Mary Monroe

Mary Monroe
The Upper Room

Interviewed by: Lauretta Pierce
August 25, 2002

1. Who is Mary Monroe?

Mary Monroe is the Oakland, California-based author of the novels "God Don't Like Ugly", "The Upper Room" and "Gonna Lay Down My Burdens."

2. What inspired you to write the novel "The Upper Room?"

I got the idea from an old Audrey Hepburn movie called The Unforgiven. It was about a white woman who wanted a daughter so desperately she stole a baby girl from some Indians--even though she hated Indians. In that movie, a lot of people got killed because that woman stopped at nothing to keep that baby. Many years later, the woman died trying to hold on to "her" daughter. That story haunted me for years.

3. How did you come about the title "The Upper Room?"

It was the name of a little Christian publication that my mother made me read on a regular basis when I was a child. I didn't like reading it that much but the mysterious title fascinated me so much I would dream about it. I promised myself that one day I would use it for one of my books.

4. How long have you been writing?

Yikes! I started telling stories to my playmates and pets even before I started school. I wrote my first short story when I was five. Throughout my teens I sold stories to the confession magazines. I was fortunate enough to have a brief relationship with Jame Baldwin before he died. He encouraged me to write novels. Toni Morrison also encouraged me to write novels.

5. How did you come about the plot for "The Upper Room?"

Once I had Mama Ruby kidnap Maureen, I had to play around with a lot of different plots to make the story interesting. A lot of the things that happened in the story happened to somebody I knew. I just took that information and ran with it.

6. How did you come about Mama Ruby's character?

I got the idea for the Mama Ruby character from observing the antics of my mother, one of my aunts and one of my cousins. All three were big-boned, beer-drinking women who controlled everybody around them--including the wealthy white people they worked for. These sisters were all in the church, but they didn't let that stop them from chastizing anybody that got in their way.

7. How did you come about the plot surrounding Mama Ruby and Othella?

We had a neighbor once who gave birth to nine kids that she neglected and abused. Her best friend could not have children and she wanted one so desperately she had already fixed up a nursery and purchased baby clothes. One night the childless woman broke into her friend's house and snatched the latest baby and fled to Chicago. I was sorry that the police caught the woman because she'd wanted that child more than the child's mother did. That child and her eight siblings all ended up in foster homes anyway. I use to try and imagine what the child's like would have been like if her abductor had raised her.

8. How did you come about Virgil character?

My brother Otis was the model for Virgil. He was a typical boy in most ways, but totally devoted to his mother--no matter what she did.

9. How did you come about the names for Mo'reen, Lo'retta and Lo'raine?

One of the few teachers who encouraged me to write was named Maureen O'Connor and I've always liked that name. Loretta and Lorraine are the names of the twin daughters of a close friend. They said they'd stop eating if I didn't use their names in one of my books.

10. Are there any of your personalities in any of your characters?

Everybody who knows me accused me of creating Maureen based on my own personality. They were right. Like Maureen, I fantasized about living in a beautiful city like San Francisco and I wanted to be independent. My mother had other children, but for some reason I was the only one she didn't want to leave home. She cried for a week when I moved to California anyway.

11. What type of atmosphere do you require to write?

I had to write most of The Upper Room on a hectic commute bus to and from my former day job and I lived in a noisy apartment building with my two screaming babies. I had bothersome relatives and boyfriends dropping by seven days a week and a typewriter that had a mind of its own, so writing in my apartment at night and on weekends was a nightmare. I finally have peace and quiet now. I sit for hours in my writing room at my computer in complete silence, in a bathrobe, surrounded by hundreds of books. It's like I am now on a different planet.

12. Will you tell us a little about your book "Gonna Lay Down My Burdens" that will be coming out in September?

It's about a young woman named Carmen Taylor in Alabama who spends her time trying to make everybody but herself happy. However, everything seems to backfire anyway. After she plays a prank on a friend that leaves him in a wheelchair for life, things really spins out of control for Carmen. She regrets agreeing to marry this man but even that falls apart when she gets involved in a homicide the night before her wedding. I also based that character on myself...

13. How many books have you written?

That's funny. I "written" more than a dozen novels. I've only published three so far.

14. What message would you like readers to receive from reader "The Upper Room?"

My late mother told me, "If you're gonna dig a hole, dig it deep. Sooner or later you're gonna fall in." You can't always have what you want and you can only control your situation for so long. Mama Ruby had to learn that the hard way.