Local Author Series: John Sheirer

Local Author Series: John Sheirer

John Sheirer is an episodic writer.

The 53-year-old local Northampton author works full time as a professor at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, and he writes creatively on the side. “I have two careers, one that pays reasonably well and one that doesn’t,” he says. “But both are about making the world a better place, and I’m happy with that.”

Like many writers, it’s difficult for John to find the time to write creatively. He said he is always preparing for school, and the key thing for him is to grab small pieces of time as they arise.

John writes a monthly column for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and in order to organize for this he will grab 15 minutes here and there to gather his thoughts until it finally comes together, similar to his own personal writing. He referred to this as episodic writing—brief but intense periods of writing in which he gets an abundance done in a short time frame.

His main genre isn’t definitive, however, he does work a great deal in memoir writing. One of his works, called Loop Year, is an ecological memoir. This book focuses on John’s experiences in hiking the same trail for an entire year, and he describes it as an environmental and anthropological study, as it focuses on the current events and people he came into contact with during that year in that specific region.

The column he writes for the Gazette is political in nature and deals primarily with current events, and he also has published a book, called Tales of a Real American Liberal, which is political as well. His most recent endeavor has been children’s books featuring his dog Libby, titled Libby Speaks and I Like Sticks! John says that everything he writes comes out of his own life; it is a way for him to connect with what comes from outside of himself.

John has been publishing since he had a poem appear in a literary magazine in college. He used to rewrite obsessively, and felt that everything he wrote needed to be literary or scholarly to be considered worthy of reading. Now as a more mature writer, he says that it wasn’t until he finally gave himself permission to make mistakes as a writer that he was able to publish his books.

Once he let go of the need for perfection he finally saw the greatness in his work. He now starts hundreds of projects and finishes five, and says he now comes up with his best stuff that before he would have disregarded.

He feels that his writing career is more of a hobby; he sells a few books here and there, making enough yearly to cover one mortgage payment, and he works with small publishers, so it is an intimate experience. His goal is not to get rich but to connect with people, including his students. He teaches children’s literature and all levels of college writing, and feels that writing makes him a better teacher. By having lived the craft, he can more artfully model the experience in a skilled way to his students and connect with them on a deeper level.

John grew up in Central Pennsylvania, in Bedford County, on a farm. He elaborates on this experience in his book Growing Up Mostly Normal in the Middle of Nowhere: A Memoir. He moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1989.

He has been teaching full time at Asnuntuck Community College for the last 22 years; it has been “the career job he was looking for.” John teaches a vast array of courses, from literature, writing and English offerings to communications courses. He has also held administrative positions at the college but prefers to be in the classroom.

Given the ability to write full time, he would jump at the chance, but he would also still teach part time because teaching is a great passion for him as well.

All of John’s books are available on his personal website here, and are all definitely worth the read. He is also available on Facebook, so check him out!

Photo Credit: Betsy Sheirer

Validation is a Beautiful Thing

I was on pins and needles all last week as Vanessa read through my manuscript. I kept waiting for a reaction, an opinion, a thought, but I got nothing. With the exception of one email in which Vanessa said she was on page 60 and enjoying it, she gave me no hints as to whether she thought the book was trash or treasure—or something in between. This, even when I saw her in person last week, and she mentioned she had less than 20 pages left to read.

Last Wednesday, Vanessa fired me an email to tell me she had finished reading, and I sent her a series of probing questions. I impressed on her that her most important job as my intern was to give me a brutally honest opinion of the work. “My time is precious, so if you honestly think completing this project is a waste of time, you really, really need to tell me!” I instructed her.

I’m an impatient thing, and I wanted Vanessa’s responses immediately, but again, I had to wait. And in the waiting, I formed the opinion that Vanessa hated the book, that it was a bust. I gave up on the project quietly and started thinking about what might be next.

What was actually next, in my inbox on Saturday morning, were Vanessa’s very articulate and encouraging responses. I learned that her take on the book mirrored mine. While her favorite scenes were not my favorites, they were definitely in the section of the book I felt was strong; the weaker areas she identified were in the section that I view as still a work in progress. And Vanessa also outed me, in that she clearly saw I had trouble with the concept of fiction as the book begins.

