Interview with fiction author Mary Morony

Novelist Mary Morony is in the hot seat today. She’s sharing a bit about her writing, and
particularly her novel Apron Strings.
Welcome, Mary. Please tell us a little
bit about yourself.
As one of six
children, I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia with the good fortune of
being raised by my family’s maid Lottie.
She taught me love and acceptance with warm, loving
humor and unending patience.
It
was a time and place of segregated schools and water fountains, as well as
restaurants and movie theaters that prohibited black customers.
Besides
five siblings I have four children of my own. As if that didn’t provide
sufficient material about family chaos, at the age of forty-something, with a
high school daughter and a four-year-old girl still at home, I decided to get a
college degree. I like to say I earned, and I do mean earned, a bachelors of
arts in English at the University of Virginia, with a concentration in creative
writing.
More recently I has pursued additional studies under
the tutelage of my eight-year-old granddaughter. Her refresher course in
childhood perspective was invaluable in writing this book.

I live on a farm in Orange County,
Virginia, with my husband, three dogs, and two guinea hens.


The
relationship I was privileged to experience taught me much about the human
heart and the redemptive power of love, especially between races.
Please tell us about your current
release.
Apron Strings follows the relationship
between Ethel the black family maid and Sallee a bright inquisitive white
child. It is set in Charlottesville, VA in the late 1950’s at around the time
the civil rights movement was heating up. As a dual narrative the reader gets
to read about the drama and trauma that swirls around inside and outside the
household from two decidedly different points of view.
Having
been raised by my family’s maid I was no stranger to the power she had over our
household. I had played around writing about the relationship between white
children and their black caregivers for a long time before The Help hit the
world stage. The relationship is so ubiquitously southern, fraught with so much
humanity, and such opportunity for great drama.

