Self-doubt, critical praise and commercial success–novelist Sheri Reynolds '89 has a lot to say about the literary life. Reynolds, who recently visited campus as a guest of the Abbott Honors Program for English majors, took an hour out of her Davidson schedule for an interview covering analysis and creativity, instinct and imagination, psychotherapy and bubble baths, big rigs and balky toilets, her best work in life and what the future holds.
She is author of the novels Bitterroot Landing, The Rapture of Canaan (an Oprah Book Club selection and New York Times bestseller), A Gracious Plenty, Firefly Cloak, The Sweet In-Between, The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb, and the play Orabelle's Wheelbarrow. Reynolds teaches creative writing and literature at Old Dominion University and is currently the English Department chair.
Here she is, in her own words:
The importance of reading is slowing down and focusing on one thing, one story, and being able to go deep rather than hang on the surface, as we do all the time. If somebody tells you what they're reading, you know a lot about that person, that they read at all.
When you read, it involves interacting with a story. I think of books as true pleasures now, like fine chocolates. Life is frenetic and distracted and there are so many demands. Reading is like a different mode. It's almost as good as sleep.
When I'm actually doing my own writing, I try my best not to analyze or think about the architecture of the piece. I get in fast and I get out fast. My first versions of things are often skeletal and somewhat underwritten, but it's all there, mostly.
I am aiming to make students aware of their choices. I'm not teaching how to write a novel, I'm teaching about consciousness of narration. It's more like architecture, or psychotherapy. It's about the soul of the piece.
I worked with six students today. There was one documentary film, one collection of natural-world essays, a non-fiction project on women in trucking, a fictional work on queer life and love, one on John Ashbery poetry, and a collection of travel poems.
There's an interesting thing that happens when you're balancing analytical and creative aspects of writing. They must shape this material, but in some ways the impulse to analyze it works against the instinct of just imagining it. I tell them, "Stop trying to make this mean something yet. Do your writing. Move it forward. You can look back in March!"
I remember when I was his student, [Professor Emeritus of English] Tony Abbott just wanted us to write. He held us accountable for producing the works and sharing the works and getting the feedback, but he got out of the way....
And just because you write something, it isn't art. It's not good just because you write it. It's not a story just because you write it. I learned that from Tony, and now I try to get people to ask those questions themselves.
There are parts of it [chairing the department] that I love, but it's massive. I hire, I fire, I solve problems really fast when they come up, I manage office staff, I fix Xerox machines, I fix toilets. I realize now, I actually could run a business.
I am working on a novel and I have completed a draft. The content is there, but the second half of the book needs to be brought closer to the characters. It's a story that's told in about an hour and a half.
I am lucky if I can get 30 minutes a day to write. What I've been able to do when I've been able to write is short work from my "Snippets" file on my computer.
That's gotten complicated. What southern literature means to me in a nostalgic sort of way is fiction that's pastoral, agrarian, place-centered, with quirky characters....
In some ways it feels very different to me now. I have a named chair in southern literature at Old Dominion, and when I teach southern literature, I start with Thomas Jefferson's journals, so it's essentially a class on race and race literature. You can look back and see this has been going on forever, Faulkner, Baldwin, Welty... It's disheartening to me that material around race is just as relevant today.
I love it because it's all characters. It's misunderstandings and fighting for the right to be the most wounded. I'll think I know which one is most sympathetic, which one I'm rooting for, and then Barbara [Reynolds' wife, a psychotherapist] will say, "Wait a minute, let's see what this one comes out with...." I listen to couples therapy sessions like some people watch football.
I feel like I was incredibly lucky and blessed [to be published early to critical and popular acclaim]. I had a deficit where confidence was concerned. I needed that sort of validation. I'm really glad. And it relieved me of the need to keep hitting the high target.
My first three books were written before I got a tenure-track job. I've published six. That's not that much, but in some ways, it's kind of amazing.
And I don't have to keep being a writer if I don't want. I'm a Hospice volunteer. The best work in my life has not been writing. I think the best work in my life was being with a dying man. I don't think I would have known that if I had been writing all the damn time.
It seems as though there is a "quiet mind" that is possible, just possible, in a place like Davidson. Here you have this beautiful place and the natural world and trees and where you feel safe, even if we don't feel completely safe anywhere anymore, and where you feel support. Davidson provides so much more than the basic needs, and there are so many people who are getting only the basic needs met.
It allows the mind to expand, because there's space for it.
I don't have any doubt at all that I'm always going to be a writer at heart. I don't know what form my stories will take and how I will get them out in the world.
I know I don't want to learn how to do marketing. I would much rather learn tai chi. I would rather learn how to back a big rig.
Right now, I have to be representing a university. When I'm free of affiliation and I can say anything, that will be fun. I can't wait to see what I'll do.