Mary Armstrong’s phone rings at 4:15 a.m. every morning.
Her mother, Midge, is always on the other end, waiting to hear what her daughter wrote the night before.
Armstrong, originally from Ottumwa, is the author of historical novels. His name graces the covers of three books and a one-act play – “The Mesilla – The Two Valleys Saga: Book One”; “The San Augustine – The Saga of the Two Valleys: Book Two”; “When the Doves Coo: A Prequel to the Two Valleys Series”; and “It is Blood: A Historical Fiction Play in One Act.” The third book in the saga, titled “The White Sands”, is due out later this year.
Armstrong’s work chronicles the life of Jesús ‘Chuy’ Perez Contreras Verazzi Messi – a fictional character created by Armstrong – in conjunction with the real-life murders of Colonel Albert J. Fountain and his eight-year-old son, Henry, in the Territory of New Mexico in the 1880s.
The fountains disappeared in 1896 near White Sands National Park in what is now New Mexico. Fountain, a well-known lawyer, politician and Civil War veteran, previously indicted a group of cattle rustlers, or rustlers, for their crimes in Lincoln County. He and his son were on their way back to their home in Las Cruces when they went missing.
Their bodies were never found, and what became of them remains one of New Mexico’s greatest mysteries.
Armstrong became fascinated with the mystery of the Fountain murders when she and her husband, Norman ‘Skip’ Bailey, moved to Las Cruces in 2010.
“I was really captivated by the history of this region. I always like to study the history of places [I live] because I think that really tells you a lot about the aura of the area. It really dictates what comes next,” she says. “I kept reading and reading, pretty much everything I could find about it, and I knew I really wanted to write about it.”
“The Two Valleys” series is a coming-of-age story that explores the often unforgiving landscape of the wild Southwest, including significant range wars and a territory struggling to become a state in the late years. 1800. She weaves this story and the fountain murders with the fictional first-person adventures and adversities of Jesús during his quest for manhood.
Armstrong uses historical resources, including Fountain family journals and old reporting from the Rio Grande Republican, to set the mood, tone, and scene. The series covers the most tumultuous period in southern New Mexico history, where ranged wars turned into political battle. To this day, the inhabitants of the Mesilla Valley and the Tularosaans disagree on many points.
“We all know yellow journalism is very, very biased. This [Rio Grande Republican] was a Republican newspaper, so it also gives me a lot about the tone of the Las Cruces area at the time of the murders,” she says.
Successful historical fiction requires an immense amount of research. Armstrong’s writing is a complex, often convoluted balance between fiction and history.
“You don’t want to make mistakes and you don’t want to say something about someone who is obviously wrong, but you also want to create characters from historical figures,” she says. “It can lead to a lot of research and deepening the storyline. What was Maggie Fountain really talking about? What did she like? What did she want to do? Was she an outgoing person or was she shy? That sort of thing.”
Like his own characters, Armstrong lived a life of adventure, adversity, and discovery.
Formerly Marvin Armstrong, Mary began her transition from male to female in 2003. Armstrong graduated with the class of 1970 from Ottumwa High School and earned a degree in landscape architecture from Iowa State University in 1974 .
“My dream since growing up in Ottumwa playing golf with my father was to become a golf course architect. It was also the center of my education,” says Armstrong.
She worked for several government and private planning agencies, as well as several design firms before opening her golf course design business in 1990. Over 15 years, Armstrong completed over 100 new golf course designs and renovations, including Elmhurst Country Club in Oskaloosa and other projects around the world. She has been recognized as one of the top female golf course architects in the industry.
“My golf business kind of disappeared [from 2003-05], partly because of the economy at that time, but also I think a lot because of my transition,” says Armstrong. “Golf is a very human-driven industry…but during that time I continued to win awards.”
While working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in New Hampshire, Armstrong found herself writing — a lot. During this time, she wrote environmental impact documents, the master plan and newsletters.
“There was a lot of writing that went with this work, but I was terrible, actually. I was a terrible writer,” she says. “My boss…was a biologist, but he graduated from Columbia [University]. He was a real maniac,” she says. “My papers came back from him just bleeding red. I was actually very upset and worried about it, so I took quite a few classes with the feds on writing.
Since then, Armstrong has steadily grown as a writer. In addition to “The Two Valleys” series, she has written a golf column for Las Cruces Sun-News and has contributed to several magazines and journals. She says her 50 years of experience as a man and 20 years as a woman have helped her write about both sexes in her work of fiction.
“I’ve come to appreciate much more what it’s like to be a woman, good and bad,” she says.
Armstrong knows nothing is certain in life, but she has no doubts about who she is — both as a writer and as a woman.
“I think in 20 years my transition has resulted in the person I am today. I have grown and changed throughout those 20 years,” she says. “My attitude about my gender and my gender change has changed over these years… My experience is only my experience. Everyone’s experience is different… It’s very complicated and very challenging.
Armstrong’s sister, as well as his mother, Midge, were supportive of his writing and transition. Their daily phone calls are an intimate exchange of affirmations that give Armstrong the confidence she needs to keep moving forward.
“I talk to my mom every day at 4:15 a.m. When I write, she always wants to hear what I write,” she says. “It’s very special for me. Her interest really got me through a few early tries when I really wondered if this was really something I wanted to tackle. His encouragement really meant a lot to me.
Armstrong will be hosting a book sale and book signing on Wednesday, July 27 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Pallaster Brothers Brewery. The brewery is located at 116 North Market Street in downtown Ottumwa.