Macabre, Femininity and the Southern Childhood
An interview with Mary Sellers about her new short story collection Shoulder Bones.
A former intern with Deep South, Mary Sellers is a 2013 graduate of the University of Mississippi and associate publisher for Blooming Twig. She studied under Tom Franklin in college and has also taken writing advice from Mary Miller, both of whom wrote blurbs for the back cover of her book. Franklin called her stories “smart, sassy, sexy and funny,” while Miller said she “writes with a playfulness that underlies the seriousness of the subject matter.”
Sellers’ 10 stories in Shoulder Bones are about little girls growing up, ghosts of people we once loved and the ways we connect with each other, whether it be in families, automated voices over the phone or our playthings. In her introduction titled “Little Ghosts,” she talks about growing up with ghosts, magic and “uncommon things.” Maybe that’s why she’s able to expertly weave elements of fantasy into these stories, while remaining grounded in the people, landscapes and language of the South.
We interviewed Sellers by email recently about her new collection, belief in magic, what she learned from Tom Franklin and why she’s proud to identify herself as a Southern writer. Shoulder Bones is available now here. You can also read Sellers’ story “Legba” in our Southern Voice section.
EZB: How long have you been working on the stories in Shoulder Bones?
MS: I had actually written a couple of these stories during college and workshopped them in my Advanced Fiction class with Tom Franklin. However, I went through and completely re-edited these for the book. As for the others, I wrote many of them during last winter and spring. I spent this past summer reworking all of them, once I had them in one main manuscript, and finished up the editing portion in early August. These stories have been through an endless number of edits — I’ve completely lost track! It’s been an ongoing process, and I’m honestly never really finished with a story. I’m always finding tiny things I want to change, which is both maddening as well as part of my process of writing as a whole.
EZB: You let the reader know right away in your introduction that these stories are going to involve ghosts and magic. How did those things influence your Southern childhood and do you still believe in them now?
MS: I’ve always had an incredibly active imagination, which was encouraged by my mother, who is also a lover of literature. I actively believed in ghosts when I was young and can remember an instance where I swear I saw one.
I also can’t remember a time where I wasn’t either being read to or reading. I used to be obsessed with fairytales — the darker kind, though, from authors like Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. I like Disney, but the older ones, the original ones by the aforementioned authors, seemed far more real to me. They said more.
The South, in general, has such a rich literary history, and many of the stories have mystical and magical themes. I think this is partly due to our being more rural and having the time to concoct these fantastic tales. I’m a huge fan of the Southern Gothic, too. The South is the perfect place for a good ghost story, in my opinion.
I also became fascinated with magical realism during college, thanks to authors like Gabriel García Márquez and more modern adaptors of the genre, such as Karen Russell. Writers like Kevin Brockmeier and Kelly Link also attracted me, with their blend of the uncanny and surreal.
EZB: Several of your stories deal with family and parent/child relationships. Why was this something you wanted to explore?
MS: This actually wasn’t intentional, but it was brought to my attention in one of my fiction workshops in college. I think the family unit is a fascinating thing. It can be both heartbreaking as well as deeply psychological. Parent/child relationships are rife with little intricacies that I’ve been subconsciously drawn to in my writing.
EZB: “The Rising” is my favorite story in the collection and deals with a situation that is both funny and dark at the same time. Where did the idea for this story come from and what are you trying to say?
MS: Thank you! “The Rising” is actually the oldest story in the entire collection. I wrote this when I was interning in New York City, the summer before my senior year of college. I find myself writing a good amount about young girls, because I think that age is one of the most confusing and fragile times in a woman’s life. They are on the cusp of maturity, but still technically considered “children,” which is entirely frustrating to them.
The image of a young girl suspended in the air was what “birthed” the story. I write in terms of pictures in my mind, a good bit of the time. After I started writing, I realized the story would be about many things: the loss of innocence, the crossroads between childhood and adulthood and the longing for recognition and purpose. I was incredibly nervous about this story, since many people who read the first drafts were shocked by the ending. However, it was the only way the story could really end. We leave our protagonist as an adult, with all of the weight of knowledge that comes with losing one’s innocence. It is a burden, but a necessary one.
EZB: You got your degree in English from the University of Mississippi and studied under Tom Franklin, Beth Ann Fennelly and Mary Miller. What did you learn from them about writing in general and especially writing about the South?
MS: I was lucky enough to have Tom Franklin for both of my fiction workshops in college, as well as my thesis advisor. Tom is an absolutely wonderful teacher, and one of the main things I took away from his classes is the importance of detail — specifically, the odd or interesting detail. He pushed us to observe, to constantly see things as writers and not just people. At the start of every class, he asked us to bring a detail or snippet of conversation that we had observed that week and read it out to the class. It was crazy to realize how many things were going on in everyday lives!
As for Beth Ann Fennelly, I got to know her through Tom and babysitting their adorable children. My senior year, I took a short story class with her, where we read and dissected some really fantastic (and classic) stories. This helped me so much in terms of my thinking technically about the short story form. Beth Ann taught us to view the patterns and inconsistencies with each story, and pushed us to really figure out what made it work and what didn’t.
Mary Miller reached out to me last spring, and I’m still so grateful for her help. She was willing to take a look at a few of my stories and give some really insightful feedback on them. She also recommended an author to me, who is now one of my favorites: Judy Budnitz. And just reading Mary’s work, especially Big World and The Last Days of California opened my eyes to the subtlety and strength of her writing.
As for the South, all three of them explore Southern themes. I think the main thing I learned from them is their acceptance of it. They are unafraid to write about the “bad” things in our culture, but they also never fail to celebrate it in their own way. For a while, I was concerned about basing most of my stories in the South. However, that mindset has done a complete 180, and now I’m not only excited to identify myself as a Southern writer, but also proud.
EZB: What are your future plans? Did you get into grad school and what are you working on next? A full-length novel I hope!
MS: I just finished up all of my applications for MFA programs for the fall of 2015. Fingers crossed! I’m currently working as one of the associate publishers at Blooming Twig Books, where I manage the publishing schedule, among other things. Getting a chance to work in the business side of the publishing industry has really given me perspective on all sides of the book business: both creative and technical.
While I still write short stories (I think I always will), I know that my next step is a novel. That’s the main reason I’d love to have the chance to study for an MFA, which would provide me with both time and training. In terms of a novel, I think that mine will closely resemble the structure of a short story, regardless. I’ve been trained in that genre and, in a strange way, can’t imagine thinking “outside” of its form.