Manuscript Consultation Program Alum: Mary Hickey

After participating in our Manuscript Consultation Program, Mary Hickey published her short story collection, Cautionary Tales with GammonGo Publishing. In this interview, we discuss writing for the sake of writing, an author’s creative control when publishing, her next book, and more.

Black Lawrence Press: Can you give our readers a brief description of your book, Cautionary Tales?

Mary Hickey:  Cautionary Tales transcends time and place, to a world where appearances deceive, ordinary assumptions don’t apply, and slipstreams of magic both alter and illuminate the reality below the surface. Collisions between rich and poor, and also conflicts within families, have the potential to end tragically, triumphantly, or occasionally even hilariously.

The desire to subvert the boundaries of earthbound existence can evoke empathy whether it ends well or badly. Children are sometimes said to be living their best years, but not all find it so. In these stories, some take extreme measures to attempt an escape from the powerless confines of those anxious and difficult years. Whether it’s an alien spaceship or the winged feet of a black swan, they embrace it even as it vanishes from their hands. The only child at ease with her world is a breezy kindergartner who decides to help a bullied child whose head has been cut off.

What if one muddles through childhood and the teenage years, and then meets up with former classmates at a ten-year reunion? Will high school’s petty drama, competition and cattiness be laid to rest then—or ever? In “The Knock-off”, it doesn’t seem likely.

A woman quits eating to escape enslavement to money and to set her inner artist free. Two men try to commit the perfect crime by killing off their families’ elderly and increasingly incompetent matriarchs, but encounter obstacles they didn’t expect because of the unfathomable power of small acts of kindness.

People, and also a philosophizing mouse, hope that an epiphany and the courage to act on it will turn the tide of Fate, and achieve a do-over or redemption. Some processes in motion can be stopped and reversed, but there are also downward paths that lead to the edge of a cliff-drop from which no return is possible.

Three of these stories address the dark side of games, and how their addictive nature can ensnare and obsess the hearts and minds of players. That danger, latent but incredibly powerful, lurks below the surface even of games considered both classic and innocuous.

The book concludes with a short novel containing themes of sex and violence, friendship and betrayal, church and state, and rebellion and its consequences, set in fourteenth-century Spain.

BLP: You have quite a number of books to your name, including humor writing and biography. What was your favorite part of writing this short story collection?

MH: I enjoyed writing stories with no genre and no market in mind. Several of them were published before I completed the collection, many of them, including some of my favorites, were not. 

BLP: Many of our readers are searching for the right publishing path for their books. Can you tell us about GammonGo Publishing and the process of bringing Cautionary Tales to print?

MH: GammonGo Publishing came into being because my co-author Marty Storer and myself couldn’t find a publisher or even a self-publishing entity such as Amazon KDP that could achieve the production values we desired for What’s Your Game Plan? Backgammon Strategy in the Middle Game. We wondered why publishers laughed when we said that all we wanted was complete creative control. Well, OK, nobody else gets that either unless they do it all themselves. So that’s what we did.

We found a printer who could do what we wanted, and worked closely with them to produce the book as we envisioned it. I’d recommend that printer, but unfortunately they went bankrupt a few years ago. The successor that picked up the pieces comes nowhere close to their ability to get what we’d want done. Even the paper samples they sent me were just awful. Back to square one, if we were to write a sequel to Game Plan

Kelly Magee

BLP: Before publishing Cautionary Tales, you worked with our manuscript consultant Kelly Magee. How did Kelly’s input help you with revisions?

MH: I liked working with Kelly because I believe she understood my themes of transformation, and the intricate relationships of body and mind, better than most editors could. 

Kelly’s input helped me to see that one of my stories was so problematic that even after some changes, it didn’t work for this collection. I removed it, and I’m still working on it! 

Even if they’re decently good at self-editing, I recommend serious writers get another pair of eyes to take a close look at their work, and then take a hard look at the changes they recommend. You won’t agree on all of them, but some will clearly improve your stories and perhaps make them more marketable, too.

Having someone in your circle of family and friends do this for you is fine, but you also need a professional to get a completely honest outside view of your work.

BLP: Do you have a favorite piece of craft advice?

MH: Forget about writing about what you know. Write about what you imagine. Write what you feel called to share with the world, which may have nothing to do with what you know, or what anyone knows.

BLP: What is your favorite place to write?

