Traveling the Backroads with Mary Sojourner

Words flow through Mary Sojourner’s veins. I’m not exaggerating. Nothing else could explain the way her stories pulse off the page. You’ve probably heard that all you must do to be a writer is open a vein and bleed, right? Well, wrong. You’ve also got to clean up the mess. Not all writers, especially writers who enter their work heart first, have a mind capable of resurrecting the messy emotional outpouring. Mary has that kind of brilliant mind.

With Mary’s stories, the words flow through her veins, and into the veins of her characters—an infusion that pumps humanity right back into the reader. Her stories are earthy, and deceivingly simple because they are so accessible - like a vitamin injection, a tonic to the soul.

Over 15 years ago, I stood on the shoulder of a Wyoming highway with Mary Sojourner, overlooking rolling grasslands that edged up to the ponderosa slopes of the Bearlodge Mountains. I pointed east to Sundance Mountain, then west toward Devils’ Tower and the Missouri Buttes. 

I remember sensing a kindred spirit because Mary didn’t just love the land in a sentimental fashion, she wore the land. Dirt under her fingernails and on the sleeves of her flannel shirt. Mud on her boots. Maybe even creased into the lines of her face. Mary didn’t gaze at nature, she got down and dirty with nature.

Mary has lived nestled against evergreen forests, and under the hot sun of a southwest desert. She’s a true sojourner. In Mary’s most recent book, The Talker you will travel the back roads—meeting up with characters as original as the ones you might meet if you were hitching rides on America's byways.

The portal into each story may creak in the wind and have rusty hinges, but the doors swing wide open with little formality and all business. Let's get to it.

Here's how a few of these stories begin:

It all started with black olives, the bogus kind, the ones that look like patent leather and taste worse. (“Great Blue"). 

First my dad died. Then Mom found out he’d borrowed from the life insurance right down to the dust on the last nickel. (“Kashmir”) The dust on the last nickel? I would kill to steal that line.

How about this one? My aunt calls from Burns. “Jinella, I got some sad news. Your cousin Kyrin laid himself down on the railroad tracks up near Pasco and got hit.”

And the title story, "The Talker" - this opening takes you right inside the woman who crafted these stories, and who knows every curve and bend of those back roads.

To imagine how it was where we lived that Northern Arizona autumn, you might burn a little juniper, breathe in the gray-green smoke and picture ten ramshackle cabins gathered in a crescent, as though the young moon has fallen to earth and grown shelter in its light.

Explorer Craig Childs (author of The Secret Knowledge of Water, The Animal Dialogues, and several other of my favorite books) calls Mary “a weaver of the heart.” 

Mary's latest stories, cut from the same richly textured cloth, are woven into a tapestry that rings with truth and heart. When you read them, don’t be surprised if your fingers leave smudges as you turn the pages – you’re bound to come away with a little dirt under your nails. 

Backstory: I first met Mary Sojourner when she was invited to our small town by the local writers' group, Bearlodge Writers. Her residency complete, she was on her way home. I think her short story collection, Bonelight: Ruin and Grace in the New Southwest, had just been published by the University of Nevada Press, and she was working on her memoir Solace: Rituals of Loss & Desire, which would be released by Scribner the following year. Read more about her books here.


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