Charging Ahead, Trusting the Process

head shot of man reading book

Steve Sherill

Years ago, as an undergrad, Steve Sherrill had an important decision to make: Should he pursue welding or writing? With two published novels to date, including a Pulitzer nomination for Visits from the Drowned Girl, it seems safe to say that Sherrill chose wisely.

Yet "safe" isn't a word one easily associates with Steve Sherrill. During a turbulent North Carolina adolescence, his salvation—"the thing that probably kept me from extended periods in jail"—was a creative imagination that wouldn't quit. With the encouragement of a few special teachers, the former high-school drop-out made his way to the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop and obtained an MFA in poetry, before finding an academic home as assistant professor of English at Penn State Altoona. Poet, novelist, painter, aspiring playwright, Sherrill shrugs off labels and limitations and would rather challenge himself than rest on his fast-accumulating laurels.

Research⁄Penn State associate editor Melissa Beattie-Moss sat down with Sherrill recently at his kitchen table, surrounded by canvases he's readying for an exhibit of his work. Their far-ranging discussion touched on everything from the powerful story he wrote in 7th grade, to the art of teaching—"I'm the guy to set the fires"—to actor Johnny Depp...Read on!

Q: It's not every day that you meet an academic with a welding diploma, Steve. Tell me about the road from community college to the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

A: My path as a young man was dictated by indecision and insecurity and a feeling of not being aware of other alternatives and options. My educational experience was bad. I was a terrible student, first of all. In fact, I'm still a terrible student. I don't do homework for anybody and I don't like to do what I'm told. So I just sort of bounced around desperately looking for things to do. I ended up in the welding program just because I didn't know what else to do. I had signed up for so many classes at that same community college and dropped out. I would get bored or insecure. And of course, you can't learn anything if you don't show up or do the homework! I've dropped out of so many classes, including English classes. But whenever I'd go and attend to the assignments and pay attention, I'd get praise from the teachers. While I was in the welding program I joined the creative writing club—it wasn't even a class. At lunch time I'd go get my lunch in the cafeteria with welding rods in my back pocket 'cause I thought it was very cool. And then I'd go to the poetry club in the afternoon. I was so geeky and pitiful! Later on, when I was at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, I had great relationships with two teachers there, a fiction writer and a poet. They both attended Iowa and they said, "You should try."

Q: You studied poetry at Iowa. Was there a conscious decision to make the leap to fiction?

A: I don't think it was much of a leap because I'd always written both poetry and fiction. In fact, I applied to both programs at Iowa and my preference would have been fiction. But I got into the poetry program. I think of that now as a blessing. The focus on poetry taught me much more about language and precision in a way the fiction workshop wouldn't have. The fiction program there was very businesslike. There was clearly an element of teaching how you make it in the world of fiction. In poetry, they presumed you were never going to make any money, so they didn't worry about it! Having any success as a writer is about craft and perseverance and luck and good fortune, so ultimately it wasn't a problem not getting into the fiction program. Good fortune has so much to do with where I am today.

Q: Do you really believe in luck?

A: I believe that if you just sort of charge head first into life, life will bring things to you. It will bring some bad stuff to you but you have to charge through that also. You've just got to keep going. What I'm hoping to do as I get older is to do less damage as I move forward, to myself and to others. It's very possible to charge forward and disregard everything you're leaving behind. But it doesn't have to be that way. You can move forward out of love and respect and compassion. It just takes a lot of work.

Q: I read that, as a kid, you wrote something that got you tossed out of school. True?

A: Yeah, I was a fourteen year old boy so I wrote a story about what I wanted to know about—which was sex—and I knew not to show it to my teacher. I showed it to my friends and it somehow made its way to my teacher. There was a conference with the principal and I was suspended for two weeks. That's when I realized about writing, "Whoa, I can do something with this!" It was a validation in some way...a negative validation but it still taught me there's some power in this.

Q: And now you've had a book (Visits from the Drowned Girl) nominated for a Pulitzer.

A: Random House recommended the book...I don't know if I made it very much beyond their submission but they believed in the book. That book is not ever going to be as commercially successful as the first (The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break). It's off-putting in many ways to many people, where the first book was so hopeful and magical. In this one I set out to consciously do something different and I did. But people who thought it would be more of the same were surprised. With Visits from the Drowned Girl, I've gotten emails from people saying things like "These characters are terrible. I'm never going to read any more of your books". And that's all right. If my writing can make somebody that mad, I consider it a success. I also get emails praising the books. Karma or whatever provides when you need it. When you need a kick in the shin 'cause your ego is getting too big, karma will provide that. But when you need a boost, you'll get that also.

Q: Do you find any similarities between the books?

A: Sure. So many people live in isolated worlds...My characters are suffering from extreme isolation in a world that sort of excludes them and they react in different ways. My books are different explorations of the same thing. The inarticulateness, the inability to speak, is very conscious. In the first book, all the Minotaur wants to do is to connect with humans and he can't. I gave him not only a shut down emotional life but the mechanics of his mouth won't even make the words. In the second book, Benny Poteat is sort of...his lack of ability to speak is more his emotional state. He can't say the thing he needs to say. The books are also both visual, cinematic. That's just how I think. I don't understand writers who don't see in their head what they're writing. I have this movie playing in my head while I'm writing. I think about it in terms of camera angles...Here's what I want you to focus on right now, how the camera pans and what it takes in.

Q: Can you imagine either novel being filmed?

A: Yes. I want Johnny Depp to play the Minotaur!

Q: I can see that! Steve, tell me about your paintings. I'm struck by this portrait.

A: The success of that painting hinges around a mistake. You know why that black bar is on that guy's eye? Because I screwed up that eye so many times, I was tired of looking at it. So I made that black bar and I realized right away, "This is good. This works." And I do enough paintings that I realize, in some of them, I'm going to make really good mistakes that I like.

Q: I think that's a great attitude to convey to writing students. Do you enjoy teaching?

A: Yeah, I always did. At Altoona, I bring in art of all kinds and talk about the connections between music and art and literature. I think I was really shy when I was young and, still, in a certain context I can be. But I'm very good at thinking on my feet in a classroom and provoking response from students, even from quiet students. I'm probably less good at the grading end of things. I'm the guy who sets the fire—somebody else can control it.

Q: What's your next challenge?

A: I'm not sure. I'd love to write a play. I also think about writing a children's book. With writing, what I ultimately come back to is I trust the process. Whatever is going to happen is fine. It takes a lot of work to get to that place. I don't worry now because you can't control things. I can't go into a Protestant service without getting mad, but I'm very comfortable in Buddhist thought. If you spend time worrying over what's to come or fretting over what you did, you're missing the only time you have, which is right now. It takes diligence to be there and it certainly doesn't always work. But I've had enough validation and enough success and I've come through so many different changes in my life that I believe that whatever happens next, I will deal with. I don't mind making mistakes in public because that allows me to do whatever I want. To me, that freedom is the most important thing.

Steve Sherrill is assistant professor of English and Integrative Arts at Penn State Altoona. He can be reached at kss15@psu.edu.

SIDEBAR

An excerpt from Visits from the Drowned Girl

Last Updated April 20, 2005