For those of you who might not know her work, Mary Ward Brown was a short story writer from the Black Belt of Alabama who published her first collection at age 69, with a major New York publishing house, no less, and backed by a powerful agent who is known by those in the know by one simple name: Binky. Now, just because I can state her nickname doesn’t mean I’m one of those in the know-in fact, I know I’m not, but I did know Mary.
I first became aware of Mary’s work in the fall of 1986 when I’d just begun grad school at Wichita State. I went to a bookstore in the mall (this was before I knew about the great Watermark Books in downtown Wichita) and happened to see and buy a collection of stories called New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 1986. It was the first volume in the series (which went on for 25 years and then, sadly, came to its end), and I remember being very heartened because I knew I was writing stories set firmly in the South but did not know until the moment I saw the collection if anyone still cared about such stories (my knowledge of contemporary fiction was almost non-existent at the time). The fact that one of my teachers, James Lee Burke, was included in the collection with a story called “The Convict” was a plus. Then I discovered Mary’s story, “Tongues of Flame,” which I loved, and after reading her bio at the back of the book, I learned she was from the Black Belt, my neck of the woods, and I thought, Well, hell, no wonder I liked the story. But that wasn’t the only reason. I knew it was a finely written story.
That same fall I happened to read a People magazine article about Mary and was glad to see she was getting such great attention. I hadn’t yet bought her collection, also called Tongues of Flame, but I knew I soon would. Oddly enough, I ended up buying it, and almost meeting Mary, in a bookstore in downtown Montgomery, Capitol Book & News, where I would later work. Here’s what happened. That morning I had to catch a Trailways bus bound for Demopolis, but I had a little time to kill before the bus pulled out, so I walked to Capitol Book and saw a table set up with a large stack of Tongues of Flame on it. A small sign said “Meet the Author-2:00.” To say I was disappointed would be quite an understatement. I did buy the book, and the young woman at the cash register said, “You should come back and meet the writer.” I explained to her my circumstances, not knowing at the time that I was talking to Cheryl Upchurch, who would later hire me to work behind the counter where she now stood. I began reading as the bus traveled west through the rolling hills, pastures, and hardwoods in the dark heart of the Black Belt (for those of you who might not know, it’s called the Black Belt because of its rich, dark soil).
I finally got to meet Mary a mere ten years after that day in the bookstore. I can tell you the exact date: January 11, 1997. How do I know? Because that’s the date she wrote beneath her signature on my copy of Tongues of Flame. By this time my circumstances were much changed. I’d finished grad school, began publishing stories in literary journals, worked at Capitol Book, and after teaching as an instructor at Clemson University for four years, I’d returned to Montgomery, where I’d just meet my future wife, Rhonda.
I met Mary in her home in Hamburg (Alabama that is, not Germany), an old two-story farmhouse where she was born and lived most of her life-and shared with her husband until he died in 1970. Here’s how my meeting with Mary came about. I’d known an artist in Montgomery named Clark Walker for several years, and one afternoon he took me to Selma to see Jerry Siegel’s art gallery, which held works by such well-known Southern artist as Charles Shannon, John Lapsley, and Crawford Gillis, and Clark too, of course. Jerry was quite accommodating, and when Clark told him I was a writer, he said, “Would you like to meet Mary Ward Brown?” They were friends and Hamburg was not far from Selma.
So a few weeks later, the three of us pulled up in front of Mary’s white, board house, and when she meet us at the door, I saw a slimly built, well-dressed woman with her hair pulled back in a bun. I can’t remember her first words, but she was very well-mannered and spoke in a soft but somewhat halting voice that seemed to also hold a firmness that you took notice of but didn’t feel the need to dwell on. You just recognized strength within her. She was not unlike my grandmother, gentile but not likely to be overcome by “the vapors.” So maybe the words I heard her read later shouldn’t have surprised me, but they did.
Mary had fresh-made tea for us, and she’d prepared a few snacks, and I when I say prepared, I don’t mean she poured something out of a bag from the chips aisle at the grocery store; I mean something she’d cooked. We visited all afternoon and talked about the artists I named above, Crawford Gillis being a close friend of hers. And we talked writing and publishing too, and Mary asked if I’d send her something I’d written, which I later did. She led me around the ground floor and showed me shelf after shelf of books, and then she took me up the narrow staircase where I saw more rooms filled with bookcases and stacks of books on the floor. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen more books in a house. One room was nothing but short story collections, floor to ceiling.
We went back downstairs and continued visiting. Then it began to get dark outside, and I had a date with my new girlfriend that night, which I didn’t want to be late for. Mary had been talking about a story she was writing and having trouble with, and just before we were about to take our leave, she said, “Would y’all be willing to let me read my story to you and tell me what you think?” Now here was a small dilemma. I knew if she read her story, I’d be late for my date. But when Mary Ward Brown asks if she can read a new story of hers to you, well, maybe there’s no dilemma at all. You say yes, please.
She read a story called “A Meeting on the Road,” which I think is one of her best and bravest stories. It’s about race, and in the story there is a confrontation between an older white man and a younger Black man out on a county road. The white man, a lawyer, who is presented as complex and decent enough, utters a severe racial slur that surprises even him. At this point I remember being riveted by the story and by Mary’s voice. Then Mary read the Black character’s response, and that firmness in her voice came to the fore, and yes, I felt a sense of shock at what I heard this 80-year-old woman say (be prepared, gentle reader), “You got to apologize for that, motherfucker.” Not quite the word I was expecting, but it was the right word, spoken with the anger it needed, and all of us listening knew it. (And maybe, reader, none of us are so gentle that we can’t understand that.)
There was nothing wrong with Mary’s story. We had no critique to offer, only honest praise. It was later published in The Threepenny Review, and then it closed her collection It Wasn’t All Dancing. That collection made the rounds to a number of major presses, and finally one said they wanted to publish it, if she would remove “A Meeting on the Road.” Mary said a firm “No thank you.” Finally, the University of Alabama Press brought out the collection in 2002, with the story included. She signed a copy of the book for me at Capitol Book & News.
Mary published a final book, a memoir, Fanning the Spark, in 2009. Over the years, I visited any number of times. She was always so gracious, and I counted Mary as a friend. As fortune would have it, I was able to sign several of my books for her before she left us in 2013. That night, after she read, I was in the doghouse for being late for my date, but after some explaining, Rhonda forgave me. She understood that great stories can’t wait around for some other time.