For years, Mary Claire Mahaney had plans to write a children’s book based on her King’s Manor neighborhood in McLean, but a trip to Japan in 2000 sent her down a different path.
“When I got back from Japan, I knew I had a setting for a novel,” said Mahaney. “I didn’t have the characters or the plot yet, but I had the setting.”
Mahaney’s month-long visit to Japan happened by mere chance. At the time, her eldest son was in his first year of studying Japanese at Thomas Jefferson High School and was scheduled to travel to Japan that summer as part of an annual exchange program. Thomas Jefferson’s Japanese instructor and regular exchange program chaperone could not make that year’s trip and Mahaney volunteered her services.
“I had studied Japanese and I have Japanese friends, but I had never been there,” she said. “It turned out to be a fabulous trip. The most interesting thing for me was the surprises in the culture. When I would expect something to be similar, it would be different, and when I would expect something to be different, it would be similar. I was constantly caught off guard.”
When Mahaney returned to McLean, she began what would ultimately become a five-year undertaking — the writing of her very first novel “Osaka Heat.” In the novel, teacher Ginger O’Neill experiences a life-changing journey when she is forced to confront the path her life has taken as she lobbies a prestigious Japanese academy to be a sister school to her own. Over the course of the story, she has a forbidden romance with a Japanese man and finds herself in a bevy of outrageous social predicaments.
A FORMER PROFESSOR and retired attorney, Mahaney said she conducted a great deal of research to write the novel, in addition to drawing on her own experiences. She also called on some of her Japanese friends for help, to ensure that she was staying true to the Japanese culture. One such friend eventually became Mahaney’s Japanese teacher and helped her write authentic English speech patterns for her Japanese characters. Mahaney also got help from another close friend Maureen Jarvis, who initially volunteered her typing services but soon grew to be an invaluable editor.
“She was fine typist, but an even better editor — and this isn’t even what she does — she works in the medical field,” said Mahaney. “I really came to trust her and her judgment, and she saw me through. I don’t think I could have finished without her.”
For her part, Jarvis said she got just as much out of the collaboration.
“It was awesome working with Mary Claire,” she said. “Her subject knowledge, writing ability and attention to detail were phenomenal. It was as though I was in a private MFA program. I work as a registered dental hygienist and am a past editor of our association newsletter, but lived in Japan as a newlywed, so for me, this project was both fun and educational in its own right.”
Jarvis added that she found Mahaney’s writing to be very engaging.
“Her written word flows effortlessly for the reader,” said Jarvis. “The presentation of interesting factual material is woven in with dialogue in such a manner as not to be stilted or preachy. One really does fall in love with the protagonist at the outset, and every step in Ginger’s journey could very well be yours.”
Mahaney said writing the novel was a long and difficult process, but an incredibly rewarding learning experience as well. However, she noted that actually getting her work published was perhaps the most challenging task of all.
“It was the worst part of the process,” she said. “So 15 months or so ago, I decided I wasn’t going to that route.”
Instead, Mahaney opted to publish her book via Authorhouse — a self-publishing company that permitted her to have control over her own product.
“I’m so glad I did it that way because the book is out there,” she said.
Mahaney is not sure exactly what lies on the horizon for her now, but she does know she will keep writing. Having already published poetry, essays and arts reviews, she may finally tackle that children’s book she has always dreamed of writing.