Mary Kay Andrews, THE NEWCOMER

Mary Kay Andrews, THE NEWCOMER

“I think my work defines me. I feel as though if I’m not writing, who am I?” Mary Kay Andrews —bestselling author of 26 novels— joins Zibby to talk about her two latest books, The Newcomer and The Santa Suit. Mary Kay shares how the pandemic both changed her writing habits and inspired her and a few fellow writers to start “Friends and Fiction.” The group livestreams their conversations and interviews to an audience that has grown to well over 50,000, and they encourage listeners to continue supporting independent bookstores. Mary Kay also tells Zibby what she learned during her career that has allowed her to remain such a prolific author.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mary Kay. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss both The Newcomer and The Santa Suit.

Mary Kay Andrews: Hey, Zibby. It’s great to be with you.

Zibby: Great. Mary Kay, first of all, The Newcomer came out several months ago, but we’re finally getting to this interview. I’m so sorry about that. I’ve been so backlogged that your next book is coming out before I could even talk to you about this book. Tell us about both books. We’ll get into it that way.

Mary Kay: The Newcomer, which came out in May, is about a young woman. Her name is Letty. When the book opens, she pulls into the parking lot right at dawn at one of those vintage mom-and-pop motels on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The sun is just coming up. She’s terrified and exhausted. She falls asleep immediately. She’s got a four-year-old in the backseat of her car who’s also sleeping. That child is not her daughter. It’s her niece. They are on the run from the law and from a lot of other things. Letty doesn’t really know why she’s ended up at The Murmuring Surf. That’s the name of the motel. All she knows is that her sister is dead. Her sister is the mother of the four-year-old in the backset. The little girl’s name is Maya. Her sister had been in a very contentious custody battle with her ex. One of the last things her sister Tara tells her is, “If anything happens to me, if anything bad happens, it’s Evan. Promise me if something happens you will take Maya and run.” That’s what Letty does. She is the newcomer at this quirky mom-and-pop motel that’s full of senior citizens and snowbirds and regulars. That’s where the story starts. There’s some mystery. There’s some romance. Always in my books, there is a lot of setting.

Zibby: True. Yes, I felt like I was in this place so clearly, the way you described it. Even from the original pulling up and the “no vacancy” and getting used to the neighborhood, it was so vivid, the way you just drew the reader right in.

Mary Kay: For my books, I want to put my reader right in the middle of the story. I want them to see the sun coming up over the Gulf. I want them to hear the surf. I want all of that. I want a big, juicy book. I want to put them in there right now.

Zibby: Interesting. Was that your philosophy from the start? Go back to the beginning for two seconds, and then we’ll catch back up here, of how you even started writing this type of book and how you started writing in general. You’ve written so many books. It’s amazing and so impressive. I’m in such awe. Tell me how it all began.

Mary Kay: I worked as a newspaper reporter for fourteen years. The last ten at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I was a feature writer. Like a lot of other working moms, I wanted out. I began tunneling out by writing fiction in secret. I wrote one book that didn’t sell. The second book sold just based on five chapters, so I quit my day job. I’ve always been a big reader. I’d always loved mysteries. I started writing mysteries under my real name, which is Kathy Hogan Trocheck. I wrote a mystery series set in Atlanta. Then I wrote a different kind of book. It was set in Savannah where I had lived and worked a couple different times. That book was Savannah Blues. My publisher decided, “We are not going to sell it as a mystery,” even though I wrote it thinking it was a mystery. My editor, who was very wise, said, “Nobody cares whodunit. They just want to know if Weezie Foley, the protagonist, if she gets what she wants.” That book was Savannah Blues. We decided not only to market it as just women’s fiction, but also, I decided I would take on a pseudonym. Mary Kay Andrews is a combination of my children’s names. My daughter Katie is Mary Kathleen. My son is Andrew. The other thing I did when I picked that pseudonym was — fiction’s shelved alphabetically. I decided I would be an A so my readers don’t have to squat when they’re looking for my books. I always loved Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake because they always put you right in the middle of the action of the book. That’s where I want to jump in. Elmore Leonard’s most famous advice to writers is, I leave out the part readers skip over. I try to remember that.

