Like many of the authors I speak with, 2021 Debuts author Mary Camarillo is one I’d love to meet in person. Her author photo is inviting, her own backstory is varied, and her debut novel, The Lockhart Women, features all three points of view of fascinating women (plus I love her short stories and essays). Gabriel San Román wrote that Camarillo’s “engaging prose colors her characters with forgivable imperfections, but with purpose, giving readers more than enough reason to care about their arcs,” and Susan Straight said, “These women are vivid portraits—flawed and desperate and seeking redemption.” Praise all around for this debut novelist! Despite being retired, Mary leads a very active life, which includes a “terrorist cat, Riley” (who has his own Instagram page!). I’m so very grateful she took the time to answer a few of my questions.
Christina: You write poetry, short stories, essays, and you have your debut novel, The Lockhart Women, launched on June 1. What genre do you enjoy writing the most and why?
Mary: I’m most comfortable in the fiction world. I had a long career writing audit reports, which never allowed personal opinions, so I’m enjoying the freedom of making things up. I enjoyed the space of the novel form when I wrote The Lockhart Women, but I love the shorter form too. My second novel is a collection of linked stories about characters in my neighborhood.
Since I’m primarily a fiction writer my poems usually take a narrative form. I wrote poetry in high school and came back to it recently. I don’t think of myself as a poet at all, although surprisingly I had five poems published in 2020. Online sites during the pandemic were looking for poetry, and I guess I decided what the hell else can go wrong, might as well hit submit.
Essays are new for me. I began blogging a year ago, thinking I needed to come up with some content to promote my novel. I started a newsletter as well and am really enjoying writing short pieces about my neighborhood, the postal service, and book reviews.
Christina: Kirkus Reviews said The Lockhart Women is “An emotional portrait of three women dealing with unexpected change.” Change can be difficult, especially when it’s unexpected. How do you deal with change? Do you find it difficult? Do you have any tips for your readers how to deal better when change punches us in the gut?
Mary: Change is wonderful when it’s your idea. I was thrilled nine years ago to be able to retire and focus on writing. I never missed my job once and made an easy transition to one of those annoying retirees who say, “I don’t know how I ever had time to work.”
Change is brutal when it’s forced on you. My mother died two years ago, and I’ve watched my 98-year-old father deal with this incredible loss with grace and fortitude. He’s a resilient man, but he’s lonely. I’ve dealt with the loss of my mom by trying to help him, by taking steps one at a time, by talking to myself and my husband, and by writing. Writing helps me understand my world and create some order, even if I’m only writing a list of what to do next.
Christina: On your website, you wrote about the process of having an author photo taken, speaking about expectations. And in your novel, the mother’s expectations “consistently exceed her gratitude.” Our expectations can cause problems: if they’re too high, we’re disappointed; If they’re too low, we might not challenge ourselves. Where do you generally lie on the continuum, or does it depend on the circumstances? What have you learned about gratitude and expectations in general?
Mary: My first author photo was a disaster but not because I had overly high expectations. I admit to a certain amount of vanity, but I’m 69 years old, and I know what I look like. The first photographer I hired sat me in front of a white screen in his garage, turned on a zillion watt light bulb, and told me his camera lens was strong enough to capture every minute detail. Unsurprisingly, the pictures were awful. Luckily, I found someone else who understood that late afternoon natural light is flattering to older skin and knew the right things to say to help me relax.
Generally, I tend to expect too much, especially of myself. I’m frequently disappointed in other people. It’s taken me too long to realize I can’t control them and that I need to give myself a break more often. I know high standards are important, but I’m learning to be grateful and appreciate the wins, however small.
I find good advice in the last lines of Texas musician Ray Wylie Hubbard’s song “Mother Blues”: And the days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations well, I have really good days. This is the epigraph to my novel.
Christina: I remember watching OJ Simpson’s white Ford Bronco speeding up the interstate as police followed him. That event is such a unique one to build a story around. How did you decide to include it in The Lockhart Women?
