Author Sheri Reynolds signs a copy of her new book, The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb, during the Old Dominion University Literary Festival in October in Norfolk, Va.
NORFOLK, Va. – This is the second part of a Q&A with the author and educator Sheri Reynolds. Her latest book, The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb [Turner Publishing, 2012], hit the streets this past fall.
We pick up with a discussion of the book’s structure – as Reynolds describes it, as a devotional – in which sections of narrative as told by Myrtle are followed by reflections of the events. Later in the talk, we get into the art of reading your work to people.
The last part of this interview went into Reynolds’ early writing experiences and how she evolved the story and structure of her new book. Reynolds is a best selling author, educator and even playwright, known to many for The Rapture of Canaan [G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995], an Oprah’s Book Club selection. I didn’t ask her about that, but there’s a great bit of further reading on that experience online.
You can read the first part of this Craft Q&A by clinking on this link. You can read more about Reynolds at her website by clicking this link. You can return to the post you already are reading by clicking on this link.
Neat trick, huh? Gotta get those page views up.
This talk has been edited for length and clarity. It contains some brief adult language. And, in a stunning turn, the first ever mid-interview death in this blog’s storied history.
Just wait for it.
Again, by way of full disclosure, I’m one of Reynolds’ former students in the MFA Creative Writing Old Dominion University, where she is the Ruth and Perry Morgan Chair of Southern Literature.
By the way, in my second year in the program, I was Honorary Bearer of the Sacred Nectar, which is not a real thing, but just try telling that to my resumé. Anyway.
Myrtle is a first person novel in which smaller narrative sections are capped by direct-address reflections called “Meaty Tidbits.” Larger narrative sections are capped by “Activities for Further Growth.”
Q: I wasn’t sure of the structure, at first. When I read the first section, I was like, ‘Wow, this narrative is shit hot.’ I can say ‘shit hot.’ It’s a blog.
Go ahead. [Laughter.]
Q: Then I got to the Meaty Tidbits, and it’s funny, but I had to think about it. To me [as a reader] Myrtle’s real, right?
Q: Because I love to get taken away.
Q: I almost thought of them almost, and I’m a Catholic kid, like homilies. You know, looking back on the text and saying, ‘Hey.’
Here’s what you need to pay attention to.
Q: But then they do other things. Later one of them looks back to something that happened, and she says, ‘That’s why when this happened, then this.’
Q: You see her making the connections.
They sometimes fill in things, too. They sort of amplify material in the main sections.
Q: They’re like breadcrumbs.
Yes, and they’re disruptive, in a way. That was a strange decision. I mean, it was an interesting decision. I obviously made it very purposefully. One of the things as a teacher – God knows, we do it over and over – we talk about John Gardner’s ‘vivid and continuous fictional dream.’ Then when the reader is no longer dreaming the dream but reflecting on the dream or thinking about why it happened the way it did, they’re no longer in the dream.
My aim has been in everything I’ve ever written to take the reader in so completely, to provide just the right amount, just the right detail and characterization, to stay in scene just long enough and to break so deliberately, that you didn’t ever want to break the dream. In this book, I break the dream every three pages.
Q: I don’t know that you’re breaking the dream because it’s her doing it.
It’s her voice. Right.
Q: As a reader, if you buy Myrtle, you buy she’s doing [this for a reason]… [D]oes that make sense?
That’s the way that it would need to work if it were continuous. In terms of the narrative Myrtle tells about the day she went off to have this procedure done, found this man in her truck, and was afraid of what her husband would say, kept on driving, made it to a motel that night – that gets disrupted by her reflections on it.
Q: So you do your first person pass on the story, and I assume you do drafts and drafts. When did the idea come into it, the idea that ‘Hey, we’re going to have the reflections’ come into it?
That was a different draft entirely. I didn’t have a draft when I started adding ‘Meaty Tidbits’ in. Once I decided I was going to write the book as a devotional, then that was the draft all the way through. …
I teach full time, and I’m not usually able to write and teach at the same time. I love my teaching life, too, and I give it everything I’ve got. Summers are when I write. Usually, my path is I will draft the first half of a novel one summer, the second half of a novel the next summer, then I come back in and I do a revision of a novel the third summer. What often will happen is I will get going on something, and I will realize it’s the wrong time to tell the story or I don’t quite know what’s important about that story. I did this book in 2006, 2007, put it aside, wrote The Sweet In-Between, published The Sweet In-Between, and then came back to this book.
