[As you can gather, my interest in Naples-area writers did not begin yesterday. I am posting today the original version of my article on Mary Linn Roby, which was published with some editorial shrinkage in the October 2000 issue of N Magazine. Kinley Roby has gone on to write a series of mystery novels set in our region.]
Soon after I was invited to sit down in the Roby’s spacious and quietly classy home in the St. Pierre, I thought I heard in Mary’s voice a quality that wasn’t just New England or Maine. After our conversation ended, I decided that what I heard was an overlay of Old England upon the New. Certainly these self-admitted Anglophiles had spent enough time in Oxford and London, dozens of summers, to have caught something. Literary Brits or (would-be Brits like T. S. Eliot) speak through Kinley, who has written biographies of such modern masters as Arnold Bennett and Joyce Cary, as well as Eliot. He has also written a life of King Edward VII. Maybe what I heard was Kinley’s English parentage –
his mother and father were born in Liverpool. Or maybe it was just my imagination. Retired from his professorship in the English Department at Northeastern University (where he also served as chairman), Kinley E. Roby continues his authorial pursuits freed from the duties of teaching and administration.
But this piece is about Mary … something about Mary.
Born and raised in Maine, Mary attended the University of Maine where she majored in English, met Kinley, and suffered through a creative writing course that, she insists, did not jump-start her career. In fact, she took the course primarily because Kinley was taking it. Her father was the superintendent of a woolen mill, and her mother was a Latin teacher and librarian. Mary herself became a high school teach after graduation, specializing in history and economics as well as English.
Some years later, after bearing the first of her two children, Mary suffered a loss of identity that made her need to get out of the house. She found herself in the university library, researching and then writing a book on the Brontes. Though the book was not accepted for publication, her immersion in the Brontes must have had something to do with the kinds of novels she would eventually write. Was she an overnight success when she turned to writing fiction? Well, no. She became a writer, a published writer, by sticking to it for ten dry years, getting better and better at her craft until she made a breakthrough. After that breakthrough, she turned out titles nonstop for about twenty-five years.
Early in her career, Mary wrote short stories for Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery magazine. Some of these were dramatized by Rod Sterling on his Night Gallery television series. Mystery novels followed, first “Red Badge” selections published by Dodd, Mead — then Gothics in the vein of Daphne Du Maurier. Historicals came next, most of them set in England. Mary’s many visits have provided her with the kind of saturation in place that allows her to write convincingly about the English past. After all, in England an 18th-century drawing room is not hard to find, and there are many views from prestigious estates that have not changed for centuries. Though a degree of research is a must, Mary can easily “furnish” a setting from her direct experience. However, her books are not “about” the English past; they are about universal human problems. Mary Linn Roby always begins her books with a problem.
One of these, The Herrick Inheritance, was a Dalton Best Seller at 125,000 copies. Mary has published over fifty novels; while seven appeared first as hardbacks, the majority of them are paperback originals. And, while she published most of these titles under her own name, a smaller number are credited to such pen names as Pamela D’Arcy, Mary Wilson, Valerie Bradstreet, and Georgina Grey. Her first successes were “over the transom” submissions with no agent as go-between. Soon after, she began to employ the services of an agent. However, her career is proof that the best publishing strategy is writing well. Mary admits she was not “a natural” as a writer, and those ten years of self-directed apprenticeship were necessary for her. The apprenticeship involved not courses or mentors or editors but serviceable models. Mary evolved as a writer by becoming a reader with an eager eye to how things were done, both stylistically and structurally. For a time, she apprenticed herself to Iris Murdoch. Du Maurier was another model. At some point, her models became springboards that led her to her own voice.
Mary found herself engaged by the work and also driven to set goals that kept her writing a certain number of pages each night. She learned to make herself write as well as she could the first time. The discipline paid off in the sense that after a while her imagination was so active that it was as if someone else was telling her a story and she was simply the instrument through which it flowed. The stories that have flowed through her have reached beyond her native shores to audiences in England, France, Spain, Germany, and Italy.
How did the writing Robys get to Naples? They vacationed here at Christmas time several years back, and at the end of their visit went out with realtor on a lark. Mary and Kinley fell in love with Pelican Bay and instantly made up their minds to move here. They’ve now lived in Naples full-time for over five years. Both Robys found themselves feeling at home almost immediately. In fact, Mary says that they have never felt so much “at home” as they do in Naples. Making new friends was easy for them, as they became eagerly involved in activities that ranged from the art community to the Conservancy to Friends of the Library to the Pelican Bay Women’s League to duties on condominium committees. Kinley is presently chairman of the condominium board for the St. Pierre. Mary, who plays tennis five or six days a week, has set up an informal literary group and has arranged discussions on feminism for a Think Tank program to run through the 2000-2001 season.
Being so busy has left Mary little time for her writing, which she has begun to miss after filling her days with such a variety of other activities. Although the is finding it difficult to return to that disciplined routine that once dominated her life, she is committed to a new project — a contemporary murder mystery. One mystery is which of the many things that Mary loves so much to do will have to take a back seat to this new book.