collapsed around her and two people in the coffee shop next door lost their lives.
O’Leary, who teaches high school English by day and writes every minute she can steal, put her pen down for an hour to talk about the ritual of writing, the sage advice she gives to aspiring authors, and the joy of writing across genres.
Were you born to write?
I’ve been writing since before I had literacy. I was constantly writing and scribbling as a child. I have notebooks saved from 1974, when I was 4 years old. On the other hand, as with any art, I think writing takes years and years and years of hard work and humility and craft and reading and learning. So I hesitate to say that I’m a natural-born writer. I’ve worked really, really hard.
Where do you write, and what are some of your writing rituals?
I don’t have room in my life for ritual. If I needed ritual, I’d be in real trouble. I’d have nothing produced and no career. I just write all the time, wherever I can. I keep different notebooks for different things. Every novel has its own notebook. I journal every day. And I write a lot of letters.
You have a busy life. How do you find the mental space to keep your stories going?
I think the better question would be: How do I keep the mental space to be in real life? I’m always thinking about story. I’m always working on something.
What advice do you give your students about writing?
One of my artist friends told me early in life, “Don’t say what you’re supposed to say.” That one sentence has stuck with me as a human being and an artist. I tell my students on the very first day when we begin expository writing, “Don’t say what you’re supposed to say. Don’t do what’s expected. Tell the truth. Write for yourself and your friends.”
What types of books do you read?
I read everything and I write everything. I write cross-genre. That’s part of the joy of being marginally successful: I get to write what I want and read what I want. There are no expectations put on me. Although that may be a different story a year from now.
Have you found a supportive community of writers in Sacramento?
The best teachers are coming into my life right now. We have some of the best writers in American literature living in this region, sharing their knowledge, sharing their work: William T. Vollmann, Christian Kiefer, Jodi Angel, Josh Weil. And they’re so generous and nice. I also found a great writing group right away when I moved here. It’s a great place to be a writer.