Zibby: I love that. I know, I have to say, you’re more focused on your readers than almost anybody I’ve spoken to. You are keeping them so front and center at every moment. When you sit down and you’re at your computer, I’m assuming at a computer, and you’re typing away and you’re thinking about your scenes, are you always thinking about the reader, or are you letting yourself fall into the process? Tell me what that experience is like for you.

Mary Kay: It’s different different days. I write in bed. That became my COVID habit. When there was nothing to do and nowhere to go, I put my laptop by my bed and every morning, started waking up and writing at seven AM. I was writing in this little cocoon. Some mornings, I’m so in the scene, nothing else matters. It’s like that little, black tunnel you’re in. Then lots of times, I’ll go back and when I’m editing and revising, I’ll think, does the reader care? Do they need to know that, or is that just me doing verbal somersaults? Is that just me being cute? I want my reader to love the story. If it doesn’t serve the story, if it doesn’t serve the character — I took a writing workshop with Sue Grafton early in my career. What she said was every paragraph has two jobs. It has to either advance the plot or inform about the character. Sometimes you’re doing a transition or you’re doing your scene-setting, but I do try to keep that in mind. I write commercial fiction. That’s what I do, and so I always keep that mind.

Zibby: Interesting. Then how did you end up starting “Friends and Fiction”? Then let’s go back to The Santa Suit after that. How did you get involved with all the ladies from “Friends and Fiction” and end up starting that?

Mary Kay: What happened was, I’m friends with all these authors. So many of us know each other, especially the women. Patti Callahan Henry, Mary Alice Monroe, Kristy Woodson Harvey, Kristin Harmel, we all had spring/summer books coming out in 2020. Our tours were all canceled. I had a six-week book tour canceled. We were spinning. I said, “I have a pro Zoom account.” Sort of like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, my dad’s got a barn, let’s put on a show. I said, “I have a Zoom account. Let’s get on a happy-hour rosé call. Let’s see if we can’t figure out something to do,” A, obviously, selfishly, to promote our books. B, we were really worried about independent booksellers. How were they going to be impacted by this COVID, by the shutdown of bookstores and everything? And C, to help promote other authors who were in the same boat. We were really worried about debut authors. When you’re starting from nothing, getting out to bookstores and getting out word of mouth is so important.

We started talking about it. We thought, what if we did a Wednesday night FaceTime Live show? We started out doing it from my Facebook account because I had a larger following. That first show was so comic. I was in my pajamas because I didn’t think anyone would watch. My daughter was doing tech, so you can see her crawling out of camera range. I know you know what all this is about, Zibby. We were amazed when people started watching. Very quickly, we decided to have on guests because who wanted to hear us talking about our own books? Our first guest, not too shabby, was Kristin Hannah. We hired a tech company, which was the smartest thing we ever did. We hired our managing director, the amazing Meghan Walker of Tandem Literary. To our amazement, people started telling us, I’m waiting. Every Wednesday night, I want to be there. I want to see it. They don’t have to watch it live. They can watch it on YouTube. They can watch it later. We’re up to almost fifty thousand followers on our Facebook page. It took off in a way we never anticipated. We thought we’d do it for six weeks.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Do you have any highlights from the show or people that you were super excited to talk to?

Mary Kay: We’re super excited about every guest. Every guest is somebody who we’ve heard of or whose book we’re excited about, we’re fans of. Delia Owens was amazing. Kristin, of course, was wonderful. Everybody loves Karin Slaughter. She’s so zany. You never know what’s going to happen with her. We had Willian Kent Krueger for This Tender Land, which was great. We just had Vanessa Riley for Island Queen, which is an amazing book. We love talking to authors who, they’re not on our readers’ radar. We want to say, hey, have you read this author? Let’s expand our boundaries a little bit. Let’s read something we’re not used to reading. That’s really been fun and really rewarding for all of us.