Domestic
work is not considered empowering work, but I couldn’t help thinking about the
power that is intrinsic and implicit in the relationship. My thinking went like
this; take a small town mayor, if he isn’t happy ultimately nobody in town will
be and who has more sway over the household than the maid, so I thought, the
maid actually has more power than one would think, whether the power is tapped
into is another story. That is why Ethel in Apron
Strings
was given a lot of power. Her choices had far reaching
implications. You’ll have to read the book to find out more.
What inspired you to write this book?
Apron
Strings
is about a real relationship. The story itself is made up. Our family
wasn’t nearly interesting enough to sustain a novel. I wrote the story
initially because my relationship with our family maid Lottie was by far the
most foundational and important relationship I had as a child. The kind of
relationship Lottie and I shared, one I think of as quintessential southern, is
not represented much in fiction and in my mind is too important not to be. I
was very fortunate to be raised by a beautiful woman who loved me not because
she was paid to, but because she was someone who saw beyond color, beyond what
separated us but what brings us closer together our capacity to love.
In our household: the children and the help were expected if seen, not to
be heard. I know as a child I had a lot to say and I suspected Lottie did too,
so I decided to give us at least symbolically a voice so I wrote my story with
dual narrators and gave both Sallee and Ethel a chance to tell their story.
Using their particularly charming outlooks enabled me to delve into topics which
might come across as too heavy from a different perspective.
Several
years ago at the Virginia Festival of the Book, Kathryn Stockett told a story
about a black woman standing up in an audience and saying, “That women who
raised you didn’t love you. She was paid to pretend like she did, but she
didn’t.” That was the imperative I needed to finish the book and get it
published, because I knew at least for me that what that woman said was not
true.
Excerpt from Apron Strings:
One morning shortly after school had
let out for the summer, my mother swept into the kitchen. “Ethel!” she called.
“Miss Dorothy, Miss Della, and Miss Emily are coming over this afternoon. Make
sure the children are presentable. It’s just a small tea. A few sandwiches and
some of those marmalade tarts will be all we need.” She checked her new diamond
watch. “Oh, and Ethel, put out some sherry glasses. You know how Miss Emily
likes her sherry,” she laughed. “I’m on my way to the car, Stuart. Your tennis
lesson starts in ten minutes. Let’s go.”
     “Can I go?” I asked.
     “I suppose so. We’ll be back in time
for you to get cleaned up,” she said. Stuart, who was always late, had to run
back to her room to get her racket. “Come on, come on,” my mother grumbled
while we waited in the car. I sat in the back seat. “Oh Lord, there’s that
dreadful man again,” she groaned. “Come on, Stuart.”
     “What
dreadful man?” I asked. I glanced about seeing no one but Mr. Dabney sitting on
his back porch. He waved and I waved back. “Mr. Dabney? He’s OK. ‘Sides, his
wife is really nice. She makes…”
     “Sallee,
you stay away from those people. Do you hear me?” She glared at me over the
back of her seat. Stuart jumped in the car and we roared out of the drive.
     “For
once I’m glad I’ve got a stupid lesson this afternoon,” Stuart said. As soon as
the words tumbled out of her mouth, I knew she was in for it. My forehead was
pressed against the window. I looked up to watch my mother’s reaction in the
rearview mirror.
     “Why
on earth would you say such a thing, Stuart Mackey?”
     Stuart shifted a little in her seat.
“Cuz I hate those parties. I don’t get why we have to go. They’re not our
friends.”
     “Darling,” my mother’s voice took on
a sugary tone, but her eyes narrowed. “How are you going to learn how to behave
in polite society if you don’t practice? It’s important.”
     “Important?
To you maybe.”
     “Not just to me. If you know how to
entertain, you will be a tremendous asset to your husband.” She reached over
and pinched Stuart’s arm playfully. Stuart writhed away. “Why, a wife who is
comfortable in any social situation…”
     “What
if I don’t want to get married? What if I don’t want to be anybody’s wife? Then
I don’t need to know all that stuff.” Stuart glowered at my mother and rubbed
her arm. She fished a kerchief from her pocket and tied it around her head.
“Who’s coming anyway?” she asked.
     My
mother sighed, casting a sharp look at my sister. “Mrs. Mason, Miss Eades, and
Miss James.
She glanced at the kerchief. I wish you would let your hair grow. You are so much
prettier with your hair longer.”
     “Just
what I want to be—a miniature you,” Stuart muttered. “Maybe I should wear it up
just so and wear sapphires too,
she added. I noticed Stuart had moved a bit closer to the car door.
     When
Stuart talked
to our mother that way, I always battled the feeling of being in class and having
to pee
, but the teacher won’t let me go. It made me
feel
fidgety and downright uncomfortable.
Did she always have to be looking for a
fight?
I wondered. “Don’t you like how it makes your eyes look?” I asked
Stuart
, hoping to avert the coming storm.
When I saw she was about to direct a sneer at me I quickly added, “I think it
makes you look pretty—longer hair, I mean.”
     Stuart
rolled her eyes. “And it’s so important to look pretty. Right, Sallee?” Then
she turned on my mother. “You seem to be getting what you want from Sallee.
Congratulations, another convert to the Happy Homemakers’ Club.”
     Again my mother sighed. I couldn’t
quite tell if Stuart had just said something bad about me.
     My
mother was silent, but the storm was still brewing. I tried to change the
subject. “Hey,” I piped up, “why does Miz Mason always wear gloves and long
sleeves even when it’s hot outside?”
     “Hay is for horses, Sallee,” my
mother said crossly. My diversion had worked. I was so relieved I barely
listened to her answer.
     “I can’t remember what it’s called,
but she has some type of pigmentation problem—sun damage or something,” my
mother said. She glanced from the red stoplight to her wristwatch. “Her doctor
warned her never to go outside without being covered up. She is very sensitive
about it. Apparently nothing can be done, and it is only going to get worse,
poor dear.”
     “A
pig?” I said. “Miz Mason?”
     “What?
Sallee, hush! I can’t even think.” Gravel crunched under the tires as we pulled
up by the tennis courts. “Stuart,” she said, “You’re coming home with Kathy.”
Stuart leaped from the car. “If my guests are still there when you get home I
would appreciate it if you would come in and speak to them,” my mother called
as Stuart’s back disappeared behind the fence. “Good luck, make me proud
and don’t forget your manners!”
     Ethel
had laid out my pink and white party dress on my bed. It had a stiff crinoline
that made it stick out. After she buttoned me up, she started pulling my hair
back into a ponytail. “Chile, wouldcha hol’ still?” She squeezed my head in
both her hands like she was testing a melon, then gave it a yank to make me
face straight forward.
     “Owww, don’t pull so hard. It
hurts.”
     “Stop jumpin’ round.”
     “I can’t help it. This dress itches,
right here.” I pointed to my waist. She pulled the skirt up to inspect the
waistband.
    “Ain’t
nothin’ but yo’ petticoat and I ain’t got time to fix it now. The way you
dancin’ and wigglin’, you ain’t gonna be in it that long, no way.” Ethel knew
as well as I did that my squirming would be a sure invitation for dismissal
from the party.
     After she was finished with my hair,
she sent me into the parlor. I flopped on the sofa with Gordy while my mother
greeted her guests in the front hall. Gordy had already stuffed two of Ethel’s
famous marmalade tarts in his mouth.
     “You better not eat all those,” I
warned as I rubbed my back against the sofa cushions.
     “Why
don’t you save your scratching ‘til the party starts?” he asked while spitting
crumbs from his mouth. “Then we can get out quick and take a look at Mr.
Dabney’s slingshot. I don’t think he’s home.”
     “What’s
he doing with a slingshot?”
     Gordy
screwed up his face and shrugged. “That’s what I’d like to know,” he said. “I
saw it on his porch the other day. It’s a really neat one, fits over your wrist
to hold…”
     My
mother thought her children talking with each other when she entertained was
impolite and strictly forbidden. Miss James’s entrance into the room ended our
conversation. Gordy sprang from his seat. “Why hello, Miz James,” he said.
“It’s so nice to see you again.” He extended his hand taking the lady’s and
shaking it like a pro. “How have you been?”
     Tall
and wiry for his age, Gordy sounded like a fifty-year-old man who’d been
entertaining ladies all his life, though he was barely two years older than me.
I envied him his ability to do so easily just what he was told. Unlike me, he
almost never argued with anything my mother told him to do. At just one of
these afternoon parties, Gordy would garner more approving smiles from our
mother than I would in a whole month.
      
