Sheri Reynolds on Family and ‘The Tender Grave’

Sheri Reynolds is stepping back into the literary world with her new novel The Tender Grave after five years of immersion in academia as the Ruth and Perry Morgan Chair of Southern Literature and creative writing professor at Old Dominion University.

She says, “I had already had a pretty good run as a writer and was really interested in the academic world and felt like it was my turn to take the helm for a while, but I thought the book was close to completion, and I couldn’t get to the final push. I didn’t have the forgiveness and redemption pieces in place. I knew the questions from the beginning of the book which were, how do you forgive? How do you keep living? The plot was already in place and the shape was in place, what it required was dropping down inside the book that was already there and mining those pieces.”

Reynolds is the author of six previous novels including The Rapture of Canaan (an Oprah’s Book Club selection and New York Times best-seller) and Bitterroot Landing. In her long-anticipated latest novel, The Tender Grave, she explores complex relationships between mothers and daughters and the malleable concept of family.

Seventeen-year-old Dori is on the run because of her involvement in an assault on a classmate, Owen Howe, who is gay. She is a complicated character, sometimes cruel and other times generous, and always full of self-loathing. Where did Dori come from, and what inspired you to write a story about a hate crime?

I didn’t start the story with Dori. I started with the scene of someone kicking in an old woman’s door and stealing her medication (a scene that appears later in the book). That is the genesis of this story and that’s the most autobiographical piece in the book. About 10 years ago, when my grandmama was still alive, someone kicked in her door and stole her medications. And grandmama was the Queen of our family. There’s no way that was okay! That became a real ethical problem for me. It was so upsetting to me and dammed if they didn’t do it a second time. She didn’t want a gun, she didn’t want an alarm system and she had more compassion for whoever broke into her house than the rest of us. Grandmama said it was probably just someone who needed help. This created a vindictive feeling in me and that’s what I used to create Dori. That rage was the start. A lot of times when I write, I ask questions; who would break into a house? A man, a woman? How would that happen, who would it happen to, where would that happen? That’s where Dori came from.

Dori arrives on Teresa’s doorsteps unannounced. They’ve never met, but Dori has nowhere else to go. Their mother, who is emotionally unreliable, left Teresa and her father when Teresa was a teenager, and created a new family. The two women share blood, but little else. Tell me about the process of creating the sisters.

In some ways, I think because I was writing about a lesbian in this small town, I knew Teresa better. I even made her a teacher, but I don’t teach history, I teach creative writing (Reynolds jokes). I had to work harder later in the process to make her more fleshed out. Teresa and Jen want a family and her desire to become a parent led me to questions like what does it meant to be faithful? Are you faithful to your sperm donor? These were interesting questions for me to explore. When Dori comes into her life, she forces Teresa to be a deeper person; it’s this collision of these two that expand them both, but it’s so painful, it’s bloody and hard.

Talk to me about your decision to address teen suicide in the book. You write it as a constant option for Dori and yet, it’s delivered with humor. In one particular scene, Dori is holding a gun and staring at herself in a mirror and “clicked the cylinder back into place and pressed the barrel against her temple, just to feel it there, and she made faces at herself: sad, pouty ones, horrified, stricken ones. She bulged her nostrils, stuck out her tongue, then put the gun down. She had bags under her eyes and a huge zit on her forehead, but she was still too cute to die right that minute.

As Dori evolves, it gets harder and harder for her to imagine a way out. That’s where suicide comes up. The religious piece is important. The very thing that keeps her from committing suicide is her fear of burning in in hell for all eternity. Having that fear buys time for her to find other avenues, it keeps her alive. Finding a way to turn from just that moment gives Dori another option. The question is, how do we get people to see beyond that moment?

Setting is so important in your writing. In The Rapture of Canaan and Bitterroot Landing, the setting is a rural section of South Carolina. Here, you’ve set the story on the eastern coast of Virginia where the landscape feels as alive as the characters. When Dori first arrives in town she watches the birds roosting on the pilings and thinks it’s every bird for himself. “But there were herons too, and they didn’t play that game. They kept some space around them. She wished she’d been more of a heron where Owen Howe was concerned.”

I find inspiration in landscapes. I use what is around me and the capabilities of what’s around me; it’s fairly isolated on the eastern shore of Virginia, so there’s a sense that Dori could get lost in that landscape. A place is never the same thing for any two people. Like Teresa and Jen, who see their home differently. Jen grew up in the town and doesn’t worry about the same things Teresa worries about. We’re always existing in time and place with all our baggage and that creates a different voice.

You started this book years ago but had to put it aside because of the demands of your job. Was it hard to get back into the story and the characters after such a long time away?

I went into this job (as chair) thinking I have a couple eggs in the nest, and I have to say, I have a hard time with being public, I was tired of being public, and I wasn’t sure I had anything else that needed to be said, not that I didn’t have anything to say, it’s just that does the world need to hear it? I didn’t worry about keeping up the momentum with the book and then Faye Jacobs with Bywater Books got in touch with me and asked if I had anything I was working on, and I thought, well maybe I do. I think that this book became a chance to return to an artistic place, it made me want to write again.

What are you working on next?

It’s a story about an old lady on her last day on the planet. The entire story, she’s trying to die, and other people are trying to save her. The whole book takes place over about an hour. And I’m sure it’s going to be the best one ever.

The Tender Grave
By Sheri Reynolds
Bywater Books
Published March 16, 2021