Set in the Ozarks, Mary Troy’s new novel follows a protagonist ‘Swimming on Hwy N’

It was while driving along back roads deep in rural Missouri that Mary Troy spotted the inspiration for what would become the opening scene of her latest book. The University of Missouri–St. Louis professor of English remembers the moment well.

“I saw an old woman sprawled in a child’s wading pool in a yard, and I thought, ‘That’s something Madeline would do,’” says Troy, who was already well acquainted with Madeline Dames, her main character, at that point. “I went home and wrote the scene, which gave me some action. But it was not yet a story until the deserter showed up, surprising me and giving the novel a framework.”

Mary Troy portrait

Professor of English Mary Troy, who teaches in UMSL’s MFA in Creative Writing program, tells a tale of generations, hard-earned wisdom and the tricky intersections of past and present in “Swimming on Hwy N,” her second novel. (Photo by Jennifer Goldring)

When she’s not writing, Troy teaches graduate students in UMSL’s MFA in Creative Writing program. She’s the author of five books including “Swimming on Hwy N,” out next month from Moon City Press. Short stories are her first love, and so “Swimming” was somewhat unexpected – her second novel in a row.

But what started as merely a character sketch of Dames kept growing and evolving.

“I often write character sketches – hear them speak, see inside their heads and hearts, listen to their lies,” Troy explains. “Some become compelling enough to have their own stories, and that happened with Madeline.”

She continued to write and publish short stories while crafting “Swimming,” taking breaks to try something different. But “Highway N and Madeline Dames were never far from my mind,” Troy says of the project’s development over the last few years.

The novel’s focus is a generational one, a story of “one generation passing its pain on to the next and the next,” she says.

“Once I understood Wanda, Madeline’s mother, as a child of the Dust Bowl who became an abusive mother, the novel grew. Wanda herself became a major character and Madeline’s damaged sister did, too.”

Cover of "Swimming on Hwy N"

Out from Moon City Press this November, “Swimming on Hwy N” follows Madeline Dames, a protagonist whose story evolved through many drafts. (Cover image courtesy of Mary Troy)

The tale begins in Bourbon, Missouri, an area whose beautiful valleys and farms remind Troy of Austrian and Swiss villages.

“I love it,” says Troy of the region. “And I wanted Madeline to love it as well – and as a result have that wonderfully freeing and usually false feeling that she could be a new person in a new place, out there in the sticks.”

The familiar, affectionate way in which Troy speaks about the people who occupy her pages reflects a writing process firmly based in character development.

“I believe all fiction – short story or novel – has to be based on a character,” Troy says. “I spend time inhabiting a character, trying to understand what she is not saying, is hiding, and what is at stake for her.

“I write all the time, or as much as I can. This novel took many drafts, the first one faster than it should have been, which made me justifiably nervous. Each subsequent draft was better than the first, yet the whole remained hard to wrestle with, frustrating. I would dream about the story, though, would tell it to myself when I awoke to judge if it made sense and kept my interest.”

A longtime member of UMSL’s Department of English, Troy credits her students’ own hard work, insights and careful reading with helping to fuel her continued creative efforts.

“They convince me again and again that what we do, frustrating and hard as it is, matters,” says Troy. “And I think my constant work and writing does the same for my students. We are all in this together, all diving into humanity, using language and structure and form and perspective and more – all the tools we can find – to make what sense we can out of the chaos, creating stories that provide a clear view or a new perspective, an entertaining or enlightening or moving look at ourselves and the mess we are.”

State Highway N

A screenshot from Google Maps offers a glimpse of the Missouri landscape Mary Troy’s “Swimming on Hwy N” is set in.

Another driving factor in Troy’s work is her lifelong love of reading, which led her early in her youth to the “adult sections of the library” and opened whole new worlds to her.

“Even as a pre-teen I found I craved the intimacy that exists between reader and writer, between reader and character,” she says. “Eventually, I wanted to make that same connection with a reader or two.”

Her next project will be a welcome return to her favorite kind of fiction – a collection of her short stories, seven of which have been published in the last several years.

“This novel and the one before it, ‘Beauties’ [2010], got in the way,” Troy says with a smile.

A book launch for “Swimming on Hwy N” is set for 7 p.m. Nov. 14 at Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood, during which Troy will discuss the book and sign copies.

For more information about the new novel, see Troy’s website. It includes a full list of upcoming readings and events.

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