Interview with Mary Jumbelic, First Place Winner in Q2 2021 Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest

Sunday, May 09, 2021
Mary Jumbelic is an author from Central New York, and the former chief medical examiner of Onondaga County. Performing thousands of autopsies in her career, she elaborates a strong voice for the deceased. She explores through creative non-fiction the imprint the dead have made on her humanity.

She has published with Rutgers University Press, Tortoise and Finch, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Vine Leaves Press, GFT Press, and Jelly Bucket. In 2014, her piece was selected for the top ten in the AARP/Huffington Post Memoir Writing Contest. In 2021, another was chosen in the top ten for the Tucson Literary Festival.

She is co-teaching an on-line course on memoir for the Downtown Writer’s Center of Syracuse, Spring 2021 and is Assistant Editor for Stone Canoe, Volume 15.

Stories can be read on her blog, Final Words, at

interview by Marcia Peterson

WOW: Congratulations on winning first place in our Q2 2021 Creative Nonfiction essay competition! What prompted you to enter the contest?

MJ: Thank you for the opportunity to provide insight into my story. I entered the contest because the focus on women writers resonated with me. It also shed light on the topic of domestic abuse. This piece had been rejected from other literary venues three times. I edited and re-edited. I knew it needed a home and didn’t want to give up on it.

WOW:  Glad that you continued to work on the piece, and have it be so well received! Your entry, “Watching Her” is a haunting essay told from a vantage point we don’t usually hear from with these kinds of tragic events. What inspired you to write this particular story?

MJ: I wrote this piece four to five years ago though the events date back longer than that. Having worked as a medical examiner for over 20 years, I am surrounded by memories of my patients. This essay as well as all of my others attempt to give the dead a voice. As I tell their stories, I am, at the heart of it, telling my own. Death has taught me much about life. There is a strong yang/yin to the whole experience.

WOW:  Is there a particular memoir you think everyone needs to read?

MJ: I read all genres and have learned much from fiction writers who create worlds that immerse the reader. We should do the same when we write memoir. The basics of the craft are captured in Stephen King’s “On Writing.” Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art” is inspirational. Others have helped create scaffolding for memoirists, such as Beth Kephart and Judith Barrington. Writers love to talk and write about writing ­­–– I try to avail myself of as much as possible, sift through it and find the words that speak directly to me.

Oliver Sacks speaks personally to me as a physician and humanist. “His Own Life” essay is a beautiful piece on facing death and life. I have been inspired by the essays of F. Gonzalez-Crussi, Mary Roach, and Atul Gawande. All these writers are moved to tell the tales of the human body capturing its beauty, frailty, and resilience. They do so with honesty and humility.

WOW:  Can you tell us what projects are you currently working on? What can we plan on seeing from you in the future?

MJ:  I am gathering from among all of my work, the best pieces to collate into a collection for a book. The tenor is much like “Watching Her” and the lessons about life that each of my patients have taught me. It can be difficult to acknowledge its worth but moments such as winning this contest reaffirm the process.
WOW:  That sounds like an interesting project, keep us posted! Thanks so much for chatting with us today Mary. Before you go, do you have any tips for our readers who may be thinking about entering writing contests?

MJ:  I enjoy writing contests because they challenge me ­­­­­–– word count, theme, and deadlines. Some even offer feedback for the work submitted which can be a useful Beta review. I would encourage anyone who wants to take her writing to the next level to brave the waters of contest writing to provide structure and discipline and improve her craft.


For more information about our quarterly Flash Fiction and Creative Nonfiction Essay contests, visit our contest page here.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Marcia--Thanks for doing this interview, and for giving us a link to Mary's essay.

Mary--Congratulations. Your essay blew me away. Your piece read like a movie. Like a documentary with film footage from the crime itself. I'm sure everyone who reads your first-place story will validate the worth of your writing. A collection of pieces like this?

I would buy it.

Again, congrats.

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