Born in 1960 in Syracuse, New York, Mary Kay grew up in Oklahoma City. She has a degree in English and mathematics from Rice University and in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. She studied writing with Max Apple and John Barth. She and her husband, Gary Zizka, have two children, Theo and Eliza, both formidable writers in their own right. Also, should it be necessary, she can play a few chords on the ukulele.
Mary Kay has taught writing here, there, and everywhere, including American University, Johns Hopkins University, and George Mason University. At George Mason, she taught the "Novel in One Semester Seminar." She has been invited to speak at such venues as the Key West Literary Seminar, the American Association of Museum Directors, and many university writing programs. She has written and edited museum exhibitions, books, and magazines, especially for the Smithsonian Institution, including nine years as senior editor at the Freer and Sackler Galleries.
As a literary activist, she serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, where she curates the PEN/Faulkner Reading Series. She is cofounder of D.C. Women Writers.
What was the inspiration for The Bowl Is Already Broken?
For years, I spent my days at the Smithsonian editing museum text and my evenings and week-ends spinning fiction. Some of the exhibitions at the Freer and Sackler Galleries overflowed with jewel-encrusted statuary; others displayed the rice-powder patterns Indian women spread over their thresholds before breakfast. On my first day of work, the museums' director, Milo Beach, told me I had been hired for my ignorance; good thing, because I knew nothing about Asia or Asian art (I struggled to find Laos or Bangladesh on a map). My job was to be an advocate for the general audience. Meanwhile, I was impressed by the reverence the staff felt for the museum’s contents: they cared about a page of calligraphy the way I cared about fiction. I also realized, after my first child was born, how few of my colleagues had children, as if Asian art were their calling.
Crafting labels for the humblest objects—or the most ornate or the most ephemeral—brought up notions of worth. My novel grew from this fascination. What do you deem valuable? Would you sacrifice personal wealth, integrity, or the care and feeding of your family in its cause? And what if, having made excruciating choices, that which you put on a pedestal fell to pieces despite your best efforts? What then?
Life among the masterpieces had its down side as well. People assume that within the marble walls decisions are made in a civilized manner, but it might as well be mud wrestling. (This led the designer to put an image of fighting babies on the cover.) I left the Smithsonian once my first novel was published, only to spend the next nine years writing a love letter to museums, warts and all.
I thought I'd freely imagined a plot and cast, but imagination may be one step shy of intuition. Years into writing about Promise's unexpected pregnancy, I was pregnant and didn’t know it; initially, I was just as reluctant and sick as the script I'd crafted. (And, at three, that child was diagnosed with flea bites after I’d fashioned such a scene for the novel.) My fictional museum director resigns and embarks on an archeological dig along the Silk Route. Meanwhile, back at the Sackler and Freer, the director resigned and began working with Yo Yo Ma on his Silk Route Project! Just last week, I was told that in the 1980s, an architect had suggested the Smithsonian turn the Arts & Industries Building into a food court. Had I harbored that for decades or invented something the Institution was capable of? I don’t know anymore. My husband says I could make a living as a psychic, if only I could write faster than what I imagined came true.