SLR: I’ve read that you were born in Massachusetts but raised in Georgia. Is Georgia home? What are you thoughts on where you were raised?
Shearer: I was born at Westover AFB in Massachusetts and my parents returned to their hometown, Alapaha, Georgia, (just down the road from Harry Crews, just up the road from Janice Daugharty and Bailey White, sideways from Mary Hood.) when I was nineteen days old. I was fortunate to grow up in a small town where everyone knew everyone else’s family tree, and life was simple. We were usually at odds with the others there on the subjects of Vietnam and integration of schools, but it was a lucky, lucky place to grow up. It had a beautiful river, and relatives were always dragging you out to the cemetery to walk you around and tell you the stories. I couldn’t wait to leave for the larger “outside” world, but now thirty years later when I’m zooming down an interstate just to get to work, I miss the simplicity of that small town life very much. And I’m still always up for any cemetery visit. That’s where the best stories are.
SLR: When did you first start writing stories? When did you know you wanted to spend you life writing?
Shearer: I still am not wholly convinced I want to spend my life writing. The jury’s still out on that one.
My first “novel” was about a litter of puppies my dog Sheila had when I was in seventh grade. Eight puppies, eight chapters. I remember writing some stories in high school, and did the obligatory poetry phase in college. I didn’t really see writing about the South as a kind of mysterious “rage to explain” until I came under the tutelage of John Hiers at Valdosta State, and had a course that pretty much determined the course of my life, though I didn’t know it at the time. He got me into grad school at the University of Mississippi, in Faulkner’s town. But for a lot of years I feared my writing and the reactions it produced in people. So I’m one of those people who tried to outrun it for a while and then realized in my thirties I’d be a saner person if I just submitted to it. I took Barry Hannah’s fiction course at the end of grad school to try to recover the old wonder at the power of words, and he pretty much started treating me like a writer, talking to me like I was writer, and prodded me to keep going.
SLR: Where did you go to school, places you have lived?
Shearer: I did college in Valdosta, grad school at Ole Miss, and ended up working as curator of Faulkner’s place for a while. Other than a few summers spent in San Francisco or New England, I’ve been pretty much in the South, until we moved to Fort Worth two years ago.
SLR: What writers influenced you the most when you were young?
Shearer: Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology. Thornton Wilder, Our Town. Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio. All those small town mystics. The influence there was their compassion and respect for ordinary life, or what Matthew Arnold referred to as “the buried life.” I loved and admired Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, but even today have the suspicion that I am not “getting” them. And then there’s the old ghost with whom we all spar, Faulkner. It was quite something to read him when I was twenty and to see someone dealing with the Southerner’s historical shame in regard to race. “Influence” can also mean that a writer influences us to offer an alternative vision, so in that respect I am influenced by more than I can name.
SLR: What inspired you to write Celestial Jukebox? How did you come up with the idea of this jukebox? Is there such a place that inspired you?
Shearer: I wanted to get down on paper some of the things I loved in Mississippi that outsiders didn’t always see. But the Celestial Grocery is a composite of the diners I waitressed in as a teenager in Georgia, and a little catfish place in Mississippi over near Moon Lake.
Somewhere in the Delta I encountered a jukebox that seemed frozen in another era, with only old faded labels to choose from. I’ve learned in recent weeks that there is actually some internet term “celestial jukebox” that refers to projects that try to collect all known music in one place. And to charge a fee for it, of course!
SLR: Your prose is so poetic and rhythmical, what do you attribute this to?
Shearer: Rhythm and cadence can enhance truth, and help us remember it.
I’ve always been a sucker for the grandiloquent old-school style, unwilling to let go of my belief in the magic and music of language. I loved Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, when I was young. Those long passages where he is so drunk on words that the reader comes out of it drunk on the English language and life. Understand: I was learning to write fiction during the peak of the minimalist and so-called “K-Mart” fiction era, when Ray Carver was king of understatement. So the language play started as my way of trying to pull out of the pack of other student writers I knew, to make sure that if anyone picked up one of my pages, they could know who wrote it.
SLR: Can you comment on the music you selected for this novel?
Shearer: I picked music to show where the characters punch in their choices on the big imaginary jukebox of philosophy and life. I wanted to have some characters in the book genuinely and rightfully fear the music of the others who differ from themselves demographically.
SLR: I mentioned in a review that the story had a slow pace that felt as though you were trying to show the pace of the town. It seemed to me to be a deliberate act on your part. Can you speak to this?
Shearer: Other reviewers have said that. Sorry, it was probably the natural accident of trying to fit so much and so many people into one book. I kept telling myself, “Okay, DeLillo’s Underworld, DeLillo’s Underworld,” whenever there seemed to be too many marionettes to manage. As long as the book had fewer characters than DeLillo’s, I thought it was do-able. Even then, when Jane Vandenburgh read the manuscript for my publisher, she adroitly pointed to one fellow and said, “Cynthia, this guy reads like a refugee from your next novel.” So he got the axe. Sixty pages. So you have Jane to thank that it’s not even slower. I have resolved to make the next one move faster.
SLR: When you write do you have the story outlined completely in your head or does it unfold as you write? Is there a point when the characters take off on their own and you can’t easily predict what they will do next?
Shearer: There is a zen saying, “Always keep your beginner’s mind.” So each work starts in a different way for me. Sometimes it starts like a train wreck, sometimes it’s like being handed a hundred helium-filled balloons, all colors. An outline is a mixed blessing. It can help you intuit how the work is do-able, but it can also feel very restrictive at time. Outlines are useful only if you are willing to erase or ignore them when the spirit of some character suddenly arrives in your life. You have to defer to the spirits, not the outline. It’s like voodoo. You have to make the spirits welcome, and not be looking at your wristwatch testily and saying, “oh, it’s not your turn yet.” That’s the part I always fear the most, after the basic factual understanding of place and time are in place, just letting the characters arrive. I always fear that part for some reason.
SLR: What’s next in terms of your writing? Are you working on a novel now? Will your stories stay in the South?
Shearer: I’m in the initial stages of a new novel, too new really to talk about and make any sense. It’s set in Texas. I’m doing the research, and standing on the doorstep tapping my foot, trying to not lose my beginner’s mind while I’m waiting for the spirits to assemble themselves. At this stage it’s like waiting for a bus without knowing where it’s headed.
SLR: Who do you like to read now?
Shearer: I’m more drawn to writers willing to experiment with new ways of getting at the untapped potential for good in human nature. I’m re-reading Robert Aitken’s book on the Paramitas at the moment. I’ve been reading a lot of Wendell Berry’s fiction, studying its silences…and I always rush out to get the latest Alice Munro, because she is so fearless.