hile the series God Don’t Like Ugly, published in 2000, may have launched author Mary Monroe onto the best seller lists for the second time in her career, it has been her perseverance, plus her ability to learn from rejection and utilize criticism, which have impacted the trajectory of her success. She has gone from working full time in a non-creative field, writing at every brief moment available, to having her dream career as a best-selling author.
Edited and mentored by the great Toni Morrison, she has been honored as a recipient of the J. California Cooper Memorial Award (2017), Maya Angelou Lifetime Achievement Award (2016), Best Southern Author Award (2004), and the Oakland Pen Award for Best Fiction of the Year (2001).
The story of getting to her current position of success is inspiring. Fifteen years between the publishing of her widely received and acclaimed first novel, The Upper Room, and her second novel, God Don’t Like Ugly, Mary endured the loss of her agent and fifteen years of rejection. She did not give up. Rather, Mary listened to critical analysis of her writing and used it as fuel to create a personal writing education plan.
This resulted in new representation, a publishing contract for the God Don’t Like Ugly series, and the many accolades which have followed. She has proven to be a vital voice in contemporary literature. Her characters are diverse and her story lines reminiscent. Combining themes found in the works of Toni Morrison and written in the tone of Terri McMillan, Mary has found a niche among today’s readers.
I first heard of Mary’s writings when her book, God Don’t Like Ugly, was released and received wide acclaim. However, it wasn’t until nearly two decades later, when I restarted my summer reading plan, that I read her work for the first time. Thrilled that she welcomes readers into her community, I took the chance to see if she would allow an interview that I could share with the WOW! Women On Writing community. She graciously agreed.
Here’s what I learned from our Q&A.
WOW: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me about your work and writing process. What has been the greatest lesson learned in your writing and publishing journey?
Mary: The greatest lesson I’ve learned is that no matter how wonderful I think my stories are, how much money my books earn, and how many great reviews I receive, I can’t please everybody.
When someone says something negative about my work, I take it in stride and keep moving forward.
WOW: That’s great advice. Your website states you began writing short stories at age four. When did writing become a professional goal, and how did you overcome, if you experienced it, the bias of being a self-taught writer?
Mary: Writing was my professional goal from day one. It was a dream I could not ignore. I received very little support from my family and friends. Most of them laughed at me and said I was crazy for even thinking that the daughter of sharecroppers could publish books without a proper education. I laughed along with them, but I refused to give up on my dream. I was a single parent, so I didn’t have the time and money to pay for writing courses. Therefore, my early material was weak in every area, especially grammar, plot lines, and character development.
After several agents and editors told me my shortcomings, I pored over library reference books on writing. That helped me hone my skills. I was thirty when I published my first novel, The Upper Room.
WOW: What good use of feedback from agents and editors! Also, great use of the library’s resources! It takes a lot, though, to develop the storytelling and character development skills seen in your writing. I wonder, what is your approach to writing? Do you have a daily writing schedule or ritual? Favorite place to write?
Mary: I don’t have a favorite place to write or a daily schedule. However, I write something every day.
I wrote only a few sentences yesterday, but today I produced several dozen pages. One of the many things I like about my job is that I can do it almost anywhere. I worked nine to five as a secretary for many years. I wrote during my commute to and from work, on my lunch break, and while attending excruciatingly long staff meetings. Now that I don’t have to do a day job, I do a lot of writing stretched out on beaches in Mexico, in airports between flights, and in local coffee shops.
“One of my former mentors, the fabulous Toni Morrison, told me early in my career that rejections are only detours not the end of the road.”
WOW: A writer’s dream. Sounds like that early discipline paid off. Let’s talk about your first book. An online bio states that The Upper Room published in 1985. Was that published with the help of an agent through St. Martin’s Press?
Mary: A close friend referred me to my first agent. He (that agent) landed a contract for The Upper Room with St. Martin’s Press two years after agreeing to represent me. By then, it had been rejected fifty-five times!
WOW: Representation matters! Yet, your website indicates that despite the success of The Upper Room, there was a period of fifteen years and hundreds of rejection letters that you endured before obtaining a publishing contract for God Don’t Like Ugly. How did you maintain your commitment to writing during that period?
What lessons might an up-and-coming writer be able to learn on how to view rejection and successfully find an agent/publisher?
Mary: During that fifteen-year slump, just as I was about to throw in the towel, my current agent agreed to represent me. I found my second agent in the Guide to Literary Agents. I queried twenty-five agents simultaneously. Half didn’t respond, and only three were interested. I went with the first one who offered to work with me. He sold God Don’t Like Ugly immediately. Things skyrocketed from that point on. I’ve now been with the same agent and publisher for twenty years. I’ve published over twenty-five books.
One of my former mentors, the fabulous Toni Morrison, told me early in my career that rejections are only detours, not the end of the road. And that if you really want to see your dreams come true, you never give up. I tell that to up-and-coming authors every chance I
get. Despite my miserable history, I made it to the New York Times Best Seller list, and I recently signed contracts to write several more books.
WOW: Another resource (Guide to Literary Agents) that can be intimidating, but can lead to results! I’m so glad it paid off in a long-term relationship with the agent and publisher.
After thanking Mary for her time, she graciously thanked me for my interest in her writing. What struck me as a writer was her ability to respond punctually to the deadline we set for the interview despite being in the midst of a very busy writing schedule. It reminded me that writing is both a creative endeavor and a business.
Mary’s latest release, Across the Way, is now available. She states, “It is the third and final book in my Neighbors series. It takes place in a small rural town in Alabama during the Great Depression. The main characters are two couples on the same block who are best friends and worst enemies at the same time.” Her future release, The Gift of Family is scheduled for September 2020.
Get to know writer Mary Monroe and her diverse characters. More importantly, learn from her experience:
- Early success does not mean that rejection cannot follow.
- Listen to the feedback received from agents, editors, and readers. Hone in on the skills that need to be strengthened.
- Money or a degree does not have to be the concluding factor in starting a writing education.
- Search for free classes or writing reference books at your local library.
- If you can, invest in yourself, try an online writing course or workshop, such as those offered through this writing education and network community! If you can go for an MFA, why not? The networking and feedback opportunity can result in a polished style that can help you realize your dream career.
- Writing is also a business, and marketing/publicity efforts are often left to the writer. Begin early to build a loyal following by being open to connect with your readers. They are a part of your team!
Most of all, persevere. There will be rejection when you send out your queries. You just need one person who believes in you, is willing to support your work, and help you develop your career further. Who knows? It may develop into a life-long partnership. Together, your next efforts at writing may be a New York Times Best Seller.
Margaret Y. Buapim is a freelance writer who began her full time writing career in 2015. She has been featured in WOW-Women On Writing's November 3, 2017 issue of Friday Speak Out. She has a published novel, Ring Envy, recently released in electronic format. She has been recognized by the Greater Los Angeles Area MENSA Society for her Essay Writing and has contributed a short story to Guide Magazine. She can be contacted through her portfolio website or on Twitter @ybuapim.