Hall of Fame Honorees
Cynthia Shearer learned a lot from watching people in roadside Georgia restaurants as she was growing up, and the important lessons she picked up, like the precious value of independence and the different ways that people spoke and behaved with one another, helped put a budding novelist on the road to literary success.
Cynthia Shearer was born at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts, on June 25, 1955, the youngest of four children in the family of Berrien County natives Irvine Harrison Shearer, a West Point-trained Air Force officer, and Marjorie Elizabeth Shearer, an English teacher.
Shearer was less than a month old when her family moved to her parents’ hometown of Alapaha, Georgia, “a small town where everyone knew everyone else’s family tree, and life was simple.”
“We were usually at odds with the others there on the subjects of Vietnam and integration of schools, but it was a lucky, lucky place to grow up. It had a beautiful river, and relatives were always dragging you out to the cemetery to walk you around and tell you the stories.”[i]
Her parents divorced soon afterward, but Shearer stayed in Berrien County with her mother, brothers and sister through high school. With a mother who worked, they might eat out at a local truckstop where she absorbed the independent spirit of waitresses, or at a restaurant where she eventually ran up against the racist side of the otherwise likable, hardworking owners when integration became real in late 1960s Georgia.
Shearer enrolled at Valdosta State College in the 1970s, and she supported herself partly by working as a steakhouse waitress near Moody Air Force Base. She has described waitressing as “some of the most valuable experience I ever got in understanding human relationships.” She told an interviewer in 2002, “That was the time I realized I wanted to be a writer.”[ii]
Shearer earned her bachelor’s degree in 1977, then completed a master’s degree in English at the University of Mississippi in Oxford in 1979. After a few years teaching English at Mississippi State University and then completing her PhD coursework at Ole Miss, Shearer elected not to continue as an academic but, rather, to pursue her impulse to write.
As she polished some stories that she had started writing in writer Barry Hannah’s Ole Miss workshops, Shearer worked at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. Then, in 1994, she took a job as the curator of William Faulkner’s Oxford home, Rowan Oak, a position she would hold for six years.
In 1996 she published her first novel, The Wonder Book of the Air, which won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters’ annual prize for fiction. Shearer has described the novel as “a social history of Georgia told through members of my own family.” [iii]
A novel of aspirations and fears, misunderstandings and damage among husbands, wives, parents and children, The Wonder Book of the Air spans a half-century and is built upon the narratives of several characters, whose stories all involve or are the consequence of the life of a central character. Shearer based the character of Harrison Durance upon her father, a troubled career military man who left the family when she was three. The story begins with Durance, as he recalls his youth in Depression-era Alapaha, and ends two generations later in the mature reflections of his granddaughter Tory, who looks back into the family’s wreckage and recalls her own coming of age in a gated Atlanta suburb.
Shearer’s second novel, The Celestial Jukebox, was cited in the Cambridge Companion to American Literature After 1945 as an example of new “global” Southern literature. The story takes place in a fictional rural Mississippi Delta town across the river from Memphis, a diverse community rich in life but inhabiting an economic backwater exposed to creeping social problems, decaying retail outlets, and the remote priorities of agribusiness and casino profits. The Celestial Jukebox mixes longtime Mississippi natives -- black, white and Chinese-American –with first-generation immigrants to the area, fresh from Africa and the Caribbean. These characters cross paths in the town’s “Celestial Grocery,” which Shearer describes as "the unacknowledged heart of the dying little town, the kind of place to get live fish bait at five in the morning or eggs over easy near midnight.” She imagined the setting as “a composite of the diners I waitressed in as a teenager in Georgia and a little catfish place in Mississippi over near Moon Lake.” [iv]
In chapters of overlapping, contrasting stories that mirror the variety of the backgrounds and styles of the old records in the store’s vintage jukebox, Shearer draws upon her wide knowledge of the spectrum of American roots music. Crossing easily between genres, she maneuvers the diverse lot of characters through her various inspirations, from raw Delta blues and southern gospel to the offshoots she has located in rockabilly, jazz, Bob Dylan, and soul.
“Growing up in an isolated part of South Georgia in the 1960s and 1970s I had to rely on local truckstop jukeboxes and hand-me-downs from my hippie radical draft-resistance counselor of a brother for shaping of my musical tastes [and] I had an itinerant retired military man for a father, who was always quoting 1930s songs to me or showing up at my apartment at college, Stevie Wonder album in hand, saying, ‘You gotta hear this.’”[v]
Shearer has published short stories and essays in literary journals such as TriQuarterly, The Missouri Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review. A frequent contributor to The Oxford American, in 2015 she published a lengthy, wide-ranging biographical feature about Cuthbert-born jazz-swing pioneer Fletcher Henderson in the Oxford American’s Georgia music issue.
In 2000 Shearer was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in fiction, and her short fiction has been selected for inclusion in various anthologies, including After O'Connor: Stories from Contemporary Georgia (2003) and The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing (2008). Nominated on several occasions for the coveted Pushcart Prize Award, Shearer was an award-winner in 2006 for an essay about her time working as the curator of William Faulkner’s home.
Since 2005, she has taught at Texas Christian University, where she serves as an Assistant Director at the Center for Writing.
--Portrait of Cynthia Shearer from an original photograph by Carolyn Cruz.
[i] Interview with Cynthia Shearer, May 7, 2009. Southern Literary Review website. http://southernlitreview.com/authors/cynthia_shearer_interview.htm.
[ii] Hey, Waitress! By Alison Owings. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
[iii] “Cynthia Shearer.” Mississippi Encyclopedia. https://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/cynthia-shearer/
[iv] Interview with Cynthia Shearer, May 7, 2009. Southern Literary Review.
The following works written by Cynthia Shearer are held by the UGA Special Collections Libraries:
The Wonder Book of the Air. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
The Wonder Book of the Air. London: Bloomsbury, 1996.
The Wonder Book of the Air. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996.
The Celestial Jukebox: A Novel. Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005.
The Celestial Jukebox: A Novel. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006.
Into the Flatland (With Kathleen Robbins). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2015.