Novelist Cynthia Shearer was born in Chicopee, Massachusetts, on 25 June 1955 to Irvine Harrison Shearer, an Air Force officer, and Marjorie Elizabeth Shearer, an English teacher. Within a month the family moved to Alapaha, Georgia, her parents’ hometown. Shearer says she was lucky to grow up in a place “where everyone knew everyone else’s family tree, and life was simple,” even though her father left the family and her mother’s liberal views on school integration and the war in Vietnam created tension with the neighbors. As a teenager, Shearer hung wanted posters for Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton on her bedroom walls. She graduated from Valdosta State University in 1977.
Shearer earned a master’s degree in English and completed course requirements for a doctorate at the University of Mississippi, where Barry Hannah became her mentor. During the 1990s she published fiction and nonfiction in an unusual range of magazines, from Ladies’ Home Journal to Tri-Quarterly and the Oxford American. Many of the stories she developed in Hannah’s creative writing workshops became part of her autobiographical first novel, The Wonder Book of the Air (1996), winner of the 1997 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Prize for Fiction. In 2000 she was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in fiction. From 1994 to 2000 Shearer served as curator at William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak.
Since that time, Shearer has taught at the William L. Adams Center for Writing at Texas Christian University, where her husband, Daniel E. Williams, is a professor of English and director of the TCU Press. Her second novel, The Celestial Jukebox, set in the Mississippi Delta, was published in 2005. The following year, she won a Pushcart Prize for “The Famous Writers’ School: Lessons from Faulkner’s House,” an essay about her years at Rowan Oak.
Both The Wonder Book of the Air and The Celestial Jukebox are set in the South during periods of national crisis. Shearer describes the first novel as “a social history of Georgia told through members of my own family.” Her central character, Harrison Durrance, grows up in Alapaha during the Great Depression and flies a bomber in World War II; a generation later, his son, a student at the University of Georgia, describes Vietnam as “some fragile lily that our fathers were trampling.” With several narrators and a shifting chronology, the book has not escaped comparison to Faulkner’s fiction. Although Shearer considers Hannah a stronger influence on her writing, she “borrowed the structure” of her novel from Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, “advancing the novel in ten-year increments.”
The Celestial Jukebox contrasts the music and art of southern folk culture with the consumerism of Delta casinos as well as the violence of World War II, Vietnam, and 11 September 2001. In this novel, Shearer reflects the contemporary South by depicting the fictitious Delta town of Madagascar as a confluence of twentieth-century immigrants from Africa, Honduras, and China and descendants of slaves and planters. “Ain’t no such thing as original Americans,” the Celestial Grocery’s owner, Angus Chien, tells the African newcomer, Boubacar. Several chapter titles underscore America’s diversity by evoking such songs as Son Thomas’s “Catfish Blues” and Wanda Jackson’s “Fujiyama Mama.” Shearer sees the book as “a love letter to all musicians from any epoch or place, regardless of how they might register on Sony’s Richter scale.” She pays special tribute to Mississippi’s African American bluesmen, seeking to “write English words the way these guys could play trance music.” Framed by scenes from 1951 and 2001, the novel is even more technically complex than The Wonder Book of the Air. Shearer wryly observes that “whenever there seemed to be too many marionettes to manage,” she reminded herself not to exceed the number of characters in Don DeLillo’s Underworld.
- Mississippi Writers and Musicians website, www.mswritersandmusicians.com
- Alison Owings, Hey, Waitress!: The USA from the Other Side of the Tray (2004)
- J. C. Robertson, Southern Literary Review website, www.southernlitreview.com (7 May 2009)
- Cynthia Shearer, Beatrice (2005)
- SlushPile.net website, www.slushpile.net