The following interview first appeared in volume 5 of Cave Region Review in 2013.
CRR: Several of the following questions will mention Bittersweet. For those of our readers who may not be familiar with the magazine, would you summarize this project?
EGM: From 1973 to 1983 I was the teacher/advisor of an English class for students 10th through 12th grades at Lebanon (Missouri) High School who published a total of 40 issues of Bittersweet, the Ozark Quarterly. Their purpose was to capture the lore, crafts, traditions and culture of the Ozark people and portray characteristics of the land which influenced their life and development. The students did everything about publishing the quarterly except the actual printing— interviewing, taking photos, developing them, writing, layout, promotion, mailing, handling the business and being part of the 501 (c) 3 corporation we formed.
CRR: You served as advisor of Bittersweet for ten years, have published more than two dozen books about or set in the Ozarks, and in your “retirement” have given more than 400 lectures about the Ozarks. What first prompted you to study and to write about the region?
EGM: I grew up in two radically different locations and cultures—our family wheat farm in western Missouri and during the school year in Washington, D.C. where my father was the Washington Representative of the American Farm Bureau Association. I liked best the rural areas and people. I majored in English at the University of Maryland. My creative writing teacher didn’t like my work because I wrote about rural Missouri. At that time no one in the East was interested in the rural areas. My professor said I should get more experience—in other words find something else to write about. That encouraged me more than ever to stick to my subject. When I graduated, I returned permanently to Missouri, first as a home agent with the University of Missouri Agriculture Extension Division in Laclede County and then on a stock farm in the county which my husband and I operated. I got more experience, for sure. My goal all along was to be part of the rural Ozark area and write about the people whom I admired greatly. I hated the negative view many people had of the Ozark people and wanted to show their real worth. In addition to writing about the area, I have taught classes about the Ozarks in high school and college level at Drury University. I have conducted over 100 week-long Road Scholar (formerly called Elderhostel) sessions about Ozark heritage.
CRR: Of your writings, which work are you the proudest of and why?
EGM: It is difficult to say which work I’m proudest of. I’m proud of all of them. I’ve done a variety of fiction and non-fiction works as well as a three-act musical and many short stories and articles. At any given time, I would say my latest book might be the favorite one. Each has built upon the others and I learned as I continued writing. Two of my recent books stand out, probably because they are truly a combination of my writings and because they are more about me. Footprints in the Ozarks: a Memoir, an anthology of short stories and articles I’ve written over the years, is a favorite. In the 30 selections relating my experience in the area, I tried to capture the land and the people of the Ozarks. Another favorite is one I’ve been trying to get published since 1970, Our Robin Is Read: Voices from The Wayside. I selected and arranged the more than 30 years of correspondence of my seven brothers and sisters and I in our round robin letters written from 1944 to 1970. All of my siblings were good writers. This collection of letters of my siblings who lived in many areas of the United States (and one sister who was in England for a few years) brings to life historic and personal events of the times as well as shows the closeness of the family. My letters tell of my experiences in Missouri.
CRR: I’m sure there were many moments of culture clash when the high schools students—all of them young and many brought up in town—interviewed and interacted with people much older and with people with vastly different lifestyles than their own. What is one of your favorite anecdotes about such culture clash?
EGM: I didn’t see any “culture clash” between my students and the people they interviewed. In fact, it was almost the opposite. These men and women they interviewed were their grandparents, neighbors, or people referred to us by someone we knew. The students admired them, often going back several times and corresponding with them later. One example may show what I mean. During the years of the project, I sometimes had student teachers or part-time helpers to drive the students. One time when the students returned with one of them after an interview, they were very upset. The helper had laughed at the elderly man, showing disrespect for what he said. They couldn’t tolerate that.
CRR: I occasionally see copies of Bittersweet in flea markets or antique stores, and they are always quite expensive. Did it surprise you that the magazine was so popular, and does it surprise you now that it continues to be so highly valued?
EGM: Actually, no it doesn’t surprise me that the magazine continues to be highly valued. Our purpose for doing it was to preserve what these people knew. We believed that they were the last of the era—post-pioneer rural America, and that the Ozarks was no longer isolated and was becoming just like the rest of the nation. And we were right. It might surprise people to know, however, that we had more subscriptions in California than we did in our county. While we were doing it, people here knew all about what we were writing as it was in the recent past. Now, however, local people value the information and thoughts we captured of their relatives and neighbors who are gone.
CRR: What was the greatest challenge as you launched Bittersweet, and what was the greatest challenge as you worked to keep it going?
EGM: The greatest challenge was finances. We supported the publication from subscriptions and sales. Though the school administration gave us complete freedom to do the publication, we had to raise the money to buy our equipment and pay all expenses. I must say, however, that the school principals and superintendent during that period were very supportive, though the school board didn’t give us funds to operate. When I first started the project, I was asked if it would cost the school. I gulped and said, “No. We’ll support it from sales.” Big mistake! However, we had wonderful support from the principals, teachers, and the community.
CRR: If you were attempting to start such a publication in a public high school today, what do believe the most significant challenges would be?
EGM: I’ve not been involved with the school system for a long time, and I’m not in a position to really answer this question. But I don’t think we’d be allowed to do the project today because of security restrictions and the school’s focus on testing. The students were not supervised on many interviews, which were sometimes miles away from the school. When I was with students on interviews during school time, one of the student editors was in charge. And much of what the students learned is not asked on the numerous tests students must take today. I don’t think it would be possible to do a project like Bittersweet in the public schools today.
CRR: You have published four volumes of Mysteries of the Ozarks. What do you think are some elements of the Ozarks region that make it fertile ground for mysteries?