MH: I do most of my writing here at home, but I like to mix it up by spending an hour or two writing at a coffee shop or diner now and then. It has to be a place with coffee, as I have no idea how anyone does any writing without it.

BLP: What are you working on now?

MH: My next book, close to complete, will describe my experiences from moving from the Philadelphia metro area to a small farm in a town in Ohio with a population of 590. Since I intend to sell the farm soon, this sets up nicely for a sequel where I move back to the city in order to simplify my life.

I am also working on another backgammon book, this time about errors that arise from thought-barfs that we tend to lump together as “carelessness”. They actually come in several varieties, which I will show first in the context of the game itself, but then show how similar errors can and do occur in real life, and how we can avoid or at least minimize them. I will cite studies in psychology that back up what I recommend.

I’ve also started work on a study guide for Cautionary Tales, with questions and supplementary information that will be helpful for university students that want to report on this book.

After that, who knows? I have so many started items in my idea files, that even if I only write those up and never have another idea, I will be around 140 years old when I get them all done.


Interested in participating in our manuscript consultation program?

Learn about this month’s consultants right here.


Except from Cautionary Tales

The Day the Mean Kids Beheaded Corinna

Nobody at our kindergarten wants to play with Corinna. She’s no fun, and she’s so stuck-up that one wrong move and she finks you out to the teachers. She finks you out, too, if you don’t do what she wants, which usually means something boring like playing house. I know both the teachers’ names, but can’t spell them. There’s a grown-up name for our school, but we kids call it the Cave because it’s in a basement.

One day at recess, three of the bad boys and three of the mean girls had enough of Corinna’s whining and following them around, so they cut off her head. When I first saw her after they did it, she was holding it on with both hands while running to fink them out. 

Both the teachers were busy talking to each other, and didn’t stop to listen to one more of her rat tales. Corinna turned away upset and confused. I was the only kid nearby, so I thought I should try to help her, but I wasn’t sure how. If I had a needle and thread, maybe I could sew her head back on, but that would hurt, wouldn’t it?

I walked to the door of the Cave and tried it. It wasn’t locked. I didn’t know they left it open during recess, but then I’d never thought about it before. I don’t remember ever wanting to go back inside when I was allowed out.

Nobody was in the Cave except poor shy Nancy. She sat huddled in the shadows against the huge, heavy carved wood door at the top of some worn-down steps off to the side of where we come into the Cave. My mom says that door leads to another stairway up into a dusty church that nobody uses any more. Nancy’s black hair and dark dress made her pale face look as though it was floating in the air, as if someone had beheaded her, too! I walked by her without speaking, and she turned her face away from me as I passed.

I took the Scotch tape off the desk up front, and also scissors because I can never get tape to rip straight. When I got back outside, Corinna was still there, whimpering because the teachers were still ignoring her. I taped her head back on, careful not to get any of her stringy dishwater-colored hair stuck in it. I told her to keep holding it up because I wasn’t sure I was doing this right. 

Recess ended, and Corinna walked down the steps back into the Cave slowly, careful not to jostle her reattached head. The kids behind her pushed and shoved a bit, but not hard enough to make her fall. The teacher in charge told them to quiet down and take their seats. I was the last one in, and then they closed the double metal doors that cover the top of the steps.

The other teacher was sitting at the desk. I’d wondered if she’d be mad because I took the tape and scissors without asking, but she smiled at me and didn’t say anything when I returned them. I was happy she didn’t ask me any questions, and tiptoed to my seat at one of the tables near the back of the room.

An hour later one of the teachers rang the bell, and we all put on our jackets to leave for the day. Corinna was two kids ahead of me in line. In the bright light from above that poured in on us when the metal doors were opened and folded back, I saw that the tape was uneven and crinkled where I’d wrapped it around her neck. I wished I could have done better, but was glad it was holding and not peeling off. Corinna was still steadying her head with one hand, just to be sure.


Mary Hickey has written several books, and also worked as a newspaper reporter, columnist, and photographer, winning a Keystone Press statewide journalism award for a feature story.

She is also an expert backgammon player, has written extensively about the game. She has produced a backgammon book in CD format, and co-authored a print book titled What’s Your Game Plan? Backgammon Strategy in the Middle Game. She has won several major tournaments, including the U. S. Open in 2010 and 2011. 

Her most recent book, Cautionary Tales, can be found here.