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.
Thanks for being here today, Mary!