Q&A by Sandra Dutton
Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth
1. Did you have the whole story in your head before you began writing Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth?
Quite the opposite. I never write from an outline, just fragments of ideas I hope to explore. In this case, I had an image of a mother and daughter racing along in a car distributing “Jesus Saves” stickers. I was hoping to use a puppet show. I didn’t know where, but I love puppet shows and was hoping to work one in. I looked at medieval mystery plays as sort of a model for dialogue. They’re on the raucous side, meant to entertain, and of course the subject of my puppet plays was Genesis. The fossils I didn’t discover until later. I had Mary Mae digging up a mastodon—which had actually been found a few blocks from my grade school in 1966—but I quickly decided smaller fossils were more interesting for my story. I didn’t know much about the Cincinnati Arch until I started this, either. I’m never sure where I’m going, which is the way I like to write.
2. This book takes place in DeSailles, Ohio. Where is DeSailles?
It’s a fictional town in southwestern Ohio, based on my hometown of Norwood, a city of 25,000 surrrounded by Cincinnati. The remarkable part of the area is its deep history—it rests on the Cincinnati Arch—a wide strata of Ordovician rock that was pushed up by geological forces. Ordovician rock is very old and usually buried, so what you have when this is exposed are ancient fossils—trilobites, for example, 450 million years old, which Mary Mae is digging up. These are pre-dinosaur—can you imagine that? The rocks that would hold the dinosaur bones have been worn away so what you have is something earlier.
3. Did you hunt for fossils as a kid?
I was always aware of the seashells in the stones in our yards—you know, the rocks people use for stepping stones or a retaining wall or a fish pond. I remember seeing all that sealife and knowing that our area was once buried by sea water. But I was not aware these shells could be cut out with a chisel. We did not study fossils in school, even though they were all around us. Earth science and evolution were “off limits” in science classes until the late sixties when textbook publishers began putting these subjects back in the science books. But I missed all that, going to school in the 50s & 60s. Science for us consisted of plant and animal study, memorizing the bones of the body, and looking at weather patterns.
4. Are the characters based on people you know?
Miss Sizemore is similar to a fifth grade teacher I had, Miss Behrman. She took us up to the highest point of our town, up by the water towers , and showed us where the Ohio River used to flow, before the glacier pushed it south. This was all on the spur of the moment. It gave me goosebumps, just the idea of reaching back into time and understanding how it was. She knew quite a bit about the history of the area, about corduroy roads and Indian paths and passed it on incidentally—not as part of our school lessons but as conversation. I loved that sort of thing. So yes, Miss Sizemore is based on Miss Behrman though we did not do any fossil digging in her class. The other characters are made up, though I once heard a talk by a minister with no arms. He visited our youth group and showed how he did various things, such as eating a doughnut off his big toe.
5. Have you ever attended a church like the one in the story?
I grew up attending a Presbyterian church where my father was Sunday School superintendent and my mother taught the junior highs. They were also members of the church session. But I often visited other churches. For a time I went to a Baptist church with a friend and we rode the church bus together. Several years ago I saw a sign for a revival on a storefront church in my hometown and attended that service. Everyone, including the minister, had incredible voices, and they sang old gospel songs accompanied by electric guitar. I think that’s where I got the idea for the Remnant Church of God.
6. What is the significance of the quote from James Still’s Sporty Creek at the beginning of the book: “I’ve heard they teach the earth is round,” Saul said, “and such a claim goes against scripture.”
It illustrates a fear of science, which is a theme throughout Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth. Mama, Shirley Whirly, and the Sunday School teacher, Brother Lucas, all have faith so shaky that if they hear something that contradicts scripture, their belief system is in danger of falling apart. Like Saul in the James Still story, they are completely dependent on a literal interpretation of scripture. They want to believe Genesis is fact. But the Bible was written thousands of years ago by people who were trying to make sense of their world, who did not have access to the information we have today. We now know that the universe was created not in six days but in billions of years, so our creation story needs to be modified. We can still appreciate the poetry of Genesis and its illustration of power and love. But Genesis is not a science lesson. Mary Mae realizes this.
7. Do you believe stories are important?
Yes. I think we pick up behaviors from people in stories. I consider Mary Mae a good role model. She’s uncomfortable with something she’s been told and wants to know more. Yet her parents and the people at her church don’t want her asking questions. I’m happy she’s a brave kid who rocks the boat. I want kids to see that even when everyone thinks they’re wrong—and Mary Mae doesn’t seem to have anyone in her corner at home and in church except Granny—that it’s okay to voice your objections and be true to yourself, to listen to that little voice that says, “Hey, wait a minute. How can this be true?” or “What do I really believe?”
8.What is the most important idea or thought you would like readers to have after reading your book?
That a fascination with science and our beginnings need not preclude belief in a higher power—God, the Universe, whatever you prefer to call it. Fundamentalists on either side (both religion and science) tell children they must make a choice. But Mary Mae puts them both together. Seeing a litte crab swimming around in a restaurant tank, she says, “I know just by watching that crab that my trilobite was alive, whether Mama thinks so or not. I know the Lord loved that trilobite as much as he loves this crab.” And when she hears Miss Sizemore’s description of the Big Bang, she says, “Sounds like Creation to me.” That’s what I would like readers to remember.