IN SHEREE’S OWN WORDS…A Milwaukee, Wisconsin native, I’ve been published in Hair Trigger, The Windy City Times, Reservoir, Fictionary, and the Windy City Queer Anthology: Dispatches from the Third Coast. I have performed my work across selected venues in Milwaukee, New York, Miami, Chicago, and Tampa, where I host Oral Fixation, the only LGBTQ Open Mic series in Tampa Bay. I received a Union League of Chicago Civic Arts Foundation Award, earned my MFA at Columbia College Chicago, and currently teach writing and literature at St. Petersburg College. As an Astraea Lesbian Writers Fund grantee and VONA alum, I published a short story collection, Once and Future Lovers, which continues to see increased sales and garner feature speaker/reader engagements. “A Prom Story in Three Parts”, an excerpt from my yet-to-be-published novel, What Has Never Been Taught, received a special mention in Publisher’s Weekly and appears in Best Lesbian Romance 2012. I love food and wine, play mediocre electric guitar, and enjoy talking to strangers.
How long have you been writing and how did you get you get started?
I wrote my first short story at the age of 8. It was a terrible story that ended with the lyrics from “Whip Appeal” by Babyface. I wrote the story out of boredom, but in hindsight, I find that I was always into telling stories. I used to tell my younger sister stories to help her get to sleep and I used to write poems and stories for my mother when I got in trouble. Though I tried to relegate my writing to hobby status, I realized, with the help of a good friend and writer, Benita Newton, that it was much more than that, and had been for awhile whether I wanted to acknowledge it or not. She encouraged me, before her passing, to go for it, the writing life, and I did. So, here I am. A lot of people nudged me toward self-actualization, but Benita gave me the push I needed. I’ll always credit her with that, and I hope I’m making her proud.
Give a brief description of your book, Once and Future Lovers.
Not sure if you want the book jacket thing or not, but here it is in a sort of abbreviated form: Once and Future Lovers tells stories that shine a light on the critical moments in which men and women take the great risk that is loving. Characters grapple with the courage it takes to love once while discovering the inherent challenge put to all lovers: embracing or denying the possibility of loving again, and again.
What is the theme of Once and Future Lovers, and how did you decide on this?
The prevailing theme is love. The stories are inherently about the different ways in which people love, whether it’s romantic, familial, or friendly, the love comes from the same place though it’s shown and experienced in different ways with different people. As a result, every relationship we have is full of the possibility of love, and with the possibility of love is the fallibility of it. So, the collection throws that in the mix. What happens to us when we love someone or something? What happens to us when we experience love’s different parts? The good parts keep us singing love’s praises, but what of the tougher parts? Do we abandon love when it hurts us? Or do we return to take the chance again? I don’t know that I made a conscious decision on the love theme. It just kind of came out of the stories, the characters came alive on the page, all wanting the same thing, all afraid of the same thing, all needing the same thing: some kind of love.
The stories in OAFL flow like butter. What kind of process does it take to write a cohesive short story collection?
Wow. Thank you for saying that. I like butter. It’s smooth and creamy. I wish I had some formula or method to my madness in terms of how these stories came together. Perhaps the stories were always part of something bigger than I knew at the time. They all seemed to just come together the right way at the right time. I’m thankful and pleased about how the collection came together.
Did you already have the stories written and then simply chose the ones to include, or did you write stories specifically for this collection?
Most of the stories existed in some form before I began putting the collection together. Their existence sort of ignited the entire collection. I write a lot, short pieces and snatches of dialogue or scene, so when the idea to put together a short story collection came up, I had a lot of material that needed a home. Some of the stories were published elsewhere, some were in various stages of completeness; all of them, though, took on new life when Once and Future Lovers became something I was doing for real. When I began revisions and selections for what was going to go into the collection, it sort of felt destined, like I had been writing for this collection for years but just didn’t know it.
You’ve been touring a lot with this book. What kind of feedback have you been receiving from audiences?
The reception of me and my work has been absolutely lovely! I’ve been having such a great time telling stories and meeting people who love stories. It’s been amazing. There are a few audience favorites like “I Do All My Own Stunts” and “Baby Girl.” Some of the stories that have been previously published have long since been crowd-pleasers, “Christmas is Sacred” comes to mind. The best part is talking with people and listening to their stories as a result of my story. It’s a feeling of connectedness that can’t be beat. It’s what I love about literature, about any kind of art really, it brings people together. It shows us that we’re all in this crazy, fucked up world together, all trying to make it. It’s a beautiful thing. Sorry for cursing. J
Speaking of audiences, tell us about hosting Oral Fixation, the only LGBTQ open-mic series in Tampa Bay. Was this your creation?
I can’t take full credit for Oral Fixation. It came together during Tampa Black Pride in 2009, which was a joint effort between a number of different people and organizations in Tampa that try to promote and encourage community for LGBTQ people of color. I was able to get a number of different writers together because of a writing group I co-founded with Fiona Zedde when she lived in Tampa, and we sort of just went from there. It had such a great turn-out, I wanted to find a way to do it again, but didn’t quite have the network. In 2010, I worked with Nora Gupton, who founded and operated a wonderful networking and social group for lesbians of color called Grown Gurls. With her help, I co-produced an amazing showcase of LGBTQ writers, poets, singers, and the like. Hosting is a blast. I wouldn’t trade it. We get so many different people on the mic, some noted writers and some who only write for Oral Fixation. Either way, it’s always inspiring and a lot of fun. I promised that as long as people kept coming, I’d keep hosting. We’re on a holiday hiatus, but the open mic party will be back in January to continue our get-down.
