Mary Kay Andrews spoofs the secrets and lies of suburbiaMary Kay Andrews lived the research for Little Bitty Lies, her delicious new comic novel about divorce. The newspaper reporter-turned-novelist spent the last 20 years in a close-knit Atlanta suburb very much like the fictional Fair Oaks of her book. And lately like most of us she has seen several seemingly secure marriages fall apart.
Sitting on a glider outside her restored Atlanta bungalow during a recent telephone interview, Andrews describes how she got the idea for the book she first called Split City.
One Fourth of July she was hosting a potluck get-together before the fireworks, when a neighbor came over with a sad little covered dish and without his wife. "She's announced she doesn't love me any more, and she's involved with someone else," he told Andrews.
"Now eventually they coped and did fine, but I was just so floored by this," Andrews recalls, "that the next day when I was returning the dish, I backed into a telephone pole." Their problem had become her problem and would stay with her until she used it as a starter for her latest book.
In Little Bitty Lies, protagonist Mary Bliss McGowan marvels at how many people around her are getting divorced. Then her husband Parker empties all their bank accounts and disappears, leaving her with a mortgage, a crotchety mother-in-law and a cute teenage daughter whose private school tuition is due. Desperate, and egged on by her daring buddy Kate, Mary Bliss fakes Parker's drowning death in Cozumel to collect his life insurance. She would have opted for murder if she hadn't feared being raped by girl gangs in prison. ("That's the only thing that keeps civilized people in line," Andrews half-jokes. "Fear of retribution.") Mary Bliss survives it all betrayal, poverty, fixing 100 pounds of chicken salad and ends up richer for her experiences.
The book jacket suggests Little Bitty Lies is the author's second novel after Savannah Blues, a mystery involving an antique picker named Weezy but in fact it's her 12th. Under her real name, Kathy Hogan Trocheck, Andrews wrote eight mysteries starring amateur sleuth Callahan Garrity and two mysteries featuring retired Florida reporter Truman Kicklighter.
It was not until 2002 that she published a book under the pen name Mary Kay Andrews (after her daughter, Mary Kathleen 21, and son, Andy, 16). As Andrews, she enjoyed a blank slate. "Mystery fans are so brand conscious," she says with a sigh. "When I wrote the first Truman book, my Callahan fans got angry with me because they thought I was basically abandoning Callahan. This [writing under a new name] was a big gamble. It worked amazingly well. Savannah Blues outsold any Callahan." If Andrews sounds proud of herself, she is, but she still sees herself as an ordinary suburban wife and mother. "I don't think I'm really unlike a lot of women of my time. I drive carpool, bake cakes, but I write about death and divorce and infidelity." Ever hospitable, she had hosted a riotous chick sleepover for her book club and friends the night before our interview. "We concluded that no group of men would ever come together like this if there wasn't a sport or beer involved."Andrews herself once rode shotgun in a car driven by a female friend who followed her wandering, unsuspecting husband to his girlfriend's house. "I was more like the buddy than the heroine," Andrews said, laughing, "the unindicted co-conspirator."Rather than weigh readers down with the domestic trouble she's witnessed, the 48-year-old reformed journalist exploits the comedic aspects of the situation in Little Bitty Lies. Her eye for social satire and ear for colorful speech turn every novel into an entertainment. Andrews started writing fiction in the 1980s, after spending 14 years as a newspaper reporter and ending up at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution covering the Savannah trial at the heart of John Berendt's mega-bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. She never expected to be anything but a reporter.
"Newspapers changed in the '80s," Andrews says. A new emphasis on shorter stories that fit the USA Today format left her cold. She likes a long story in which a reporter can examine why things happen.
With fiction, she is free to make up the why. Andrews has always loved fiction, from the time she was a child in St. Petersburg, Florida, and her mother read to her. (Her mother ran a restaurant in a residential hotel similar to Truman Kicklighter's.)"My mother had five kids in six years," she says, matter-of-factly. "One day she turned to my older sister and said, here, you read to her. I've got to change these diapers. So, my older sister got tired of reading to me and said sit up, I'll show you how to read. So I was reading before I got to first grade, and never stopped."Buying books was too expensive, but their mother took them faithfully to the Bookmobile. "We all five trooped in. I'm sure the tires went up when we filed out." Andrews remembers the books she checked out: Nancy Drew, Victoria Holt, Mary Stuart and on, in a Gothic vein.
Today the office where she works a little hut left over from the Atlanta Olympics which her husband fixed up for her has the magnifying glass from the Nancy Drew series as the light to her door.
"I'm living my dream," says Andrews, who has a luscious long-term goal for her fiction: "I want to write a big, juicy overripe peach of a book, and I want my readers to like it and to feel the juice running down their chin and want more, more, more."This summer Andrews is writing another Southern novel, Hissy Fit, in which interior designer Keeley Murdock catches her fiancÅ½ cavorting with her maid of honor. Eventually, Andrews hopes to return to Weezie for another book. As to Mary Bliss, who knows? "I do hope she'll tell me another story," Andrews says. Anne Morris is a writer in Austin, Texas.