What makes me so happy, though, is that Vanessa summed up the story line—the point of the book—just as I would have, if someone had posed the question to me. I am so motivated now, that I already spent an hour or so on a new scene, and I will now block off days, and perhaps even a week or two, to finish and get this thing done!

Here are some of the less specific questions I asked Vanessa, and excerpts from her responses.

What was your overall opinion of the manuscript? I really enjoyed what you have so far. I can see in the beginning the struggle in transitioning from nonfiction to fiction, as some of your personal life hinted through. I can also see how you did make the transition and work your way through that challenge. Stylistically speaking, it is similar to Divine Renovations.

Would you recommend I continue the work of completing it or let it die a graceful death? Why? I honestly think you have something here. Plus, I hate giving up on things, and I feel that in life there is never room for regrets. You owe it to Rox and Alex to finish their story and give them the chance they deserve. I found myself chuckling at times, feeling emotional at others and overall invested in the story and characters. Keep going!

What were your main take-aways? I think the book on the surface is a love story, or a romance if it were to be placed in a neat package for an agent, but I think the point of it is much more than that. I think it is more a coming-of-age story, or a story about finding yourself, and furthermore a story that shows that finding yourself can happen at any age. I think Rox represents so many women in the world, at any and all ages, and is an extremely sympathetic character.

Did you form an attachment to any of the characters? Why? I feel like I did form an attachment to Rox. I found myself relating to her in many ways. She made me want to be more independent. She reminded me of myself at times.

Did you care about them? I felt very invested in both characters, yes. More so in Rox than Alex, because, above all else, I wanted her to do what was right for her in the end, and if that ended up not being with Alex, then so be it.  She was so empowered in developing her own future and securing it that this is what I felt most concerned with, and I appreciated that this is what was most important to her, not just pleasing Alex or finding love. I love the way that Alex and Rox are able to connect in a way that doesn’t require words. I think you do a great job of showing this and could maybe develop this more.

What else should I know? That you still have work to do, which you know, but what you have has amazing qualities that I think many people will appreciate and connect with. I do not like romance novels Janice, I read Stephen King, and I liked this. Your style of writing is enticing and fun, it keeps the reader engaged. Your characters are interesting and sympathetic, giving reason to continue reading for want of knowing what the outcome will be. A good piece of fiction, no matter the plot, hinges on character development; if your reader cannot connect with the characters there is no point. I connected with Rox, and I honestly think I will not be the only one that will do so.

The Road to Fantasy

Janice has been thinking a lot about the transition from nonfiction, with her work on Divine Renovations, to fiction, with her upcoming work, currently with two working titles, The Sun Drifters, and Unleashing the Sun. We had a long conversation about it, and thought we would share it with you readers to give some insight into the process as well!

Long story short: the process was really, really hard. But let’s delve a bit deeper.

In 2012, Janice wrote a memoir, Divine Renovations, which she says was easy for her, because she had all the info, knew the cast of characters and knew the whole story. Remember that Janice has been a journalist for the last 15 years, so she’s accustomed to having all the tools at her fingertips. When you’re interviewing people out in the field you’re gathering all the necessary information needed to write a story, similar to that of a memoir, so the move from journalism to memoir writing was seamless. The story basically flooded out of her in about six months.

Switching to fiction, she found has been much harder, as these simple tools are no longer directly in front of her. What she discovered as she started was she began basing her characters on people she already knew, and then realized she was just writing another memoir!

To counteract this automatic response, Janice would consciously stop and sit back, taking long breaks in her writing to try to develop her characters. Soon enough they would begin to reveal themselves to her, and so started the process of backtracking to remove the already existing people and fleshing out the now developed characters.

All in all, this has been a much longer process compared to the memoir; at this point Janice has spent between a year and a year and a half on The Sun Drifters/Unleashing the Sun. However, the good news is, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, as she is finally almost done!

I cannot wait to get started on reading the first draft of this much anticipated break into a new genre!

Local Author Series: Fred Contrada

Local Author Series: Fred Contrada

Note: This is the first in a series of blogs on authors living in the Pioneer Valley.

