By Ashley Lodato
Part-time Methow Valley resident and writer Marian Exall has recently completed the third novel in her Sarah McKinney mystery series. Exall’s three mystery novels (“A Slippery Slope,” “A Dangerous Descent,” “A Splintered Step”) are available at Trail’s End Bookstore in Winthrop and at Village Books in Bellingham.
After a long career as an employment lawyer, mostly in Atlanta, Exall moved to Bellingham in 2006 and began visiting the Methow Valley within the first month of the move. “My son-in-law grew up in Seattle and had spent time in the valley and very much wanted to show it off to us,” she says. “He brought us here the long way around in the winter; the pass wasn’t even open yet.”
She adds, “He came armed with some real estate listings. We bought property within a month.” Exall and her husband, Graham, enjoy hiking, snowshoeing (her), and Nordic skiing (him). “And I go on Mary Kiesau’s bird and flower walks,” Exall says.
Exall’s love of mystery fiction was cultivated early when she discovered James Bond. “When I was a teen I got my hands on Ian Fleming’s books,” she says. “I just devoured them. They were not age-appropriate, but they whet my taste for adventure fiction.”
Exall says she wrote stories as a child, but then immersed herself in (“ugh,” her words) legal writing for three decades. But reading was always a diversion for her throughout her life — stolen moments while raising children and working. “Throughout my life I have been an avid — even indiscriminate — reader of fiction,” she says. “It was an escape from the pressures of a demanding career while raising children.” Once she retired from a legal career and moved to the Pacific Northwest, Exall found herself with more time to write and threw herself into fiction.
Exall spent many years in France and Belgium in her 20s and uses the memories of those times as inspiration for some memoir writing. One contribution to an anthology of memoir won a silver Solas award for travel writing. “An Azure Year” is a gorgeous reflection on Exall’s year in the south of France as a young newlywed; you can read it on her website, www.marianexall.com.
A small bi-monthly writing group provides Exall and fellow writers in Bellingham with a chance to critique each other’s writing and provide support and inspiration. “We start with the positive,” says Exall, “and always operate under the assumption that the work is going to be published.” Exall is also part of a larger critique group, Red Wheelbarrow Writers, which consists of about 40 writers. “A lot of them are memoirists, though,” notes Exall. “I have a hard time writing memoir. I just keep fictionalizing things.”
Exall has two young granddaughters in Bellingham schools and spends time in their classrooms helping students with writing. Through a local writing group, those of us involved in the annual Young Writers’ Conference (YWC) at Methow Valley Elementary School learned about Exall and her work with kids and we roped her into volunteering at the YWC. “It’s really inspiring to me that we address students as writers — not would-be or could-be writers,” says Exall. “It took me 60 years to believe in myself enough to become a writer. These kids are going to grow up with the idea.”