Before Mary Kay Andrews became a New York Times bestselling author of 28 books, she was Kathy Hogan Trocheck, a features writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Andrews got her start at the Savannah Morning News and spent eight years at the AJC, writing general features from 1983 to 1991.
A love letter to the newspaper industry, Andrews’ latest book, “Hello, Summer,” debuted at No. 9 on the New York Times bestseller list last week. Set in a small-town newspaper in the Florida Panhandle, it opens with a scene that has played out countless times in the newsroom. It is AJC reporter Conley Hawkins’ going away party, complete with “stale sheet cake, lukewarm champagne, and tepid farewells.” As someone who has witnessed my fair share of those afternoon soirees, I can confirm that Andrews nails it cold.
Asked about her own going away shindig, Andrews cackled at the memory. Her editor gave her an assignment and told her to complete it before the early afternoon party, she said.
“I had too much pride in my work to say (expletive) you, I’m out,” Andrews said. “But I am Irish, so I can hold a (expletive) grudge.”
When speaking with Andrews, one quickly learns that she peppers her conversation with lots of infectious laughter and salty language unfit for a family newspaper.
In “Hello, Summer,” Conley Hawkins is leaving the AJC to start a new job in Washington, D.C., but her going away party is still in full swing when she learns her new media outlet has been shut down. With nowhere else to go, Conley returns home to Silver Bay, Florida, a fictitious town on the Gulf Coast. There she works for her family’s small, struggling newspaper, where she uncovers a mystery behind the death of a local Congressman.
Andrews draws liberally from her experience at the AJC to breathe life into this fun, breezy page turner.
One of the most memorable characters is Rowena Meigs, a dotty, old-school society columnist who is way past retirement age. Andrews based her on the Atlanta Constitution’s longtime society writer, the late Yolande Gwin.
“She was a legend and an icon,” said Andrews. “Yolie covered the ‘Gone with the Wind’ premiere party. She couldn’t spell. She never got anything right.”
According to Andrews, when Gwin was in her 70s, an editor fired her in a pique of anger. Legend has it, she was reinstated after her wealthy friends called the owner of Rich’s department store and threatened to cancel their credit cards if he didn’t convince the publisher to rehire Gwin. You can be sure that story surfaces in “Hello, Summer.”
Other literary nods to the author’s AJC roots include the character of Lillian King, who is drawn directly from the paper’s longtime features receptionist, and the intrepid young reporter Michael Torpy, who is named in honor of AJC columnist Bill Torpy’s son, who died from cancer in 2019.
“I know Bill only slightly, but I was so touched by stories about him losing his son,” said Andrews, who obtained permission from the family to use the name. “He became more of a prominent character than I had planned.”
Andrews wrote her first book “in secret” while she still worked at the AJC. She couldn’t find any takers for it, so she went to a writers’ workshop at Antioch College and studied with novelist Sue Grafton. She wrote a second novel and shared the first five chapters with AJC columnist Celestine Sibley, a friend and mentor, who sent them to her editor at Harper Collins. He requested a meeting with Andrews, who convinced the paper to send her to New York City to write a story on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. While there, she met with the editor and landed a publishing deal. Her debut novel, “Every Crooked Nanny,” came out in 1992.
Except for a little freelance writing that first year or so, that was the end of Andrews’ journalism career. But like most people who bleed ink when they’re cut, she missed it.
“I missed the immediacy,” she said. “I missed the adrenaline rush of a breaking story. I missed feeling like you’re on the front row of watching history made. I missed going to the Kimball House and having a three-Bloody-Mary lunch and stumbling back to the office. I don’t miss the stupid, endless meetings. I don’t miss the politics.”
Under normal circumstances, Andrews would be touring the country right now, promoting her book, but because of COVID-19, she canceled her 20-city book tour.
“I’m disappointed that the tour didn’t work out the way we had planned,” she said. “I miss the face-to-face interaction with readers and the bookstore folks. I’ve been going to some of the same bookstores for 25, 26 years. But we’re healthy. The book got out. I don’t really have any legit complaints in the face of everything else and what other people are going through.”
In lieu of a tour, Andrews is promoting her book on Friends and Fiction, a 30-minute Zoom to Facebook Live event every Wednesday at 7 p.m. on her Facebook page. There she and fellow authors Kristy Woodson Harvey, Kristin Harmel, Patti Callahan Henry and Mary Alice Monroe talk about books and take questions from readers.
Meanwhile, Andrews and her husband, who live in Avondale Estates, are spending time at their beach house on Tybee Island.
“Normally, we don’t get to come down to the beach this time of year because the house is rented,” she said.
Asked what’s the first thing she’ll do when she breaks quarantine, Andrews spoke for many of us when she said, “Oh God, I’m going to get a manicure (and) pedicure. I am so raggedly. And, of course, cut and color.”
Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. email@example.com
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