Textbooks, poetry, novels—Mary Jane Ryals writes them all. Cookie and Me, her debut novel, will be released in September by Kitsune Books.
Ryals was named the first Poet Laureate of the Big Bend in 2008 and released her first book of poetry, The Moving Waters, the same year. Ryals performs with a popular poetry troupe, the Java Dogs. She currently is a professor at Florida State University. To give her Business Communications students a better understanding of the global marketplace, she wrote a textbook, Getting into the Intercultural Groove, peppered with anecdotes from her travels. As part of FSU’s International Program, Ryals spends part of the summer in Valencia, Spain, teaching business communication, literature, and writing.
Donna Meredith interviewed Mary Jane for Southern Literary Review.
DM: What compelled you to write about the Sixties in Tallahassee?
MJR: In grad school, I read Nanci Kincaid’s novel, Crossing Blood, which was set in Tallahassee during the late Sixties. It fell on me like rain that everything I knew—the Woolworths downtown, the pool closings, the movie theatre, the racial discord, the friendships—could also be literary.
Later in grad school, I gave birth to my daughter Ariel just as I’d finished preliminary exams for my Ph.D. and had to write a creative dissertation. Suddenly, I felt urgently that I needed to tell my era’s story to her. That was 17 years ago.
DM: You have a teenage daughter. Did she shape this book in any way? MJR: Oh, yes yes yes. The focus on boys, clothes, learning all the words to songs, singing them, hanging out and talking about stuff, random stuff girls that age think about. Also, my BFF, Martha Beaudoin and I used to argue and fight and make up constantly. We would sneak and talk to each other late at night, just talking and talking and talking.
I’m heartened that one of my daughter’s best friends is an African American, Puerto Rican, and Caucasian mix. She calls herself a mutt. Ariel and Mickey joke around about race, which heartens me. When we start to laugh about things, it means we’re getting emotional distance from it.
DM: Horses play an important role in your narrator Rayann’s life. Did they play a role in your life growing up as well?
MJR: My dad bought me a run-down quarterhorse, Missy, when I was about 11. Then someone gave Dad an old show horse, Charlie. He was temperamental and a five-gaited English ride. Once, he bit me at a birthday party, and I grabbed his mane, pulled up, and bit him back right on the neck! Couldn’t have hurt much, but it shocked him. His eyes got huge. Everybody at the party was laughing. I did it without thinking. Sounds like animal cruelty, but I doted on those horses.
Girls needed power of some sort back then, since we had none. Absolutely none. And girls’ sexuality was surrounded by the worst risks. So to have the gentlest mammals, huge mammals, that you could groom and talk to, guide and entertain? Well. And riding horses requires skills.
I rode bareback, and that really requires skills that I learned over years of riding. I was always the shortest kid in my classes, so I was no athlete. But on the horses, I had everything, including height.
DM: Did you have a black girlfriend growing up?
MJR: Several. I couldn’t bring them home, so the intimacy you usually have with friends wasn’t possible. But at school, we had a blast. Alice was extremely tall and playful. We’d squirt water on each other from overflowing water fountains. Jennifer and I teamed up as tap dance partners. That six weeks I made my only A in PE ever.
DM: Are you close to any black friends now as an adult?
MJR: Melanie Abrams-Rawls writes incredibly smart, thoughtful essays and poetry, and is a close friend in my poetry writing group. She told me I had to write the book and tell the truth. I’m forever indebted to her for her love.
Cliff Thompson, another novelist, has stayed friends since we met at the Hambidge Center years ago. He writes beautifully about the black middle class. I have good Facebook friends from the Obama campaign connections, too. All brilliant, funny, resilient folks.
DM: Do you feel the racial divide in this country has lessened in recent years?
MJR: Lessened and increased, depending on the person. I don’t think most of us thought a black man would be president so soon. Most of us feel proud about that, I believe. I mean, race has been the big bad hypocrisy in our “free” country. And mostly white people don’t want to talk about it. We’re kind of scaredy-cats about it, if that’s a word you can use in a literary journal. I think we’re getting there in baby steps, and sometimes in bigger steps. And then there’s a whole fear thing that’s so racially based. So biased, simply because white people and black people generally do not have good, deep conversations with each other.
My Facebook girlfriends (black and white) are all very open and we can rant about racism with each other safely on Facebook emails. Sometimes the African American women become afraid when certain vocal groups say strange things about the president. I understand their fear. We all try to listen and try to reassure each other. We joke around about someday having an Old Folks Home together.
DM: What are you working on now?
MJR: An environmental mystery novel set on the island of Cedar Key, Florida. My son Dylan works in Permaculture and Transition Cities (cities that are trying to transition away from an oil-based culture). He’s a landscaper who is passionate about the environment, so he’s a huge influence. We’re writing an article right now about Transition Cities.
Florida has seen firsthand what oil has done to our environment, economy, our psyches. The main character in the novel is a single mom hair stylist. In the opening, she is doing a hair cut and style for a female friend who’s now in a coffin—dead. This woman had supposedly committed suicide by shooting herself in the chest. Well, the hair stylist doesn’t like the high-collared neck on her former friend and unbuttons a few buttons out of a weird nervousness. She sees that the woman’s throat has been cut, and there’s no gun damage to her chest. The hair stylist gets involved and gets into big trouble, of course. She has to juggle work, two kids, two mortgages, a sick dad, and an eccentric American Indian grandmother. Meanwhile, she’s being a pretty bumbling detective. And she’s trying to decide which of two men she wants to see, if either.
DM: You recently went on a retreat. Where? What did you accomplish?
MJR: I was at The Hambidge Center for two weeks, an artist colony in the north Georgia mountains where I rewrote the whole mystery novel. I’d never be able to do that at home. My daughter’s still in high school, and I teach three and four classes a semester. Even my writer husband Michael, the most considerate person I’ve ever met, sometimes interrupts my thoughts, and the phone rings constantly. I’m the poet laureate for the region, a service post, and I could go on about a writer’s interruptions.
At Hambidge, the cabins you stay in alone have no phone or Internet. You have no one to talk to except at dinner with other artists. There’s no TV, no teenager, no husband, no obligations or meals to worry about. Just the artist and the work. I recommend writers do this when they can.