Californian Suzanne Sherman grew up in Los Angeles and now lives on a hilltop in the northern part of her native state. She began writing as a child, going on to gain a college degree in creative writing and create a career in the publishing industry. For about 20 years she has also been a teacher and storycatcher. She shares more about herself and her activities on her website, and you can read about her young years in Los Angeles in Chapter 6 of 100 Years in the Life of an American Girl.
Read Trilla Pando' review of 100 Years in the Life of an American Girl for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Pat Bean for the Story Circle Journal
Posted on 02/26/2015
Please tell us a few facts about yourself.
I was born in San Francisco as the 1950s came to a close. My parents found the climate chillier than they'd expected after relocating there from New York, and within a year they relocated again, to Los Angeles. I grew up there, left as fast as I could, at 17, for college up north, where I've lived for most of the 38 years since. I live now with my partner of 10 years in a beautiful hilltop paradise ten minutes from the Sonoma Coast. My children have always been my beloved pets, and these last nine months, for the first time since I was 22 years old I have only the dear Bichon ("Bodhi") that I am auntie to. I loved my recently departed pets deeply and am warming up to welcoming a new dog or cat sometime later this year.
What are the most important things in your life?
Home has always been important to me, a place where my style is expressed and reflected, a place of serenity and beauty and safety. I have that, with serenity so sweet I sometimes even get to hear hawk's wings flap as they fly across the meadow by my windows.
Writing is in my soul, it's in my heart and fingertips, it's my true nature. I've been journaling since age 10, in diaries, three-ring notebooks, beautiful hardbound journals, and on the computer (where I'm not constrained by the pace of handwriting or whether or not the spine of the journal folds open easily). It's a unique, essential conversation—and relationship—I can't imagine living without.
Integrity is important to me, knowing my values and living true to them. Being perceptive and sensitive, diplomatic and tactful, self-reliant and resourceful, respectful and truthful are some of my values. It's how I relate to my memoir students, my friends, my family, everyone I meet. Relationships mean the world to me. I wake interested and sleep well because of them.
Learning and being the bridge to others' learning. It's why I burst out of my editor's cubicle at 36 to also become a memoir teacher and part of what inspired me to create the 100 Years in the Life series, starting with 100 Years in the Life of an American Girl: True Stories 1910 - 2010 after nearly 20 years in the field.
What are things in your life you are most proud of having accomplished? Is there something in your life that you wished you hadn't done...or had done sooner?
In 1989, I was 29 years old and I'd been an out lesbian for four years, after ending an almost 10-year relationship with the boyfriend I'd been with since age 16. I was hearing about lesbians marrying their partners and I became curious about why they were. What would a marriage do for them, how would their relationship be affected by it, how would their family relationships change (or not)? This was before the Internet, and working fast and hard, I found couples together 10 years and longer in every region of the country, and I interviewed them for the book I'd proposed and sold to Temple University Press, Lesbian and Gay Marriage: Private Commitments, Public Ceremonies. I'm quite proud of not only having written the first book on same-sex marriage, before the topic was popular, but of following my heart to pursue my curiosity and share what I learned through the voices of those who lived it.
Yesterday I saw 100 Years in the Life of an American Girl on the center aisle shelves of a bookstore, cover facing out and five books away from Cheryl Strayed's bestseller Wild, and I felt a glow of joy like I've never felt before. That baby's been mine for four years, in the privacy of my workspace, and at last it's out in the world! I love what it's wearing! I love what it says! What a beautiful, important contribution it makes.
If there's anything I wished I'd done sooner in my life it would be to have known what I wanted, felt confident about it, and stayed on a straighter trajectory for bringing it into being. Thank goodness I've been there for the last 10 years and get to experience it going forward.
What does your writing space look like? Do you have a writing schedule?
My writing space is, unapologetically, my bedroom. My office sits lonely, filled with books and files and read and unread papers, a stapler, pencils and pens and a printer. My living room "office" (a more spacious area), has a large table holding a desktop computer, stacks of recently published books, and files of things book-related. But it's not where I write. That desk is where left brain is in charge—the editor, the writing consultant, the publicist. My bedroom windows are large and they open to intriguing views of a redwood forest to one side and to my deck and a wide-open meadow on the other. The colors in here (yes, I'm writing here now) are lavender and white, from the walls to the bed coverings. This place of beauty, solitude and serenity is where I have the direct line to my writer's heart, to my voice.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer, and when did you accept that you were one?
