Mary Rose was only 15 years old when she started her diary. The published version is one of the most powerful stories we’ve read this year. We were shocked by the horrible things Mary Rose did, and endured, due to her alcohol and drug addiction and her fight with cystic fibrosis, but what really made us FEEL her story were the times she confessed how lonely, friendless and isolated she felt.
We grew to care about this girl, her story and the way she chose to tell it so we jumped at the opportunity to catch up with editors Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil…
How did you discover Mary Rose’s diary?
GM: Legs called me up and said in a sing-song voice, “I know what our next project is, la la la la.” “I already know what our next project is,” I replied. “All of them.” Let me explain our relationship: Legs thinks he is invincible, I know I am not. Legs always thinks everything is going to be great, and I usually think things are going to be too hard or near impossible. Then once we are halfway through a project he will say to me, “Is anyone ever going to want to read this?” And I will say, “Yes, a lot of people are going to want to read this.” So by that time I am the optimist and he is the pessimist. You get my drift? I’m always bursting his bubble, he is always trying to inspire me. Then later, when he is contemplating throwing in the towel, I am the cheerleader. It’s all very weird. We are beyond co-dependent. So when Legs told me that I was going to go over nuts over some dead teenager’s diary, I was not happy. “You know this will set us behind probably three years,” I said. “Nah, three months,” he replied. I rolled my eyes. Then when I delved in my jaw was hanging loose. I loved this girl and I loved her writing and I loved her story and the way she told it.
LM: I live in a small town in Pennsylvania, in one of the mobile homes in Pennsylvania from Weiner Mobile Estates, right across the street from the post office. My postmaster is in a heavy-metal cover band that plays in bars and clubs on the weekends. So whenever I was bored, I’d take a stroll to the post office and hang out with him and talk about rock & roll. I’d become good friends with my postmaster and his family—and one day his daughter was writing a paper for her high school class on Charles Manson and wanted to borrow a book. Since I have a pretty extensive library on Manson, she came over and was browsing through my Manson collection and I asked her what she was reading. She rattled off a bunch of titles that were popular at the time, and then said, “But you know, the best thing I ever read were these journals that my best friend’s older sister wrote, but she died…” This immediately got my interest since I’d read Go Ask Alice as a kid and felt ripped off that the book turned out to be an invention by the Avon editor—not the “true life story,” as it was purported to be. So I’ve always been looking around to see if I could find the real Go Ask Alice. And when the postmaster’s daughter told me about Mary Rose’s journals, I was listening. Shortly after, I contacted Mary Rose’s mom, via my postmaster, and started reading the loose-leaf notebooks. I thought they were spectacular.
It’s such a powerful story. What was your first impression after reading it?
GM: That Mary Rose was an exceptional writer. That she was intelligent, incredibly funny and unbelievably strong. That being said, she wrote these journals for herself so she obviously didn’t have to tell her story in a narrative or even in the same notebook! So my next thought was, “We have a lot of work to do.”
LM: My first impression was that this kid never caught a break. Mary Rose fell through all the cracks. I was also struck by the fact that she could be so smart and articulate in one entry, and then so bratty and stupid in the next one. That inconsistency seemed to capture the essence of adolescence for me.
Her writing is so brutally real and honest. What did you feel was the most powerful aspect of her writing?
GM: For me, it was the little details. That this girl who was in such emotional and physical pain, and who knew she was going to die young, and who had to be an adult before she was even a teenager, could get such joy in the little things: a pair of kitty earrings, holding a gerbil at the mall, and running around the living room with her little sister.
LM: For me, the pivotal moment came when Mary Rose wrote the passage about being a freak and a mutant. Her perceptions became crystal clear whenever she became very angry, something else I could relate to. I was not very aware of what cystic fibrosis was, I knew it was a disease that you didn’t want to get, but that was about it. So I was really touched by the way Mary Rose articulated what this disease is, and I felt I finally understood it. Since I’d spent many months in hospital wards as a kid– I was born with the right side of my body two inches larger than my left—and when I was 15 years old Dr. Ross Clevens decided to perform “experimental corrective surgery” on me—a “femoral shortening,” cutting two inches off my right femur. Since I couldn’t walk for quite a while, I also related to being forgotten in the hospital.
