Lily Iona MacKenzie's Blog for Writers & Readers


Meet the author Monday: On my blog today, I’m talking to the captivating Valerie Nieman, a novelist who has been a reporter, farmer, sailor, editor, teacher, and always a walker!

Valerie Nieman’s Bio:

Valerie Nieman has been a reporter, farmer, sailor, editor, teacher, and always a walker. She is the author of In the Lonely Backwater, called “not only a page-turning thriller but also a complex psychological portrait of a young woman dealing with guilt, betrayal, and secrecy,” four earlier novels, and books of short fiction and poetry. A graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte, she has held state and NEA fellowships. You can find her online sites at

In the Lonely Backwater, “This novel is an intricate and intriguing work of art. Its intricacies are not mere twists of plotline; they are necessary and inevitable. They define, redefine, in a serious manner the term, mystery.” Fred Chappell in StorySouth. From Regal House/Fitzroy Books. Available at and fine indie bookstores everywhere.

This and earlier books have been supported by grants from the North Carolina Arts Council, a division of the Department of Cultural and Natural Resources.

Learn more at

What inspired you to write In the Lonely Backwater ?

  • A high school yearbook, actually. While moving, one of many times, I found my senior yearbook, and while flipping through saw an enigmatic inscription about an argument. I don’t recall anything of the dispute, but it started me thinking. I already had some notes about a young woman wandering in the woods that seemed to be connecting with a journal I kept while sailing a Hunter 25 on a North Carolina lake. Then I encountered Linnaeus (again) in a short story by Fred Chappell. Like a catalyst dropped into a pot of chemicals, that crystallized into a scene where Maggie finds a 200-year-old book by the great botanist and steals it.

How do you come up with book titles? Do you know them from the beginning, or do they evolve?

  • I seldom have a title even when the book is complete! So difficult for me. It’s interesting how the title on this one evolved. It was originally just Backwater. For a time, it was What Maggie Saw, which I used to title my Instagram postings. When Regal House chose the book, they wanted Backwater—but found there were other books and films by that title. So we tossed ideas back and forth and this one clicked.

What is your preferred genre to write in?

  • That’s sort of a trick question. I began by writing poetry and short stories, both mainstream and speculative. My first novel, Neena Gathering (still in print), is a post-apocalyptic tale that would be classified as YA today. I followed with books of poetry, a gritty Rust Belt novel, Survivors, a collection of (mostly) mainstream short fiction, Fidelities, and then three novels of quite different sorts. Blood Clay is a Southern domestic crime drama, To the Bones is a folk horror/mystery with ecojustice elements, and now In the Lonely Backwater that’s being categorized as YA but was written as a straightforward mystery novel. A couple more poetry collections in there, too, including a novel-in-verse.

Who are your literary influences or inspiration?

  • This answer continues the discussion above. I follow the story where it takes me, in the manner of my mentor Fred Chappell and (a) favorite writer Margaret Atwood. Some things arrive as poetry. Some as fiction, in an assortment of flavors. I never sit down and think, now I will write this kind of book. A character begins to speak, or an image rises, and I am captivated and must find out the who and where and why.

What have people most liked or found most meaningful/funny/creative/ challenging about your book?

  • This book has so many threads! It’s a mystery, of course, with the search for a killer. It’s also about the need for family, for connection, as Maggie’s has frayed almost to the breaking point. Her mother has left and her father, shattered, fallen into drink. She finds father figures in a number of characters, most notably, the very detective who sees her as a prime suspect. Maggie copes with her chaotic life by categorizing the world in the manner of her science crush, Linnaeus. There’s also a lot about sailing and about nature, two more of Maggie’s obsessions. And threaded through the narrative is a consideration of writing and the writing life.

Why do you write?

  • Like Maggie, to find answers. I have things that bother me, that set up shop just under the skin and demand to be scratched. Sounds like poison ivy, and it is sort of like that.

Tell an anecdote about an interaction between you and one of your more articulate fans.

  • Among my writer friends, Marjorie Hudson has known this book well, and long. She’s posted some lovely comments:, including this on Goodreads: “For its love of science, for its all-too-accurate teen misery, for its twists and turns, and finally, for the double twist at the end, I’m in love with this book! In addition to being a powerful story of how a teenage girl can save her own life, it is also a meditation on how to re-create your world if you find it lacking in any category that can possibly include you. Spooky bordering on terrifying, with a mind-blowing resolution.”

If you didn’t write, what would you do with that time? Do you feel compelled to write or choose to.

  • I’ve been writing more or less seriously since the sixth grade. I’ve also devoted myself to living this one life we are given. So I’ve farmed, fished, hiked, traveled. When I’m not writing, I work on the hundred-year-old bungalow I bought in a small town, gradually restoring and improving the gardens around it. I’m learning to fly fish and have taken my rudimentary skills to Ireland as well as streams in North Carolina. I love to hike, despite some foot issues, and spent a month solo hiking in Scotland as well as walking in cities from San Francisco to New York. The world is so rich, and everything I do feeds the writing. It’s not time away. It’s time invested.

What would you tell your younger self?

  • You’re okay. Smile more, and dare more.

What are you currently working on or have plans to write?

  • I’m working on a sequel for To the Bones, which ended with a climax but not a conclusion. The door remained open a crack. Business was left unfinished. I’m also assembling a fourth collection of poetry, and reshaping a massive and difficult novel that will neither be finished nor go away.

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