This week I sat down with Cheryl Shirman and put her to my questions. 🙂 Her books are current rising stars on Amazons site. Literally flying of the virtual shelves!
Well, Lets get to our game, shall we?
We’re gonna play a game of 20 questions and get to know you better! Ready? Let’s Start!
1.) Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I am a mother of three and I live on a beautiful lake in the Midwest with my husband.
2.) How long have you been writing?
I started writing in my teens. Silly stories and observations about the world – prompted after reading the wonderful novel, Harriet the Spy. I also read My Friend Flicka at an early age and fell in love with Mary O’Hara’s beautiful writing. I think both of those books planted seeds that would eventually emerge into a desire to write. I started “seriously” writing in my twenties – which means that I wrote a few really bad novels. Through the years I kept writing, had babies, went to graduate school, had a few close calls to being published, and never gave up. I just published my first novel, Life is But a Dream, in late January of this year.
3.) Do you have a preferred genre that you read? Is it the same as what you write?
I love fiction written by women and for women. You can categorize it as “women’s fiction” if you like. But that isn’t the greatest description. I love writers like Elizabeth Berg. I like creating realistic characters that other women can relate to. Those are the kind of novels I like to read and write.
4.) What is the title of your book and where can it be found?
I have several titles out now, but the title of my first novel is Life is But a Dream.
Amazon Kindle Life is But a Dream
Amazon Paperback Life is But a Dream
Barnes & Noble Nook Life is But a Dream
5.) Describe your novel in 15 words or less.
In a secluded lake cabin, Grace Adams redefines and takes control of her life.
6.) Where did the inspiration for your story come from?
As women, we can very easily define our self with the role of mother and wife. What happens when those roles no longer exist? How do we define our life when everything that we have based our life on is suddenly gone?
7.) How long did it take you to complete this novel from concept to published?
Ten years. But I wrote off and on. Real life often requiring that I put the novel away, sometimes for months at a time.
8.) When you sit down to write, how does that process go? Do you outline or just let it evolve?
I start with an idea and a character. I then create a very rough and fluid outline that evolves with the story – often moving in directions I never anticipated!
9.) Are there any aspects of writing you struggle with?
The most difficult part of “writing” happens after the writing – releasing the work to the world. That is actually very tough for me. I have never written for anyone but myself. I write because I love to write. Period. Now, with the encouragement of my family, I am publishing my books and others are reading my work. It is still a little strange to me – the idea of sharing my writing with other people. Please don’t misunderstand – I love hearing from my readers and I appreciate each and every one of them more than they will ever know – but it is still difficult for me to share this part of myself that I have kept private for so many years.
10.) Are there any aspects that you simply glide through?
Once in a while, there are days when the writing is going so well that it is as if I am watching a movie and I have to type really fast to keep up with the characters. I love it when that happens. It does not happen very often, but when it does, it is like writing magic.
11.) What sets your book apart from others in the same genre?
I wrote it. Ha! Seriously – there are better books, there are worse books. Let the readers judge. And, ladies, if you don’t want to buy my book, go buy one of Elizabeth Berg’s novels. She is brilliant and you just can’t go wrong with her.
12.) What is the location of your story setting and why did you choose that place/time?
The location is an isolated lake cabin on an island in a remote part of Michigan. Grace needed to be alone to find her way. But I also needed a few local characters for her to interact with. The setting seemed perfect for that. The funny thing is – when I started the book I did not live on a lake and now I do. Guess all of that writing about lakes paid off!
13.) Your main characters, tell me about them. What is their back story? How did they find themselves where they are now?
Grace has always based her life on her husband and daughter. Now that her marriage looks as if it is falling apart, and her only daughter is leaving for college, she must redefine her life and take a hard look at the choices she has made.
14.) I’d like to know more about your book. Tell me all about it.
I think it is a book that you can get lost in. My readers tell me that they can relate to Grace and are swept up in the story from the opening chapter. Those are the kind of things a writer loves to hear.
15.) What do you want readers to take from your writings?