The Sweet-In Between was one of those strange ones. It came in a great gush and at great force, and I actually wrote that while I was teaching. I couldn’t stop writing. I was working from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. for a semester, and I drafted The Sweet In-Between. Then there was the revision of that book and working on that book with the publisher. That took its own time, too.
But when I wrote [Myrtle] in the form that it’s in, I did it in one pass. It was like I’d finally figured out the shape that this book was meant to be. Of course, it was revised a lot. I loved writing the Meaty Tidbits. They were my chance to stand on my soapbox, and they were the chance for me to be my granny, and to sort of preach and tell people what they ought to know already.
When I let Myrtle be that character, she would sometimes just go on and on. I had a good time with them. There was a time when there were three Meaty Tidbits after each section, and I made a decision that was too much Meaty Tidbit-ness. I had to cut out at least one. Some of the Activities for Further Growth that fell to the ends of sections were rescued tidbits that got reshaped because I just couldn’t give them up. Once I knew it was going to be in that form, I went through the whole draft. That was probably one summer’s pass on it.
That would have been the version that I sold. After I sold the novel, there was the work with editors, and some tightening, especially.
Q: But there was a first person pass that was separate?
Right. That was not in the voice of the spiritual teacher. Just her telling her story. In that version, she was just trying to be understood. She hadn’t given herself her goddess stance yet. [Laughter.] She hadn’t mythologized what she had done.
Q: Are the big gushes easier for you when you do first person or third person?
[Pause.] First. When I’m so close to a character that it’s almost stream of conscious.
Q: So the feeling I get when I’m doing that and the feeling I got [reading] Myrtle, was there’s almost a heat. You know – you’re writing because the devil’s chasing you.
Yes. I love that feeling. Don’t you?
Q: It’s a rush. I feel like she [meaning the character in composing her own story] has it, but then she revises it. Like the structure helps her revise and explore. Is that fair to say, or that –
I don’t know. Maybe. Certainly, there is a structure that is superimposed on the story. That’s a layer of distance and a deliberateness in the telling that is not true of a work that is so raw, that is staying so close to the character that it sort of makes you cringe. In a good way – I like that, when it’s so raw.
Q: What I love about first person is it just makes everything so immediate and universal, in a way. I think there’s a real center of her pain. Her humor is wonderful and it’s funny […] but it’s all coming from tremendous pain.
Q: She’s judged.
Q: She feels that her body isn’t good enough.
Q: So how do you find the humor there when you’re writing? It’s not just Sheri Reynolds humor. I feel like it’s [Myrtle's] humor that’s important.
I don’t know that I have a good answer. It’s a great question. Myrtle is not anybody real. She’s definitely not me. But she looks a lot like both of my grandmothers. I mean, her voice is really like one of my grandmothers’. I grew up with these stories that are kind of awful, but were told in a really funny way. The humor had been found in them, and there’s something about seeing somebody dealing with something painful in a funny way. At the same time, it’s such a relief to have it not become so heavy.
I wanted – and want – to talk about things that don’t get talked about. To talk about things that people are squeamish about. So, at the beginning of the book, Myrtle is getting ready to get her labia cut to make her husband happy and to make sex better because she’s lopsided, and she thinks there’s a problem with that. Just to take that on as a subject was kind of fun for me, but, I have to tell you, they tried to get me to change it to a breast reduction when I was trying to publish the book. They thought it was too much.
Q: Who did?
I can’t remember if it was my old publisher or the one I actually went with. … An editor along the way felt like I needed to make that more palatable and less uncomfortable for readers by not writing about a too-big labia. I really think, as Myrtle says, there are women all over creation who are ashamed of their bodies, and we need to talk about it more than we do. I really want my characters to be so real that a reader who is not female or a female who has a perfectly symmetrical labia or whatever will go, ‘Wow, I never really thought of that.’
One of the things I love about reading is reading about people who are so different and have different bodies and different experiences and at different times. […] I hope that Myrtle will be an eye-opening, real character in spite of the fact that she’s framing it. She’s taking her painful experience and casting it so readers can laugh at it even as they hear it.
Q: Did you worry about characterizing Hellcat? There’s an arc to him that, from reading the first few pages, you might not expect.
