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Mary O'Connell Profile

Mary O'Connell

The Sharp Time, Book Cover

Living With Saints, Book Cover






  Mary O'Connell  grew up in Leawood, Kansas, graduated from the University of Kansas, and received her MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She is the author of the short story collection Living With Saints, which was translated to French, German and Dutch, and the YA novel The Sharp Time. Her first adult novel is forthcoming from Amy Einhorn/Putnam. She is the recipient of a Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award and a James Michener Fellowship, and her short stories and essays have been published in several literary magazines.  Mary lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with her family.

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Writing Samples  
  ---From The Sharp Time

     A low-riding green Buick rolls down the street, the circular slop-slop-slop of tires cutting through slush, a snippet of buzzy AM radio filtering out: Monday, Monday, can’t trust that day.


      The air has that iced mineral smell that comes right before the new snow falls. I look across the street at the Pale Circus. The awning is striped, a wash of coral and cream, the letters pastel and swollen. In the window, a headless mannequin wears a purple-red taffeta ball gown—I believe the color would be mulberry, perhaps raspberry—cut to a low V in the front and bolstered by so many crinolines it looks like she might levitate: One hand is already raised and fanning out. Good-bye! So Long! The carmine-red flats on her highly arched feet give me the rainbow-confetti feeling of a happy ending. But when I look at the liquor store on the corner, that sweetness vanishes.

      The liquor store was once a health food store, The Sunshine Co-op, where my mother bought the natural peanut butter that all children despise for its grotesque texture of ground bones. But she also bought plenty of nice things: dusty raspberries and green beans, dark chocolate pastilles, pear-peach smoothies. The earnest hippie dude who ran the store had painted a mural on the side of the building, so that all who turned left on Thirty-Eighth Street would be greeted by a somber Cesar Chavez holding out a fistful of purple grapes. Painted over his head were the words WE’RE SOWING THE SEED OF CHANGE which I suppose is true of both a health food store and a liquor store. But then the organic superstores opened up in the suburbs, and people stopped driving downtown for organic milk and hemp lip balm, and that was that for the Sunshine Co-op. Except nothing ever snaps shut so neatly, there is no spick-and-span denouement, there is forever the image of my mother weighing root vegetables, standing on tiptoe in her espadrilles, peering at the scale’s needle, then turning and giving me a brightly exaggerated smile, if to say to say, Rutabagas and parsnips and daikon! Oh my!

      I think of my mother and I can’t believe this morning, this year, this life. I close my eyes and a wild paisley pattern flits along the back of my eyelids: purple, valentine pink and navy blue figures: oblong, sperm-shaped, kidney shaped. When I take a sharp breath in, the sore spot on my rib vibrates up to the back of my throat.

     I heave myself off the bench and make my way down Thirty-Eighth Street, practicing for my upcoming job interview with Mr. Pale Circus. I make carefree hand gestures and mouth witty asides to the arctic Kansas City morning, trying to perfect my confident Girl Friday vibe. Perhaps my aggressive cheerfulness is alarming, because when I walk back into the shop with my insane grin and head held high, swinging my hair like a prancing Connemara pony on crack, Mr. Pale Circus looks at me and blanches: his shoulders shoot up, his mouth forms a fat, appalled oval. But when I hand him my colored pencils and Big Chief tablet, he smiles.

     “You came back.”

      His voice is authentic and unflourished: Nice.

      He looks at my job application and smiles. “Miss Sandinista Jones. I would have hired you for your name alone,” he says tenderly, “even if you were a serial killer or a chronic shoplifter.”

      But then he gathers himself. “Welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth,” he says, doffing an imaginary top hat.

       He hands me a Pale Circus business card


      He tells me to come to the Pale Circus tomorrow morning at ten o’clock. He shakes my hand. When I walk out the door, the string of silver bells trembles along the safety glass.

       And then I’m back in the world, squinting up at the monastery and touching the middle of my hand again, the soft, meaty bulls-eye of Christ’s agony.

       Across the street, a monk walks by in his brown robe, his hood up, so that in profile he looks like the Grim Reaper. I wonder if he is happy, if his life is all peaches and rainbows and pretty pretty God love; I wonder if he sleeps with frankincense, gold and myrrh dancing in his head. Or does he celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany by praying all night, only ceasing when the sky finally gives up the violets of dawn?

       When he looks over at me he doesn’t smile, but he does wave. He lifts his hand and his sleeve falls to his elbow, revealing his bony wrist, his pale forearm. And it seems that this is the very moment when the snow starts, fat soft flakes that fall slowly and silver: Fairytale stardust.

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The Sharp Time
Kirkus Review (Starred Review)

Palpable grief plus irreverent humor equal one extraordinary debut novel.

After algebra teacher Mrs. Bennett inappropriately chides ADD-suffering Sandinista Jones (named for the seminal Clash album) for not paying attention in class, the 18-year-old, whose single mother has recently died, gives up on school and life. The situation reminds Sandinista of all the times she failed to stand up for a mentally challenged student during Mrs. Bennett’s endless taunting. To fill her days, the teen quickly finds a job at the Pale Circus, a vintage clothing store, a companion in heartache with co-worker and “druggie Robin Hood” Bradley and in possession of a handgun. Her resonant, thought-provoking first-person narration reveals her mounting helplessness, tension and guilt as on each passing day the school fails to call her (who’s not paying attention now?) and makes readers gulp in anticipation as she plots revenge against Mrs. Bennett. It takes a village, or at least a street full of eclectic shop workers in her rundown Kansas City neighborhood, to raise Sandinista out of despair. From her newfound community, comprised of the HIV-positive Pale Circus owner, Erika of Erika’s Erotic Confections, a sympathetic pawn-shop owner and friendly Trappist monks, she finds faith, the will to go on in and unexpected beauty in an often cruel world.
Sharp storytelling indeed.


Living With Saints 
Mark Rozzo, The Los Angeles Times

Mary O’Connell’s wonderfully inventive story collection does no less then retell the lives of the saints (women saints, in particular) and, miraculously, it does so without a hint of incense or guilt. Living with Saints is an extended hagiography of the everyday, written with quiet brio and acid humor, where the sacred and secular blur gloriously into each other…Smart, devout and blasphemous, Living with Saints reminds us that we are ‘entertaining the angels, unawares.’

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