I hope that my readers find enjoyment in my books. I imagine a woman somewhere, sitting on a beach, or lying in a hammock under a big shady tree, or maybe just cuddled up on a couch with a blanket and my book. Maybe she is reading it as an eBook, or maybe as a paperback, but her reading time is her own and she relishes that time to get lost in another world – to be part of another life. She connects with the main character and she wonders about her in between reading sessions, or maybe even long after finishing the book. And having read that book, that woman is also connected to the writer in some small way. I love making all of those connections and creating fictional worlds for real women to get lost in.
16.) Are more books to follow or is this a stand alone?
When I finished writing Life is But a Dream, I briefly thought about the possibility of writing a sequel. Eventually though, I turned to writing my second novel, Broken Resolutions. I decided that wanting to write a sequel was really just my reluctance to say goodbye to Grace, the main character in Life. After publishing the book, though, I began to get emails from readers asking me if there was going to be a sequel. And the more I thought about it, the more it sounded like a great idea. So, I am in the process of writing a sequel to Life is But a Dream. And I am having so much fun writing the sequel. Kind of like “hanging out” with an old friend that you have not seen in a while.
17.) Where can readers find you?
Well, I hit McDonalds almost every morning for a large Sugar-Free Vanilla Iced coffee and then I go back home to write. So, unless I am getting that coffee, you can pretty much find me at home writing. Oh, wait a minute. I guess you mean on the internet, huh? 😉
18.) What are 3 random things about yourself that readers might like to know?
I love daylilies and have thousands of them planted in my yard.
My absolutely adorable 2 yr old granddaughter calls me Bomb Bomb. None of us know why.
I love encouraging other writers.
19.) What do you do in your down time? For fun.
I work about 65 hours a week, so I don’t have a lot of down time right now. I sort of see this period in my life as “my” time. We have raised three great kids (all happily married) and now we have an empty nest. My husband and I both work from home (he designs websites) and we are both doing exactly what we want to do. It is wonderful! Sundays find us hanging out with family at our lake house. Having meals together – boating in the summer and watching movies in the winter. The house is full of love. We are very blessed. Very.
I am dreaming. I am four. I am at a family reunion at an aunt’s house. The reflection of a white farmhouse looms, tall and angular, into an in-ground pool. The scent of chlorine and grilling hamburgers waft, exchange, and intermingle.
My mother sits nearby in a lawn chair. Her black polyester stretch pants squish through the crisscross of webbing in uneven lumps. Her attention is on a noisy game of volleyball being played across the yard. No one sees me. I am so small that I barely exist. She does not see me. She does not see. She does not. See me. See. Me.
A large beach ball floats seductively upon the surface of the pool. It drifts in my direction, becoming larger and larger until it fills my entire field of vision. Red and white and glistening with irregular drops of water. I clap my hands and it draws closer.
Mother is standing now. She looks so young. Even in my dream, I wonder, was she ever this young? A hand is placed on her hip and her mouth is parted in a smile as she watches the raucous game. A transparent headscarf is wrapped around her head and its tail flutters tentatively under the knot that is pulled snug against her pale neck. It is the color of lilacs.
I wonder why I am not being scolded. I expect harsh words. Maybe a spanking. I am very near the pool. I was told to stay away. But my mother is smiling, laughing while the volleyball players argue over whether the ball was in bounds. The concrete under my feet feels hot and rough. I wiggle my toes and feel the skin being scraped from them.
I look at the ball. It is so close now that I see nothing else. I smell it. Fresh wet plastic. It smells like pool toys. I reach forward and touch it. Its surface is warm and slippery and smooth. It recoils upon contact. Flirty. Coy. Slowly, it floats out of my touch. I lean forward and strain to touch it again.
My body meets the water with a quiet splash. An unnoticed splash. Falling into the water, I sink in slow motion. Deeper and deeper. My body turns over and the water and sky become one and stretch above me. Through the blue that engulfs me, I see the distorted image of my mother. She stands in the same position. Still smiling. I see the scarf flutter – lilac blue now.
My arms extend toward her. She is out of reach. Wavy. Like a mirage. Struggling frantically, I grasp at the water but it slides through my fingers. I call out to my mother and water forces its way into my mouth, and into my lungs. I gasp and choke on more water. I am helpless. All I can do is sink slowly until the pool and the sky merge into darkness. I wonder why my mother will not come and get me. And why she is still smiling.
Waking, I quickly sit upright. I gasp in uneven breaths. Sweat covers my body. I clutch at a tangle of damp sheets. My tee shirt is a twister. My torso caught in the storm.
I reach for Matt and my grasp is hollow. He is not there. I long for his chest to bury my head against. I long for the feel of his breath upon my hair as he whispers that it was just a dream. He is not there. Not here. Not beside me. I am not sure how long he has been gone. It was so gradual. I never saw it coming. In fact, his side of the bed no longer exists. In fact, I am in the middle of the bed. In the place where we used to meet. In the empty odd-shaped gap between our bodies that we used to fill like interlocking puzzle pieces.
I am not even in our bed. That bed is in storage and I am in a secluded lake cabin on a small island in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The cabin belonged to Matt’s parents. We rarely came here, and I have not been here in years. I am not a lake person. I cannot swim. The first time Matt and I were here was on our honeymoon. The last time we were here Laney was fifteen and had spent the entire weekend moping about some boy she had had just started dating. After we went back home they broke up within a week. I am still angry that some boy, whose name I cannot even remember, spoiled what could have been a wonderful weekend.
Now, I am here because our house has been repossessed and I have nowhere else to go. Matt is living in his parent’s house, which he went to “clean out” just a little over a year ago. He had lost his job the previous year, and in less than nine months he had lost his only surviving parent, his mother. He decided, since he was having a tough time finding another job, he might as well go and clean out the house. He never came back. Months later I found out that he had quit making payments on our house and it was being repossessed. I found out when an appraiser knocked on the door and asked to come inside and appraise the house for the bank. I was sitting at home making a grocery list when he rang the doorbell. I was totally in the dark. But I was in the dark about a lot of things back then. I had called Matt immediately. He just kept saying he was sorry. Over and over again. Finally, I told him he had to come home and straighten this out.
“I can’t,” he said.
“What! What do you mean, you can’t? Matt, there is a guy here appraising our house!”
“I can’t love you anymore.”
I wish I could remember what I said back, but that is something I can’t do. I only remember that appraiser guy walking around the house and, eventually, Matt hanging up on me. The following months are a blur. I had a garage sale, selling our stuff for handfuls of quarters. I rented a storage unit and moved furniture and boxes and boxes of possessions into it. I put enough clothes for the summer in all of the suitcases I could find, and I came to this cabin.
I cannot believe my beloved house has been repossessed. A beautiful grey Cape Cod with a full length white porch. Matt and I used to sit there in wicker chairs and watch Laney play in the front yard. Hanging pots of magenta petunias, so big that women in passing cars used to slow down to look at them, filling the air with their sweet scent.
Now, I sit in the dark in this cabin that feels strange to me. I have nowhere to go. I think of Laney, my barely eighteen-year-old daughter who is spending the summer hiking across the Colorado Rockies with her best friend Allison. Despite my many protestations about the danger of two girls hiking alone in the wilderness, she left. Which is a good thing, I guess. Because at least she doesn’t know about the house. She left a week before the appraiser showed up. And almost immediately upon her return she will be leaving for her first year of college at Colorado University in Boulder, half way across the country.
I sigh and roll over. I still can’t believe any of this. I can’t believe that Matt ended our twenty-two year marriage with the words, “I can’t love you anymore”. I can’t believe that somehow, without me ever noticing, both of them have managed to create lives that suddenly do not require me.
To say that I do not understand is an understatement. It goes deeper than that. I cannot fathom it. It is incomprehensible. Unimaginable. Unbelievable. How could they have so neatly, and so completely, eliminated me from their lives? My life not only has a void in it. It feels void. Null and void. Useless. Without direction or purpose. Now what, I often catch myself thinking. Now what? For the next moment, the next day, for the rest of my life. Now what? I pass through the days looking at the clock and wondering, is it time to go to bed yet?
I roll over to my other side. The digital alarm clock atop the bedside table glows orange. 3:46. I don’t like it. The numbers are too big, the color too harsh. “Three forty six and you’re wide awake and all alone!” The numbers on my old alarm are a soft green. I like that better. It’s bad enough that I’m awake. I don’t need an alarm clock mocking me.
I wonder if I still have that alarm clock, whether it is in storage or whether it was sold at the garage sale. I remember a woman coming up to me, holding a jewelry box that Matt had given me. “Would you take a dollar for this?” she had asked. I looked at it. It sported a pink sticker that read five dollars. Matt had given it to me on our first anniversary. “Sure,” I answered and then held out my hand while she dropped four quarters in it.
I wonder if tents have locks on them. I hope that Laney is warm. When she was a baby, I would check on her while she slept. And a little bare foot was always poking out. I would tuck it back in. Protect her from the cold. Protect her. Even in her sleep. As she was packing to leave, I tried to give her an extra blanket to put in her backpack but she laughed at me and told me that it was too heavy. She said that her sleeping bag was rated to several degrees below zero, which was a good thing, because they might encounter snow in the higher elevations. At the time, I just stood and stared at her. “In the higher elevations”? Was that my baby girl saying that? When she was a little over a year and half old I took her outside and stood her in the grass and she refused to take a step. She cried and held onto me and I had to go inside to get her shoes. Even after she started school, she seldom liked to walk in the grass barefoot. And now she was talking about sleeping in a tent in the snow in “higher elevations”. Standing there and watching her stuff her backpack, I wanted to remind her of that – tell her that she never even liked to be barefoot in the grass. But she walks from the room before I can say anything.
I wonder about the locks again. Maybe once you get inside the tent and zip yourself in, there is a little lock like the one that you put on your luggage when you travel. I wonder, if there is such a lock, what if they lose the key? How would they get back out of the tent? I wonder if they sleep with their backpacks in the tent. Because if they do, they could eat food from their packs until someone found them. Then I remember Laney telling me that they would often be in very isolated stretches of mountains. I remember there is a knife in her backpack. She could cut her way out if they lock the tent and have lost the key. I feel better now. But, then, couldn’t someone cut their way into their tent just as easily? My heart beats rapidly. I dismiss the thought. I think about tent locks again and come to the conclusion that they probably don’t exist. I guess that if you are a person who sleeps in the wilderness in a tent, you probably don’t give much thought to locks. I wonder how Laney became such a person.
I push my hair back. Sigh deeply. Try to make my breathing obey. Tug at the tee shirt. Pull it from underneath me. I am still upset from the dream. Just a dream, I tell myself. It was just a dream. It is a recurring dream. One I have when I am overly tired or stressed. Which is most of the time now.
I hate the dampness of the sheets. I scoot over to a dryer spot. I am reminded of waking from the same dream as a child, my sheets beyond damp and soaked with urine. Crying, scared, humiliated. Mother stumbling from her own sleep into the dark bedroom. The blinding light. Relief. More tears. “Shhh. You’ll wake your father. Get up. Get into the tub. I’ll change these. Be quiet. Don’t cry.” And sometimes my father’s voice, a drowsy rumble asking what was wrong. “Nothing, nothing!” my mother would answer lightly. “Just getting Grace a drink of water.” And then she would whisper to me, “No need to tell Daddy. It will be our secret.”
I could feel her embarrassment, her shame, even more acutely than my own. I embarrassed her. She was ashamed of me. We wouldn’t tell. We hardly told each other. I wouldn’t look at her as she scuttled back and forth, ripping the sheets off of the bed and hiding them in the bathroom cupboard until they could be washed the next day after my father left for work. I would scrub myself and try to replace the smell of urine with the smell of Zest. I would pretend that those weren’t my sheets. And with my head bowed, my hair falling forward, I would cry into the tub. Water falling into water. Falling into water.
I sigh again. I am still shaken from the dream. I flip over again. The shower drips in the nearby bathroom. I cannot get away from dripping water. At home, or at least in the house that used to be my home, the water drips in the master tub and I used to listen to it at night. Matt was supposed to fix that. It started dripping after he lost his job. He said he would get around to it, but he never did. Maybe I should have seen that as a sign of things to come. A deterioration of the plumbing. A deterioration of the relationship.
I try to steady my nerves. I take a deep breath and push away all these thoughts. Inhale. Exhale. I remind myself that I did not drown as a child. My mother, I am told, for I do not remember, spotted me in the pool a moment later, dove in and pulled me to safety. Pressed her mouth against mine and, literally, breathed life back into my body.
And now I am safe, I tell myself. Safe.
The water drips.
I push back the covers and get up. I cannot stand this bed for another moment. I walk through the darkened cabin and out onto the porch. A huge white moon is punctured by the black branches of the trees overhead. It seems too big, too close to the ground, to be real. Light pours down and floods the woods. I am amazed at how far I can see. Everything about the moment seems surreal, detached from any sense of time or place.
I surprise myself by walking down the steps and onto the path that runs through the woods and to the edge of the lake.
It is a warm night. A gentle breeze begins to dry my tee shirt as I walk. The thought occurs to me that no one in the world knows what I am doing right now. There is one other cabin on the island, but I don’t even know if anyone is in it. I know an older couple lives there, but I don’t know how often they are here. I remember Matt telling me that most of the cabins are empty all week long, filling up only on the weekends or during the summers. I am probably alone. Matt and Laney, both in different states, are probably both asleep. Matt on a cluttered couch in his parents’ old house and Laney in a tent with no locks. I move through the woods and no one knows. Or cares. I recall a line from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, a T.S. Eliot poem I read in college, I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas. That is how I feel, as if no one in the universe is aware of what I am doing. Or cares.
I cross my arms as I walk and fight the urge to cry. Pine needles stick to my feet and cushion the path. A large-winged bird flies from one tree to another and the sound of his wings brush against the night. Maybe an owl. I continue moving. Silent.
I exit the woods and the pine needle path gives way to one of sand and random patches of unruly grass. Even before I see it, I hear the lake. It splashes against the supports of a pier that stretches out into the water. I walk onto the pier and take another deep breath. An errant tear slips down my cheek. I wipe it away quickly. The moon casts light across the surface of the lake. I see nothing but dark water and a wide strip of shimmering waves reflected from the moon stretching into the distance. Somewhere near, I hear ducks in the water, but cannot see them.
I look toward the sky and tears slip from my eyes and slide down my neck. More tears follow them and I look away from the sky and down the long wooden pier. One foot moves forward and then another until I am at the end of the pier and looking down into the water.
It would be so easy. All I would have to do is take one more step. It is a long pier and the water is deep here. One more step and I would never have to draw another worthless breath. Never have to think of ways to fill up my days with meaningless tasks. Never have to ache with loneliness. Never have to deal with the fact that Matt doesn’t want me. Laney doesn’t need me. Never have to deal with my utter uselessness.
I take a half step forward and then another. My toes are over the edge of the pier. I feel gravity pulling me forward. Almost inviting me. I wouldn’t even have to step. Just fall forward. And sink.
It suddenly becomes so clear. I am on an island. I cannot swim. I have, literally, surrounded myself with the option of death.
I have come here to kill myself.
The realization jolts me. My legs begin trembling and the trembling snakes its way throughout my body until I am shaking so violently that I may fall in before I have a chance to make the decision.
I step back and remove my toes from the edge. I try to think of a reason not to fall. I think of Laney. I promised to pick her and Allison up in Durango at the end of the summer. No one else knew where we had planned to meet. It could be weeks before anyone even noticed that I was gone from here. Maybe longer. And even after they realized that I am gone, how long would it take for someone to contact Matt? And he still would have no idea of where to pick her up at. I imagine her walking off the trail, exhausted and wearing her backpack. No one there for her. I take another step away from the edge.
I will have to write a suicide note and tell Matt where to pick her up.
I decide this methodically, calmly. And the detachment of that decision frightens me to the core. Can it be that simple? A single decision. A few last tasks. And I’m done? Is that all that is required? Ending my life seems so much simpler than living it. For maybe the first time in my life, I feel in control.
I want to thank Cheryl for putting up with all my questions! Now all of you readers out there, run off and check out her website and check out her books!