Right. Well, I wanted him to be even more complex than even Myrtle knew. We all get trapped in our roles, and she’s trapped him as surely as he’s trapped her, in terms of who she thinks he is and what she thinks he’s like. …
I would never want to write a book that makes fun of its characters. My aim is always to show the full humanity of everybody that I’m dealing with, especially the ones that you’d be likely to stereotype. That’s more important than anything.
Q: It’s interesting, the example of the name of the boat – [Myrtle’s husband has named his boat – two of them, actually – for an ex-girlfriend.] It’s a betrayal.
Q: What I thought was interesting was there’s a logic to the betrayal –
Q: – that is either an excuse or a reason to prevent him from seeing that it is a betrayal, even when he’s confronted with the fact that it is. Do you plan that out? Does it come to you?
No, I don’t plan it out, but I mine it. So Craig’s boat is named The Lady Renee, after his first girlfriend, and that makes sense because he has the boat before he’s with Myrtle. So I put that in first, and then I realized the possibility of the new boat, The Lady Renee II, and his logic versus [Myrtle’s] logic, with him saying, ‘You can’t just change the name of your boat. Everybody knows you by your boat.’ And her going, ‘My God, he didn’t change the name of his boat. And he’s still holding on to his high school girlfriend.’
That resonance is only possible because of the first incident, but it’s not something I would have ever known in the planning of it. Because I don’t really plan so much as I gather. Then possibilities happen. Things layer. I see opportunities.
Q: There are little reveals, right?
Q: And you’re setting up something that happens later.
Right, but, as a writer, I don’t know I’m setting up something that happens later. But as a writer who’s been at this a while, when I use the boat again, I see an opportunity. When it shows up again, I start thinking, ‘What can I do with this. Where do I position this? Where do I turn this so that it’s doing more than it did the first time?’ So it’s building on what it’s doing the first time. It’s showing a new aspect of character or a new possibility, perhaps, in terms of meaning.
Q: But it’s all concrete.
It’s got to be. Well, it’s doesn’t have to be, but that’s how fiction works, it seems to me. It works best when it’s operating in a very sensory and concrete way.
Q: Did the character of Hellcat change along the way?
This is a white woman and a black man, who happens to be homeless, who are put together. I didn’t set out to write a book about race. I had that situation with a traditional, middle class white woman with a tyrant for a husband – at least at the beginning – who wouldn’t like her being with a black man at all. As soon as I got into that situation, I was in a situation about race.
In earlier drafts of the book, I probably put too much energy into trying to not let him be the spokesperson for the African American man who’s put into a truck with a middle aged white woman from the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I needed to pull back and let them just be the people that they are. I knew all along that I was going to let each of them not be the person that the other one thought, and that I was going to sort of let each of them serve as guides for the other.
There were places where I let their conversations become way too didactic and way too overt about opportunity and privilege. … There were scenes of dialogue that just had to go. It’s sort of trial and error.
Q: [We discussed part of the book in which Myrtle and Hellcat go to a spiritual retreat.] She experiences things which I didn’t expect, which is great […] but do you worry about shaping that part of the journey?
Of course. Because I’m playing along with what’s believable and what’s not believable … and sometimes something is magic and sometimes it’s a disaster. I just got back from Amsterdam, and we were walking in the red light district – you’ve got a mosquito.
Q: It’s all right. I get that a lot.
I realized I was literally in a sea – I think he might be biting you. Or maybe you already got him. Did you get him on the side of your head there?
Q: Am I bleeding?
No. I think he was perched there.
Q: [Slapping sound.]
There. You’re good. No, he was perched there. He went flying again.
Q: Did he look all happy?
Right. Very full. [Laughter.] Success.
Q: If I pass out, just go on.
All right. I’ll talk right into [the recorder]. Anyway.
So that sense of being moved by the crowd, just being sort of pushed along, I think there was a certain part of that happening in part of Myrtle’s journey. She’s literally pushed onto a bus and goes on to a spiritual center. It’s not quite believable, but yet these things happen all the time to us, at least in metaphorical ways. What I tried to do with that, knowing this was pushing believability, is I create these other characters who decided not to go on this trip … and I start using them in the story. [Myrtle and Hellcat, effectively, take this couple’s place at the retreat.] ‘Well, the Locklears couldn’t be here so they sent Myrtle and [Hellcat].’ … When I know the reader’s going to have a question, I plan it. I give it to another character to ask.