Mary: Several reasons:
- There is something really interesting to me in historical “flashbulb moments.” We tend to remember exactly where we were and who we were with. For example, I was in sixth grade and on the playground in Charlotte, North Carolina when JFK was assassinated. My teacher made us sit down in a circle before he told us. I was in Chicago getting ready to give an audit presentation on 9/11. I was home on the couch in Anaheim eating pizza during the Simpson chase. Nielsen Research did a survey in 2012 to find out which TV events were the most memorable for U.S. audiences in the last 50 years. Two of them related to O. J. Simpson made the top ten—the murder verdict was #3 and the chase was #6.
- The Simpson trial occurred at a pivotal moment in American TV. There were already a few reality TV shows and the Simpson chase felt just like one of them. Simpson was a celebrity athlete, star of B movies and car rental commercials. People felt like they knew him. Court TV was already popular, and Judge Ito allowed cameras in his courtroom during Simpson’s trial. Thanks to Simpson’s best friend Robert Kardashian, his widow and four daughters translated their moment of fame into a celebrity empire. And news stations had just begun using helicopters to capture car chases. The helicopter coverage of the chase helped to sear the memory of the white Bronco on the freeway into an iconic image.
- The trial made an effective timeline and scaffolding for my story, a framework to give the novel structure. It’s my first novel, largely character driven, and plot is not my strong point.
- And finally . . . people said I looked like Marcia Clark because I had a similar perm and wore the same kind of business suits. During the trial, there was relentless criticism of Ms. Clark’s appearance and personal life. It wasn’t an easy time to be a woman in a high-profile position. Not much has changed.
Christina: Everyone has a different story to tell when it comes to publishing their books. Can you tell us a little about your publishing journey? How did you decide on She Writes Press?
Mary: I tried the traditional publishing route of seeking an agent and sent out over one hundred queries. I can be very persistent! I got really good responses on my writing and the novel’s premise and several requests for full manuscripts, but agents kept telling me they didn’t think they could sell the book. In hindsight, I see several reasons why. The novel was too long at that point (106,000 words which I eventually trimmed down to 93,000.) My novel is also set in the 1990’s which doesn’t fit into the category of contemporary or historical fiction. And I’m an older writer with not much of a social platform.
But I believed in the novel and I’m stubborn. I also didn’t want to spend time figuring out how to self-publish. A friend told me about She Writes Press; I submitted the novel to them and heard back immediately that they loved it and wanted to publish it.
Christina: Your bio mentions that you worked for the postal system and that you became a CPA. What lessons did you learn from those jobs? Did your experiences inform your writing at all?
Mary: I didn’t go to college after high school, I went to work at the post office sorting mail. Even though the postal service is in my DNA (my grandfathers were railway mail clerks) I didn’t plan on making a career there, but I stayed for many reasons. The benefits are generous, there are ten paid holidays, and eventually five weeks of vacation. I believe in the mission of universal mail service, and I liked working towards a common goal with a wide variety of people. I married one of my coworkers. And I always thought that someone should write a novel about the post office.
I eventually discovered there were more interesting opportunities than sorting mail. I sold stamps and subbed at a country post office. I worked in the claims’ office reuniting owners with items lost in the mail. I found a home in accounting, went to school at night, earned a degree and a couple of promotions, then went to work for the Office of Inspector General, where I became an audit manager.
I wrote and edited countless audit reports on deficiencies in mail processing and postal financial procedures which surprisingly turned out to be good training for writing fiction. An audit report tells a story of why something is wrong (the cause) and why we should care (the effect.) Cause and effect are important in writing fiction too, although fiction is a lot more fun.
Christina: What is your writing kryptonite?
Mary: Perseverance. Stubbornness. Reading widely and constantly. And when I get stuck, I go for a walk. It always seems to help.
Thanks to Mary for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.