Author Sheri Reynolds lets her characters work it out

Drawing on experience, Sheri Reynolds brings Southern culture to life on the pages of her novels. Publicity photo. Drawing on experience, Sheri Reynolds brings Southern culture to life on the pages of her novels. Publicity photo.

As C’ville residents, we often hear, “Charlottesville has changed so much since I moved here.” Some see this as a positive, others less so. Either way (and regardless of how long you’ve lived here) it’s likely that we all have indeed witnessed some evolution.

Recent development has obviously changed the landscape of familiar areas including McIntire Park and West Main Street. On top of that, the constant ebb and flow of the University community ensures that a migratory pattern is carved lightly into the bricks and mortar of daily life. Every few years, the collective cry goes up: “Everyone is moving away!” To be fair, it’s often true that students move away when they complete their degree. But this constant development and turnover pushes us, as a city, to embrace change and find value in the new. It allows Charlottesville to be, at once, a small college town in the South and something more.

This “something more” is frequently what we write about here, and it’s important to remember that Charlottesville has had to evolve significantly to achieve this state of existence. Local photographer Stacey Evans demonstrated this evolution in her “Charlottesville Then & Now” project with UVA Magazine. And with his prolific collection of historic photographs, Ed Roseberry reminds us of what Charlottesville used to be. There are countless other local examples, and these stories of growth are true in most cities.

An upcoming event at local nonprofit WriterHouse seeks to explore how this physical evolution can be an important element for writers to use in their own lives and in the creation of characters on the page. Entitled “Growing Up on the Page: How Characters and Their Writers Evolve,” the event features Virginia-based author Sheri Reynolds interviewed by Susan Gregg Gilmore. Both are women writers from the South. Together, they provide a forum to learn more about the strategies for taking risks in writing and the merits of imbuing characters with the freedom to evolve and grow.

As the author of six novels (including The Rapture of Canaan, which was featured in Oprah’s Book Club), Sheri Reynolds has a knack for fleshing out characters from the South. She admitted that “the places I live find their ways into the landscapes of my novels. My early ones were located in South Carolina, and my most recent novels have taken place on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.” When describing Southern characters, there’s always the temptation to pile on cultural stereotypes just as you would pile real whipped cream on a fresh slice of pecan pie or throw empty Budweiser cans into your pickup truck. Ahem.

Reynolds tactfully avoids these clichés and creates characters that breathe from within the pages. Whether it’s Tessa getting abandoned by her mom in the The Firefly Cloak, a stowaway named Hellcat in The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb, or the scalding burns rained down on Finch in A Gracious Plenty, the sundry trials are but challenges to overcome, pushing characters to grow. By placing unexpected and challenging circumstances in the paths of her characters, Reynolds’ storytelling feels like we’re experiencing the events as they happen in real time.

Some writers create a sense of predetermination in their work: even if you don’t know where it’s going, it feels like the writer is leading you down a path that he or she planned out from page one. Instead, Reynolds’ writing gives the reader the impression that she allowed characters to determine their own actions as each book progressed. She takes the time (sometimes lots of time) to create characters who are dense and realistic, and then has respect enough for the strengths of these people to let them guide the action. 

When speaking about the next book she’s working on, Reynolds related, “I only have 50 pages of notes and sketchy scenes, so it will be years before this one is finished. The entire story takes place between the time she topples and the time the ambulance gets there (if it ever arrives—I’m not sure yet if it comes).” If it ever arrives. Characters will be pushed in unknown ways and make unpredictable decisions before that part of the narrative, so Reynolds herself is still tracking the course of the next story she’s trying to tell. A lot of writers employ similar methods of allowing the story to evolve and take its own course rather than setting out with an end goal in sight. Reynolds does this in a unique way that gives a concerted push for characters to grow over the course of a book, evolving the narrative as they do so.

In the same way that she lets her characters react to and push the narrative in unexpected directions, she also takes risks in her work and allows it to adapt to outside forces. Discussing her draft of Orabelle’s Wheelbarrow, Reynolds remembered that, “when I turned it in, my editor said it was ‘too theatrical’ for fiction. When I got over the despair of having a big book rejected, I decided to actually use that story to learn to write a play.” The resulting work won Reynolds the Women’s Playwrights’ Initiative playwriting competition in 2005. Until then, she’d never written a single play. This adaptive quality pushes Reynolds, as a writer, to embrace change and find value in taking risks. It allows her to be, at once, a writer with deep roots in the South and something more.

Off the page, she also finds ways to push herself and evolve her craft. With dual careers as a writer and creative writing professor at Old Dominion University, Reynolds said that “the two feel mostly like separate worlds. But certainly they influence one another. In classes, I find ways to articulate what I do intuitively in my writing.” It is this experience, intuition, and wisdom that Reynolds will bring to WriterHouse on August 15.

Which writers or books have influenced you to change?

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