An Interview with Mary Pauline Lowry
Back in February — which now seems like multiple lifetimes ago — I sat down with Mary Pauline Lowry, a Boise-based author from Austin, Texas, whose novel The Roxy Letters will be published by Simon & Schuster this April. We talked about publishing, the benefit of an MFA in creative writing, and jobs for writers in a conversation that was supposed to be released in support of her book release reading at Boise State University — which has been canceled for public health and safety.
The Roxy Letters is written in letters from Roxy to her ex, Everett, who lives in her spare bedroom, fails to pay his rent on time, and totally blocks her mojo. Roxy is a 20-something working in the deli of the flagship Whole Foods in Austin, TX. She’s underemployed, artistically and sexually stymied, and upset about the ways her hometown is becoming corporatized. When her beloved Waterloo Video closes down and is replaced by a Lululemon, she decides it’s time to TAKE ACTION!
Megan Williams: Obviously, I want to start out talking about The Roxy Letters. All of the marketing materials for your event at Boise State mentions that your novel grew out of an assignment you gave to your English undergrad students while you were a teaching assistant…I love that a whole novel could come out of that. Can you tell us a little bit more about The Roxy Letters, the assignment it was born out of, and how it ended up in the hands of Simon & Schuster?
Mary Lowry: So when I started teaching at BSU…I was feeling very creatively run-down. I had written a novel that I spent eight years on that had gone out to editors and had some close calls, but did not sell, and so I decided I would try to write for TV. I started working at that goal and got all the way to an interview at Shondaland for a Grey’s Anatomy spin-off show and I did not get the job, which just made me feel crushed. At the time my students had such great energy, they were so smart and generous when speaking about their creativity. I think that energy was just infectious. I gave them a writing assignment which was to basically write a letter from someone who is very quirky to some who they were angry at. So I did this and wrote with them, I was very tickled by it. I wrote a letter, and then another one, and so on. Eight months later, I had finished a draft of the novel and three months after that, I found an agent who got it into the hands of Simon & Schuster.
Interviewer: That sounds pretty fast to me.
Lowry: Yeah it was. As I said the book that I had worked on before I had worked on for eight years, so the timeline was very quick. I don’t really understand creativity and how it works, but I felt like I had a lot of creative energy at the time.
Interviewer: What happened to the other novel? Did you just shelve it?
Lowry: Yeah and luckily I don’t think about it much, which is great, because I use to think about it all the time.
Interviewer: Yeah that’s hard because I feel like when you work on a creative project it becomes your life for a short time…then it’s so hard when it goes on a shelf or is just there for your enjoyment. Publishing is just one possible outcome.
Lowry: Then the interim between projects is difficult for me, because I can’t make that joyous feeling of creativity happen. I just show up at the computer every day and hope that it will come.
Interviewer: So you had another novel, Wildfire, come out before you received your MFA. As someone who low-key regrets getting an MFA ten years ago, I was wondering how do you feel that experience influences your writing?
Lowry: Did you get an MFA in fiction?
Interviewer: No, I did mine in poetry, and at the time it felt like the only way for me to do what I wanted, which was writing, was to go and get my master’s degree. It was a time of growth for me, though I don’t know that my writing grew.
Lowry: Like you, I first went to grad school when I was really young. I got a master’s degree in English with a focus on creative writing in June 2002.
I wanted to go back to grad school a second time to study for an MFA because I wanted to teach, and I really wanted to be in a strong writing community again. I felt so lucky to have been accepted into the program [the MFA program at Boise State University]. It was staggering to see the growth that everyone in my MFA cohort experienced, and I think my writing improved as well. For that reason it just felt so incredibly helpful.
Interviewer: I think it’s hard to create the kind of community you find while going through that program. That community is probably a part of that growth in writing, it’s like a built in audience.
Lowry:Yeah, you have to turn in these pages for the feedback of people who you really respect and want to impress. I was always working extra hard because I wanted to keep up with my cohort, because they were so smart.
Interviewer: I’m going to take a step back even further, what inspired you to become a writer? And what keeps you writing?
Lowry:I was always a huge reader. I think I always wanted write, but I really decided to write a novel after I worked for a couple years on a wildland firefighting crew and I just realized there were not a lot of novels about firefighting, especially from the perspective of women. But that became a book that I really wanted to write. Then once I had developed a writing habit it became all that I was interested in. Of course I’ve had various full-time jobs throughout the years to support my writing. I like to find work that shelters my writing and is in line with my ideals.
Interviewer: Wildland firefighter? How did you get into that?
Lowry: I went to college in Colorado and my roommate was a firefighter and her big sister was on a hotshot crew, so that became my dream job. Thankfully I lucked out, got the job, and loved doing it.
Interviewer: What other kinds of jobs have you had? You’re teaching now, do you feel that is the ideal job to support writing?
Lowry: I worked construction, which was really good at the time because I didn’t spend any time in front of the computer except when I was working on my fiction. Then I worked as what I like to call a “social justice worker”—helping domestic violence survivors and others in similar situations. I listened to people and their stories, then gave them whatever support I could. I do think that teaching is good for my writing because I often ask my students about their writing process and they teach me new things about how to get writing done.
Interviewer: And you got a novel out of it!
Lowry: Yes, thankfully. Though at the time I’m not sure how much help I was to my students. Hopefully they still learned something from me, too.
Interviewer: What advice do you have for people who want to center their lives on writing?
Lowry:I always feel bad encouraging people to be writers because I had such a hard road to publication and spent so many years feeling down because I wasn’t feeling the success I was longing for. It is a hard road, and even my friends who are successful novelists still struggle around their work and the vagaries of the publishing industry. But my advice would be: try and write every day. It’s possible to make progress on your writing while balancing a full-time job — even with just 30 minutes to an hour of dedicated writing time each day.
Interviewer: Do you feel that your relationship with writing would be different if you hadn’t had the success with publishing that you’ve had?
Lowry: Before I sold The Roxy Letters, I had to come to a place of peace where I accepted that my efforts might not result in wordly success. It took a long time, something like 17 years to get there with the help of my friends, my husband, my sister, and even with more unconventional means, like the guidance of shamans and witches. It was a long road but it was essential. It was important for me to let go of needing that external validation.
Interviewer: That’s a hard road for anyone in any profession, but particularly for writing when you are putting so much of yourself into it. Writing does have a utility outside of the external validation and I too think that for me it does take that long road to maybe find what it is we want to do with our writing.
Lowry: Everyone is writing now, through emails and texts. I’ll have friends send me the most hilarious texts that light up my life, and though they will never be published or archived they make my life better. And so that just shows the utility of writing outside of just being published.