Hi, Mary Jane. Welcome to Writers4Higher.
Tell me about yourself. Your book(s), your life, your inspiration.
Well, I was doomed to be a reader and writer, as my mother and grandmother were English majors. Mama read Mother Goose to me as I was barely talking, and I’d recite verse to their dinner friends. I read classics for juniors at eight years old--Brontes, Twain, Poe, Dickens, Stevenson, Alcott and others.
The natural world figured prominently; the times seemed safe, so I wandered in woods for hours, dreaming of gingerbread houses and wicked witches and floating down Mississippi-type rivers. I liked the idea of homeless and parentless children—the world was whatever I decided it was, in fact, and was luscious. I liked how people in these books struggled and usually survived. When they didn’t, I was intrigued.
Those books fed my imagination and gave me a sense of social justice. I love language, too, and it’s power to change us. I’m concerned about social justice. I love language and its power to change us.
For example, when I wrote Cookie and Me, I wanted to be honest about my southern cultural learned behavior of racism. Cookie is black, and the narrator, Rayann is white. They become friends despite the culture that tells them this is completely wrong. They learn about each other as people. Rayann has more to learn than Cookie does. I won a book award for the novel, it was because I didn’t mind taking risks. Unless there’s risk, there’s no real story.
My new novel, Cutting Loose in Paradise, I wrote to teach myself how to learn plot. My dear friend Sue Cerulean urged me to take the manuscript out of the drawer out and work on it. Meanwhile, she worked on her non-fiction book, Coming to Pass, a collection about the peril our Gulf of Mexico is in and her lyrical observations of the gulf’s beauty and life.
Cutting Loose was my attempt to talk about damages to the waters, and how they affect the poorer people living along our Florida gulf, not to mention all the animal life there. Since I grew up here, I made certain that nature and place was a big “character” in the book, as Eudora Welty says. The animals had voices—I’d make up words to imitate animal sounds, particularly the birds that inhabit the water areas.
Sue helped tremendously with the book. A bird expert, whose friends are water experts, Sue helped me cobble together a mystery about how people and animals and plants all need each other.
I also wanted the main character to be a single mom. They never get their due, even though they are matriarchs. And I wanted the mom to be a bit sloppy. I didn’t want a perfect mom. I think we owe it to mothers to let them be humans, not “The Madonna.” And the character named Madonna, a friend of the single mom, is my ideal of a gulf girl—nutty, fun-loving, compassionate, smart and not necessarily educated, and sometimes all the wiser.
Where do you see your writing taking you in the future?
I have in my contract a clause that says my next book must be looked at by Pineapple Press first. I’m honored to be with Pineapple. The editor suggested that I wanted to write a series of mystery novels, and I jumped on this chance. To get a publisher in these times makes me pretty darn lucky. I think I’m in this for the next decade, as I’m a slow writer and a crazy rewriter. My husband, Michael Trammell, also a writer, says the folks who revise get published. Now that this book is out, all I want to do is write poetry. I get bored easily. I need poetry to take me back to the tight writing I used to do—few words to say much. I bore myself with exposition.
How do you use your talents/time to help others?
Here’s my favorite question of the three. David Brooks’ new book about how our “resume” selves (titles, skills, productiveness, who we know) has overshadowed our “moral” selves (the selves we are deep inside that we want people to talk about at our funerals, for instance).
I struggled with that without using those words. I left the safety and security of a full time academic position at Florida State to write more and to do something more meaningful to me. I didn’t even know what that was. Many thought I was making a huge mistake. But it was the best decision.
I stumbled onto a job at TCC tutoring English writing in the Learning Commons. I absolutely love this work. I meet with students from every part of the world, from every age returning to or beginning college. So many people are struggling with standard English. I had no idea, having spent much time in English department situations at FSU or other university situations.
For instance, in the Learning Commons, I’ve met a young Hispanic women who told me her mom and siblings had to leave Central America because the mafia there taxed them on their business outside their home, and threatened to kill them. They didn’t have enough food, so they left to come here. She has a strong work ethic, and appreciates the help with her many papers.
I’ve met a deaf African American man who said his paper had some sexual content, and Was I sure I wanted to read the paper? It was a fun paper to read about how we need sex education, and I enjoyed communicating with him entirely through writing notes back and forth. He thanked me profusely on paper when he left. I put the paper on my frig.
I met a South Korean man who wants to be a Physical Therapist, and he told me that South Korea is the Italy of Asia—that they love food, parties, just being joyful. Who knew?
The people I work with are varied as well. For instance, I know two women from Iran who call themselves “The Persians.” I love talking with them about beauty, fashion, the Ottoman Empire, poetry, dance, and a whole lot of other richness.
Anyone who tutors has to pass a pretty rigorous test, so I get to work with really smart people. One woman works with a playwright, and they’re rewriting and putting on the Greek plays as zombie stories. She’s always asking me if I know anybody who can act.
Librarians work in the same building, in the same big room, so to speak. They have the best inner lives of anyone I know. We all know they’re smart, but I’m learning how well they can research anything. One African librarian has showed me a website of migrant worker camps in the 30s in Florida, and has showed me a site for how to do cool styles for African and African American hair.
So my new work is not very lucrative, but it lets me give back my easy knowledge of American grammar and sentence structure, spelling and overall thinking about organizing one’s writing towards helping struggling people move out of where they are and into something better for themselves. And what they give me back is worth a billionaire’s fortune.
I also still teach, mostly English at TCC and Flagler College Tallahassee. I sometimes teach Business Communication at FSU. I like and need the variety. And I have a lot of hope for the next generations. Being in touch with them keeps my thinking young. I try to stay a little outside the box in teaching, and I can do this by not having a full time job. And these stories, these stories, they enrich my writing.
PRAISE FOR CUTTING LOOSE IN PARADISE
“Glorious writing and a good mystery aren’t the only draws to Mary Jane Ryals’ new book. Readers will root for big hearted, loose-lipped, pool-playing, hair-cutting LaRue Panther and her charming kids and friends. But they’ll also root for the underdog parts of Florida that she loves and yearns to protect.” — Lucy Burdette, best selling author of the Key West Food Critic mysteries.
“Mary Jane Ryals’ beautiful book Cutting Loose in Paradise depicts three strong dynamic women on a lost island, St. Annes, in the Gulf of Mexico, dealing with the murder of one of their own, a woman who reportedly shot herself in the heart. However when LaRue Panther, hair stylist, reports to the funeral home to fix the deceased’s hair for the funeral, she discovers no bullet hole in the body; instead, a cut throat. Ryals isn’t writing a who-dunnit, exactly. More like an environmentalist’s nightmare. The story takes place in the dark times of the BP oil spill, at a moment in time before oil and oily birds and fish began to wash up on the shore. There is a lot of denial going on. There is a beautiful hopelessness on the island, working class people dreading what was coming. The news keeps showing the gargantuan jet of oil on the Gulf’s floor, gushing oil for months. No one knows what’s going to happen.” — Philip F. Deaver, 13th winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction
Thank you for joining us at Writers4Higher!
Rhett DeVane, Southern fiction author and blogmaster