Author Shelle Sumners answers the perpetual question: is Grace Barnum, the character in Grace Grows, just a little bit her?
That is a wonderful question. In the process of learning to write novels, I’ve come to understand that a novel is autobiographical. And, a novel is not autobiographical.
Grace Barnum is a little bit me. And so is Tyler Wilkie. I have placed them in worlds I know something about: textbook publishing, New York City, Broadway theater, and grass-roots live music. Like Grace, I do enjoy words, I am something of a planner, and – okay – maybe I’ve carried a very well-stocked shoulder bag a time or two. Like Ty, I am optimistic and attracted to authenticity; to realness and to nature.
But, unlike Grace and Ty, I grew up in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. I am a Southern girl. I came of age in the Eighties, not the Nineties, and my husband and I met when we were still teens, not twenty-somethings. We were actors, and that pursuit led us out of the South, to New York City. Today, I live in Pennsylvania (which brings us closer to the Pocono Mountains, where I planted Ty and the rest of the fictional Wilkies).
A novel is always going to have autobiographical elements, because you can’t help but write some things you know; but you invent a lot of things, too.
I have started writing a new novel, about Beck Wilkie, one of the characters in Grace Grows. She’s Tyler Wilkie’s wild, fearless, perhaps-slightly-mad twin sister. Is Beck Wilkie a little bit me? Oh, yes.
Grace Barnum’s life is precariously balanced on sensible choices and uncomfortable compromise. She dutifully edits textbooks that, she fears, may be more harmful than helpful to kids. She is engaged to a patent attorney who is steady and reliable. She has a cautious relationship with her fascinating father, a renowned New York artist, and she prefers her mom slightly drunk. Always a planner, Grace feels prepared for most eventualities. Until the responsibility-challenged Tyler Wilkie shows up. Fresh in town from the Poconos, Tyler has warm eyes, a country drawl, and a smile that makes Grace drop things. Worst of all, he writes devastating songs. About her. Tyler reaches something in Grace, something she needs, but can’t admit to. Something she wants, but won’t succumb to. Tyler Wilkie loves Grace Barnum and ruins everything. And Grace grows.
Shelle Sumners has held many jobs, among them waitress, actress, administrative assistant, copy editor, educational writer, bookseller, and wedding chapel receptionist. Her debut novel Grace Grows has a companion soundtrack of phenomenal original songs that appear in the story, written and performed by her husband, singer-songwriter and Broadway actor Lee Morgan. Shelle lives and writes in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.