Over the many years I’ve been writing and reading, I’ve been fascinated by other authors and their journeys, and I always want know why they decided to start writing, what keeps them going, what keeps them writing in the face of the inevitable difficulties of life. This month I am so pleased to welcome Mariah Fredericks, author of one my favorite historical novels of 2021, Death of a Showman. In fact, I love all of Mariah’s Jane Prescott novels, set in early 20th century New York, and the wonderfully human and relatable lady’s maid Jane Prescott. Death of a Showman was named one of Broadway Direct’s “Top Theatre Books to Read This Summer 2021”, and received an enthusiastic starred review from Publishers’ Weekly, which read in part, “Fredericks offers up a cast of original, human characters, each longing for something out of reach – the lover married to someone else, the star-making part. As the tale unfolds, Fredericks skillfully overturns all the reader’s assumptions about the story and where it’s going.” I couldn’t agree more.
Mariah was born and raised in New York City, where she still lives today with her family. She is a graduate of Vassar College with a BA in history. Besides her Jane Prescott Mysteries, she has written several novels for young adults; her novel Crunch Time was nominated for an Edgar in 2007. Check out her website here. But as wonderful as Mariah’s books are, her personal story is even more inspiring.
I Was Born With Pieces Missing
I was born with pieces missing. One piece in particular: the roof of my mouth. Where most people have a cathedral arch of hard palate, I just had a sad little rim. I had to be fed using a ducky nipple to control the fluid intake so I didn’t choke. When I was old enough, I had surgery to stretch the existing tissue into something that could serve as an upper palate. To this day, there is a small hole at the center, which gives my voice a slightly nasal quality.
After the operation there was speech therapy, so I could learn the mechanics of making a proper “T,”, a clear “S” or a sharp, crisp K. This entailed afternoons spent on a rug with Dr. Bleiberg, watching the position of his teeth and tongue, trying to match it so I would sound like him. (“She has a remarkably small mouth,” he told my mother.) Despite the good doctor’s efforts, I started school mush mouthed. But I didn’t know that; to my ear, I sounded fine.
To other kids, I sounded like I had something wrong with me. At that age, kids don’t find difference or disability particularly sympathetic. There was name calling, labels—words we no longer use in print. Tentative friendships that ended suddenly when the other kid realized our connection was not socially advantageous. I became one of those sensitive kids who cries easily. Teachers found me irritating; I can remember more than one gritting her teeth as she gently inquired, What was wrong now?
The message was pretty clear: if you can’t say something right, say nothing. This is not to say that no teacher was kind, no kid was brave—or similarly ostracized. But saying things out loud, expressing thoughts, making those simple connections that involve conversation—all that felt like way more trouble than it was worth. More than one report card said, “Mariah needs to speak up more in class.” No, no, she doesn’t was my view.
But perhaps because conversations weren’t happening in real life, dialogue was always flowing in my head. Dialogue needs characters to speak; I borrowed them from TV shows and movies. Then made up my own. When Sybil was in movie theaters—“The True Story of a Woman Possessed by Sixteen Separate Personalities”—I thought, Doesn’t everyone have 16 people running through their heads? I loved all the things social outcasts tend to: books, theater, television. In short, I loved stories.
When my father bought an electric typewriter, I inherited his Smith Corona, which I have to this day. In print, where my sloppy T’s and nasal tones weren’t an issue, I could make myself clear without anxiety. In 7th grade my teacher encouraged me to read a “satiric” piece I had written on Wuthering Heights. I don’t remember the piece at all; I do remember the feeling of my classmates enjoying it. Giving them the chance to laugh at something they hated—book reports—made them generous. I still recall a kid I had been deathly afraid of saying, “Good job.” And, miraculously, meaning it.
I started writing a column for the school newspaper. Every month, kids would come up to me in the halls or classrooms to tell me what they found particularly funny or true. Print became not only safe, it became a connector, an adventure, a way to take risks. I could tell my story and discover it was other people’s story as well.
It will surprise no one that as a friend, I was the listener, not the instigator of drama. All those years of speech therapy and silence taught me how to listen, pick up on speech patterns, to hear what’s not said. I write a mystery series about a lady’s maid in 1910s New York. I can easily trace the concept of a servant that no one notices, and so is able to see and hear what others miss back to my own sense of myself as a teenager. It is no accident that my detective introduced herself to the world with the line “I will tell it.” Which she followed with an apology, “I will tell it badly.” But that’s just an acknowledgement that all narratives have gaps and biases. Reviews and readers praise Jane Prescott’s voice. And it has been wonderfully liberating to let her speak for me—and see so many people enjoy what she has to say.
Mariah’s website address is https://www.mariahfredericksbooks.com
Buy Death of a Showman at: