Saturday, December 16, 2006

One Writer's Process: Shelley Pearsall

You would never guess that Shelley Pearsall, the award-winning author of Trouble Don't Last, Crooked River, and All of the Above, dreads diving into the water as she sets off in search of her remarkably compelling stories.

After all, reviewers have described her first novel, Trouble Don't Last, which won the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, as "astonishing... a thrilling escape story" (Booklist, starred), "action packed... gripping from beginning to end" (Publishers Weekly, starred), and "one of the best Underground Railroad narratives in recent years" (Kirkus Reviews).

And her second novel, Crooked River, earned her yet more honors. A Junior Library Guild Selection and 2006 New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age, the book was called "a captivating tale of fear, ignorance, and bravery on the Ohio frontier" (School Library Journal, starred), "outstanding historical fiction," (Kirkus Reviews, starred) and "an issue-raising historical novel about frontier life, prejudice, justice and courage." (VOYA)

And in All of the Above, her most recent work, Pearsall dives deeply into the lives of four children in one of Cleveland's inner-city schools. Reviewers have already called Pearsall's newest story "smart and fast-paced," (Kirkus Reviews), and early readers like Laban Carrick Hill, author of Harlem Stomp!, a National Book Award finalist, have praised the characterizations as "deft and sensitive."

Yet this former elementary school teacher and former historian for Hale Farm and Village, a 160-acre living-history museum in Ohio that recreates mid-nineteenth century life, has to force herself to leap off that diving board into her story each morning.

In the essay below, Pearsall was kind enough to take the time to share some of her thoughts on diving and writing with Wordswimmer.

Diving In

I am not a fan of diving. problem. I can backstroke, butterfly, sidestroke, and front crawl with the best of them. But I do not like to go below the surface. I remember childhood swim classes at the Y where, in order to move up to the next swim level, our instructors required us to demonstrate our ability to retrieve various objects--pennies, small weights called "donuts"--from the bottom of the pool. And I believe at some point, at the top swim level, you were required to retrieve a person. But I never got that far (thankfully).

I notice that I try to avoid diving in my writing as well. With each new book, I manage to convince myself that this time--this time--I will be able to write the story while paddling easily on the surface. Secretly, I think my goal is to float and write, while holding a tropical beverage and getting a tan at the same time. I tell myself that after three books, perhaps I am expert enough at this swimming/writing thing that I will be able to look down at my story from the safe and sunny poolside--without actually having to go down to the depths to retrieve it.

This never works, of course. But I always attempt to make it work. For weeks at a time, I paddle around on the surface of my story. I know that the writing is too slick, too easy. I realize that my characters are little more than shadows swimming past me on the page. I know that my story lacks depth. Still, I am reluctant to take that first breath and dive. From my childhood swimming days, I remember too well the ear-popping pressure and the heart-pounding rush to reach the surface before the last gasp of air disappeared.

Eventually, I believe that I begin by taking small dives into my story, gradually getting deeper and deeper. A sentence. A breath. A paragraph. A breath. And then the moment usually comes when I realize I haven't taken a breath since... well, I can't quite recall. I come up from the page, my chest tight, my vision blurred. Where am I? My eyes cast wildly around my office in the disoriented way that they do when I come up from a dive...desperate to find something familiar: the sky, the side of the pool, the shore.

It is always at these moments--when I've made a heart-stopping, ear-popping, breathless dive and break the surface--that I realize finally, finally, I've gone deep enough to reach the story. When I open my fingers, it's suddenly there--clasped in my palm like one of those precious copper pennies shimmering on the bottom of the pool long ago. Not the whole story of course. Not each character fully formed. But a beginning, at least.

With each book, it seems, I have to learn these lessons over again. Stories, like pennies, are not found in the shallows. They do not float to the surface if writers wait by the side long enough. Stories are found by diving deeply--into characters, into words, into the heart. Each book seems to push me to my own limits as a writer: I can't go any further than this, I insist. I can't describe any more. I can't tell it any better.

And then, without fail, each story takes me one breath deeper.

For more information about Shelley Pearsall and her work, visit her website:

(P.S. - Wordswimmer is taking a break for the holidays and hopes to return to the water in two weeks. May the lights of this season burn bright and bring health, joy and peace to Wordswimmers everywhere.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed Pearsall's article, and her book, Crooked River, sounds intriguing (I visited her website). I'll have to put her book on my reading list, and see how she handled that deep dive into our cultural past.

Happy holidays to all the other writers who visit wordswimmer; it's a real asset to us all. Thanks, Bruce.