Zibby: Are most of the people who follow you — I know most of you authors are, not to geographically constrain you, but from the South. A lot of your characters are from the South. The stories take place down there. Is that where your audience is a lot, or is it just everywhere?

Mary Kay: Honestly, I think it’s all over. We have viewers who are international. All of us live in the South. That’s an accident of geography. We didn’t say we’re only going to have Southern authors. So much of this was just, literally, let’s throw this thing together. We didn’t know what we were doing. We really try to consciously ask and have guests who are from outside the South. The only thing, really, in the past that’s kind of kept us from going more international is the platform that we’re operating from. Now it turns out we’re going to be able to do some more of that. We have a podcast too. I interviewed Tana French for The Searcher. We had to overcome, oh, my gosh, what time is it where she is in Ireland? We really made a conscious decision to stretch and grow our viewership.

Zibby: Love it. It’s so great. Tell me now about The Santa Suit. It comes out very soon.

Mary Kay: Yes. Santa Suit is out September 28th. It is just a sweet Christmas story. After the year we’ve all been through, I wanted something that would take my readers away from themselves, away from thinking about masks and vaccines and lockdowns and worry. I decided to write a secret book. I handed in The Newcomer early for the first time in my life last October. Instead of starting work on my book for summer ’22, in secret, I thought, I’m going to write a Christmas book. This was October. I said to myself, if I can’t finish it by January, it’s a non-starter. I didn’t tell my agent. I didn’t tell my editor. It was the first time I’d written a book on spec since my career started thirty years ago. It’s about Ivy Perkins, has just come out of a bad divorce. She’s very bruised and sad. She wants a fresh, new start on life. She’s been living in Atlanta. She’s been running a marketing company with her now ex. She sells her part of the company to him. She packs up her dog, Punkin, in her Volvo. She buys a house. She’s fixated with owning an old, white farmhouse out in the country. She buys this house, Four Roses Farm, sight unseen. She sees a listing online and buys it, very unlike Ivy who had a very normal, rigid life. She drives up to this house.

It’s the week before Christmas. She wants to hide from Christmas. She’s over it. What she discovers is that you can’t hide from being part of a community. You can’t hide from life. The first night she’s in the house — the family she’s bought the house from have left everything. It’s been in an estate. They’ve left all their furniture. They left the clothes in the closet. She’s dumping the clothes out of the closet. On the top shelf, she finds a box wrapped in Christmas paper. Inside is a beautifully made Santa suit. She comes to discover that the previous owners of the house, they were Christmas central for this mountain community. They decorated the outside of their house with thousands of lights every year. The husband and wife who passed away were Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus. When she’s looking at this suit, she finds a crumpled-up note in the pocket from a little girl asking Santa Claus to bring her daddy home. That’s how the story starts.

Zibby: Aw. Oh, my gosh, that’s amazing. I love it. How do you keep up your energy? I’m serious. The idea that at this point you would try to sneak in an extra book as if it’s just a TV show you’re watching before bed, seriously, how do you do that?

Mary Kay: It doesn’t hurt that I’m an empty nester. It doesn’t hurt that I have an incredibly supportive husband who takes over laundry and cooking. My granddaughter and son-in-law and grandchildren live around the corner, so they help out. I think my work defines me. I feel as though, if I’m not writing, who am I? Maybe I’m shallow. I tear my hair out. I make myself insane. Right now, I’m really up against deadline for summer ’22 because I snuck in that extra book, which I now have to go out and promote. I tear my hair out. I wail. I gnash my teeth, but I know that I’m going to get it done. I give myself work quotas, page quotas. I have not missed a day of writing in three and a half months. It used to be that I’d just kind of meander around, saunter around. Yeah, I’ll get to that. Late in my career, I have discovered that discipline, it’s the salvation against insanity.

Zibby: Did you make that up, or is that an expression I don’t know?

