Front Royal novelist tells tragedy using humor

By Josette Keelor

Things are not what they seem to be in Missi Magalis’ novel “How Do You Do, Mrs. Wiley?”

From the second line of the 566-page tome, we know that narrator Grace Wiley killed her worst enemy. She’s 70 years old when the book begins, but then she brings the reader back to when her parents first met as teenagers and how their story shaped her own.

The voice of Grace tells us her perception of tragedies as she experiences them way too early in life — but beneath the book’s reveal-nothing cover is a world of stories told by the fictional Front Royal resident who ages throughout its pages to become the killer we know is inevitable.

The book’s first deception is its title, named for Grace’s grandmother Gwen “Nanny” Wiley, instead of for Grace herself.

“A lot of horrible things happen to Grace,” said Magalis, of Front Royal, “but I didn’t want it to be depressing so I decided that I was going to tell a story with humor too.”

Another quirk? Grace isn’t her real name. It’s Linda, and her father named her for his former girlfriend. His wife allowed the name for the birth certificate, but after that Linda Grace became just Grace.

When tragedy takes both parents from her, Grace moves in with Nanny, whom Magalis called “refreshingly quirky, loving and loyal.”

“Ollie Clark and Sadie Cooper are Grace’s two best friends, [and] along with the rest of the town, they all go along with Gwen Wiley even when her plans and ideas change on a whim to fit her needs or the needs of those she loves,” Magalis said.

Magalis, 40, has written other books — a young adult fantasy novel, “Ashmikisle Out of Ashes,” about two time-traveling sisters, which she published as print-on-demand in 2011, and a couple of children’s stories she never published.

But southern fiction is her favorite.

“I wanted to really incorporate family and community and faith in the book,” she said.

She published the book on July 19 through her own company, Happy Creek Publishing, which she uses for her own writing; and her daughters Brooke, 21, Robin, 17, and Kerry Lane, 14, helped with the cover’s design, book layout and feedback on plot development.

Magalis called her fantasy novel her “learning curve,” but even before she wrote it she tried her hand at romance. “And I don’t read romance,” she said — a fact that became clear to area author Mary Kay McComas, when Magalis sent her a couple chapters to critique.

They met at the Front Royal Daily Grind, and “I thought everyone could hear her,” Magalis said. “She destroyed the work. She destroyed it.” But then McComas said Nora Roberts did the same thing to her. “I said, ‘Well, what did you do?’ She said, ‘I never showed her anything I wrote again.'”

Magalis said McComas told her she was writing back story into the plot in places she shouldn’t have been. “You’re trying to get to know your characters while you’re writing,” Magalis remembered McComas saying.

“I went home, I cried, I packed up my computer, put it away. Took me two weeks, and then I thought, ‘Okay I know some of what she said is right,’ and that’s how I learned character analysis.”

“Mrs. Wiley” has adult themes and is aimed at adults, but Magalis knows she has a younger audience from her years teaching creative writing at Warren County High School. An adult education teacher now, she said she wanted the story to feel like it’s part of Front Royal, so she includes area locations in the book like Happy Creek, the train tracks at the bottom of Manassas Avenue and the Daily Grind on Main Street.

Magalis drew inspiration from other southern fiction authors like Fanny Flag (“Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café”) and Sue Monk Kidd (“The Secret Life of Bees.”)

“I always wanted to be able to write a book about a serious subject but make it funny,” she said. “And so that’s where it started.”

But the book’s title took longer to iron out, and ultimately she attributes a friend’s early comment to naming her book.

The friend knew she was writing the book and one day greeted her with “How do you do, Mrs. Wiley?”

“And after that the names started coming and ideas started coming, and I was outlining the next day,” Magalis said. “As soon as he said ‘How do you do, Mrs. Wiley,’ that was it.”

Missi Magalis’ book “How Do You Do, Mrs. Wiley?” is available in paperback for $10.35 at Amazon.com and on Amazon Kindle for $7.99. For more information, go to www.missimagalis.com.

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com