Interview with Cheryl Snell, author of Shiva's Arms

Shiva's Arms is introduced on the back cover with the following quote:

"Shame! This is your fault only," Amma yelled, shaking her fists. "You godless girl, you have weakened my family, my son's caste lost because of you!"

"You're the one! You won't be satisfied until you've destroyed everything, smashed it to bits with your tiny bare feet!" Alice pointed to Amma's brown toes. Amma looked down and flexed them, the war suspended for a second until she ran to the kitchen. Pulse throbbing at her temples, Amma snatched a pair of pliers to her heaving chest, hiked up the hem of her sari, and scurried upstairs.

I'm delighted to welcome Cheryl Snell to my blog today. She's answered a number of questions that I posed for her, and I'm sure she'll be happy to answer any other questions you'd care to ask in the comments: (My questions are in italics)

1. I've asked several authors this, and I always learn something new and relevant. Can you tell me a bit about how you got from there (wherever "there" was) to being a published author? (I guess that includes how you got your poetry collections published too.)

Cheryl: I had always written for pleasure, and read widely. At some point, I began to read deeply as well. I bought a few books on craft, and my delight in the act of writing dragged me along until I was producing publishable poems. I began to submit to journals I liked.

A poem is not a private diary with its own little lock, and I liked the idea of bringing the process full circle -- within a few years I had 65 publications in print magazines. It was time to compile a collection. Organizing one was no small matter. I had to choose and choose --narrative arc, linking by theme, repetition, form, variation, texture, or tone?

Poetry is a medium of unsaids, I read somewhere, so the spaces between poems are important, too. They direct the reader’s attention, help him find the fugal inner voices. My first book, Flower Half Blown (Finishing Line Press) was a sampler. I sequenced the sixty-four poems in my second book, Epithalamion addressing my central question (how can we live in a random world?) according to possible answers. A ribbon of poems about religion, science, nature, and love unspooled, an element in one poem weaving into an element in the next. Then Shiva’s Arms was accepted for publication. Etcetera.

2. Did you always plan to be an author and a poet one day, or did wanting to write come as a surprise? Was writing a novel a natural outcome of writing poetry for you (the language is beautifully poetic)?

Cheryl: Before writing took me under, I enjoyed a career as a classical pianist. During that time, writing wasn’t a hobby exactly -- more of an avocation. But I had no grand ambition for it.

As far a the language of the novel goes, I brought the poetry right into the prose, I think. The subject matter lent itself to that kind of utterance. (My short story collection WORDS IN EDGEWISE uses a much hipper, edgier voice, by contrast).

The novel grew out of a short story, which in turn came from the unfamiliar culture that arrived with my Indian husband, his friends and family.

3. Is Shiva's Arms your first novel or do you have an earlier story lurking in a drawer somewhere amongst your poems?

Cheryl: I’m not holding out on you, I swear! Shiva’s Arms is my debut novel, and I have nine other published works of fiction and poetry. They are all, with the exception of SAMSARA (Pudding House Publications), listed on my Amazon Author’s Page and on my blog.

4. There's clearly some of your own experiences informing Shiva's Arms. Did you find it hard separating the fictional characters from real-life ones?

Cheryl: While the frame of the story, the mixed marriage, was drawn from my life, the characters, and the trouble I get them into, are all fictional. While I was composing, I'd assign tics of people I knew to my characters, mostly for my own amusement, but also to help me find a reaction to a made-up situation that would ring true. “I like to put real toads in my imaginary garden,” as the great poet Emily D. once said.

I liken shaping a narrative to sculpting. (I know, I know –more metaphor!) With each revision, I chip away at what is NOT the statue, until each character emerges as itself, with its own reality and fictional truth. Each detail of a character has to earn its place, so in the end, there’s little overlap with actual people. The types sure are familiar, though! Don’t we all know an Amma, sari or no sari?

5. I've read that it's a good idea to know who your readers are. Do you have a particular audience in mind as you write, or are you hoping to attract a particular audience?

Cheryl: I never think of the potential audience as I write; it would compromise the authenticity of my voice. I write for myself, but after I’m done with a piece, I’m always willing to share!

On the other hand, when it came time to submit my literary fiction or free verse lyrical narrative poetry, I chose journals compatible with my sensibility. If I’d sent my poems to a magazine of formal poetry, for instance, I would have just been wasting everyone’s time. Believe those guidelines in The Writer’s Market –they mean what they say.

6. Did you choose the quote used on the back of the novel, and if so, how did you choose it? Is there another quote you'd particularly like readers to see?

Cheryl: The publisher chose that excerpt, perhaps because it marks the climax. I have many other favorite passages, like when Ram and Alice are “suddenly alone in the center of the room. It was an odd kind of privacy, a sheltering umbrella, imaginary but almost tactile. Their union was their real home. Alice led Ram to the quiet place they always returned to whenever they touched.”

