Sharon May, from Columbia, South Carolina, a retired college instructor, is the July 2020 Writer in Residence at the Daisy Pettles House for Women Writers. Sharon, now 63, also recently won second place in South Carolina’s Carrie McCray Memorial Award in both the novel and non-fiction categories for her works in progress, a novel “Redeeming Hills,” and a hillbilly memoir. She and her wife, Peggy Thompson, are the proud parents of five rescue cats.
Q: Your award-winning entry, “Hillbilly Crazy and Mountain Queer,” chapter one of a memoir in progress, was your first non-fiction piece. Did you always want to write non-fiction or is this a new arena for your writing?
I wrote so many literary analyses in my academic career and later published a composition textbook with four other authors that I thought I would never write non-fiction again.
I limited myself to fiction during the many starts and restarts in my writing life. In the early 2000s, I needed to do some writing for therapy, and over a week or two, drafted 20 pages of what I called, “Hillbilly Crazy and Mountain Queer,” which I didn’t touch again until 2016 when I stopped teaching summers.
Q: You recently retired from teaching composition at Midlands Technical College. You also co-authored a textbook on reading and composition, did you find teaching composition a good way to develop and sharpen your own writing skills? What did you like and/or loathe about that job?
Before I started teaching composition, I had a fly-by-the-seat-my-pants writing process: start writing the paper a day or two before the project was due. There was never enough time for deep revision, so the first draft served as the final. Luckily, my talent served me well.
Once I started asking other people to try to do that, I learned I had to hold myself to the same standard. Longer works cannot be written well in one sitting. Teaching led me to give up that fantasy and begin working on a schedule and devoting more time to revision than drafting.
I loved the interaction with students, and I taught every kind from those who could barely put a sentence together on paper to those sophomores studying American literature. I didn’t mind reading students’ writing and giving advice for improvement, but I hated the actual grading and the reliance on grades to evaluate writing.
Q: Many writers take day jobs while developing their talent. You’re retired now, but what jobs, other than teaching, have you tackled in your quest to become a writer? Did any of them help you become a better writer?
As an undergrad in the 1970s, I worked as a reporter and photographer for a small county newspaper in Kentucky. I picked up a lot of story ideas in that job. Actually, I have developed a list of characters and plots from all the jobs I worked since I was 15: cashier, waitress, computer operator, accountant, Director of Purchasing at a small hospital, manager of a pizza joint.
What really helped me become a better writer was joining a writer’s workshop about three years ago. The deadlines of meetings help keep me on track, and the feedback from the other workshop members has been invaluable.
Q: Your works are set in the Kentucky hills of your childhood. Do you think Appalachia is well represented in non-fiction, fiction, or in modern media? What do people get right about that region? What do they get wrong? How does your fiction represent the region?
The Kentucky hills are not very well depicted in any media. Stereotypes abound, some of which are so clownish and absurd that we hillbillies will act like the stereotype and then make fun of the foreigners (anyone not from the hills) for being so gullible and stupid.
There is quite of bit of attention being given to Appalachian writers now. While most writers love the people of the region, they have difficulty depicting them as more than stereotypes. “Hillbilly Elegy” fed into the stereotype of a rough-and-tumble people who drink (now, do drugs) and fight too much, and are uneducated to boot. I haven’t finished “Hill Women,” but I’m afraid it is too romanticized. Few works try to show the complexity of the people from Kentucky.
I hope my works will be different. Yes, there is an undercurrent of violence in the hills, but the reasons for that are rarely explored to any depth. Yes, there are those who lack traditional schooling, but hillbillies can be more intelligent than many people with PhDs. Everyone from the hills has different experiences depending on class, race, ethnic background, education, and so on.
Q: What are you working on this summer and how is that project coming along?
I am primarily working on revising the novel, which I am now calling “Nothing Remains Hidden.” I expect to finish that project by early spring, if the Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise.
I have also drafted a chapter for “Hillbilly Crazy and Mountain Queer,” along with a few attempts at writing poetry.
Q: You and your wife have a great clowder of cats. Tell us how that came to be. Do they assist you as literary muses or distract you from your efforts?
When we got together 16 years ago, Peggy had two Siamese cats, and I had two alley cats. Three of them have since passed away. Baylee, a gray and white Snowshoe Siamese is now 18. She was either dumped or ran away to a feral cat colony at Burger King in West Columbia.
Rocky, a black and brown tabby, is about 12. He showed up on Christmas Day 10 years ago and a neighbor gave him fillet mignon. He stayed, but was not streetwise, so we brought him in. He stayed mostly under the bed for at least four months.
Calvin and Hobbes are 3- year-old Flame Point Siamese litter mates from Florida. I saw them on the Siamese Rescue Organization website. They were transported to GA, where I picked them up.
Link, a three-year-old, orange and white long-haired cat was rescued by Cats Around Town. I saw him at a local pet store adoption event and fell in love. Peggy won’t let me go to other events.
Cats have always been my muse. My first word was “cat,” according to my mother. They usually can be found sleeping near me in my office. I admit they can interfere when they want attention or food.
Q: You’re 63. Any advice for older women who may have delayed their writing careers while pursuing day jobs, raising children or families, or facing other of life’s many challenges?
The best advice I can give is carpe diem. Make time to write, set up a schedule that works for you, no matter how bizarre, and write as much as you can in one sitting. It’s okay to start small at 30 minutes a session. Build up steam until you write regularly and productively. Don’t forget that thinking about your how to write and reading about writing are also writing. I find I may spend an hour just thinking about an aspect of the work, and then write for a while on those thoughts.
Don’t let perfectionism and the editing bug hold you back. Put words on paper. Almost any writer will tell you that the first draft if pretty bad. Most of your time will be revising. Feel free to make mistakes in drafting.
Take advantage of your age and wisdom. You have lots of experiences to write about.
Q: Do you have favorite pieces of your own writing accessible online that you’d like to share with our readers? If so, why do you like these pieces or what do they represent in your own evolution as a writer and person? Where can our readers find or follow you online?
Unfortunately, I do not have anything published online. I do plan to learn how to do that.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sharon May’s works-in-progress can be viewed at the following collective sites as of July, 2020: “Redeeming Hills, (fiction), Petigru Review; and “Hillbilly Queer and Mountain Crazy,” Petigru Review (creative non-fiction, memoir). Her selected essays on the writing life are viewable on the Columbia Writers’ Workshop website.
The Daisy Pettles House for Women Writers is a project dedicated to locating and encouraging older women writers, aged 40+ through cash grants and month-long residencies in a vintage bungalow in southern Indiana. Women writers may compete for a writer-in-residence spot or support the project through renting the house for their own month-long or week-long residencies or retreats. Donations are also accepted through Go Fund Me for those wishing to support older women writers.