I have a large extended family, and only three of its members have read all 19 of my books. The others claim to be “too busy” or “not into reading,” but they demand free copies of my books anyway.
Growing up in rural Alabama in the late ’50s, I loved the written word. I read everything from the Bible to the ads in the Sears and Roebuck catalogues. Such creative nourishment inspired me to make up my own stories. I told everybody I wanted to be a writer, and everybody told me I was crazy. I was advised to forget about writing because it was a hobby, not a real job—especially for a black girl.
My playmates loved my stories. By the time I was 12, my head was so big, I wrote my own version of Genesis in which Satan didn’t exist. There was no sin and the world was one big, happy paradise. I sent my masterpiece to Reader’s Digest in late September and told the editor to send the payment ASAP so I’d have time to purchase a cool Halloween costume. A week later, I received my first rejection. Over the next three decades, more than 2,000 would follow. Despite the Reader’s Digest snub (I had convinced myself that the editors rejected my piece because they were racist and jealous) and the naysayers, I wrote more stories.
I moved with my family to a small city in Ohio, where we lived in a large shabby house with numerous relatives. I shared a bedroom with five people. I hid in a deserted boxcar on the train tracks behind our house so I could write in peace. In high school, I was confident that I could write stories just as juicy as the ones I read in the magazines True Confessions and True Story. I was 15 when I submitted “I Married a Hairy Old Beast”—and received a check for $200! I sent more stories with titles such as “I Married My Rapist” and “My Husband and His Mistress Tried to Kill Me with Voodoo,” and more payments followed. My grandfather didn’t think I was using my God-given talent wisely. “Gal,” he said, “you grew up in the church, so you need to write stories with a Christian theme.” To appease him, I wrote “A Homosexual Preacher Stole My Husband.”
After high school, my dream was to write novels for a living, but the dream became a nightmare when I stumbled into a marriage with an older man I hardly knew, tempted by the idea of sharing a house with only one person for the first time. I left Ohio with my two toddlers and moved to the Bay Area, still determined to write for a living.
Then in 1984, a director read one of my plays. I shared this information with my older sister, whose only comment was, “If that director is cute and single, give him my phone number.” The following year I published my first novel, The Upper Room. The AP brought me to New York for an interview. I received favorable reviews in PW, the New York Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, and other major publications.
Despite my accomplishments, my family still insisted that writing was not a real job. When I sent a copy of my novel to my older sister, she looked at the photograph on the book jacket and asked, “Didn’t you get that blouse in Hawaii?”
In September 2006, my sixth novel, God Don’t Play, landed on the New York Times bestseller list. When I told my uncle James, all he did was blink. I never mentioned it to the rest of my folks. On June 1, 2016, my 19th novel, Every Woman’s Dream, was released, and on the same day a cousin told me I should still get a real job.
I recently eavesdropped on a conversation between Aunt Lucille and Cousin Florence. (Names have been changed to protect the “privacy” of certain individuals, and because they are itching to sue me if I ever reveal their true identities.) They were praising the accomplishments of June, my younger sister. “June Bug is doing so well! She got off them drugs, ain’t been arrested this year, and she just got a job managing a drug store!” Aunt Lucille squealed.
After a sigh, Cousin Florence brought up my name: “What is poor Mary up to?”
“Still crazy!” Aunt Lucille replied. “She don’t do nothing but write books.”
Every Woman’s Dream, the first book in Mary Monroe’s new series, Lonely Heart, Deadly Heart, was published by Dafina in May.