- The Wonder Book of the Air
- The Celestial Jukebox (2004)
Cynthia Shearer : A Biography
Cynthia Shearer talks about
her first work of fiction being an autobiographical memory
Biography of Cynthia Shearer
by Kathryn Herring SHS)
Cynthia Shearer was born on June 25, 1955. Her
father, Irvine Harrison Shearer, was an alcoholic, so her parents
divorced when she was three. Interested in writing from childhood,
she kept a daily journal. Shearer describes herself as a loner
who "worked at not fitting in." Music was a major influence
in her life, and her older brothers contributed to that interest
by giving her their old records, such as the Beatles and anti-war
music. Shearer was a serious girl in high school and strongly
opposed the Vietnam War. She first married Stanley Godbold,
but they later divorced.
In 1980, Shearer moved to Oxford, Mississippi. She began to
write seriously at the age of thirty when she was finishing
her Ph. D. at the University of Mississippi. Her goal was to
make a difference in the world with her writing and to write
things people actually care about reading. She and her second
husband Dan Williams, chairman of the English department at
Ole Miss, had a daughter in 1987. In 1994, Shearer became the
curator of Rowan Oak, the home of the writer William Faulkner.
She gave up the position to have more time to teach English
and to have more time for her writing. Her first novel,
The Wonder Book of the Air, was published
in 1996 after four years in the making.
UPDATE 2009: In 2004 Cynthia Shearer published
The Celestial Jukebox. She and her
husband Dan Williams now live in Fort Worth, Texas, where Shearer
teaches creative writing at TCU in Fort Worth
and Dan chairs the English Department.
Interview with Cynthia Shearer
Tamra Blocker (SHS)
for the list of questions. I'll try to answer them as best as I can.
For the sake of continuity, I'll repeat the question here before the
1. What inspired you to write The Wonder Book of the Air?
my mother's death, my brothers and my sister and I were sitting around
talking, the way you do after funerals, and we discovered that each of
us thought one of the others had been our mother's favorite. So I got
interested in doing a book that would be told from as many points of
view as possible. I wanted to write a book in which all of the
voices would be correct, contradictory, and wrong, all at once. I
thought that would be closer to real life than a book told from only
one tyrannical point of view, (my own).
think this world is too full of books written by people who want to
whine about how their parents failed them. I wanted to write about how
the world failed my parents, and how their children got caught in the
crossfire between history and my parents' marriage.
My parents were divorced when I was three, and my father
was an alcoholic
for most of his life. For most of my adolescence I felt like
a complete geek because of this. For a good bit of my young
adult life I was made to feel as if I was somehow at a disadvantage
in the world because of it. Nothing was further from the
thought that if I could teach myself to write from as many points of
view as possible, I could learn to uderstand the various perspectives
in my family. Writing is cheaper than psychotherapy! Besides, I
don't believe in psychotherapy. I'd be the kind to go in and argue with
2. How long did it take to write The Wonder Book of Air?
Roughly four years. I had to write in my spare time, most of the time, and I began it when my daughter was very young.
3. Did you base the characters on people you know?
The Harrison and Marjorie characters are a lot like my parents. Those
were their names, too. The Field character is fictional, though he has
attributes of both my brothers. The Phoebe character comes the closest
to being "my" voice. The Allie character has a few similarities to my
sister, but not many.
4. Do any of the characters represent you?
my characters represent me. All my characters represent people who are
not me. It's like theater, except the writer is not only the actor, but
the director, too. If you can get the spectator/reader to confuse him
or herself a little with your character, then you have art. Your
characters are your way of misapprehending the world one more time, for
old time's sake, in the grand tradition of misapprehension that we call
What do I mean by misapprehension?
You could demonstrate with a simple experiment. Suppose you had a
roomful of writers sitting in a classroom, and you came in and put a
map of the world down in front of them. If you say, "Describe this,"
they would all try, and maybe even argue a little among themselves
about how it ought to be done, but each description would be different.
Some would even stomp out of the room in outrage. So, who's "right?"
5. Is Wonder Book of Air autobiographical?
Yes, WBA is somewhat autobiographical, but not all. I will
probably not ever do autobiographical fiction again because
the reading public cannot separate what is real from what
is not, and this causes a kind of dishonesty with the reader
that I am not comfortable with.
6. What is the point about life you are trying to make in WBA?
I guess the main point I'm trying to make is that no one family
member's point of view should be privileged over others too much. If
one person in a family dominates by force or by manipulation, it is a
kind of death to the others, and it drives them away.
7. Are there any plans for making a movie of The Wonder Book of Air?
No movie, none foreseen. There would be too many problems in transferring the various points of view.
8. What will your next book be about?
The next book? It's a novel, set in Mississippi
in the present time, no title as yet. It's somewhat about race,
somewhat about the relationship of "pop culture" to the violence that
seems to be increasing here. More specifically, it is a book about
women who decided they can no longer be silent about watching violence
against women on television and hearing it in music, etc.
9.When did you become interested in writing?
always been interested in writing. Most of the time I avoided doing
serious writing (in my twenties) because it seemed to frighten the
people around me. Literary writing is all about asking questions about
the way we live today, and those questions often make your friends a
I began to write seriously at the
age of thirty, when I had almost finished a Ph.D. and I got afraid that
I was going to spend the rest of my life writing things nobody would
read. (Tell me, when is the last time you read a monograph on the
metaphor of the sheep in Greek pastoral poetry?) Also at thirty, I
realized that I wanted to get up every morning and feel that what I was
going to write would matter in somebody's life, or make a difference
somehow in the world. Sheep in pastoral poetry somehow were never a
burning issue in my life.
