Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Object Lessons

An interview with Sandra Shea

By Jumana Farouky

APRIL 10, 2000: 

Sandra Shea may have spent the past 20 years in the fact-filled world of journalism, but she has always had a soft spot for fiction. Shea, who worked for two years as the lifestyle editor of the Boston Phoenix and founded the monthly Phoenix Literary Section in 1988, went on to be an editor for the Philadelphia Daily News, where the never-ending task of working with other people's writing prompted her to write something that was hers alone. "I started to feel like I was always the midwife, never the mother," she says.

The Realm of Secondhand Souls, Shea's first novel, couldn't be further from journalism. The mood is steeped in the magic realism of South American literature, and the story is embroidered with passages from ancient texts. Objects contain memories; time is vague. The main character, Novena, lost her mother at age four and lives with her aunt and her chaotic boy cousins; as a teenager, Novena moves in with her great-aunt Annaluna, who punishes shoes by using them as flowerpots and hammers. As memories of her mother slowly come back to her, Novena discovers that she shares her mother's ability to see into the lives of strangers by touching objects they once owned.

Shea, who is now the editorial writer for the Daily News, spoke by phone from her home in Merion, Pennsylvania, about her novel, sexual equality, and the evil inside computers.

Q: Your job in journalism must keep you pretty busy. Where did you find time to write a novel?

A: At the height of the point I was writing it, I was assistant managing editor for the paper, so that was just insane. I would come home, allow myself a couple of hours for dinner, and then start writing at 11 and usually write until two. It was pretty consuming. But it was also so pleasurable in many ways -- it was a lovely release from this horror of daily newspapering.

Q: You deal in facts all day long. How did that translate when you were trying to write fiction?

A: I think that newspapers are about facts, but fiction is about the truth. At least for me. Even though newspapers are dishing out facts every day, it's not necessarily that we're dishing out truths or truth. I guess I was a little too philosophical to be a news-junkie journalist. And I suppose that immersing myself in writing fiction really was a great counterbalance to the world of journalism -- the harsh and cold facts that we all pretend that we're getting.

Q: In your novel, objects capture the essence of their owners after they die. Do you yourself believe that objects contain souls?

A: I do. Sometimes I'll even confess to yelling at or carrying on conversations with things. I particularly relate to the passage early on where Annaluna is talking about the punishing of objects. I'm usually hounded by things. They fall on the floor, or I trip over them, or doorknobs grab my sleeve. So I have the sense that objects are doing this stuff on purpose. It makes life more interesting, so why not? You sound like you have the same kinds of experiences.

Q: All the time.

A: And sometimes don't you wonder, This is kind of deliberate, isn't it?

Q: I feel like things are conspiring against me every day. Especially my computer.

A: Oh yeah. Is your computer an altar? Do you have objects and stuff on it?

Q: Yes.

A: I do too. Definitely, that's a big thing. There's a lot of evil in computers that you have to ward off, so you have to put a lot of things on there.

Q: In your character Novena's eyes, these old souls make even the most banal objects -- like a cracked bowl or a yellowed piece of lace -- beautiful. What's the oldest thing that you own?

A: I love that question. I started thinking about that question years and years ago -- I think actually when I was at the Phoenix. I thought that would be such a cool piece to write, just asking people what's the oldest thing they own. I have this old wooden decanter carved into the shape of a monk that I was told my great-great-grandfather made -- although it may be a myth and somebody picked it up in Macy's or something. I also have this beautiful, small cobalt box lined in velvet. I think I bought it in an antiques store a hundred years ago, so that's probably very very old. And I do collect -- at one point I collected more seriously -- old kimonos. So I have a lot of old kimonos.

Q: You were saying before how fiction reveals truth. We're at a time when we are trying to convince ourselves that men and women are more similar than we are different. But your book seems to say the opposite, and separates men and women in a lot of respects. Is that the truth?

A: They absolutely are separate. I came of age during a time when the message that both sexes are equal and the same was at a high point -- the '70s, early '80s. I feel like I spent a decade taking that in, and more than a decade unlearning that and realizing that I think that we are two distinct genders, two levels of experiences.

I think one of the joys and one of the burdens of life is our interactions and connections and conflicts with this Other -- the conflict and the interaction and the bouncing off energy of the Other being. I think that's incredibly full of tension and incredibly full of creativity and incredibly full of lots of stuff that comes close to defining life.

But I also think that there are planes and levels where we are, in fact, that same. I would never second-guess or try to rewrite the messages of the '60s and '70s, because the ultimate aim was for equality in the marketplace.

Q: You have three brothers and a sister, but Novena grows up in a household with four male cousins. How much of your sibling relationships did you use in Novena's life?

A: One piece of Novena's experience that I definitely drew on from my own was spending time with boys growing up and observing boy things, like going into the woods and fishing and all of that. There's a great piece of education there. But also they're icky, smelly boys. I think that my experience growing up with three brothers certainly informed a lot of it. Brothers and sisters have huge influences on each other, they influence our formation of our world-views and all of that. I think that's a fascinating subject.

Q: That people don't really talk about much.

A: That people don't really talk about much. A couple of women had come up to me and talked about how powerful, and in some ways disturbing, it was to read that interaction between Novena and the boys, because they had had similar interactions with their brothers but had never really processed or talked about it. These are, in many regards, relationships that are as or more primary than even those with our parents.

Q: Was there a part of this novel that was especially hard to write?

A: [Hesitant pause] Uh-huh. A lot of it was hard to write. Because if you're really honest about opening yourself up to the truth, it's not going to always be easy.

Q: Are you going to work on another novel?

A: I would like to do another one, but I kind of feel like I want to have it arrive as this one did. This one arrived almost like a gift, and I'm kind of hoping that the next one will do the same.

Q: A sense I got from this novel is that the characters don't ever have full control of the world around them, or even of what's going on within themselves. Tears come on, as opposed to them crying. And now you're talking about how the story just came to you -- it happened to you.

A: That's an interesting observation. That's probably very true that things do happen to these characters. And yet whatever happens, they still make decisions, and they still take action. I think that's the essence of storytelling: what do we want to hear? And our need to hear stories is, "Then what happened?" Not "Then what did he do?" It's "Then what happened?" We always want to know what happened.

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