As an author, you give shine to other artists with your interview feature The Love Seat. Tell us all about it.
The Love Seat is a great way to build community and show love to artists in varying stages of their career, who just like me, are always on that grind. It’s tough out there, especially as LGBTQ artists, who are the focus of the Love Seat, and I thought that if I could showcase artists who I admire and respect, I could spread the word to some people who have yet to admire and respect them as I do. I’m a huge fan of building community and believe very much in the African tradition of “we” as in if I’m doing something good and can contribute in any way to you doing something good, well then we’re all doing good. I, You, We. It’s all love.
It seems as if you’re always on the grind: from writing, hosting open mics, book touring, interviewing artists, as well teaching undergrad English courses. When do you sleep?
What is this sleep thing you’re referring to? I’m not familiar with the term. Ha! Just kidding. My sisters and mother are always talking about me burning the candle at both ends, which can only last for so long before you burn some fingertips and burn out in the process. I do feel like I’m always doing something, but then again, I’m always thinking about new stuff I can do! I work a lot, true. Yet, I’m happier when I’m doing something, making something. And what’s that thing about doing what you love so you don’t have to work a day in your life? That’s what I’m trying to get to, and I’m getting closer and closer all the time. A lot of what I do doesn’t really feel like work, so to be up all night working on a story or preparing for a reading, traveling to link up with other writers and doing literary events is nothing. It’s living the dream, and ain’t dreaming what sleep is all about? Oh, rest. Right. Admittedly, I am taking more time to rest – sometimes I just need it because I ain’t no spring chicken you know, and a sistah be tired! It helps to have people in my life who care about me and want me to be healthy, rested, and happy. Sometimes I do have to be told to go to bed. I’m thankful for that though I do pout about it a little bit.
You left your career as a business analyst in 2005 to pursue writing full time. Since then, you’ve performed your work in such venues as your hometown of Milwaukee, to New York, Miami, Chicago, and your current residence of Tampa. Do you feel like you’re living your dreams?
Mostly. There is more to do, more to share, but I think that will always be the case. I did a reading at Blue Stockings book store in Manhattan last year for a story I have in the Windy City Queer Anthology edited by Kathie Bergquist, and it was weird being there because it was six years to the month since I had been in New York for the first time to check out graduate writing programs with my friend Benita. Something about being there for a reading, at a bookstore, as a writer, filled me up. I ran through Fort Green Park, looked out at the city, and got a little weepy. I don’t feel like I can say “I made it,” but I feel damn good saying I am here, and I am a writer. It’s amazing. I keep dreaming bigger and bigger, yet when I think about how far I’ve come, what I’ve been able to accomplish, and what I’m working toward with the support of family and friends, I find so much happiness in being able to answer “mostly” versus “no” or even “not yet.” The journey is grand, and I love every moment of it.
If you could describe your life in one word, what would it be?
What are you working on next?
I’m currently shopping my first novel, What Has Never Been Taught, to a small group of publishers. I’m also working on a second novel, in addition to more tour dates, literary events, workshops, and promotions for Once and Future Lovers. I hope to record a few of the stories in the collection for an audio book extravaganza with some music and other exciting things. I also have some secret projects that make me do a little shoulder shimmy when I think about them.
What’s a typical day like for you?
It’s hard to say. I have a routine for some things, but what’s typical about my days are the things I try to keep constant in my life: on a typical day, I will eat something good, laugh a lot, talk to at least three people I love, listen to some jams, and do something creative, even if it’s something small like imagining the lives of the people in line ahead of me at the post office.
What is your favorite book? Favorite author?
I tend to have lots of favorites. Tar Baby by Toni Morrison? That’s my favorite! Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood? That’s my favorite! Go Tell It on The Mountain by James Baldwin? That’s my favorite! Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker? That’s my favorite! Zami by Audre Lorde? That’s my favorite! I love to read and discover new favorites all the time, so it may be easier to say that I am more than partial to Harlem Renaissance writers and find a special joy in reading the work of contemporary writers who love language and play with it the way many of those writers did.
What piece of advice can you share with aspiring authors?
Read, read, and read some more. Write, write, and write some more. Get some trusted readers and listen to them – I’m not saying do everything they say, but always listen to them. Research the industry and other writers who are doing what you want to do. And last but not least, be prepared and willing to work hard for what you want.
Why do you feel it’s important for black lesbians to tell their own stories, as you did with Once and Future Lovers?
We have to take ownership of our own stories. It’s imperative. If we don’t tell our stories, someone else will. People who don’t tell their own stories become defined by what other people say about them. We have to write our own definitions; we have to tell it right, tell it true. If not, it’s all lies that others gobble up, and we’re forced to eat.
Interviewed December 2012
Sheree L. Greer Reviews