Read an Interview with Mary McGarry Morris

"What some may label ‘dark stories’ are usually the stories of people all around us." —Mary McGarry Morris

mary mcgarry morris the silence

Even if you've never read a Mary McGarry Morris novel, there's a good chance you know her name. Her 1988 debut novel, Vanished, had been a finalist for the National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner Award Fiction. And in 1997, her novel Songs In Ordinary Time was chosen as an Oprah's Book Club selection, and was soon after adapted into a movie starring Sissy Spacek and Beau Bridges.

Now 81, Morris is still telling stories about characters “clinging to the peripheries of society” (The Washington Post). Her newest novel, The Silence, was published on March 12, 2024.

Below, read our interview with Mary McGarry Morris and learn more about her writing process, her determination to publish her first novel, and why she makes no apologies for her work.

1. Your first book, Vanished, was published when you were 45, and to great acclaim: it became a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. How long did it take you to write Vanished? Were you surprised at how successful it was?

My first novel Vanished had a long, long road to publication. It was turned down by every agent and publisher I submitted it to (27 – before I finally had to stop counting). Nevertheless, I had great faith in the work and persistence to match. 

Finally, an agent, Jean Naggar, recognized its power and quickly found the right editor, Kathryn Court of Viking.  Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times wrote an insightfully stellar review, which seemed reward enough after its years of rejection. 

But then only months after publication Vanished was nominated for the National Book Award. Soon after that came the nomination for the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award. I was stunned and elated. Vanished has not only found its rightful place in the canon but is taught in some school’s literature classes. My kind-hearted, illiterate character Aubrey Wallace has finally arrived. 

2. In 1988, the New York Times opened an article about you with this insight: “A quotation from Flaubert, so appropriate it seems eerie, is taped to the paperclip holder on Mary McGarry Morris's desk. 'Be regular and orderly in your life,’ it reads, 'so that you may be violent and original in your work.'” Do you still have that quote taped somewhere? And why do you find yourself drawn to writing such dark stories?

“Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” That advice from Gustave Flaubert is printed on the tattered strip of paper taped to my paper clip holder. It’s still on my desk and still speaks to me. 

I make no apology for my quiet life or for the tenor of my work. Both are who I am. I am as drawn to dark stories as I am to life’s inevitable folly, humor, and goodness. 

What some may label “dark stories” are usually the stories of people all around us. Ordinary people, the ones we love and fear, saints and sinners. It’s a matter of where the writer chooses to look - rather than choosing to look away from. And oftentimes it’s a character, a story the writer can no longer ignore. Or deny. 

3. On your website, you say that your book ideas always start with a character you can't stop thinking about. How did that process take shape for your newest book, The Silence?

The three compelling characters in The Silence have been with me for years – in my head and on page after page as I tried to capture their seemingly disparate lives. The Silence tells the story of two very different women and a well-liked parish priest whose scarred lives are forever linked by a childhood tragedy. Headstrong Ruth Corrigan is a reckless rule-breaker driven by demons she can no longer ignore. As her life spirals downward she must find strength in an unwavering search for Truth. But it is an unspeakable truth no one can face.

Lovely Maddie Pardeau Klein is a refined wife and attentive mother whose carefully structured life is suddenly threatened by the long-buried guilt of shameful secrets. Both women struggle under the same “burden of truth.” Their explosive interaction with Father Phillip Woodman will shock their families, friends and community.

4. What was it like to have Songs in Ordinary Time chosen for Oprah’s Book Club?

Every writer has that story, the book they’ve been writing all their life. Mine was Songs in Ordinary Time. I saw, thought, heard and wrote it as a symphony of voices, weaving in and out of a summer of ordinary lives. It’s a long book and one close to my heart. Readers who found it were generous in their affection for its story and characters. And I was grateful for that. A writer appreciates and never forgets the readers who “get it.” Especially the readers who write to say they felt they were reading their own stories. 

And then one day as I carried bags of groceries into the house and heard the phone ring I had to take my time getting there. To my amazement and disbelief the voice in my ear said her name was Oprah Winfrey. Not only had she chosen Songs for the summer reading selection of her Book Club, but she wanted to talk about the many different characters in the book and which ones were her favorites – and why.

Oprah’s imprimatur rocketed Songs onto the New York Times Best Seller List for many weeks. And made it an international Best Seller as well. Little changed in my life, other than the determination to continue following Gustav Flaubert’s simple advice taped to my paperclip holder. 

5. What’s the last book you read that you wanted to tell the world about?

One of my very favorite books is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I’ve read it countless times and her descriptions of Mrs. Ramsay’s and Lily Briscoe’s inner lives and reflections always speak to me. Her prose seems almost sacred in ways I’m awed by with every reading. 

Another often read book is Graham Greene’s A Burnt Out Case. A more recently read book is This Is Happiness by Niall Williams. It’s a spellbinding, beautiful story centered on the mythical Faha in County Clare, Ireland. It’s that rare, beautiful prose that sings off the page with the storyteller’s lilting magic. Absolutely unforgettable!