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College of Liberal Arts
University of Mississippi

Alumni Spotlight: Mary B. Sellers

Mary B. Sellers

Alumna Mary B. Sellers (BA English 13)

These days, I’m working on a novel, teaching, and getting ready to apply to PhD Creative Writing programs. Without the absolutely fantastic English department (and its professors) at Ole Miss, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I have in the past decade. I owe so much of who I am and what I’m doing to the five formative years I spent at Ole Miss. It’s an honor to share my story with and encourage current undergraduates who too feel the liberal arts/English major siren song.

A little about me:

I have my Masters of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University (2018) and a B.A. in English from the University of Mississippi (2013). I currently work at St. Andrew’s in Jackson, Mississippi, and as a remote creative writing instructor with IvyZen. Previously, I have held teaching positions at Brightmont Academy and Pacifica Writer’s Workshop in Seattle, and taught two years of undergraduate English composition and creative writing courses at Louisiana State University.

I recently served as the editor in chief of The Daphne Review, an international, online literary magazine for talented teen writers and visual artists. I was in charge of single-handedly reviewing hundreds of fiction, poetry, digital art, and nonfiction submissions through March 2020-July 2020.

I have a decade of editorial and publishing experience—in both digital and print mediums—and five years of social media management/online content curation experience. With a strong background in copyediting, proofreading, and online book publishing, my training in the publishing and media fields is comprehensive, thorough, and diverse. I acquired invaluable social media management experience, curated content, and managed creative collaborations during my time as Associate Publisher at the indie book publisher, Blooming Twig Books, where I worked before returning to school for my M.F.A. Other online content creation and digital storytelling positions I’ve held include: working under Emily Nemens at The Southern Review as a first-year graduate editorial assistant; my year long stint as the Social Media Editor for New Delta Review Literary Journal; an online editorial assistant for Deep South Magazine, a summer editorial internship at Folio Literary Agency in New York City, and various freelance clients I’ve worked for.

Besides my previous editorial work and teaching background, I published my first book—Shoulder Bones—a collection of short stories, in 2014. Also, in 2018, my graduate thesis, a hybrid novel, was a finalist for the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize. My short stories have been nominated for a Pushcart and Best of the Net awards and placed as finalists in several contests, including second runner up in the 2019 Psychopomp Summer Short Fiction contest. Most recently, you can find my stories and essays in Young Professionals of Seattle, Literary Orphans, Dream Pop Press, New Delta Review, Psychopomp Magazine, Crab Fat Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Third Point Press, Sidereal Magazine, among others.

What is your home town?

Jackson, Mississippi

How/why/when did your interest in studying English develop?

Although it sounds like I’m self-mythologizing here, I can’t remember a time I didn’t know I’d major in English. As an only child with two working parents, books quickly became my constant companions. I began establishing myself as A Reader early on in elementary school, thanks to a program called Accelerated Reader. By the fourth grade, I was reading every moment I could find: between classes, at lunch, in the back of my mother’s minivan, late at night when I should’ve been completing my math homework…I read obsessively. While I didn’t have the best grades, I had read the most books. I grew up reading my mother’s old college paperbacks (a former English major at Millsaps), paying close attention to the parts she underlined, the whole paragraphs she marked with her characteristic messy scribble-star. Blue ballpoint ink. Handwriting part cursive, part chicken-scratch. Without realizing it, she was teaching me how to see literature in a scholarly light. The Ghost of Underlines Past, pointing me in particular directions, to particular questions, revealing, through chunks of heavy highlights, a map to an English major’s mind.

Tell us about your undergraduate years.  What were you involved in?  What was the focus of your work in English? What are you most proud of from those years?

As a member of the Honors College, I had the opportunity to take my first college fiction workshop my sophomore year. It was taught by Tom Franklin. I’d been on the staff of my high school literary magazine, Earthwinds, at Jackson Prep, so getting a chance to continue with my creative writing in college was a definite goal of mine. After that first workshop with Tom Franklin, I made an effort to take as many classes as he—and partner/poet Beth Ann Fennelly—offered, throughout my four years at Ole Miss. Tom ended up being my honors college thesis advisor for the collection of short stories I wrote, along with poet Gary Short, as my second reader. Other English professors I had the privilege of learning from are Dr. Jason Solinger, Dr. Ivo Kamps, Dr. Jaime Harker, Dr. Ronald Shroeder and Dr. Natalie Schroeder.

During my sophomore year, I was elected co-president of the English honor society Sigma Tau Delta (2011-2013) and during my junior year, was the recipient of the Fayssoux Corneil Campbell Memorial Scholarship (2012). I was also a member of Phi Beta Kappa Society (2013), Phi Kappa Phi Honorary Society (2011), Gamma Beta Phi Society (2009-2013), The National Society of Collegiate Scholars (2010), and Tri Delta Sorority (2009-2013).