7. Would you like readers of your novel to also read your poetry, or vice versa?

Cheryl: Since the poetry feeds the prose, my ideal reader would appreciate both genres. One of my collections, SAMSARA, was designed to accompany Shiva's Arms. The poems depict South Indian life, and focus on some of the customs, celebrations, and food mentioned in the novel.

8. What made you decide to include recipes at the back of the book? (They look delicious; I'm just not sure my culinary skills, and patience, are up to trying them out.)

Cheryl: Book marketing plans include tie-ins these days, and I thought recipes for dishes described in the book would fit that particular bill. The recipes also add another layer of meaning to the narrative, since I use food as a way to reveal national character. There was also a sentimental reason to include them –these are the same recipes my husband’s mother sent with him when he came to America for grad school.

9. The glossary at the back of the book was a big attraction to me. Just rereading the words brings the whole story back. I love the sound of "samsara sagara" (though I probably don't say it right). How much did you feel that phrases like that encompassed and enriched the story you were telling?

Cheryl: The music of the language is a very important element to me.
I loved that a phrase with such sibilance as samsara sagara could connote drowning, and the phrase vidama pidungaratha really does get the exasperation of the pull of family neediness across, with its spit and growl.

10. Is there a question I've not asked that you'd really like to answer for your readers?

Cheryl: I think we’ve hit all the high notes, Sheila. Thank you for hosting me, and for your perceptive review. It's a pleasure to have such a reader.

Thank you so much Cheryl. I've really enjoyed your book and your answers, and I wish you the best of luck with Shiva's Arms.


Cheryl Snell said…
Good morning, Sheila! It's a pleasure to visit with you today. Thanks so much for your perceptive review and interesting questions.

I'm standing ready to answer any others you or your readers might have, but first, just let me congratulate you on your new book, Refracted! (Anything about Snell's Law in there?)
Aubrie said…
Great interview! It's nice to see another professional musician become writer!
Cheryl Snell said…
Hello, Aubrie! With music and writing, it's a slippery shift back and forth, isn't it. They have so many elements in common--line and dynamics and rhythm, and the process of mastering a piece of music is not unlike getting a piece of writing right. Revising a phrase and practicing one can each drive you nuts!
Sheila Deeth said…
Hi Cheryl, Aubrie,
I really enjoyed the interview. I'm not a musician myself, but my son is mad about guitar and writing; just graduated, majored in English.
maryrussel said…
Hi Cheryl and Sheila. Great interview! I didn't know about the author pages on Amazon so I really appreciate that bit of information. I just signed up. Thank you. :)

Shiva's Arms sounds like a delightful read. I think I love Amma already.
Cheryl Snell said…
Sheila, is it classical guitar? Or does he rock? It's great to have a house full of sound.

Hi Mary. Amma could use a friend! I gave her a Twitter account last week, and she can be quite pithy in her 140 characters.
Carol Kilgore said…
Nice interview. And fun meeting Cheryl.
Sheila Deeth said…
My son's music is rock rather than classical. He has three guitars (and counting) all electric, and he plays my old classical one too. I love to listen to him, and will certainly miss him when he leaves home (sob) to start his new job soon.
Cheryl Snell said…
Hello there, Carol! It's nice to meet you.

Oh dear, the empty nest phase already, Sheila? That's always a wrench - although I speak only as an observer and puppeteer of fictional families.
maryrussel said…
I sent a twitter request to Amma. I hope I sent it to the right place. If you don't see it please let me know your twitter url.
Cheryl Snell said…
What a good sport you are, Mary! Amma's handle is
Helen Ginger said…
I'm not a musician, but I enjoyed hearing the connection between her writing and her music. They're both creative outlets.
Cheryl Snell said…
Hello, Helen. I think if a person nurtures it, she can bend her creativity to fit different disciplines. And sometimes another, unrelated field offers itself to the mix. My husband is a mathematician and some of the information he's fascinated by winds up in my work. Unrecognizable, often, but nobody's perfect!
nanette said…
Hi Sheila and Hi Cheryl,


I really enjoyed the interview.

Hi Cheryl,

I just want to say that your book is spectacular...a real love story, cross cultural story, and a story of family and what it means..I love the recipes too.

Cheryl Snell said…
Thank you, Nanette. It's wonderful to have readers and reviewers like Sheila and you.
maryrussel said…
I did send the twitter request to the wrong place. Thank you for the url. I am now following Amma. :)
Cheryl Snell said…
Thanks, Mary -I just got your request, and Amma is now following you back. What won't we do to bring our books to life?
Sheila Deeth said…
I shall try to meet Amma on twitter tomorrow. Computer problems today... arghghgh. It was lovely to have you on the blog Cheryl. And lovely to meet all your visitors here.
Cheryl Snell said…
Thanks for everything, Sheila. I enjoyed our visit.

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