Steven Sherrill, born in Morresville, North Carolina, is Assistant Professor of English and Integrative Arts at Penn State Altoona. His first novel, The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, has been translated into eight languages. His second novel, Visits from the Drowned Girl, was published by Random House in June 2004.
Southern Literary Review’s Editor, J.C. Robertson, talked with Steven Sherrill on January 12, 2005. Sherrill had just returned to Penn State after a three week visit to the MacDowell Institute where he put the finishing touches on his new novel, Mocksville Lights.
SLR: Hi, Steve. Congratulations on finishing your third novel. I can’t wait to ask you a few questions about it, but first thing’s first. For those who don’t know, you were born and raised in North Carolina and your novels have been set in the South. Walker Percy did not want to be called a southern writer, for fear of being labeled, or boxed into some sort of false expectations. You’ve been called a “southern writer.” Do you think of yourself as a southern writer? Do you mind the label?
Sherrill: I am a southern writer. I find no limitations at all from the label. I’ve just completed my third novel and once again it’s set in a trailer park in the South. I think I’m finished with that southern setting for a while. My writing may move out of the South, but I don’t mind being called a southern writer. I’m honored.
SLR: Now that you’ve admitted to being a southern writer, how would you define a southern writer?
Sherrill: That’s tough. It’s hard to define. I think it has to do with aesthetic sensibilities that are recognizable, but hard to pin down. You know it when you read it.
SLR: What authors had the greatest influence on you?
Sherrill: Mark Twain, Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut. I loved bold language and feeling like I was reading something I wasn’t suppose to read.
SLR: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Sherrill: I was always writing on and off.
SLR: As I understand you were actually admitted to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop Poetry Program, correct? Not the fiction program.
Sherrill: Yes, but poetry is a tremendous help when writing a novel. A well-trained ear for the pacing and word choice—there’s no better practice for that than writing poetry.
SLR: Any favorite poets?
Sherrill: Hmm. Anne Carson. Her poetry is breathtakingly brilliant. I like Anne Sexton too.
SLR: Now let’s talk about this welding degree you earned? Why did you go to welding school?
Sherrill: I had no plan. I didn’t really know what to do. I dropped out of community college. Never did homework, so I never got good grades. Not particularly scholarly. I liked working with my hands, so I went to welding school. I enjoyed it, but it was really hard work. I never actually became a professional welder. I ended up cooking in restaurants and even thought about becoming a chef. I still love to cook.
SLR: While you were a welder, what was it that made you finally decide to apply to the Iowa’s Writer’s Institute?
Sherrill: While going to welding school, I joined a creative writing club and wrote a poem called “Birth of a Birthmark.” It was published in a local paper and that was very gratifying to me.
SLR: Was the poem published anywhere else?
Sherrill: No, it wasn’t that good. But it was gratifying and encouraged me to keep writing.
SLR: Your first novel, Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, has been translated into eight languages. Do you find your audiences in other countries to grasp your humor in the same way that Americans do?
Sherrill: That’s a good question. I really don’t know. I wish I did, but I haven’t had any way of finding out. I’ve often wondered how my work is perceived without knowledge of the American South—hopefully, apparently, it still has something to offer.
SLR: Some say that your second novel, Visits from the Drowned Girl, makes a statement on voyeurism. Would you agree? If so, what is it you are trying to say? If not, what is it that compelled you to write this story?
Sherrill: It is about voyeurism and responsibility. Everyone has a voyeuristic inclination; how it comes through in one’s actions is where things get interesting. There is always a line, and I wanted to explore what happens when someone crosses that line. Benny Poteat certainly crosses that line.
SLR: In Visits from the Drowned Girl, Benny has a secret. Did you plan for him to hold on to this secret, or did revealing the secret come as a bit of a surprise to you?
Sherrill: I was not convinced in the beginning that he would tell his secret. I only knew that he would be mean. As the story progressed, it became clear to me. The only thing about Benny that was clear to me from the beginning is that I wanted him to be mean and hateful. To cross that line in the meanest most hateful way.
SLR: And he does! He’s really mean and hateful!
Sherrill: Yes, he is.
SLR: As I’ve mentioned, you’ve just finished your third novel. Can you tell us anything about it?
Sherrill: Sure. It’s called Mockville Lights, and as I said, it’s set in the south, in a trailer park. Loosely parallels stories of the Bible. Bible stories in the contemporary south.
SLR: Bible Stories set in a modern day southern town’s trailer park?
Sherrill: Yes. It’s humorous; at least I hope it’s humorous. The main character’s name is DooDoo Beget and his son who left many years earlier, Sunny Red Beget, has finally returned.
SLR: Like the Prodigal Son?
Sherrill: Yes, as in the parable of the prodigal son.
SLR: Sounds like you! And nothing I’ve ever read. Should be interesting! What are you reading right now?
Sherrill: I can’t read fiction while writing it. I read biographies. I just finished Mockville Lights this weekend, so I’ve been reading different artist biographies. I’m reading about the history of color right now.
SLR: That’s right, you paint, don’t you?
Sherrill: I do. Like I said, I like to work with my hands. But now I prefer painting over welding.
SLR: So, what’s next?
Sherrill: Keep writing, keep teaching writing. I write best when I’m teaching, and I really think my students benefit the most when I’m writing.
SLR: Thanks so much, Steve, for taking the time to talk with me. Good to hear you’re doing so well.
Sherrill: My pleasure.