During my time at Ole Miss, I also wrote for The Daily Mississippian (beginning my freshman year), was an intern for Thacker Mountain Radio (2011-2013), and participated in The New York Internship Experience the summer after my junior year (June – Aug. 2012). That summer, I was an editorial and social media intern for Michelle Brower at Folio Literary Agency, where my work included handling communications between agent and writer (giving advice, e-mailing request and deny letters, critiquing manuscripts for the writers), participating in an editorial panel with editors from Harper Collins and Random House, running the agency’s Twitter and Pinterest accounts, and reviewing manuscripts.

Discuss your path since graduation and your career goals.

Shoulder Bones by Mary B. Sellers

Shoulder Bones by Mary B. Sellers

I ended up remaining an extra year in Oxford during which I worked as an admin/secretarial intern at Fat Possum Records while working on applications for MFA Creative Writing Programs. I also began freelance writing for the Hernando, Mississippi-based lifestyle and culture magazine, Click Magazine. With this position, I had the opportunity to write feature articles about Oxford and Mississippi-based staples such as John Currence, City Grocery, Snackbar, Lenora’s, McEwen’s, Cathead Vodka, Volta Taverna, Tribecca Allie Cafe, among others. That winter (2014), I found out I hadn’t gotten into any of the MFA programs I’d submitted applications for. This blow forced me to have one of my first major young adult “soul searching” sessions. After a week of moping, I decided that not only would I apply again, but I’d also take some extra preemptive steps towards honing my writing and editorial skills. I signed up for a spring 2014 remote advanced fiction writing class with Gotham Writers where I workshopped the two stories I would be applying to MFA programs with, and began a remote internship with Deep South Magazine. For the latter, I got to write Oxford literary-based articles (such as interviewing Lisa Howorth on her novel and covering the Oxford Conference for the Book). During this time, i also interviewed for and accepted a new job as a marketing and editorial intern for indie book publisher Blooming Twig Books. Within a few months, I was promoted to a managerial position and then as an associate publisher at Blooming Twig. I was also offered a book deal by its editor, Dr. Kent Gustavson. For the latter portion of the 2014 spring through that summer and fall, I worked on writing and editing a collection of short stories, Shoulder Bones, which was eventually published in December 2014 of that year.

In early 2015, I accepted a three-year full scholarship as one of the three fiction candidates at LSU’s Master of Fine Arts Creative Program. I also applied for and was accepted as the first-year graduate editorial assistant at The Southern Review, where I assisted then-editor Emily Nemens for the 2015-2016 schoolyear. During my second year at LSU, I was the Social Media Editor for New Delta Review Literary Journal, the graduate English department’s literary magazine, served as co-host for the Underpass Reading Series, and taught undergraduate English courses. During the third and final year of my MFA candidacy, I had the opportunity to design and teach my first writing workshop/short story undergraduate course and in May of 2018, passed my thesis defense. I owe absolutely everything to my wonderful thesis advisor (and writing professor) Jennifer S. Davis, and two thesis readers (and professors), Lara Glenum and Jim Wilcox. In late 2018, my thesis was a finalist for the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize.

After moving home for a few months to figure out what was next, I moved to Seattle, with the assistance and support of Anthony Green (also an Ole Miss alum, class of 2012). Determined to advance my teaching career, I took a position at Brightmont Academy and continued writing and publishing stories and essays. During the fall of 2019, I moved on to a dream position as a creative writing teacher for Pacifica Writers’ Workshop, where I served as an afterschool writing teacher at a variety of Seattle-area elementary schools and also accepted a six-month virtual social media position for Sundress Publications. To supplement my income, I was also active on the Rover dog-sitting app. I got to meet some wonderful Seattle dogs during those months. They also provided extra company for my ride-or-die companion, Daisy Buchanan–yes, named after that infamous Great Gatsby character–a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who turned 6 this past January. When COVID hit, I continued teaching remotely and working a variety of freelance gigs before moving back in with my parents in Mississippi last August. Moving back home was one of the hardest decisions I’ve faced thus far, but I’m grateful for having that option during such a uniquely scary time. I decided to use my time back home to begin writing and researching a novel. I’ve also been remotely teaching creative writing with the international tutoring program, IvyZen, for the past year and a half.

This summer, I accepted a teaching position at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School (Jackson, MS) for the 2021-2022 school year. For the immediate future, besides continued work on my novel, I will also be working on getting my application materials together to apply for Ph.D. programs in Creative Writing for the 2022 academic year.

Selected published writing links (if relevant): second runner up in the 2019 Psychopomp Summer Short Fiction contest, Sidereal Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Third Point Press, Mississippi Magazine Oct/Nov 2021 (forthcoming).

Talk about your books. How did you decide to write them? What did you learn from the process?

