Cal U professor Margo Wilson pens first published novel
As a longtime journalist, Margo Wilson simply is inclined to write about others and not her own life.
“I've been writing creatively ever since I could hold a pen,” the Monessen resident said. “I love journalism and interviewing people, but you have to tell the truth and suppress your own self. I wanted to put down my own thoughts at some point.”
After several attempts, Wilson has produced her first published fictional novel: “The Main Ingredient.”
The book centers around three women who lose their restaurant to a kitchen fire, including main character Wendy Whitby, a West Coast food editor who reluctantly returns to her small hometown in Wisconsin.
As the women become suspects in the fire, they vow to find the arsonist to save themselves from jail time. Along the way, the characters push the borders of how far a person goes to help a friend while examining “the magnetic and repelling forces” of one's hometown.
“I've been a journalist forever so I'm used to writing in third person and I thought it a challenge to write in first person,” Wilson said. “Writing about what you know is easier in a way, so I brought in the food editor aspect and it's (set) in the Midwest.”
Wilson, a Wisconsin native who worked at numerous newspapers in the states of Wisconsin, Indiana, and California concedes the similarities between Whitby and her own life are no coincidence. However, that's where the intertwining ends, she insists.
“Yes, I know that world. I owned a restaurant, and the (book's) town is set on a lake in Wisconsin like where I grew up, but that's where the reality ends. The characters and events are fictional.”
An English and journalism professor at California University of Pennsylvania since 2002, Wilson chairs the university's English department.
Wilson got the book published this year despite a heavy heart. Her husband, Michael Fredrick Kraft, 67, died on Dec. 10. They met in journalism school at the University of Wisconsin more than 40 years ago. Her husband's voice is still on the voicemail greeting at her home.
“It's been hard. I really haven't adjusted yet. He had an office in our house and every time I walk by I still look to see if he's in there,” Wilson said.
“He was always my first reader and editor, so I always trusted his judgment and I miss having that. In the morning, we'd get a bunch of newspapers and talk about news stories or if a headline was off and pick stories apart. I don't do that anymore but I miss that as well,” she said.
Wilson recalled her run in the restaurant business in the early '80s, when the couple owned and operated the Sanctuary Restaurant in Racine, Wisc.
“I'd work at the newspaper during the day and work as the hostess at night,” Wilson recalled. “My husband was there every day from 6 in the morning to midnight. After three years, we paid off our bills and closed it.”
That's when Wilson was accepted to the UCLA film school in 1983, where she obtained a master's degree in film. She worked for newspapers in San Bernadino and Riverside, Calif., before landing a job as a copy editor for the L.A Times.
“When I got out of school it was ‘What do I do now?' and I always loved newspapers, so I gravitated back,” Wilson said. “I had been conditioned by that time to California, so it wasn't like this huge, sudden leap from the Midwest to the L.A. Times.”
While on the West Coast, Wilson wrote numerous screen plays – even receiving an option on one – but her show business career stalled after that.
After earning another master's degree in creative writing and fiction in 2001, Wilson accepted her current position at Cal U one year later. She's resided in the Mid-Mon Valley ever since.
“This job was open and it sounded fun, and I liked that it had ‘California' in the title,” Wilson said, with a laugh, of the university. “The people were down home and fun and I thought I could fit in and be happy.”
Wilson has helped bring the multimedia age to her students, while trying not to lose the essence of old-school journalism.
“Traditionally, we have emphasized the writing aspect and getting your words and facts right, but you can no longer tell your story just in print,” Wilson said.
“You need to be able to do blogs and video, audio, slide shows. My students are learning all that to tell stories in multiple ways and are confident there will always be a need for people to tell news.”
Her novel is not her first work of fiction – Wilson previously wrote a book about a Native American exploring his past, but it was more of a “research” novel.
Her first book signing for “The Main Ingredient” was in Racine last week.
“It was really nurturing and supportive because I saw friends and family and people from the past, including one friend I've known since kindergarten ... there were people I haven't seen for 30 years,” Wilson said.
She will conduct another book signing from 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Cal U bookstore in the Natali Student Center. A public reception, signing and reading will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Sept. 28 at the Center in the Woods in Brownsville.
“The shyness of having the attention on you is hard to deal with, but it's part of the process – and it's not like there's going to be droves of people overwhelming you,” Wilson said. “I've been a reporter, I teach. I like having people around.”
Wilson said she'd eventually like to do a sequel to “The Main Ingredient,” as well as a co-publication with a friend. Even if she's delving into the unfamiliar world of fiction, the prose will continue to flow, she said.
“Because of my job schedule it's hard to find the time, but that ends up just being an excuse,” she said. “I love writing. It's like a torrent that pours out of me and it doesn't stop.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 724-684-2635.