In “The Postmaster’s Daughter,” Sharon Mabry’s haunting and suspenseful first novel, a young woman is murdered shortly before her wedding day. This tragedy takes place in the late 1930s, deep in the hills of East Tennessee, and in the years that follow, the traumatic event causes the community’s two most prominent families to slowly unravel.
“The Putnams and the Cantrells: two very different families whose lives are torn apart over the murder of a young woman,” Khristeena Lute, author of ‘Finding Grace and Grit,’ said in a review of the book. “This southern mystery becomes more complicated with each chapter as elements of region, family, and sordid intrigue slowly heat to a boil.”
The book, which will be published next month by Thorncraft Publishing, has earned early acclaim from reviewers, who praise its beautiful writing and southern gothic charm, but they often fail to mention another fascinating aspect of the novel – its author.
Most people don’t know Mabry as a fiction writer. To them, she is an award-winning mezzo-soprano soloist and recording artist. She recently retired from Austin Peay State University, where she taught voice for 52 years, earning the Richard M. Hawkins Award for research and scholarly activity and the Distinguished Professor Award for teaching. But she’s just as comfortable with pen and paper as she is with a microphone.
“I’ve always been interested in fiction,” Mabry said. “Even as I was growing up.”
‘I would write a little, jot down little ideas’
On a bright September morning, Mabry stopped by the APSU Ann Ross Bookstore to talk about her new novel. She sat poised at one of the small, square tables, smiling as she told stories of her childhood in Newport, Tennessee. The small, rural town sits about 25 miles east of Gatlinburg in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s where she first developed her passion for music, but at the time, she also found herself drawn to books and English classes.
“As I was growing up, I was an only child, so I didn’t have brothers and sisters to play with and distract me,” she said. “And so, I was either practicing piano or reading. And I would write a little, jot down little ideas.”
She would eventually leave Newport to begin a long and successful music career, but the town and her affinity for writing never left her. Even while she performed as a recitalist and soloist with symphony orchestras around the globe, she found time to scribble scenes and character details into a journal.
“During all the years that I was performing, traveling all over the country, I would always take a journal with me, and in the downtimes, just to distract myself and not worry about the upcoming performance, I would write,” she said. “Just observations. I have stacks and stacks of observations about people. I like watching people.”
When she wasn’t writing, Mabry enjoyed reading mystery novels by Elizabeth George, Agatha Christie and Patricia Cornwell’s famed Scarpetta Series, so it wasn’t a surprise when she began to develop her own story about a murder. The story was completely fictional, but the setting and the characters were based on the East Tennessee community she once called home.
Then one day in the early 1990s, Mabry went to Abingdon, Virginia, to perform a concert at Emory and Henry University. She checked into the Martha Washington Inn with her accompanist and then read aloud an early draft of the novel to her friend.
“I remember she said, ‘You should do something with this,’” Mabry said. “But I never really did. I was just busy teaching and singing.”
She also went on to write two non-fiction books – “The Performing Life: A Singer’s Guide to Survival” and “Exploring Twentieth Century Vocal Music.” The novel went into a desk drawer, and a decade passed before a friend – Ellen Kanervo – invited her to join a writer’s group. Over the years, the group read more chapters from the book. and they encouraged Mabry to keep working on it.
“It got me in the habit of writing again because we were meeting once a month and I had to have something to bring,” she said. “If it really hadn’t been for them…I blame them for this.”
‘I was flabbergasted’
Earlier this year, Kanervo told Mabry about Thorncraft Publishing – a Clarksville-based book publisher that focuses on women authors. Over the last decade, Thorncraft has published popular titles such as the novel “Grace Among the Leavings” and the nonfiction “Seasons of Balance: On Creativity and Mindfulness.” In 2020, the company won an Ovation Award for its “significant contribution to support arts and culture in Montgomery County.”
Mabry looked at the publisher’s website and decided to send her manuscript to Shana Thornton, the owner of Thorncraft.
“She wrote back quickly and said, ‘I want to publish this,’” Mabry said. “I was flabbergasted.”
The book will come out next month, but it’s already getting strong advanced praise. Paula Wall, best-selling author of The Rock Orchard, called “The Postmaster’s Daughter” “a haunting southern requiem that will play in your mind long after the book has closed.”
Barry Kitterman, author of “The Baker’s Boy” and “From the San Joaquin: Stories,” said “There’s something here for anyone who loves to read a book on a rainy afternoon.”
For more information on the book, visit https://thorncraftpublishing.com/.