By Vanessa Pesa

As part of my internship, Janice has decided to have me interview local authors and blog about them to give me some hands-on training and insight into the writing profession. Plus, it’s a great way to network with some great people in the line of work I’m aiming for!

The first interview I did was with Fred Contrada, a 62-year-old reporter for The Republican and a self-published fiction author.

Fred has been interested in writing since he was a young boy and began writing fiction while a student at Holy Cross College. Upon graduating in 1974 and getting his career started, Fred said he had to take a step back from creative writing, making reporting his full-time profession and focusing on his wife and children. He emphasizes the importance of raising a family.

Fred has been with the newspaper for 27 years now. His main focus is writing his column, which appears on Thursdays.

At a certain point, once his career was established, Fred began to edge back into his fiction writing. His main genre is literary fiction, and though he is very busy writing for The Republican, he manages to set aside time. He sets aside 45 minutes every morning for his fiction and assured me that this really adds up. If there is nothing on his schedule, he will work a bit longer, but claims “it’s hard to do for more than a few hours” so the 45 minutes works perfectly for him.

Fred let me know that he is in the formative stages of his most recent book, Dirty Rice. The next step in his writing process is sending it off to a reading group for extra sets of eyes, and this process usually takes a few months. He is not quite sure yet what his opinion of the book is, so his readers will need to wait and see if it comes to fruition.

In looking back on his older fiction from his college years, Fred says that he “doesn’t see the creativity, only the artifice,” and it is painful for him to read. This just shows how he has grown as an individual and as a writer over the course of his life. He has written approximately a dozen books in his writing career, yet has only published five.

All of Fred’s titles are self-published; his goal is not to make a lucrative career in fiction, but to continue to pull in enough revenue to print and sell more books. He is basically recouping the expenses in order to publish more books.

If you’d like to read some of Fred Contrada’s work you can download a Kindle copy of his book Dorchester Ave, or for the other four titles, Trager Stories, New Orleans Stories, The Trail and The Boat, you’ll need to get in contact with him personally by email at fcontrada@repub.com or by telephone at 413-478-7512. He is also on Facebook if you’d like to check him out! https://www.facebook.com/fred.contrada

Interview with Domenic Ciannella

Interview with Domenic Ciannella

I recently got an email from a priest in the Episcopal church named Domenic Ciannella. He contacted me because he was interested in being featured in the Springfield Republican’s Voices of the Valley feature in the Monday Business section. Domenic’s business is focused on helping people with their grief journey, and that, of course, resonated for me.

Domenic sent me an interview he did with Robert Henderson, a pastoral counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist in Glastonbury, Connecticut. I thought it might be of interest to you readers.

His profile will also be featured in The Republican, conveniently on this very day, so be sure to take a look at that in today’s Monday Business tab; we’ll post the live link when it goes up on MassLive.

Robert Henderson: You recently have opened the Acorn Pastoral Care Services here in West Springfield. What are your intentions?

Domenic Ciannella: My opening of Acorn Pastoral Care Services coincides with my decision to retire from my position as hospice chaplain and bereavement coordinator with Wing Hospice and concentrate on developing my private grief counseling practice.

RH: What have you noticed in your work at Wing?

DC: I have been amazed by the courage shown by those who are struggling with making sense of their loss, especially given that our culture often denies the reality of death and loss. Consequently, those who grieve all too often find themselves isolated.

RH: How can grief counseling help?

DC: Given the opportunity to share themselves without being judged or compared, people often discover a freedom to befriend their grief and be transformed.

RH: Do you deal with loss other than death?

DC: Yes, there is grief associated with all of life transitions, such as divorce and job loss. I will provide a safe and supportive place to work through the difficult feelings.

RH: How can people get in touch with you?

DC:I may be reached by phone at (413) 739-1918 or by

email at therevdomenic@comcast.net.

The Long Walk

In the past month, I’ve read two very different books that offer up a similar temptation for me.

For a few years now, I’ve thought about how fun it would be to call a time out on life and go somewhere, anywhere, and explore. When I think about acting on this, most often what I want to do is pack a backpack full of gear and head to a trail and walk and walk and walk.

