Nov 9, 2010

On Inspiration by Mary Maddox

Take the word inspiration back to its roots: to breathe in. Writers ought to find inspiration as easy and automatic as breathing. Instead they sometimes gasp for it, a feeling that can be as terrifying as smothering – though fortunately less fatal. I have no profound secret for finding inspiration. I just know that when a story is alive inside me, the inspiration comes.

While writing the thriller that became Talion, I sometimes struggled with the character of Rad, a serial killer with a Ph.D. What kind of stuff would he think about when he wasn’t intent on stalking and killing people? One afternoon I took a break from my desk and strolled through my neighbourhood. I looked at the steep-roofed houses, pompous and silly, and thought of party hats on businessmen. Exactly the kind of snarky observation Rad might make. That detail made his character more real to me.

Another time I walked into the school where the polling station in my district was located, gazed down the drab, institutional hallways lined with doorways and lockers, and recognized the school where my hero Lu dreads coming every day. The smell of the place filled my imagination and showed me the way into Lu’s memories.

During the summer I interrupted my writing to fly to Utah and help my mother move to Charleston, Illinois, where my husband and I live. It was a hectic trip fraught with her anxiety about the move. As the movers were packing up her things, I asked one of them to borrow a roll of packing tape. The guy handed it to me and said in an offhanded, joking way, “Watch out, that stuff can rip the skin right off you.” I knew immediately the tape would have a place in Rad’s killing ritual, that he would enjoy the challenge of using it without leaving fingerprints. I could hardly wait to get home and back to writing my novel.

Inspiration is everywhere. For me the trick is keeping the story inside me alive – and breathing.



Mary Maddox grew up in Utah and California. A graduate of Knox College and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she now teaches composition and literature at Eastern Illinois University.

She lives in Charleston, Illinois with her husband, film scholar Joe Heumann. Her interests include riding her horse, Tucker, and playing club and tournament Scrabble. Mary’s short stories have appeared in a number of magazines including Farmer’s Market, Yellow Silk, and The Scream Online. Her writing has been honored with awards from the Illinois Arts Council.

Talion, her debut novel, is available at as a trade paperback and at as both a paperback and a Kindle book. You can visit her at her Web site and follow her blog at

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