Launch: Deborah L. King’s Mary Not Broken

INTERVIEW BY LESLIE S. LOWE

Deborah L. King has been a writer and storyteller her whole life. She published her first short story at seven years old and published her first novel at age 52. Thanks to an interesting childhood, she’s afraid of escalators, bill collectors, and sometimes fresh produce. Born and raised in Chicago, she has managed to achieve all her childhood dreams—artist, teacher, baker, photographer, model, truckdriver, writer—and she still lives in the area with her husband and two youngest children.

How would you describe this book and its themes in a couple of sentences?

Fifteen-year-old Mary ran away from an arranged marriage, but life’s circumstances forced her to come back home to the world she desperately tried to escape. Can she ever find the freedom and happiness she seeks?

What inspired you to start writing historical fiction and what has been most rewarding about it?

Mary Not Broken runs from 1935 to 1966, so yeah, it’s historical. I wasn’t so much inspired to write historically as I was inspired to write Mary’s story… which happens to be a mid-century tale.

Rewarding… I’d say getting to dig up information and images that spark vague memories from my early childhood. Things like pantries that were small walk-in closets, and built-in ironing boards, and refrigerators with thick handles and heavy latches… I have memories of all those things.

What drew you into the setting for the story and made you want to share it?

The whole series is set mostly in Chicago. That’s where I was born and raised… in Englewood, South Shore, and West Pullman. Before I was born, my mother’s family lived on the West side, and I think I had relatives or family friends in Bronzeville. I was drawn to the setting because that’s what I know. It’s where I came of age and where my most vivid memories happened.

I don’t know that I wanted to share the settings as much as I wanted to tell the character’s stories. I know this is gonna sound weird but when the characters spoke to me, those are the settings they chose.

This is the prequel to Glory Bishop. How is this book different from Glory Bishop and Glory Unbound?

Well… as small as Glory’s world is, Mary’s world is even smaller. Granted, her exposures and experiences were likely typical for her day. After a while, Mary didn’t really have ambitions or seek to grow. She actively tried to limit her world and keep out everything that could lead to happiness, while Glory tried desperately to find happiness.

How do the characters transform within the story over the series? What did that journey mean to you as you wrote it?

Let’s see… without spoilers, Glory grows from a teenager to a young woman with all the growing pains that come with it, plus a few more. Mary grows from a wild and free teenager in Mary Not Broken to the middle-aged woman we meet in Glory Bishop.

People who’ve read the series often want me to explain why I wrote things or the messages and hidden meanings behind things. Honestly, as I wrote it, I was constantly surprised at everything that came to me. I can’t say the character’s journeys meant anything significant to me, but my family now thinks my stories mean that I have a lot of unresolved issues.

How do you think the reader will connect emotionally with the characters?

Well, Glory Bishop and Glory Unbound generated a bit of anger, but Mary Not Broken is a tear-jerker and I knew that when I was writing it because I did quite a bit of crying too.

Why the focus on this topic now? Is there a historical event you found in researching that inspired you to write this story to portray a key message for now?

I don’t think I chose to focus on a particular topic as much as I focused on the story that Mary was telling me. Of course, because it’s historical, there were some events that had to be acknowledged, but I only focused on the topics that would have been important to Mary. Now, there are some issues that I touched on that do exist today—sexism, racism, domestic violence—but I didn’t exactly address or analyze the issues. I just acknowledged them because they were part of Mary’s life.

How did you balance the research with writing the story? Did you get to do any interesting interviews for your research?

I interviewed my aunt, Pearline Riley Seaton, who went to Jackson College (now Jackson State University) at the time Mary would have been there. I also had to research Chicago neighborhoods and public transportation history. And, of course, all the events of the day. I did my research as I wrote the stories. When I got to a point where I needed to describe something, I’d find myself falling down a Google rabbit hole for a while… sometimes forgetting what I was researching. Yeah… I didn’t balance it very well.

Every author has their own publishing journey. Tell me about yours (process, handling rejection, success). What would you do differently?

Long story… in 2016, a workshop instructor told me Glory Bishop was ready to start looking for an agent. She even gave me referrals to two. Well, I did a bit of last-minute editing and made a list of agents and a spreadsheet and a few drafts of a query letter. I found QueryTracker.net and started contacting agents.

Glory Bishop was originally 130,000 words long and mentioning that number in the first line of my query letter got me immediate form letter rejections. So, I did the most amateurish thing possible. I read the story again and found what I thought was a reasonable spot about 3/5 of the way through and wrote THE END.  Yeah, I just cut the story—no editing or anything—and then sent it to the agents my teacher suggested. Haha… yeah… that failed miserably.

The next thing I did was rework my query letter again and move the word count to the end of the letter. This got a few more responses… a few personal rejection letters and lots of compliments… but still that word count. Agents and publishers are reluctant to take a risk on a huge expensive book from a new unknown author. Out of 99 queries, I had maybe seven agents actually read the whole story. They were all put off by the word count but had no suggestions for shortening.

Then Red Adept Publishing answered. It’s a small independent press that releases 12–20 titles a year. They wanted Glory Bishop. When I asked about the word count—because I heard publishers just chop up and force changes willy-nilly… all sorts of storicidal mutilation—but they said, “Long story… fine… oh a trilogy… even better!”

In the end, there was a major yet minor change to Glory Bishop, but it all worked out just fine.

Handling rejection? It didn’t really hurt because from 99 queries, only seven people actually rejected the story, and it wasn’t because of the writing. What I would do differently is not cut the story so arbitrarily… and not sit staring at Query Tracker for days on end.

What are you working on now? Is it another in the series or connected in any way?

Right now, I’m working on something totally different. I’m working with a brilliant co-author on an underground railroad story set in the near future. I can’t describe it without giving away too much. We’re about 2/3 finished, and there’s an agent who wants to see it when we’re done.

What advice would you give to other aspiring historical writers?

Hmmm… let me see… I think you should know everything about the era you’re writing. Do your deep research about the day-to-day life of the era… everything. Now here’s the important part. DO NOT put all that research into the story. You need to know the cost of living of the day so you will know the educational opportunity your character had, so you can get the dialogue right… but you don’t have to describe the cost of living in your story. Does that make sense?

What is the last great book you read? Why?

The Monster at the End of This Book. The first time I encountered this story, it was almost too suspenseful to stand… and that plot twist at the end… wow. I’ve read it several times and even though I know the story, I still find it a really fun read. I recently shared it with a young lady I know and she got the heebie jeebies just like I did when my mom first read it to me.

 


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