Career Q&A: Mary Volkman ’92, English, Writer

Every so often, we’ll chat with an alum about what they do and how they go there. Today we’re talking with novelist Mary Volkman – whose pen name is Margo Christie – about writing and living a colorful life. Volkman’s debut novel These Days won second prize in Amazon’s 2012 Breakthrough Novel Award contest.

Name: Mary Volkman, aka Margo Christie
Grad Year and Major: 1992, English
Job Title: Writer
Employer: Self-employed
Your Website: www.margochristienovelist.com

Mary VolkmanQ: Tell us a little about how you wound up at UMBC. What’s your background?

A: You could call me a hard-luck story. A refugee from a broken home, I dropped out of high school at age 16. But you could also call me persistent. I’ve always been creative, so upon quitting high school I immediately enrolled in classes at Catonsville Community College [now known as the Community College of Baltimore County, or CCBC], first in the fine arts and theater programs, then in general studies. From there, the transition to UMBC was a natural one. While at CCC I discovered I wanted to write, so I inquired into UMBC’s English program. As someone who was footing the bill for college, UMBC was a good choice. The curriculum was a good fit and it was affordable. The staff consistently guided me toward available grants, and the rest I was able to afford myself.

Q: How did you wind up writing novels? What inspires you, and what do you ultimately hope to see come from it? Tell us about your recent successes.

A: I’ve been creative all my life. In my teens I painted. In my twenties I made jewelry and studied theater. In my thirties I made stained glass and wrote stories. I’ve lived a hard and colorful life, so I always knew there was a novel in me. I think it was my contemporary interest in real-life stories, especially those with some “grit” to them, which got me going. My book, These Days, is about a starstruck teenage stripteaser who’s enamored with the good old days of burlesque and makes the best of her circumstances by reviving them. Though it’s fiction, it’s closely related to my own experience stripping on Baltimore’s “Block” in the late 70s. Like I said, I’m a refugee from a broken home. I come by “grit” legitimately!

My writing, from my short stories to These Days, focuses on “creative-but-fallen characters who long for redemption.” I believe all human experience is worthy of consideration. In writing about stigmatized people like strippers, my hope is that readers who’ve experienced any sort of societal marginalization will come away from my work with a sense of fellow feeling, with a sense of “I’m worthy of consideration, after all.”

I promote These Days through burlesque performances. Recently, I did a reading/performance with a stand-up comedy show in Denver. It was frightening! Comedy audiences can be brutal, and I always had in mind that my work would make people cry or commiserate, not laugh. Yet I managed to make them laugh! And I got my message – that of celebrating the beauty of all humanity – across without alienating anyone. I believe the open-minded environment of a higher-education institution like UMBC helped in this regard.

As These Days is set in Baltimore, I’ve had some success in reaching out to the Baltimore literary community for help in promoting it. I have a reading scheduled on Saturday, October 19, as well as an interview with Aaron Henkin of Baltimore Public Radio WYPR’s “The Signal” program. Details about both of these events can be obtained via my website. Additionally, I received a call from the owner of The Ivy Bookshop, expressing interest in carrying These Days in their store. Interest in my book has really picked up as a result of reaching out to people.

Q: Is there a particular class or professor who really inspired you at UMBC?

A: Tom Nugent, who I had for Creative Writing. He was witty and fun but no-nonsense when it came to teaching the craft of writing. I was writing life-inspired stuff even then, and he helped me eliminate flowery “over-writing” and get down to the nitty-gritty. He was what I’d describe as an “immersion” writer in that he immersed himself in whatever environment he wanted to write about. I read that, while working for The Baltimore Sun, he lived for a week at the crumbling, flea-bag Congress Hotel in order to write about the marginalized, lonely folks who called it home. He came to UMBC with a wealth of experience. We were very fortunate to have him around.

Q: What is your favorite UMBC memory?

A: Wow! There are many. I loved hanging around the cafeteria exchanging ideas with fellow students. As a writer, I’m a student of life. I loved hearing people’s stories, especially the ones that differed markedly from mine. I gravitated toward foreign-born and gay students, as well as creative, counter-cultured ones like myself. The more exotic their stories, the better I liked being around them! Like I said, UMBC was a very open-minded place.

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