Books were my first exposure to writing. I once copied what was written on the title page of a favorite book, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, by Maud Hart Lovelace, by hand, in pen, on the facing blank page. I consider those wobbly words my budding vision of myself filling a page with a book title and author's name. I became a writer a few years later, when I started keeping a three-ring notebook as a journal so I could add as many pages as I needed. I was in seventh grade and there was a lot to record and reflect on. I studied and wrote poetry in high school, got a BA in creative writing and wrote a complete draft of a novel as my senior project. I had many more forays into the life of a writer in the ensuing years, including having a play produced and a book published, but it wasn't until about 20 years ago, when I started teaching memoir and devoting myself to helping others tap the source and shared all I know, that I really got it that I'm a writer through and through.
Where did the idea came from for your new book, 100 Years in the Life of an American Girl?
I write about this with some detail in the preface to the book. In short, my first memoir students were born in the early years of the 20th century. Over time, I saw their stories passing away with them and I knew I had to capture some of these precious stories and more, as the wheel of time keeps turning and there's so much to see and explore and understand.
What was your own most memorable experience before you turned 13?
As I share in my story in the book, my mother had mental troubles (depression and a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia) and her experiences before I was 13 had a profound influence on me. In some ways her influence in other areas—her interest in the civil rights movement and aspects of the pop culture of the 1960s—also opened my eyes to the world I was living in. In my story in the 1960s chapter in the book, I write about what may not be the most memorable (to me, that word connotes something good), but the most impacting event of my early girlhood years: my mother took an overdose of sleeping pills when I was 11. I write of that night and the experience of not knowing what would happen. Would she die? Would I ever she her again? Would my story would be that my mother died when I was 11. Remember, I was a big reader; I understood life as story.
Do you have a favorite girl featured in your book, or two or three favorites?
It's hard to choose favorites in the book; I truly love them all. Every story in the book is eye-opening, whether it's about being a coal miner's daughter in 1915, climbing trees in a skirt and bloomers, dealing with the KKK in Little Rock, Arkansas, or getting a first computer at age four.
I'll share about two that especially stand out to me. The first has to be Mary Ann Natly (Chapter 1), for two reasons: She was 103 when I interviewed her and as sharp as a tack (she died December 28, 2014, at 107!), and she missed boarding the Titanic in London in 1912 when her family came over to the States from Europe. I love her stories about life in New York City in 1915, and chasing horse-drawn fire engines. It's a precious glimpse into another time in the words of a girl who was there.
Then there's Victoria Lester (Chapter 6), whose life shows the changing times. Her mother sold Tupperware for years before becoming active in the women's rights and civil rights movements. She was a first subscriber to the new Ms. magazine and she put whole-wheat bread in Victoria's lunch, which Victoria found embarrassing. Victoria went to folk concerts with her parents in the early and mid-1960s, seeing Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and others. In 1969, the family went to Woodstock. Victoria has her finger on the pulse of a changing era.
Aalaa Albaroudi (Chapter 10) was 11 on September 11, 2001 and a student at an Islamic school in Michigan. Her story of life before and after that day is a piece of history you'll never find in history books.
What obstacles did you have to overcome in writing the book, and in getting it to market?
I probably could have found a traditional publisher for this book since it has potential to reach a very broad audience, but after learning so much about the current and continuing revolution in the publishing industry, I decided not to go the route of finding an agent, having that agent find a publisher, waiting the requisite year for publication and then getting a royalty of about $1 per book. It's an experiment, of sorts, being an indie publisher with 100 Years in the Life, and I'm giving it all I've got so I know by experience which route is best.
What genre of books do you read most? Who are some authors you admire?
Not surprisingly, my preference in books is memoir and fiction. I love reading lush description and complex, well-described interior views. They interest me more than mystery or science fiction. And I love a good story, a story about what's real that takes me somewhere new and expands my world. Favorite authors include Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Isabel Allende.
What's the best piece of writing advice ever given you?
The best writing advice ever given me is the same I would give to other writers: write, write, write. Find your voice by writing. Discover what you need to write and what you want to say by writing. Once you write a piece and carve out the space for it you can shape and develop it. That first writing is essential and exciting, it's free and open, new words, new birth—no boundaries, no judgments.
When did you join SCN and why?
I joined SCN as soon as I heard about it five years ago. I was thrilled to learn about a growing community of women around the country ready to write more or to start writing and to put their stories onto paper and into the world. I taught a few classes for SCN, enjoyed them thoroughly, and wrote a blog about memoir for a number of months. At the 2012 SCN conference, I gave a workshop on truth-telling in memoir and I learned much at many of the other workshops. I've been published twice in "True Words" and have been a judge for a Story Circle writing contest. I enjoy the SCN members I've met and appreciate the opportunities SCN gives us for connecting with each other, sharing our stories, and enjoying each other's talents and offerings.