How did you feel when you learned your book Please Kill Me was one of Mary Rose’s favorites?
GM: (About Please Kill Me) I thought that there must have been some misunderstanding! I couldn’t’ believe it!
LM: It made sense to me since there were pages of the journals that had the typical doodles and drawings—mostly about the bands she was into—like Hole and Pavement. Mary Rose had good taste in music, so I thought it made sense that she liked Please Kill Me. I think Gillian was more impressed by this fact than me. But I did think that maybe Mary Rose had chosen us to find her journals in some weird, supernatural, beyond-the-grave type of thing.
What was your goal in sharing it?
GM: My goal was just to get it out there, as a great piece of writing. So other people could enjoy it and love it as much as we did.
LM: I’m not as altruistic as Gillian is. And I’m arrogant enough to believe if I like something, everyone else might like it too. I was touched by so many things in Dear Nobody, but mostly by the fact that it was all true—that this actually happened. Most fiction seems to me to be a lie—made up crapola that reads like someone just scribbled it down. I don’t believe it. Maybe it’s because I have a limited imagination. I don’t know. But I know it’s why I felt so disturbed when I found out Go Ask Alice was a fraud. Having said that, whenever great works of fiction capture the truth of something—it reads to me like non-fiction. I realize this is a rather convoluted answer to your question, but stay with me. When I first discovered the journals, I felt like I had come across the rough draft of A Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird; Dear Nobody resonated so thoroughly inside of me as those books had. It’s so simple, yet so profound. So I thought it might resonate with other people. But as far as what they get or take away from the book—I have no idea. I’m not arrogant enough to suppose I know the details of how it will affect them, only that it will affect them.
If a teenager reads Dear Nobody and is inspired to reach out for help or wants to help a friend, what advice would you have for them?
GM: Sometimes it’s hard to talk to a parent, and even if it isn’t, I think sometimes teens don’t want to worry them so they don’t want them to be the go-to person. I would get advice from an older sibling, or an aunt or uncle or cousin. And to take advantage of all the support groups for teens. Or to tell your parents you feel you need some therapy. Or ask your guidance counselor about getting some therapy. If you wanted to help a friend, I would advise the friend of what you would do if you were in her place—ask for outside adult help, and give her the examples of people she might go to (above). I would also just let her talk and talk to you about it (even when it starts to get boring!) Sometimes just talking it out reveals the solution.
LM: This is a very tough question for me, since I hate to moralize to anyone about whether they should take drugs or drink. I think people need to figure this out for themselves. I think people should be made aware of the options that are open to them, but I don’t think self-help books ever helped anyone. I’m very suspicious of anyone who claims to have the answers to life’s problems. I think Dear Nobody may help some kids just by letting them know there are other people out there who know that life is not as clean and pretty as what they see on TV or Netflix. Real life is very messy, and I think Dear Nobody captures the essence of this. It’s so unrelentingly honest.
What is the takeaway lesson for teens inside Mary Rose’s diary?
GM: To express yourselves. To vent, and writing is the best form. That texts disappear and you’re probably not going to spend afternoons mulling through old Facebook posts, if it even exists down the road. Print out your photos and put them in an album. That it is okay to keep things to yourself. To write for yourself, not necessarily for the world to see. To love your friends and appreciate your family (even though you can’t stand them sometimes).
If you had to describe Mary Rose in three words what would they be?
GM: Extraordinary. Smart. Funny.
What do you love most about this book?
GM: That we were chosen to be Mary Rose’s “channelers.” That we succeeded in editing her writings in such a way that the book reads like a novel. Hopefully it is hard to put down. That Mary Rose will never be forgotten.
LM: Since I was one of those white trash kids who fell through the cracks, there was so much for me to relate to. Mostly the loneliness of her journey and wondering where everybody else was and why I wasn’t invited to the party too.
The drawings in this article are all original artwork by Mary Rose.