You’ve heard of her historical novel about identity and love, now let’s get to know the amazing author behind it all.
Welcome to Date with a Debut Author, a Bookstr series where we sit down with a debut author and get to know them, their writing process, and their book. Each week we’ll get the chance to go on a date with a new author.
Date with a Debut Author gets you up close and personal with the debut authors you should be watching out for. So, are you ready to get to know Shelly better? Let’s go!
Conversation Over Coffee
Since we’re just getting to know M Shelly Conner
Serena Knudson (SK): You created the Quare Life web series, you are the executive director of Quare Square Collective, Inc., you’re the curator of the dapperqueer website Dappervista.com, and I saw in your article with Sisters Letter you can swim now too. Now you’re the published author of your debut novel, everyman. You have accomplished so much, but what do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
M Shelly Conner (MS): My greatest accomplishment has been building a life where my writing, teaching, homesteading and relationships feed each other. There was a time when different aspects of my life (writing, teaching, academia, personal pursuits) weren’t exactly working in tandem and I felt pulled apart. Now, everything that I do connects, builds, and nurtures other aspects of my life. It’s a very holistic lifestyle. So I suppose the answer would be accomplishing peace and harmony in my life.
SK: I had never heard the term dapperqueer before now, what does being dapperqueer mean to you?
MS: Dapperqueer denotes a particular type of queer style and aesthetic. Dapper is generally defined as neat and trim in appearance with the caveat that it is “typically used of a man.” Queer modifies the gendering of dapper and nods to the rich history of gender fluidity in Black dandyism.
SK: Which character from everyman would be your best friend? Why?
MS: Nelle is the title character’s best friend and by proxy, the reader’s best friend. She’s impressively level-headed even though she’s arguably endured more self-questioning experiences than Eve. They both have uncertainties, but where Eve hesitates, Nelle fully immerses herself into experiences with a “let me fuck around and find out” attitude. She knows how to have fun but also when to be serious.
SK: In the pilot of Quare Life, there are a few allusions to The Help, Harry Potter, The Color Purple, and Friday. What books, authors, movies, and TV shows have inspired you and your writing style?
MS: I’ve come to realize that although some works have had a profound impact on me (Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston), I’m a total sponge soaking up everything and it’s most apparent in everyman and Quare Life. If you look hard enough, you’ll find everything from Ralph Ellison and Stephen King to Virginia Woolf and Zadie Smith in the novel. Quare Life is a comedy and the writing was heavily influenced by tv-series Black-ish, Girlfriends, L Word, Noah’s Arc, and Queer As Folk. As I continue to revise the series for production, I’ve been inspired by Issa Rae’s Insecure and Donald Glover’s Atlanta.
SK: Do you listen to any music while you write? If so, what is your favorite music to listen to?
MS: The only time that I listen to music while writing is when I’m immersing myself in a particular scene or time period. My favorite music is old school. Just about anything from classic jazz and blues up to the nineties R&B hits that were the soundtrack to my adolescence. I have a particular fondness for 80s jams. everyman is historical fiction so I listened to music from the 1920s to the 1970s or contemporary music remade in those styles.
Let’s Get Intimate!
Don’t you want to know more about this interesting author?
SK: How is everyman the creative dissertation different from the novel, or is it about the same?
MS: The novel is certainly more developed than the dissertation. There are considerable differences like the novel contains more chapters, about 100 more pages, additional characters, and the narrative has been restructured.
SK: You write stories about Black life and families ranging from Jim Crow South to South Side Chicago, but you write them with queer interventions. What do you want readers to take away from everyman?
MS: So many things but regarding the queer interventions: Black queer folk have always been essential parts of Black communities. Our stories should not erase, marginalize or pathologize queerness.
SK: You have published a bunch of different pieces, but has publishing everyman changed your writing process in any way?
MS: Absolutely. It’s the longest project, in terms of length and time, that I’ve ever written and it has informed my entire writing process from conceptualization and drafting to revision and publishing.
SK: As an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas, what do you consider to be the most important elements of good writing?
MS: Respecting every part of the process and having a strong reverence for the act of revision. I use the expression “can’t see the forest for the trees” to describe writing to my students. It requires you to refine one tree, one branch, even one leaf at a time. It also requires you to zoom out and see how all of the trees create a forest as the bigger picture. There is a back and forth between these perspectives.
SK: You’ve obviously spent a lot of time with your characters. If you had the chance to meet them, what would you say to them?
MS: To some, I’d say that I’m sorry. To one I’d say, “you are beautiful.” To all, I’d say, “thank you.”
Fun and Games
Now that you’re well-acquainted with Shelly, here are some fun questions and what she had to say about them.
SK: What was the book that got you into reading?
MS: That’s a hard one. My mother would probably say the Dick and Jane readers that she used to teach my older brother to read. I’m three years younger so I was reading fairly early. I remember my favorite book being a little children’s affirmation book about being special and it ended with a mirror in the back and saying that I was beautiful. I can’t think of the title but I loved reading that book and how it made me feel. But mostly, as a librarian’s child who spent every day in the library reading, asking me to name one book that started it all is probably like asking a child of a musician to name one song that started their singing. It simply has always been books.
SK: If you could choose an author, dead or alive, to take a writing class with who would it be?
MS: Toni Morrison.
SK: If you could write a spin-off about one side character from everyman, who would you pick?
SK: If you could know the absolute truth to one question what would you ask?
MS: Are we living in a multiverse?
SK: What ridiculous thing has someone tricked you into believing or doing?
MS: This is a hard one because I’m pretty gullible at times.
Let me think. There was that time I got tricked into believing that I needed to purify myself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.
Or when I had to pretend that I wasn’t the prince of Zamunda and took a job at McDowell’s Restaurant to find a woman who would love me for myself and not my riches.
Or maybe it was when I loaned Deebo my bike…
SK: What are your book recommendations?
MS: Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Deesha Philyaw
The Prophets, Robert Jones, Jr.
Black from the Future, ed. Stephanie Allen and Lauren Cherelle
Saving Ruby King, Catherine West
Heavy, Kiese Laymon
Pym, Mat Johnson
Her, Cherry Muhanji
Eve Mann is on a quest to discover her identity, name, people, and home. Eve arrives in Ideal, Georgia, searching for answers regarding her mother who died during childbirth, and the father she never knew. everyman is a multigenerational story that takes the reader all the way back to the turn of the twentieth century right in the middle of a Great Migration when Black people are fleeing to the North. Then we watch Eve come of age in Chicago before she decides to travel to Ideal, Georgia to find her identity.
Follow Eve’s genealogy in this story about identity and the various meanings of love, how we love and whom we love.
M Shelly Conner is currently an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. She is also the creator of the Quare Life web series, the executive director of Quare Square Collective, Inc., and the curator of the dapperqueer website Dappervista.com. She now lives in Arkansas with her wife and dog, Whiskey on their homestead.
Featured Images via Blackstone Publishing