10.Who or what influenced you the most in your writing?
Probably the most important catalyst in my writing was my
teacher, Barry Hannah. He was always interested in what I
had to say and helped me to see the ways I was lazy in my
11. What themes do you like to write about?
Themes. I hate that word. I don't know what that word means anymore. In
my first novel, I wrote a lot about how the individual is at odds with
the tribe. "Alienation," if you want to distill it down to a "theme."
That is a stock, knee-jerk American tradition, long honored, time-
worn. I think in this next book, I am more interested in how alienation
and loneliness is a myth that all those big guns like Hemingway,
Tennessee Williams, Salinger, Albee, and countless others peddled to
us. (That's what I remember about American literature in high school:
alienation. Well, if you tell somebody enough times that he is
alienated and lonely, he just may start believing it.)
12.What kind of student were you in high school?
of a loner who could find things to value in everyone. I worked at not
fitting in. (I still do!) I was never very good at those kinds of
"friendships" that required you to stop speaking to people if they
didn't fit your definition of cool. Alienated, and probably a bit too
proud of it. I read more than anyone around me, and I kept a journal
every day. That distanced me. My music was different. I inherited
handme-down music from my radical college-type brothers, so I listened
to everything from early anti-war music, to folk music, Beatles. That
distanced me, too. My big brother, who is a newspaperman in Athens,
Georgia, corresponded with me all the years he was in college, and sent
me boxes of paperback books. He sent me The Hobbit, something called The Greening of America (which I have been looking everywhere for lately), and many other books that were "hot" at the time.
on top of that, I was opposed to the Vietnam War, and the others my age
just seemed to want to drive around the Dairy Queen nine million times
a night. Another aspect of my life that distanced me was that I did not
do drugs or drink, because of the damage I had seen those things do to
members of my family. My close friends knew that I was not making moral
judgements about those people who did do drugs or drink, and they knew
and cared about the person I was.
But the truly weird thing about
that teenaged time for me is that it was one of great strength and
happiness, even though I was always dreaming of the day when I could
leave South Georgia without looking back. I learned to stand up for
what I believed in. I had probably only three or four close friends,
but they knew me for who I was. The one who was my boyfriend was a real
stabilizing element in my life at that time. One was my brother Lee,
another was an elderly woman who was practically destitute. Those
friendships protected me from a lot of bad things. We looked out for
13. When did you become the curator at Faulkner's Rowan Oak?
I became the curator at Rowan Oak in the summer of 1994.
14. When were you born?
My birthday is 6-25-55.
15. Who are your parents?
Father: Irvine Harrison Shearer
Mother: Marjorie Elizabeth Shearer
16. What advice do you have for future writers?
If you mean those of your age who want to write, teenagers, I can think of a few things.
1. Read evervthing vou can get your hands on. Don't read just what reflects your own tastes. Read also those works that you hate: it will make you angry enough to write passionately. Read what is considered appropriate for your age; read what is considered NOT appropriate for your age, whether it be Dr. Seuss or Einstein. Read what is all around you, read what has been forbidden you. Read whatever is over your head; read the comics.
2. Life is more important to writing than writing is. If
you have a choice between sitting in bistro in a black turtleneck,
musing over your journal about how your parents don't understand you
and how alienated your feel, OR, say, going out into the woods with an
eighty-year-old-woman who can show you the shack she grew up in, pick
the eighty-yearold woman showing you the shack. Become an aficionado of
the weird. Fall disastrously in love, fall out of favor, fall for the
human condition. If you simply must put on a black turtleneck and go
sit somewhere with a notebook, then at least pick an interesting
setting. A truck stop, a day care center, a mall. (The problem about
bistros is that they are full of others in black turtlenecks, being
writerly. This gets boring like you would not believe.)
Don't hole up in your room too much and write. Your room is for
holing up in to listen to music.
3. Hole up in your room and listen to truly good music. Apprentice yourself mentally to good musicians. Music is important to writers. Even Nobel laureates (Faulkner excepted) live apprenticed to
music. The music you choose to listen to will profoundly affect the
course of your life, and the way you write. Sure, there are days when
you need the sound of Jewel's sad voice over and over talking about how
hard things are, but sadness does not have a monopoly on human life.
Listen to the full menu: country,
blues, jazz, rap, "alternative." Listen to music that has no words,
just emotion. Bach, Brian Eno. Practice multicultural musical tastes.
There is some incredible African music available now.
the poetry that exists in all music. One of America's big secrets is
that some of our best poets are musicians. Iris Dement, Mary Chapin
Carpenter, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bob Marley, Michael Stipe. Right now,
I'm listening a lot to a man named Daniel Lanois. He did the soundtrack
to Slinghlade. I noticed that he produces the music of a lot of
others I like. The next musician I need to learn about is Tupac Shakur.
I've always got a list in my head of musicians to study.
I have a lot of problems with
some rap music, because I think it is somewhat fraudulent, but I'm
listening to a lot of it because I want to understand why it is so
important to some listeners. I have a nephew in Atlanta who is 22 and
in a "white rap" band called Live on Arrival, and I
listen to their raps on their CD. He plays the trumpet and calls me up
in the middle of the night sometimes, much like my father and my
brother used to, when he wants to tell me about some particularly good
music to listen to.
4. There are two different kinds of
blank pages in this life. The one we fill with words, and the more
important one we fill with deeds. Take care how you fill each kind.
Each matters profoundly.
by Sarah Midori Zimmerman of Shearer's The Wonder
Book of Air.
comments on the controversy surrounding Oxford and Faulkner's
statue by Beckwith in Salon Magazine.