Monroe, Mary 19(?)(?)–
Mary Monroe 19(?)(?)–
Even with the boom in African-American writing that began in the 1990s, the fictional world of Mary Monroe remains unique. In her debut novel, The Upper Room (1985), and her subsequent release God Don’t Like Ugly (2000), Monroe created sometimes grotesque but always memorable characters that drew on and exaggerated the small-town environments in which she had grown up. Monroe’s story is a testament to sheer persistence, for both books generated giant piles of rejection slips before finding publishers. Yet in the first years of the twenty-first century Monroe appears to be well on her way to literary success.
Monroe was born in rural Toxey, Alabama, in the state’s agricultural bottomlands north of Mobile. She was one of four siblings in a family of “Bible-thumping farm workers and domestics,” she told the website prolificwriters.org. Monroe began writing not long after she was old enough to talk; she was gifted with a vivid imagination that enabled her to talk her way out of trouble in childhood scrapes. An early influence was the local Oak Grove Baptist Church, which, she told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), “was like my second home.” The church’s congregation furnished models for many of the characters who would populate Monroe’s later writings.
After Monroe’s father’s death, her mother remarried and the family moved to northeastern Ohio (an area which became the setting for God Don’t Like Ugly). While still a child, Monroe penned a 400-page biography of an elderly Italian-American woman whom her mother had been employed to care for. Monroe’s family, however, remained unimpressed. “At one time I was thought to be crazy because of my passion for literature,” Monroe told prolificwriters.org. When Monroe graduated from Alliance High School in Alliance, Ohio, she became the only one of her siblings to graduate from high school. Her family pressured her to marry (Monroe was married and divorced before she reached her mid-20s), and to aim toward a stable career with the U.S. Post Office.
But Monroe had already gotten a taste of the writing life, finding her way into print while still in her teens by sending off stories to “true confession” magazines—monthly
At a Glance…
Born in Toxey, AL; one of four siblings; divorced; children: two. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Published “true confession” stories in Bronze Thrills and other magazines as a teenager; worked as secretary, beanpicker, apple picker, car washer, dogsitter, and housekeeper; The Upper Room published, 1985; God Don’t Like Ugly published, 2000; The Upper Room reissued, 2001; signed contract with Kensington Books for six more books, 2001.
periodicals that contained fictional first-person narratives of an often outrageous nature, generally written from a woman’s point of view. Monroe wrote more than 20 of these stories, placing them in the magazines Bronze Thrills, Jive, True Confessions, and Secrets. Her stories had titles such as “My Husband and His Mistress Tried to Kill Me with Voodoo” and “A Homosexual Preacher Stole My Husband.” Readers reacted enthusiastically to Monroe’s stories, and an editor at Bronze Thrills suggested to Monroe that she pursue a career as a novelist or screenwriter.
After her marriage ended, Monroe moved to Oakland, California; a distant relative lived there, and, Monroe told CBB, “from what I’d heard about California’s literary scene, it sounded like the best place for me to be.” Making the leap from confession magazines to other publishing outlets proved challenging for Monroe, however. She submitted her first novel, The Upper Room, to agents and publishers, accumulating numerous rejection letters from agents and publishers before finding a publisher for the book.
The Upper Room was finally published by St. Martin’s Press in 1985. Its Gothic story concerns a giant woman named Ruby, the seventh daughter of a preacher, who claims that she was born with webbed feet and scales and who wears both a switchblade and a crucifix on chains around her neck. Ruby steals Maureen, the stillborn daughter of her friend Othella, and flees to a fictional Florida swamp town called Goons, where she brings the child back to life using her healing powers. Mama Ruby raises Maureen in isolation in an upper room of her house. “Here,” wrote a reviewer for the British Guardian newspaper, “against a backgroup of the timeless bayou and the intermittent explosions of sex, violence, and death, the story unfolds—hilariously grotesque and elementally tragic.”
The Upper Room received strongly positive reviews in several British newspapers; American evaluations were mixed, but every reviewer seemed intrigued by the world Monroe had created. In part Monroe was influenced by earlier literary depictions of southern black life, such as those by Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker. She also enjoyed reading the horror novels of Stephen King, and has named Ernest Gaines and Jacqueline Susann (after whom one of her two daughters is named) as novelists who influenced her own writing. But the The Upper Room revealed Monroe as more than the sum of these influences—as a true original.
Despite encouraging reviews, the book failed to open new doors for Monroe, and although she continued writing stories, plays, screenplays, and non-fiction, it was 15 years before she would be published again. Another pile of rejection letters accumulated. For a time Monroe considered giving up and taking the postal examinations her mother urged on her, but the writing impulse was too strong. Instead, she took a series of what she described to CBB as “HELLISH jobs—secretary, beanpicker, apple picker, car washer, dogsitter, and housekeeper.” Monroe wrote whenever she could—including during staff meetings while she was employed as a temporary office worker.
Part of the delay in the publication of her second book, Monroe admitted, was her own fault. “I was horrified recently when I looked at a rejected manuscript that I had sent out ten years ago,” she told prolificwriters.org. “Not only was it full of typos (I had even misspelled my own name), flat characters and bad dialogue, it was stained with jelly and coffee.” Monroe didn’t help matters by threatening legal action against the publisher of Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby after becoming convinced that Morrison had based its plot upon a story Monroe had submitted earlier. Finally, though, Monroe’s work came to the attention of an editor at Kensington Books. Karen Thomas began to work closely with Monroe to develop her material. The pieces fell into place for the publication of her second novel, God Don’t Like Ugly. The title came from a religious saying in Monroe’s family, warning that God could see past surface appearances.
God Don’t Like Ugly tells the story of an obese teenage girl named Annette who is sexually abused by her mother’s boarder, Mr. Boatwright. With her bedroom having become a “Chamber of Horrors,” Annette consoles herself with eating and reading. Annette’s life improves when she is befriended by a beautiful classmate, Rhoda, whose family offers a cast of eccentric characters to rival those in Monroe’s earlier novel, but who is shielding a secret of her own from view. By the time God Don’t Like Ugly was published in 2000, the environment for African-American literature had changed dramatically due to the success of Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale and other blockbusters, and Kensington promoted the novel vigorously.
The book sold 80, 000 copies in its first year of release and prompted the re-release of the long out-of-print The Upper Room with a substantial print run of 50, 000 copies. Monroe was signed to Kensington with a contract calling for six more books, including a sequel to God Don’t Like Ugly called God Still Don’t Like Ugly. Already enjoying travel (she put the final touches on God Don’t Like Ugly while relaxing on a beach in Mexico), Monroe reveled in the author’s tours on which she was now being sent. By 2002 Monroe had developed a strong following in African-American fiction-reading circles, and was at work on two more novels.
The Upper Room, St. Martin’s, 1985 (reissued 2001).
God Don’s Like Ugly, Kensington, 2000.
Black Issues Book Review, December 31, 2000, p. 21.
Financial Times (London), June 28, 1986, p. Weekend-8
The Guardian (London), March 17, 1989.
New York Times, March 3, 1985, section 7, p. 31.
Publishers Weekly, October 29, 2001, p. 38; December 10, 2001, p. 25.
Kensington Books, http://www.kensingtonbooks.com.
Prolific Writers, http://www.prolificwriters.org/monroe.htm
Additional information for this profile was obtained through a personal interview with Contemporary Black Biography on June 7, 2002.
—James M. Manheim
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