We are so excited to welcome Mary Pauline Lowry, author of the hilarious novel, THE ROXY LETTERS, now in paperback, and WILDFIRE, a novel about a woman who joins an elite firefighting team in the American West. She speaks to us about her favorite books when she was young, what success means to her, and her own time as an elite firefighter on a hotshot crew.
Born and raised in Austin, Texas, Mary Pauline is the author of the novel The Roxy Letters. She has an MA in English/Creative Writing from the University of Texas and an MFA in Creative Writing from Boise State University. She’s also the author of the novel Wildfire and is a regular contributor to O Magazine. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Millions, and other publications.
Tell us about one book that made an impact on you.
In 1989, when I was thirteen-years-old, my big sister’s friend Tori gave me a galley copy of Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block. Tori’s mom owned a bookstore so she always had the goods. I started reading Weetzie Bat when I was lying out by the pool on a hot sunny Texas summer day and by the time I finished the first chapter I knew I would never be the same. That novel showed me how I wanted to live when I grew up—as an artist, in a community of like-minded friends who support each other through the best and worst of times. I still love how FLB incorporated fairy tales into a hip, modern narrative. Weetzie Bat also really shaped my ideas about romantic love. (And as a side note, I still love Block’s work—her most recent novels The Elementals and Beyond the Pale Motel are the bomb. And her new audiobook of adult fairy tales called Lost Children is gorgeous!)
The road to publication is twisty at best–tell us about some of your twists.
Despite being totally focused and committed to my writing, it took me 18 years to sell a novel to a major publishing company. I had a novel I couldn’t sell that I eventually published with a small press. I self-published another novel. And I had a third novel that didn’t sell that I put in a drawer. I had so many close calls with editors at great houses who wanted to buy my novels but couldn’t get permission from their teams. Going through that over and over was truly heartbreaking.
I am ridiculously stubborn and action-oriented. Those qualities have kept me committed to writing and to trying to get my work out into the world. Selling The Roxy Letters in 2018 to Simon & Schuster was a game changer for me. It was incredibly joyful and validating.
Then of course the rollercoaster continued when the book came out just after the pandemic hit in April 2020 when every bookstore in the US was closed. But it’s been a joy the last couple weeks to have friends send me photos of The Roxy Letters for sale in paperback in indie bookstores and Barnes & Noble and airports.
What time of day do you love best?
I like the morning best! I go to Writers’ Hour, which is a virtual writing sprint held each weekday morning on Zoom. There are several sessions throughout the day, but I go to the 8am PST session. That provides me with great structure and ensures that I’m at the page at the same time every day. While I’m making coffee and settling in I yell, “It’s almost Writers’ Hour! It’s the greatest hour of the day!” which makes my husband laugh. I’d love for anyone reading this to join me there! https://writershour.com
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
I think that would be a tie. One of my strangest jobs was being a wildland firefighter on a hotshot crew. A hotshot crew is a group of 20 firefighters that live together, train together, and travel together all over the American West fighting wildfires.
The other of my strangest jobs was being a live-in advocate/counselor at a domestic violence shelter in Durango, Colorado. I moved into the shelter every Saturday night at 8pm and stayed there until Tuesday afternoon. Then I had four days off to write. I was often the only staff member on-site. I had many responsibilities but one of the weirdest was banging pots and pans together to scare off bears that got into the dumpster.
As a wildland firefighter, I had to really dig into my masculinity and be “tough.” Being a counselor at a domestic violence shelter required me to be very nurturing, a stereotypically feminine quality. It was actually harder in many ways because I had to hold space for people who were profoundly traumatized and also face how few resources our country offers to people who have been displaced by domestic violence.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What kinds of things did you read?
My nickname in elementary school was “bookworm” which I knew even at the time was sort of a compliment. Now I’m very picky about what I like to read, but back then I loved everything. By fifth grade I just wanted to read the longest books I could find. It by Stephen King, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. I loved Judith Krantz for her graphic sex scenes. By high school my favorites were Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Francesca Lia Block, Sandra Cisneros, Virginia Woolf, Alice Hoffman, Sarah Bird, John Kennedy Toole. I made no distinction at all between literary fiction and commercial fiction, high and low art. I’m trying to get back to that state where I read for pure pleasure.
What does literary success look like to you?
One thing I’ve noticed is that the bar for literary success is raised for authors constantly, so that it’s very difficult for writers to ever feel truly successful. So at first success looks like writing a book, and then getting an agent, and then selling the book, and then getting attention for the book, and then having the book sell a lot of copies. And then doing that again. And again.
But the truth is, only a small fraction of writers ever get published. And only 2% of books that are published sell over 5,000 copies. I’ve had a friend say: “My book only sold 5,000 copies. It was a flop!” It’s a strange industry where someone in the top 2% in their field in terms of sales feels their project “flopped.” So I think it’s important for writers to focus on doing the work as its own form of success. Worldly success is elusive and fickle and depending on it can make even the small fraction of writers who are able to publish books to a bit of fanfare and attention feel like “failures.”
So I try to write five days a week at least. And I want that to feel like success. But in a worldly way, I have to say I have always wanted to have a book that’s for sale in airports. To me that was a symbol of “making it.” The Roxy Letters is for sale in airports all over the country right now, so I want to hang on to the good feeling of achieving that long-time dream. I want to imagine people on planes reading the book and laughing really hard.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Bridget Jones penned a diary; Roxy writes letters. Specifically: she writes letters to her hapless, rent-avoidant ex-boyfriend—and current roommate—Everett. This charming and funny twenty-something is under-employed (and under-romanced), and she’s decidedly fed up with the indignities she endures as a deli maid at (the original) Whole Foods, and the dismaying speed at which her beloved Austin is becoming corporatized. When a new Lululemon pops up at the intersection of Sixth and Lamar where the old Waterloo Video used to be, Roxy can stay silent no longer.
As her letters to Everett become less about overdue rent and more about the state of her life, Roxy realizes she’s ready to be the heroine of her own story. She decides to team up with her two best friends to save Austin—and rescue Roxy’s love life—in whatever way they can. But can this spunky, unforgettable millennial keep Austin weird, avoid arrest, and find romance—and even creative inspiration—in the process?
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