What exciting story are you working on
next?
My next
book is a continuation of the Mackey drama entitled Done Growed Up. Everybody in the household suffers from growing
pains. I’m sorely tempted to tie up loose ends, but that’s not the way life
works, so I eager to find out how it ends.
When did you first consider yourself a
writer?
Lottie was
prone to using parables of her own design and my father never ruined a good
story for lack of a fact, so I was steeped in story telling from an early age.
Writing was just an extension of story telling and was one of the few
activities I enjoyed in school. It was just a natural progression and I’m still
not sure if I consider myself a writer. It is such hard work and I am so lazy.
Do you write full-time? If so, what’s
your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find
time to write?
I spend three
days a week at home in order to write. I drape myself over the left hand side
of an eight-foot sofa in my living room with my computer in my lap. Sometimes
my feet are on the floor, but generally not. A large wall of windows provides
plenty of light and multiple distractions. Two Great Danes and one St. Bernard
police my time. I write for as long as my dogs allow or until my muses desert
me, at which point the dogs and I go for a long walk or I check the
refrigerator to see if my muses are hiding within. I freely confess the dogs
are spoiled rotten as am I, but they act as an excellent Pomodoro Clock forcing
me to take breaks periodically so I keep them on the payroll.
What would you say is your interesting
writing quirk?
It’s really silly, but I don’t see myself as a
writer because my biggest weakness is that I am an abysmal speller and have
enough dyslexia to make writing painfully slow and copy editing next to
impossible. These qualities tend to make me insecure about my ability to write.
It is easy to slip down the what-do-I-know-who-cares
slope. I have to work very hard not to allow myself the opportunity. I am ever
vigilant, because despite how hard it is to write, it is so rewarding when I
manage to corral all of the words I am after into the proper sequence to say
exactly what it is I want to say —empowering actually.
As a child, what did you want to be
when you grew up?
I saw my
grownup-self as a bareback rider in the circus that stood unflinchingly on the
back of my cantering white steeds while jumping through hoops and over ropes
bedecked in a cloud of pink tulle.
Anything additional you want to share
with the readers?
There are a
lot of things in the world to laugh about all you have to do is look for them.
Links:
Thanks for being here today, Mary!

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