Mary Kay: I think I just made it up.

Zibby: I love it. I think it belongs on a pillow or something.

Mary Kay: I wish I were disciplined about fitness, about walking and eating the right foods and doing all those things. I hope I’ll get back to those things.

Zibby: I wish I were disciplined with those things as well.

Mary Kay: Right now, it’s just me in that tunnel and the laptop and my notebook. How do you do it all? You’ve got young kids at home.

Zibby: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know

Mary Kay: You’ve been through the kind of COVID terrors that the rest of us, we dread. I follow you. I know your kids have been on lockdown. They’ve had COVID. You’ve had family losses. I don’t know how you pile that on top of everything else you do.

Zibby: That, I think, is why I do what I do. This is my escape. I love this. I love it. I love hearing other people’s stories, whether I’m reading them or literally talking to them like you and me here today. I can never get sick of hearing people’s stories. I find it endlessly fascinating to hear about people’s lives and read about it and put myself into their shoes. I find there’s nothing that calms me down as much as doing that. I just try to do it more the more stressed out I get.

Mary Kay: That’s what we love about “Friends and Fiction.” Talking to other writers and hearing from them is so inspiring. We always ask them for a writing tip. We ask them what they’re reading currently. I did tour this summer for The Newcomer. I was amazed by how many fans of “Friends and Fiction” came up to me in bookstores. We weren’t hugging. We were wearing masks. They said, “You know, you saved my life. You gave me a place to go on Wednesday nights. I would turn on my computer or I would watch you on YouTube or on Facebook. My husband would know not to bother me because I am going to spend this next hour talking about books, listening to writers talk about books.” They post on our Facebook page. They’re sharing. It’s really a great community. They’re sharing with people they’ve never met, mostly, in real life saying, did you like that? I didn’t care for it. Then someone will say, keep reading. Don’t quit. It’s so worth it. That’s been wonderful.

Zibby: That is wonderful. I love that. That’s great. Let me ask you your “Friends and Fiction” questions now. What is your writing tip? What are you reading?

Mary Kay: My writing tip has been the same one for a long time. I have to keep reminding myself of this. You can’t fix what you ain’t wrote. When you’re writing, get it down on paper, in your laptop, in a document. Fight the self-loathing. Fight the inner terrors. Just write. Keep writing. My philosophy is, I try not to back up. Go all the way to the end of your story. Then back up. Then you can revise. Then you can polish the words until they sparkle like jewels. If you sit there paralyzed by fear and self-doubt, you’re just going to erase a hole in that piece of paper. Keep going no matter what. Get to the end. It helps if you tell yourself what you want the end to be. Lots of times, I change it, but I know where I’m going, kind of. I have a road map. What I’m reading right now, we’re having Emily Henry on “Friends and Fiction” Wednesday night. I’m reading her book, People You Meet on Vacation. Then I’ve got a stack of stuff, like you. I’ve got physical books. I’ve got advance readers’ copies. I’ve got NetGalley books. I feel like I’ve got a fortress of books all around me. I see your fortress.

Zibby: It’s great being in a fortress of books. There’s no place I’d rather be. Excellent. Mary Kay, thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for The Newcomer and The Santa Suit and all of your work and your dedication to keeping the reader in mind. I think it’s so important and awesome. I loved hearing you talk about your sense of identity coming from your work because I think that’s the most powerful thing that all of us can do these days, is contribute in some way that gets us so excited to get out of bed, or in your case, stay in it all day to get your work done.

Mary Kay: I put on real clothes to talk to you. I’m really proud of myself.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Beautiful too.

Mary Kay: You’re welcome. I mean, I have on yoga pants. I think everybody has on yoga pants.

Zibby: That’s okay. I’m wearing a shirt dress. I don’t have on pants, so there you go.

Mary Kay: It was great being with you, Zibby. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for coming. Buh-bye.

Mary Kay Andrews, THE NEWCOMER

THE NEWCOMER by Mary Kay Andrews

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