Mary Winn Heider’s path to becoming an author could be a book she would see herself enjoying.
She was a bartender on a train in Alaska, she traveled with circuses in Europe, she was a receptionist at a cadaver lab and she even taught drama for a semester at Dreher High School, her alma mater. But she had one true passion throughout her life – reading.
That love for reading flourished when Heider was a student at A.C. Moore Elementary School.
“I remember tearing through the collection of illustrated classics in the library. I read all of them,” she said.
Heider’s favorite book was “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James. Despite the book’s old condition, she says she loved reading it.
“The story was so creepy. There’s something about reading through those classics that made me feel so mature. I love that those were available for us. It really fed my need for story,” she said.
Growing up, Heider and her family traveled back and forth between Columbia and Indonesia for her father’s job. Reading made Heider feel like she wasn’t alone.
“Being able to carry a familiar book with me meant that no matter where I was, even if it was unfamiliar, it made me feel like I was home. Books not only introduced me to the world, they also allowed me to go out into the world in a way that felt safe,” she said.
In addition to A.C. Moore, Heider attended Hand Middle School and graduated from Dreher in 1996. She went on to study theater and anthropology at Wesleyan College. After graduating, Heider didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do. That’s when she started taking on several different jobs.
One of those jobs reunited her with her fourth-grade teacher at A.C. Moore, who was teaching third grade at Satchel Ford Elementary School at the time. The two came up with a grant program telling family histories through a circus setting. Heider traveled with circuses in Italy, Germany and Russia and talked with circus performers about their family histories.
“I would send the circus performers’ stories to my former teacher, who would then share them with her students. When I came back to Columbia, we practiced writing the students’ stories of what it’s like to grow up here. We would then put together a narrative circus based on the students’ stories,” she said.
At one point, Heider was a receptionist for a cadaver lab, which became the inspiration for her first book “The Mortification of Fovea Munson.” The book is about a girl who spends the summer working in her parents’ cadaver lab.
“I thought the place I worked at was bonkers and that someone should write a story about it. Maybe it should be me,” Heider said during a recent presentation to current students at A.C. Moore.
She eventually settled down in Chicago to focus on acting, before deciding to shift her focus to writing, something she says she struggled with growing up.
“I wanted what I was writing to be as good as what I was reading. Bridging that gap was a real lesson for me. I was okay not being perfect in a lot of other things, but writing just felt so personal. It was a piece of my soul that I was trying to give shape to. I got really frustrated when it wasn’t right the first time,” said Heider.
She says it took her a while to realize her writing didn’t have to be perfect and to be okay with failure.
“Being okay with failure meant that I can do anything and I’d be okay if I failed because that would just be a launching off point for something else that would be better,” she said.
Heider earned her master’s degree in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has written and released five books under her name and ghostwrote 13 books. Her latest book, “The Stupendous Switcheroo,” is a hybrid prose and graphic novel about a boy who gets new powers every 24 hours.
“One of the really cool things about superheroes for me is when they’re learning to use their powers. Because the main character in the story would have a new superpower every day, he’d have to relearn how to become a hero every day. The boy in the story wants nothing more than to be heroic,” Heider told students.
For Richland One students who may not know what they want to do in the future, Heider says don’t be afraid to try new things.
“Even if you’re not good at them at first, it’s fine. If you’re interested in it and it seems like something you want to keep doing, keep doing it and you’ll get better. Eventually, you’ll be able to succeed in your own way. That’s the coolest possible way to succeed,” she said.
While Heider enjoys being an author, she says even that career could change in the future.