Writing isn’t glamorous. It’s usually a hot, sweaty, neck-aching and never-ending process. It’s also lonely. You have to make a preliminary agreement with yourself that you’ll be okay (or make a solid pretense of seeming so) when you have to miss out on social things and other aspects of life. In order for me to write anything these days, it’s imperative I maintain a degree of isolation. That isolation is the only way I can process my thoughts, figure out a character, and unplug enough to sit down for several hours at a time and bang out a couple of bad drafts. I think it was Joan Didion who said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” As a naturally sensitive person, I’ve learned the hard way that having a thin skin about writing isn’t sustainable, especially for one’s mental health. For empaths and introverts–adopting a thick skin is crucial for being able to navigate (let alone survive!) writing workshops, editorial criticism, and the guaranteed onslaught of rejections once you/we/I start submitting work places.

For my first, Shoulder Bones, I initially decided upon a couple of stories from my thesis from the previous year, along with one story I had previously written but hadn’t ended up using. These went through several editing and re-writing sessions. I wrote the rest of the collection from scratch, drawing upon the themes, genre, and style of the first several. For the brand-new stories, I also took into consideration length and narrative scope, in order to more evenly round out the collection. I also had a hand in sourcing and selecting its cover design–I located a local MS artist (Cody Bass), and we worked together to come up with a wonderful cover and interior art concept! Even all of these years later, I think the book’s cover really tied everything together. Overall, this book came together relatively quickly! I began work on it in the spring of 2014 and it was published that December.

Official summary:

These stories are worth an all-nighter and a steaming cup of tea. Shoulder Bones is a collection of short stories that dive into and out of the conscious and unconscious, into and out of reality. A girl jumps on a trampoline and gets stuck in midair. Debut author Sellers has a voice that is a touch of Faulkner and a dash of Austen, deeply rooted in the sounds, spirit, and heart of a southern childhood. This is a collection of stories that have the fantastical dimension of the original Peter Pan or Harry Potter, but the adult thematic depth of Augusten Burroughs. Sellers writes with the freshness of youth, but out of the fear of childhood. She spills her inky blood onto the pages of this debut collection with a not-quite-sweet prose that is at once feminist and normal, vivid and average, wild-eyed and honeysuckle sweet. This collection of stories represents the best and the worst in each of us, and the fanciful, fantastic escape that the squeeze of reality can bring.

For my second bookRapunzel Has Insomnia—I began writing fragments of it during my first and second years of graduate school. By the second year’s end, I had to decide on a working idea for my thesis (and was supposed to use that summer before the third year working on it). This ended up… not happening. I’d initially decided on expanding a lengthy dystopian-themed short story I had written in a 2016 workshop into a novella. By late fall of 2017, I had pretty much abandoned this plan due to a monumental case of writers’ block. Talk about an inopportune time! I took Christmas break to feverishly come up with another approach to my thesis. Thanks to a previous creative nonfiction class I’d taken with Professor of Nonfiction writer Joshua Wheeler, I decided to branch out the most I ever had in regards to genre: I decided write a hybrid novel that incorporated a 50 page creative nonfiction lyric essay project I’d completed for Wheeler’s class, several re-written stories and prose poems from previous fiction and poetry workshops, and several new flash fiction stories and micro-essays which I wrote during winter and spring 2018. I also incorporated a hyper-stylized formatting and several pieces of digital art I’d created to specifically accompany some of the individual pieces. After figuring out what would go where, my final task was re-writing the manuscript and adding vignettes to serve as a “connective tissue” that strung each element and piece together to make a conclusive whole.

Official summary: 

Rapunzel Has Insomnia is part story collection, part fairy tale vignette, and part personal memoir, dealing with themes of mental illness and inheritance, the complexity of mother daughter relationships, and childhood trauma. Similar to the structure of a novel-in-stories, Rapunzel ’s connective tissue is made up of memoir, specifically dealing with the aftereffects of my mother’s Bipolar One disorder and subsequent psychiatric commitments throughout my childhood and young adult years. The other more peripheral narratives are magical realist in nature, which are made up of fabulist fiction stories. Both of these narratives are then tied to an overarching theme of “the fairy tale”, where tropes are subverted and the nature of reality is questioned. In essence, Rapunzel is a love letter to madness, my mother, and my own struggle with inheriting both my love and affinity for writing as well as mental illness from her, respectively.

Why should a prospective student consider coming to UM to study?

Oxford has this unique gift of matching itself to a student by becoming whatever it is that an individual wants to make of it. It’s a progressively malleable place. For such a heavily SEC and Greek-influenced state school, Ole Miss maintains surprisingly vibrant and inclusive artistic and literary scenes. I think this cultural balance is so rare; the best example of southern charm eclectic. There’s a niche for everyone. Also, as a former member of the Honors College, I’d argue that the academics are just as nuanced and comprehensive as many leading liberal arts universities. You really get the best of both worlds.