My guest author today has an important story to share with us. Please help me welcome Theresa Shea to the interview hot seat! Let’s glance at her bio and then find out more about her and the story she has to tell.
Theresa Shea is the author of two novels. The Shade Tree, winner of the 2020 Guernica Prize for best unpublished literary fiction, and winner of the 2022 Georges Bugnet Award for fiction. Her debut novel, The Unfinished Child, was a finalist for the Georges Bugnet Award and the Alberta Readers’ Choice Award.
Shea was born in the US and moved to Canada in 1977. A graduate of McGill University, Queen’s University, and the University of Alberta, Shea is currently working on Dog Days of Planet Earth, a novel that examines animal rights and the climate crisis through the historical lens of the nuclear experiments conducted by the United States Government between 1945 and 1992.
Betty: What inspired you to write the story you’re sharing with us today?
Theresa: In August of 1963, when I was three months old, my mother took me to the March on Washington and held me in her arms as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The civil rights movement was in full swing. Change was wanted and needed. It was an exhilarating time. Yet over fifty years later, racial inequality still thrives.
To understand the present, we need to understand the past. In The Shade Tree, I wanted to explore some of the damaging narratives that white people have inherited. The first narrative we are introduced to in life is the family narrative. How are we shaped by it? How does it define us? Why do some people blindly accept that inheritance while others question it?
Betty: What, if any, new writing skill did you develop while working on this story?
Theresa: I developed two key skills while working on this book: 1) patience to do multiple revisions, and 2) perseverance to bounce back from repeated rejections. Both will continue to be valuable during my writing life.
Winning the Guernica Prize was amazing. In addition to a cash prize, I also received a publishing contract. The novel came out the following year. One acceptance wipes out a lot of rejections. That the book went on to win best novel of the year in my Canadian province was equally wonderful and gratifying.
Betty: Did you struggle with any part of this story? What and how?
Theresa: Yes, while I wanted to highlight the damage of white supremacy, I struggled to know how much abuse against Black people to show. I didn’t want the violence to be gratuitous. For instance, there is a lynching scene in the novel that was difficult to write and is difficult to read. It is a pivotal scene that juxtaposes a horrifically violent moment with a community picnic involving so-called upstanding citizens. White readers, in particular, should be horrified by the contrast.
Betty: Which character(s) were the easiest to get to know? Why do you think?
Theresa: One reviewer said my character Ellie Turner is “the most villainous female character” she has ever come across in literature. While she found her to be “beyond redemption,” she also understood, through my character development, “how her evil came to be.” I found that gratifying. An “evil” character must be believable. Sick people are produced by sick societies.
Betty: What kind of research did you need to do to write this story?
Theresa: I wrote The Shade Tree over a nine-year period and dipped in and out of research throughout that time. The internet is a fabulous resource. I watched footage of civil unrest, revisited the March on Washington, and more. I also read extensively and paid close attention to the Southern American writer and social critic Lillian Smith, who lobbied against Jim Crow laws, segregation, and wrote about the taboos surrounding interracial relationships and the failure of so-called Christians to be charitable and good.
I also read a significant amount of history about, and novels set in, the period covered in my book.
Betty: How many drafts of the story did you write before you felt the story was complete?
Theresa: Oh my. That’s a difficult question, and I’m not certain I know, but I’m going to say approximately eight to ten.
Betty: How long did it take for you to write the story you’re sharing with us? Is that a typical length of time for you? Why or why not?
Theresa: I started The Shade Tree in 2011, and it was published in 2021. That’s a faster timeline than my first, The Unfinished Child, that took thirteen years. However, my life circumstances had changed too. I started my first book when my second child was six months old. I moved twice and had another child during that period, so I was primarily focusing more on child-rearing, out of necessity. To be honest, it took longer to get my second novel published than I expected. In the end, however, I’m grateful because it’s a better book having undergone so many revisions.
I’m hoping that my next novel, Dog Days of Planet Earth, will move along at a faster pace. I started it in April of 2019. My children are young adults now, and I have more time to devote to writing. Even so, my novels take time to fully reveal themselves. Having more time hasn’t translated to writing faster. If I can finish a novel in five years, I would think that’s a good pace. One of the benefits of aging is I have more patience for the process.
Betty: What rituals or habits do you have while writing?
Theresa: I do my best writing first thing in the day. My morning routine is to get up, make coffee, toast a bagel, and read some spiritual writing that sets me on the path to being a good human for the day. Then I go to my studio out in my backyard and give myself a pep talk. If I have a gift for writing, I ask to be deserving of that gift. I ask for the critical and doubting voice inside to be silenced. Once I am far enough into a work, I get excited to visit my fictional world and to spend time with my characters. So, there are stages of writing that are definitely more enjoyable (because they are easier) than others.
Finally, I think often of Ann Patchett’s simple equation: “Time applied equals work completed.” It’s shocking to think it can be that simple.
Betty: Every author has a tendency to overuse certain words or phrases in drafts, such as just, once, smile, nod, etc. What are yours?
Theresa: Good question. I have no idea! Maybe my readers could let me know.
Betty: Do you have any role models? If so, why do you look up to them?
Theresa: My role models are people who have strong moral compasses and are true to their convictions, no matter the repercussions. Social justice people, certain spiritual leaders, activists that challenge the status quo, to name a few.
Betty: Do you have a special place to write? Revise? Read?
Theresa: Since November of 2018, I am fortunate to have a backyard shed, insulated and heated, in which to write. It was a decrepit shed filled with old paint cans and lawn mowers and insulation rolls left by previous tenants. One day I looked at it and thought, “it has potential!” A friend did the renovation work, and it has been life changing. Also, my timing was great. I used to work in coffee shops and libraries. When Covid hit in 2020, those spaces were no longer available. That my studio was already complete was lifesaving.
Betty: Many authors have a day job. Do you? If so, what is it and do you enjoy it?
Theresa: I left my full-time job working at the city in late 2019 because I wanted time to finish some writing projects. Then Covid hit. I have been precariously self-employed since then.
Betty: As an author, what do you feel is your greatest achievement?
Theresa: I feel my greatest achievement as an author is writing books that move people.
Betty: What is your favorite genre to read?
Theresa: Literary fiction.
Betty: Success looks different to different people. It could be wealth, or fame, or an inner joy at reaching a certain level. How do you define success in terms of your writing career?
Theresa: Great question. When I was younger, I thought success came from being “known” or signing for a large advance. It was much more about external validation. Now, success is being able to write what I want and taking the time to let the work develop. Success for me is having more patience to let the work breathe and grow and expand.
The Shade Tree is a searing exploration of racial injustice set against the backdrop of some of America’s most turbulent historical events. The lives of two white sisters and a Black midwife are inextricably linked through a series of haunting tragedies, and the characters must make life-changing decisions about where their loyalties lie: with their biological families or with a greater moral cause. From a Florida orange grove to the seat of power in Washington, DC, during the height of the civil rights movement, The Shade Tree tells a sweeping yet intimate story of racial discrimination and the human hunger for justice.
An Editors’ Choice book with The Historical Novel Society, a reviewer said of The Shade Tree: “Mesmerizing, engrossing, and brilliantly plotted, this is an achievement that will echo long after the last page is turned.”
Thank you so much for sharing The Shade Tree with us today, Theresa! It sounds like a wonderful and provocative read.
Award-winning Author of Historical Fiction with Heart, and Haunting, Bewitching Love Stories
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