I just did this with book I just turned in. There’s a character who’s really high functioning and makes a stupid error. I had another character in the scene go, ‘Why is this so hard?’ I try to use that in the telling to make it believable. Usually, it adds a depth, because nobody’s that functional, right?
Q: I wanted to talk about readings. [...] We did these [videotaped readings] for the program. That was the first time I really heard you read. It was revelatory, in a way. The reading was great, but it’s a different thing – Hold on a second. [Loud slapping noise, as the mosquito gets away.] I get very nervous when I read. You have such a great way of doing it. Can you tell me about your first experience reading?
I don’t remember my first experience reading. I remember my first reading. It was in graduate school and I gave it at [Virginia Commonwealth University] at a graduate student reading, but I did that thing where I don’t have any memory of it at all because I was terrified.
I get nervous every time I read. I don’t get as nervous anymore. I love to read. I love to read books to little kids. I like to listen to books on tape sometimes. I listened to all the Harry Potters on tape, and I loved feeling like a kid when I was listening. I listened to them on my drives from the Eastern Shore to school. I loved the different voices for the different characters. I loved the drama of it. When I give a reading to a crowd, I want them to feel like they’re at a performance without being over the top. I mean, I’ve seen some readings that were so dramatic I was like, ‘Whoa, easy now.’ But I want them to have an experience. The voice is an entire aspect – Usually, you’re reading the words on a page, and the words need to stand alone and to convey everything as though they have the voice behind it. But when you do have the voice behind it, I think it can add another dimension.
With any new work, I definitely practice my readings. I time them. I see exactly how long sections take to read. If you were to look at my own copy of my own book, you would see … something like ‘seven minutes.’ And then I’ll have the next section, and it will say ‘plus four.’ So I know how long things are going to take. I may slow down or speed up a little bit, but it will be within the minute.
Especially if I’m reading in an area where I may have read before, I will give a different variation of the reading. […] I feel my job as a reader is to have that [preparation] done before I get there.
[Another loud slapping noise; huzzah!] Oh, you finally got him.
Q: Excuse me as I –
You wipe your bloody mosquito – [Laughter.]
Q: Do you feel it’s better to read selection and have a chance to talk to the audience rather than read a whole long thing?
People’s attention spans are short. I think one of the things poetry readings have on fiction readings is you break it up and you get to move in your chair. Drink some water and adjust. That sort of thing. I like to work in chunks, and I think even breaking for a minute and talking through something and going back can be a good way to do it. I think most times people who come to readings are interested in how it came to be. Being able to give a little background information between sections can be a good thing for those people. When I go to readings I always like to hear the writers talk about process, so I always want to make time for that. And some of the obvious questions you can circumvent by addressing them when they have relevance.
Q: As you progressed and published books and did readings – and I guess it’s different because you’re a teacher and you –
I speak to groups a lot, yeah.
Q: Did the reading skill develop before the teaching skill or was it kind of together?
Together. I mean, I liked being in plays. I liked doing monologues, that kind of stuff, so I had that kind of experience before I was reading my own writing. You get opportunities, too. I’d get invited to a writers’ conference and give little talks. You get experience that way.
A book tour was really my first experience with readings. Maybe really great writers do book tours these days, but mostly everything is internet. In the mid-1990s, when I was really starting, 1997 was my Oprah year, and I did a 20-city book tour for A Gracious Plenty after that. I was bouncing from city to city. So I got a lot of practice. Most of the time, I’ve had good readings. Every now and then, I’ve had a little shitty one. I remember thinking, ‘What is wrong with me? How could I have botched that?’ I have now given lectures or keynotes that are 45 minutes or an hour long. I’d have died if I needed to do that at the beginning, but 15 minutes of my own work, I could do. It’s just building on that.
It’s watching the audience, being mindful of the audience. I want to know that material so well I don’t have to look at the page. I can look away and come back down. There are certain times you can’t see your audience, see their eyes, because of the lighting. I fake it. Even if I can’t see them, I will keep my body doing what I do when I’m at Prince Books and I’m looking out at somebody in the first row. That’s the performance.
Q: I did practice my [recent thesis] reading, and I stole from you and Tim [Seibles, the wonderful poet and reader interviewed in this space last year.]
Working the room.
Q: I’ve thought more about reading – that maybe I should get better at it.
I think that fiction writers especially need to take things and figure out how to boil them down to smaller pieces.
Playing us out is a reminder to name your boat wisely, and – just maybe – to be a little more careful where you park it.