EGM: The Ozarks is a land of mysteries. Its many caves, winding streams and huge springs gushing out of the ground are mysteries in themselves. The varied landscape of dense woods to open prairies are settings for all kinds of things to happen. Also the history of the region from Civil War times, though the area of Bushwhackers and outlaws like Jesse James and Alf Bolin up to Prohibition and now drug deals lend material for mysteries. The past isolation and self-sufficiency of the people and their independent nature present lots of ideas for stories.
CRR: You have published sixteen novels, the latest one being Papa’s Gold. There seems to a symbiotic relationship between your fiction and your non-fiction. Is this a healthy relationship, or does one genre have a tendency to interrupt the other?
EGM: Actually, I have published seventeen novels. Skeleton in the Cistern, a contemporary cozy mystery, is published on-line at Kindle and Smashwords.
I think the relationship between fiction and non-fiction is a healthy relationship. Each helps the other. I can use material I’ve researched in my novels and I can use techniques of storytelling in my non-fiction to make it more interesting. I can research the material, write articles about it, and then also use parts of the information I learned in a fiction story. For instance, I have published numerous articles over the years about the Ozarks. Some involved crafts, such as quilting and rag-rug weaving, about routine tasks like the weekly wash, pastimes, such as hunting and gigging for fish, community events like pie suppers and last days of school. I experienced these activities. That research material has given me material for short stories or events to put into chapters in my novels. All I have to do is change the voice to fit the plot, and add a few things to make it more interesting or amusing
Or I can use my fiction writing in factual stories. For instance, in 2012 when I wanted to write a non-fiction book about my experiences in the area, I went back to an unpublished novel I had written years ago for many of the chapters. Also I used articles I’d previously written, putting myself into the action by adding personal things. That book is Footprints in the Ozarks: A Memoir.
The only problem with switching from fiction to non-fiction is that sometimes I can’t remember what was fiction or if it really happened that way!
CRR: Papa’s Gold is based on an actual occurrence. What was this situation and how did you learn of it?
EGM: While we were doing some articles on the Civil War in Missouri for the Bittersweet magazine, one of the students shared with me the story from her family history. At the beginning of the Civil War, her ancestor from the mountains of Tennessee fled with his family to Missouri to avoid being taken into the Confederate Army. He followed the wagons on foot hidden in the nearby woods so he would not be captured as they rode the well-travelled route West across Tennessee. I used that experience as the beginning of my story for middle school children, Papa’s Gold. In my novel, I used that true experience along with my knowledge of history at that time and used my imagination to continue the dangers and adventures of the protagonists, eleven-year-old twins. When the family settled in the Missouri Ozarks, they had the same problems of soldiers from both Confederate and Union forces capturing men for their armies as well as other obstacles like outlaws and finding Papa’s bag of gold coins he hid for safe keeping.
CRR: What genre do you enjoy writing the most—and why?
EGM: I enjoy writing fiction the most, especially historical fiction. Being a teacher, I want my readers to learn about the historic times I write about, but I want them to enjoy the reading. In my years of teaching, I always gave reading assignments. I wanted to encourage reading. For those who didn’t like to read, I’d find what they were interested in and then find a novel about that. For instance, if the boy was crazy about baseball, I’d get a novel about baseball. Soon the students looked for other books. So an enjoyable way to teach was to read fiction.
To write fiction one must research the subject thoroughly. The author must stick to facts, but it is fun because the outcome of the characters in the story can be whatever the author wants. Also, the past doesn’t change. Contemporary speech and things can soon become obsolete. It takes so long for books to get published that the some of the things in the book may have changed. The past is safer.
CRR: You once said in a lecture that people who are looking for something to write about—especially if they live in the Ozarks—simply need to look around them for a week and they would have more than they could write about in a lifetime. What are some of your current projects, and how many projects do you have in waiting?
EGM: I am at the happy stage in my writing career that all the book manuscripts that I have finished are published, though it took many years to get that accomplished. Currently, I have another novel I’m working on in my series The Illustrated Barn called Tombstone in the Hay Loft. This will be the second in the series. Skeleton in the Cistern is the first in the series of contemporary mysteries set on my family’s farm in Vernon County, Missouri, where we really do have an illustrated barn. It’s fun for me to write these books because though the protagonists and plot are fictional, I use myself and some of my relatives as minor characters and the farm is real. I’m also looking for a publisher interested in a project both my sister, Carolyn Gray Thornton, and I are thinking about. Carolyn is also a published writer and currently has a column and weekly articles in the Nevada Daily Mail. We want to each write short essays about our experiences in our large family that grew up both on a Missouri wheat farm and in Washington, D.C. at the same time. The dates of that would be our earliest memories up to 1944 when we both left home.
CRR: Which of your writings have readers given you the most feedback on?
EGM: I’ve received the most feedback on my two recent nonfiction books, Footprints in the Ozarks and Our Robin Is Read. This may be because they were published so recently, in 2012. Of course the two Bittersweet anthologies rank high, but also so does my biography of Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey, A Candle within Her Soul. This pleased me because my purpose in writing is to paint a true picture of the Ozarks.
Ellen Gray Massey (1921-2014) was an educator, writer, and editor for more than forty-five years. After retiring from her position as a high school English teacher, she delivered more than 400 presentations—120 of them for the Missouri Humanities Council—and taught classes at various institutions, including Elderhostel and Drury University. Among her numerous publications are seventeen books and numerous short stories and magazine articles, and she was the founder and advisor for Bittersweet, The Ozark Quarterly. Massey was one of the charter inductees into the Writers Hall of Fame of America. She won numerous awards from the Missouri Writer’s Guild and was a finalist three times for the Western Writers of American Spur Award.