I had the privilege of meeting and working with Mary Winn Heider at a Highlights Foundation workshop this spring. Mary Winn’s debut MG novel, The Mortification of Fovea Munson was released last month. This delightful story features talking heads in a cadaver lab, a Grandma who will leave you in stitches, losing friends and making new ones. Mary Winn took time from her busy book tour to offer insight into her writing and her work with the Barrel of Monkeys theater program in Chicago.
The setting of The Mortification of Fovea Munson is a cadaver lab. I know you worked briefly at a medical university lab. Can you tell us about that experience and how it played into your story? Did you meet any talking heads? ?
Ha! I didn’t meet any talking heads, thankfully! I did meet the non-talking kind, despite the fact that my job was ostensibly just to be the receptionist. My responsibilities (like Fovea’s) definitely became a little more involved during my time there!
The lab itself was both very inspiring and very weird, which is sort of a sweet spot for me. On one hand, the stakes were super high: every day that I went to work, I found myself considering my own mortality. And my grandparents donated their bodies to science, so it felt somehow extra personal. On the other hand, the whole thing was really absurd—I was making signs to remind people not to wear flip-flops while they practiced surgeries. I was ordering body parts online. Minor spoiler: in the book, Fovea accidentally orders 600 legs. I totally did that. So there I was, at this intersection of super high stakes and total absurdity—and it felt so perfectly like my experience of middle school. Deadly serious. Completely bananas. Totally right.
And then aside from the ordering…er…snafu, I drew on the details of the real lab a lot, especially the day-to-day logistics. We’d order the parts, keep them frozen until they were needed, and plan ahead so they could thaw for however long they needed to thaw. There was a bit of a scandal with one of our suppliers at one point, and watching that play out helped me think through the ramifications of the (very different) trouble in the fictional lab.
I loved all the humor throughout especially the anatomical references, and the Grandma, oh my goodness, what a hoot! Tell us a little bit about your inspiration for the humor in your characters.
Well, broadly speaking, I wanted to have the most fun possible in this world that was (in theory, anyway) all about death and dying. Also, I’ll admit that once you start with the anatomy puns, it’s like you actually can’t stop—I don’t understand what force of nature that is, but it’s so real. So real.
Fovea initially struggles with her parents’ occupations, and yet, the plot involves Fovea trying to save them from ruin. I think it’s a perfect reflection of that awkward time in child/parent relationships. One minute a child doesn’t want anything to do with you, and the next they are defending you as a parent. You credit your parents as “being the coolest” in the acknowledgements. Did you ever experience the tug and pull in your relationship with yours?
For sure—I think maybe it’s impossible to avoid completely? And that that’s a really good thing. We test the waters of independence and maybe they’re a little intense or not intense enough, and then there are all sorts of feelings on both sides. But inch by inch, we grow up that way. My parents and I were lucky and didn’t have a lot of straight-up conflict—more like the occasional growing pains.
Fovea’s friendships are at the core of the story. Did you have an Em or Howe in your life?
The summer before sixth grade, I had a friendship that ended before I was ready. Every part of it was more nuanced (and less gross!)—but at heart, I’d say it was the same dance. I lost a friendship, found myself and found other friendships. Just…sans heads.
Your imagination is incredible! I found myself marveling at the solutions you provided for Fovea for the many challenges she came up against in helping Andy, Lake and McMullen. Especially the scene in making their way to the recording studio, which brought forth one of my fondest stories from my childhood. Care to offer any insights as to where you came up with such creative scenes?
Oh, I love that the trip to the studio managed to do that! That makes me so happy!
One of the things that I really dig about writing for this age is the constant negotiation between what middle schoolers can do on their own and what they can’t. So in some ways, it’s just about necessity being the mother of invention: in that scene, Fovea can’t drive, but she’s got to cover some serious ground to the studio.
And actually, early on, there was a very complicated subplot about getting to the studio (involving a kid with seven stepmothers who each had their own food truck—I’m rolling my eyes at myself even as I type this). A writer friend graciously clued me in that it was super distracting. So I cut the whole thing, and in the process, discovered Grandma Van, who adds so much more to the story. So I find when I try to be outrageous, I get in my own way. When I’m just problem-solving within some slightly oddly-shaped given circumstances, the internal logic of the story guides me. So I think I’m saying that I have nothing to do with it? That’s probably right.
I know you are a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults. Did Fovea’s story originate while you were pursuing your master’s degree?
It did! I got the cadaver lab job toward the end of grad school. Then I realized I should be writing about the lab just in time for my last workshop at VCFA, so they got the first twenty pages. They were fantastic, and asked me all the questions I needed at that early generative stage.
I’d love to hear a bit about your writing process. Do you write every day? Where? Home? Coffee Shop? Cadaver lab? Theater?
All of the above! I try to write every day, although I don’t really succeed. But I’m generally doing the artist hustle, so I write wherever I can, which has definitely included at home, in coffee shops, at the cadaver lab, and backstage in theaters all over Chicago. Sometimes even in costume between shows. I have a harder time writing when I’m memorizing lines—my brain isn’t great at learning other people’s words and building my own sentences at the same time, but once a show is up and running, it gets a little easier.
Please tell us about your experiences with the Barrel of Monkeys theater program!
Yay! Barrel of Monkeys is the best. It’s a Chicago-based theater company. We go into Chicago Public Schools, teach six-week writing residencies, and then adapt what the kids have written and perform it for them in their own schools. The program gives the kids space to be expressive right at a time when they’re getting slammed hardest with state testing. And then we reflect back to them what creative rock stars they are by treating their work the way we’d treat professional writers’ work.
I’ve been in the company for about ten years—it’s made up of professional actors and educators all over the city. And the kids are endlessly inventive and inspiring. A month ago, I was in a show and got to play a reckless, heart-broken volcano, a metal-singing devotee of a potato chip god, a monster drawing come to life, and, as part of a reinterpretation of A Wrinkle in Time, played Mrs. Mild Sauce alongside Mrs. Ketchup and Mrs. Honey Mustard. The kids are where it’s at.
Finally, I know you’ve been involved in some interesting work situations in addition to your work at a cadaver lab. Are any of these roles playing a part in your next work?
I’ve had a pretty strange run of jobs, but at the moment, no! Well— none of my work as an adult, anyway—I’m currently drawing on my very influential time as second chair French horn at Hand Middle School.
Thank you so much for your time!