Sharon Zink is the author of the latest offering from small but impressive imprint, Unthank Books. Her debut, Welcome to Sharonville, is a literary novel set in a fictional town not far from Las Vegas and has already gathered fulsome praise. I’m reading the novel and while I like to reserve final judgment until the last page, I can say now it is sharply observed and character rich, so it’s fitting that Sharon is here to talk about her characters and the stories they told her. I’m delighted to have Sharon over and feel sure you’ll enjoy what she has to say. Do buy her book too. Buy links appear at the end of the article.
Take it away, Sharon…
I met the characters from Welcome to Sharonville on a bus thundering between the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. I don’t remember them boarding, the stop and swish of bus doors or the heave of the seat as Uncle Franco collapsed down next to me, or the precise concentration of Aunt Happiness as she embroidered lingerie looking out of the window. Even so, I know that was the moment when the people of Sharonville came into my life because, though all I saw was the rich purple desert mountains and all I felt was tiredness, my life after I arrived back in the UK was never the same again.
I tried to carry on as usual in my career, commuting six to eight hours a day (!) to teach English as a university lecturer, but I couldn’t help but notice now how my journeys were different – each time I boarded a train home and found myself barricaded into my seat by a businessman’s splayed pinstripe knee, the characters of Sharonville were right there with me. Invisible to everyone else, they whispered their secrets in a way which made the loneliness of the long distances home suddenly much easier. Sometimes, I would open a copy of my favourite Raymond Carver stories and they’d tell me that they wanted to see themselves laid out in a book like that, that I should become a fiction writer, which was something I’d not considered in over ten years. I was serious now, after all, an academic – not prone to being bullied by non-existent people from a non-existent town. So I tried to ignore them, to just go on with my Shakespeare classes and be a good girl.
But they were smarter – they started telling me how they saw ghosts like my grandmother or that they were searching for a father or their heart was broken and didn’t I understand that? They were struggling to feel good about themselves, they regretted so much, they’d lied too much and didn’t I knew what that felt like? Didn’t I want other people to know they weren’t alone with this stuff and that there was hope?
I’m a softie and there were too many of them and only one of me, so, in the end, I gave in. I listened, they talked and gave me a book. A big book, in fact, full of binge-eating Italian restaurateurs, gun-toting elderly lesbians, a firefighter whose home is emotionally ablaze, a lawyer who uses sex to replace her long-gone daddy and women who want babies but who can’t have them and women who don’t want babies, but have no choice.
In writing this novel, I was less the author-in-charge than a taxi driver picking up fare and fare and just taking down all that was said to me. The only way the narrative came to have a structure was because they also told me how a young professor had crashed her pick up in the Arizona desert a few days after 9/11 and that was what had got them pondering about their pasts and wanting to share them with me.
That’s not to say I didn’t plan – I took intensive notes as they told me about their favourite music, their politics, their former lovers, and I knew no detail was unimportant. But, unlike my second novel which I didn’t get to gel, I never felt I was ‘making’ these characters up. For me, they came fully formed and they went from my life with the same devastation that accompanies any friend’s going, leaving me crying as I wrote the final words of their tale, suddenly adrift without their gossip, grief and nagging.
It’s probably because these character felt so ‘real’ that I never had much compunction about them being American. Yes, I have travelled extensively in the States and my grandfather lived there for a while, but it was less my personal history than the stories the characters were telling me, so sure in their voice and sense of where they were coming from, which made me never attempt to transpose them to a British setting, even though I knew being an British-German-Brazilian woman who wrote American fiction was making an already incredibly difficult career even harder as the publishing industry is very wary of such crossings of literary borders. Readers have told me that the book seems authentically American though and, if that’s the case, then it’s the characters of Sharonville who I can thank – for telling me about their town, their desert, their hopes and fears in a way which was thick with universal humanity and all its frailties and possibilities, but also steeped in Americana.
It feels pretentious or even a bit weird to say I didn’t make these folks up from my imagination, that they just came to me, but it’s the truth – well, my truth as it stands in relation to Welcome to Sharonville. My job, as I saw it, was to listen and type like an obedient secretary in my horn rim glasses, but, in the process of this passivity, I came to love them with an active loyalty, each and every one, and it is my hope that others will find friends within the novel’s pages too. I hope my readers will drive across the Hoover Dam with my Sharonville pals and laugh in bars and cry by hospital bedsides. Because if one person giggles or is moved or sees themselves just a little bit differently after reading this book, then I think the good folk of Sharonville will be glad they got on the bus with me that night on the way back to Vegas and didn’t wait a while for the next writer to come along.