Writer Pens New Novel While Earning Doctorate

Hannah Ross | 12/9/2009, 11:37 p.m.

Sherman weaves tales of love, secrets with Fester

Someone wise once told Shantella Sherman that a person who lives with regrets is merely waiting to die. Not only did the advice strike a chord with the 39-year-old District native, but it also encouraged her to reach for unlikely goals. In the midst of a successful career as a journalist, Sherman entered the graduate study to become an historian. And then, while solidly entrenched in thesis research at Jackson State University, in Jackson Miss., Sherman began working on her first novel, entitled Fester.

Author Shantella Sherman juggles managing a newspaper, preparing for doctoral comp exams, and working on the sequel to her novel Fester. Photo by Jacques A. Benovil
Many discouraged Sherman from casting too many irons in the fire at once, fearing she would either fail to complete her goals, or do them with marginal results. Sherman said her resolve came in the biographies and obituaries of those she studied.

€Writing a novel was always the first goal -- the passion, but writers€ colonies no longer exist. One can rarely make a living in the creative arts because there is a certain amount of time and focus involved. There was, however, a pattern with Black women I researched like Ella Baker and Anna Julia Cooper that I found very attractive. These women had three or four careers within their lifetimes. They literally transitioned from one passion to another. And I thought, why not?€ Sherman said.

"Fester" a mpvel by Shantella Sherman Courtesy Photo
The master€s degree in history, led quickly to the pursuit of a doctoral degree in African American Studies and Women & Gender history at the University of Nebraska €" Lincoln in 2006. It was there, in the Plains, that Sherman said the layers and dimensions to her novel characters unfolded.

€It was important for me to create non-stereotypical images of African Americans,€ Sherman laughed, €After all, I grew up listening to country music in the heart of the D.C. go-go scene. I traveled to foreign places and found plenty of Black people living well as Francophiles, and Afro-Brits. Being in Nebraska helped awaken me to the regional distinctions of Black people in America and helped breathe life into my heroines, Lillian and Lindersyl,€ Sherman said.
And Lillian and Lindersyl Gottlieb are anything but stereotypical. Fester follows the two middle-aged sisters living in New England and London, as they hold tight to decades-old secrets that threaten to implode their lives. Interwoven into the tale are historical links to African American finishing schools, Pullman porters, and Black London.

Perhaps most distinct is one sister€s religious conversion from Christianity to Buddhism and then back. It is a process Sherman knows well, though she rarely divulges.

A 1995 Essence magazine article features Sherman discussing the benefits of chanting and her faith in Buddhism. The former staff writer with the Philadelphia Tribune and the Washington Informer said that she incorporated her own conversion into the book as a bit of cathartics.

€To demonstrate the internal push-pull between man and God using these women freed a bit of my own religious guilt. God forgives in an instant, but we tend to hold on to the guilt being disobedient. That Essence article saddened me when I was re-baptized in 2003 because it would not go away. Now I celebrate it because God€s grace is witnessed by it. All of us go through points in our lives when we would rather do what we want and seek forgiveness later. God€s forgiveness is absolute, but our guilt festers inside of us much longer,€ Sherman said.

Sherman is currently working on the sequel to Fester, entitled Spill, which picks up with the Gottlieb family. Her writing style, described as Jackie Collins meets J. California Cooper, has met with overwhelmingly positive reviews, including the novel being used a required text for the African American Women in Popular Culture course at the University of Nebraska for four semesters. Still, Sherman remains quietly humbled by the success of her book and the impending conferral of a PhD.

€I have found that when God is placed at the forefront of my every decision and action, obstacles and naysayers disappear. I can be nothing but humbled by that. I feel it is an extension of my blessing to show how love, human nature, God€s favor make life €" particularly Black life, beautiful,€ Sherman said.