That is exactly what Cheryl Strayed does in her book, Wild, a memoir of her hike along the Pacific Coast Trail out west, and it’s what author Richard Paul Evans’ main character, Alan Christoffersen, does in Evans’ novel, The Walk.

Strayed’s book was the amazing story of her heading out on the trail without any real forethought or preparation. She wasn’t a big hiker, and she didn’t do any work in advance, such as taking practice climbs with a pack full of gear. She didn’t even break in her boots, which meant she nearly crippled her feet in boots that were a size too small.

Strayed headed out on the trail after her mother died, and Strayed herself began to self-destruct, committing adultery and flirting with drugs in her grief. She knew she had to separate herself from reality, and off she went.

There are many scenes in the book that effectively frightened me away from hiking alone in the woods. She encounters large, scary animals and more than a few rattlesnakes, for instance, but the bigger threat was men; she very nearly was raped on one occasion.

So for this reason, I liked the journey that Christoffersen, a fictional character, embarked on in The Walk. After his wife dies, and his business partner steals his clients and opens his own firm, Christoffersen also loses his home and vehicles to foreclosure. An experienced hiker, he packs up his gear in a backpack, walks out of his home in Seattle, Washington, and heads for Key West, Florida.

Christoffersen hikes on main roads. He stops at diners, grocery stores, and every now and again, he stays in cheap hotels rather than camping out. This seems a safer means of travel that allows for a hot shower every so often and good meals. I also prefer his destination.

In terms of the books themselves, I would highly recommend Strayed’s book. It is excellent journalism and a gripping read. Evans’ book, on the other hand, is only so-so, rather melodramatic and trite, but inspiring nonetheless.

I think my interest in packing a bag and heading for the beach is part of my mid-life processing—and notice I’m not saying mid-life crisis here. I’m just frustrated, and sometimes exhausted, over the work that is life.

I wonder if we have more fate at work here? I wonder if these authors are tempting me to, you know, take off and go somewhere. And I wonder if I will.

I don’t really see that happening, but maybe an adventure is in my future. My daughter has invited me to meet her in Italy in September.

Perhaps these books are a sign I should go?

The Fated Transfer

The Fated Transfer

Hello all, my name is Vanessa, and I am Janice’s new intern at Beetle Press. I will be focusing on her creative work, specifically on editing and pitching her new book, with a working title of The Sun Drifters.

Janice talked a lot about fate. Well I am a strong believer in fate as well. I believe fate brought me to the western part of the state.

I moved to western Mass to live with my partner, Jenn, and transferred from Bridgewater State to Westfield State in the process.

At Bridgewater State, I was aimlessly slugging through an English degree. Did I want to teach? Did I want to edit? I had very little guidance from my advisor at the time and was more or less left to my own devices to sort out the pros and cons of each career choice.

Upon transferring to Westfield State, meeting the phenomenal staff in the English department made me feel instantly at home. Never before had I felt such a community connection within a school, and I was pleasantly thrown for a loop. People knew my name before I met them; professors welcomed me to the department and ensured that if I needed anything to be sure to ask. My advisor did more than arrange my schedule, guiding me in making the best decisions for my future plans in ways that made the most sense in my daily life.

Talk about fate.

But it gets better.

My career goal, which I finally narrowed down, is to edit books for a publishing company, but there really aren’t any publishing companies in this area.

I was referred to Beetle Press mainly because Janice is highly regarded in western Mass as being extremely knowledgeable in all things editing; I was told she could give me a solid foundation of the ins and outs of the multi-faceted editing field.

When I showed up at her house that October morning, and she proposed that I be her motivation to finish the work of fiction she had been working on, my jaw dropped!

All she was saying was exactly what I wanted to hear. This is the epitome of the best internship ever. This is all I could have ever asked for to learn from Janice because this is all I want to do with my English degree.

Did she see me coming? Am I really the carrot on that infamous stick, or is Janice the needed breath of clarity in my ceaseless whirlwind of undirected thoughts? Or is it a bit of both?

Something has brought us together for a reason, and I cannot wait to see just how amazing our results will be.