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Featured Fiction Author    

  Life is a Cycle of Stories

An Interview with Sheri Joseph

by Pam Kingsbury

Photo: Miriam Berkley
  Sheri Joseph's debut collection, Bear Me Safely Over, has garnered favorable reviews and the praise of critics.

Joseph, who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Georgia, joined the faculty as an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Georgia State University, where she teaches both graduate and undergraduate fiction writing courses.

Her short fiction appeared in several literary journals including: The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, Virginia Quarterly Review, Other Voices, and Kenyon Review. "The Elixir," which is included in Bear Me Safely Over, was a finalist for the National Magazine Award. She was a Tennessee Williams scholar at the 2001 Sewanee Writers' Conference.

Where did you grow up? Where were you educated? And where do you live/teach now?

I grew up mostly in the Memphis area and attended the University of the South, a small liberal arts college in east Tennessee.  After graduation, I lived in Georgia, in the areas where the book is set, for about twelve years ...most of that was graduate school in Athens, where I did the writing.

Now, after a brief loop into Kentucky, I'm lucky enough to have returned to a job in what feels like my home state, especially because I’m connected to it through my writing.  This fall I started teaching in the creative writing program at Georgia State University, which is such an exciting program.  I can’t quite believe I'm here.  By coincidence, I've been writing a book set in Atlanta for the past year, so I get a charge out of walking to my classes through downtown, feeling that I'm at the center of my own fictional world as well as a real city with so much happening.

Was BEAR ME SAFELY OVER your dissertation?

Bear Me Safely Over was actually the book I wrote immediately after my dissertation, a novel.  I grappled with that book for about eight years, seriously, and was never able to make it work to my own satisfaction.  But I learned so much from the process of drafting and redrafting and especially restructuring, and all the while, I think Bear Me Safely Over was coming together somewhere else in my head.  So when I sat down with this second book, which is actually a cycle of stories, it came much more easily and naturally than the novel.

Jim Kilgo at Georgia was my mentor through both books, and he was the one who believed in my work and gave me the confidence to get through the shaky spots.  He was wonderful at reading my work and explaining what I was doing with it, which helped authenticate it for me.  He read the first full draft of Bear Me Safely Over in one night, and the next night, which was the night of his own book signing for Daughter of My People, he took me aside and told me, "THIS is your book."  Stan Lindberg, the late editor of The Georgia Review, published my first story ("The Elixir," the last story in the book), and that was another invaluable boost of confidence.

Who were/are your literary influences?

The writers who I've spent the most time with, and who I hope have taught me something are Shakespeare, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison.  Marilynn Robinson's novel, Housekeeping, made a big impression on me, as did Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, from which I borrowed the structural principles for this book. There's a little nod in the book to Sherwood Anderson .... and so many of my favorite writers have written (story) cycles --- Ernest Hemingway, Jean Toomer, Eudora Welty, Katherine Ann Porter.

Talk about the book's structure.

Though a lot of people seem to be reading this book as a novel and finding it works that way, I've always seen it as a cycle of stories. The form helps explain the fact that the book moves from first to third person, past tense to present, and jumps around in time and place, exploring different lives connected to the two central families. Individually, the stories stand alone, and most appeared previously in literary journals. But the connections among them are all intentional, part of the original design of the book.

How did the collection originate?

I started this book with two incidents from a summer when I was working as a stall mucker at a riding stable .... rather small events that seemed to want a place in fiction. One was that I got kicked in he middle of the back by a horse (and that's hard to do!). The other is that I started finding live hummingbirds on the bard floor ... the first one I accidentally kicked across the floor before I knew what it was.

Those two kicking incidents frame the book, and I started by giving them to characters very different from myself, people at the right moment in their lives to be affected by them more deeply than I could be. The story of the two families came out of the characters involved in each incident –Curtis and Florie. Sidra, who is Florie's surviving daughter and Curtis, her fiancé, become the bridge between the two.

Then Paul, who more or less takes over the book, came out of a rancorous reference in Curtis, a story .... I intended to give Paul a chance to respond, but then he wouldn't shut up.

Florie lost a daughter to AIDS and Paul is gay ....

 .... With AIDS, I wanted the threat of homophobia and violence to be present, something Paul would have to acknowledge and contend with, but also not so overwhelming as to turn him into a martyr. I didn't want to simplify his life that way, or even with a story like "Rest Stop," in which Paul is forced to face directly with his community's hatred, to let that social/political issue become the center.

It's more about Paul's relationship with his father and stepmother, his struggle to live up to their expectations and also find a way to be honest about who he is. Without much guidance, he's searching for a place in the world where he fits. and that leads him in some dangerous directions. But he's strong and resourceful and probably also plain lucky to survive the trip.

Did you set out to explore the new American family?

Those themes are definitely present in the book, though "the new American family" sounds loftier than anything I was intentionally aiming for!  I write about particular connections between people --the lives of my characters as I see them -- and hope that something more universal comes through.  I tend to see people in patterns of connectedness, and for my central characters (here Sidra and Paul) the struggle is usually between individual desires and a sense of responsibility to others.  As people betray or leave behind or fail in their original connections, especially to biological family, they find replacements in other people, often awkward replacements -- not just stepfamilies, but friends substituted for siblings, lovers serving as absent fathers, the children of strangers replacing one's own.  And maybe that's the new American family -- no longer that ideal family unit, but something more haphazard and organic, formed out of loss and guilt and a deep desire to do better the next time.

Is there any chance you'll write a sequel?

I don't think of it as a sequel, but the book I'm writing now, a novel, involves the later lives of two of the characters, Paul and Kent.  I'm not sure whether it's wise to remain caught up with this material, but I don't seem to have a choice -- I just have a lot more to say about them.  Though Bear Me Safely Over leaves them on a fairly positive note, their reality is obviously a lot more troubled and complicated, and I'm drawn to continue exploring that.  I won't say too much about it, except that the novel-in-progress begins four years later and in a very different context. There are some new characters who take major steering roles.  I hope there will be some readers out there who love these characters as much as I do, enough to want to spend more time with them.  But I also intend the new book to stand on its own and inhabit its own territory. 

Where do you hope your career will be in ten years?  Twenty years? 

That's a hard one. For years, all I've wanted is a life that will allow me the time to write, and a publisher who believes in my work enough to print it, however weird it is -- and it seems I might have that now.... I really hope I can be the kind of writer whose books other writers and book people will read, love, remember, and keep on their shelves. I can't imagine ever being well-known, .... And, I'd like to have students who say that I've helped them become better writers.


Bear Me Safely Over
By Sheri Joseph
Atlantic Monthly, 2002
Hardcover $23.00 (259pp)
ISBN: 0-87113-841-7
             Southern Scribe Review




© 2002, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved