Thursday, August 27, 2020

Teressa Shelton Interview - The Sergeant’s Daughter

Photo Content from She Writes Press

Teressa Shelton has lived in nine states and three countries. After graduating from Belmont University in Nashville, she embarked on a career in managing medical practices. She lives with her family in Springfield, IL. The Sergeant’s Daughter is her first book.

Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: She Writes Press (August 11, 2020)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1631527215
ISBN-13: 978-1631527210


“Shelton hails from an extremely dysfunctional family, but, miraculously, she survives intact. People in seemingly hopeless situations may take solace.” ―Booklist

Your new book is THE SERGEANT’S DAUGHTER; can you tell my Book Nerd community a little about your memoir?
This is a coming of age memoir about growing up with an abusive father who was a sergeant in the Army. He physically and psychologically abused me and my two sisters but never laid a hand on my mother. She was complicit in his abuse, never intervening to protect us. When push came to shove, she always chose him. Though this context is rather grim, the book is about perseverance, grit, and determination. It’s about how through education and the love of friends, neighbors, and strangers, I was able to escape my home. Ultimately, I freed myself from the circumstances that shaped my childhood to build a beautiful and loving home for myself, my husband and my own children.

Writing this book was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But now that it’s behind me, I’m so glad I did. It was a cathartic process that helped me to let go of the shame that I felt as a child, the resentment towards my mother who never protected me, and the guilt I felt when I escaped home leaving my younger sister behind. I feel such a sense of relief. Carrying the secrets of my childhood abuse had been a heavy burden.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
I’ve been really moved by some of the early feedback, especially from women who have experienced a similar upbringing. Many have thanked me for having the courage to tell my story. It feels good to know that my book might help others find their own courage.

Another early reader told me my book was the first book she’d read since high school. She said it was also the first book her children had ever seen her read and that made her proud. She thanked me for making her want to read again and to read to her children. This really moved me. If it was the only positive thing to come out of my book, it would be enough.

Greatest thing you learned at school.
In school, I found strong female role models in the teachers, administrators, and staff. At home Dad has little respect for Mom and it seemed she had little respect for herself. Both of my parents were preoccupied with how my mom, my sisters, and I looked. When my mother gained a little bit of weight, my father would ridicule her and call her Lard Ass or Blubber Gut. She was constantly trying a new diet and that’s also what I’d hear her and her friends discussing when they spent time together. At school, I encountered women who read books, did accounting, and discussed politics.

In my book, I tell the story of my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Cantrell. While I was in her class, my dad instituted a new rule at home, forbidding us to read. Mrs. Cantrell became concerned when she saw my grades slipping and she called my parents into school for a meeting. She and the school principal told my parents I was a good candidate for their Remedial Reading program. My dad was furious and tried to refuse, but she insisted. The remedial reading class saved my academic life. But perhaps even more importantly, she was the first woman I ever saw stand up to my father.

Your Favorite Quotes/Scenes from THE SERGEANT’S DAUGHTER
In one of my favorite scenes in the book, my parents are slow-dancing to an Aretha Franklin song at a neighborhood party. My parents never showed any affection toward one another and very little to us, especially once we became teenagers. Mostly Dad was critical and cruel. He felt if he showed any emotion, we would think he was weak. But on this rare occasion, after a few beers, Dad let down his guard, and allowed everyone in the room and on the dance floor to see his love for our mother. My sisters and I couldn’t believe our eyes and ears. We stood there with our mouths wide open. He was tenderly embracing our mom, telling her, “I love you.”

I like this scene because it is a rare fond memory. It was the first time in my life that I began to understand that, in his own way, my dad cared for my mom. It was also the first time I heard him say, “I love you,” to anyone.

I also like this scene because when I read it, I can still see it playing out. I see my parents dancing, almost floating across the room. I feel the music pulsing in my chest, and I hear Aretha’s raspy, vulnerable voice.

It took me a week to write this scene, and more to edit it. I labored over every word. I hope it’s paid off and that readers will be able to see the scene as clearly as I can.

  • The photo on the book’s cover was taken in 1969, on the day my dad left for his tour of duty in Vietnam. We were standing in front of the old white house in Eunice, Missouri that my dad moved us into shortly before deploying. The house is no longer there. It was destroyed in a fire decades ago. Another interesting fact about the cover is my publisher and I disagreed about whether the photo would make a good cover. She said it was perfect. I said it was horrible. She was right.
  • The net proceeds of the sale of the book will be donated to Habitat for Humanity of Sangamon County in Springfield, Illinois.
  • I’ve included several of my mom's poems in my book. I found them after she passed away in 2002. I included them because I think they give such insight into her thoughts, her world. I’ve often said that Mom’s poems saved me a thousand words.
  • Song lyrics are embedded in the body of my work. Music is always playing in mind, and has been for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are surrounded in song. Most of the time I hear Motown music. I was heavily influenced by my dad, who was a huge fan. Maybe because of this, music is a major theme in my book.
  • I tell a story early in the book about Linda Levin. She was my best friend when I was in third grade. Her dad worked for Campbell Soup Company and he always brought home little promotional trinkets for us. One day he brought home a paper dress that was decorated in rows of red and white Campbell’s Soup cans. Both Linda and I thought it was ugly. Her dad said it was inspired by Andy Warhol and he was going to hold onto it because he knew it would be worth something someday. Mr. Levin was right. Today they sell for $2,000-$7,000, depending on their condition.
  • The opening scene in my book takes place at my dad’s funeral. When I wrote it, he was very ill and I wanted to be prepared when the time came to give his eulogy. Dad didn’t pass during that illness, or the next, and he is still alive today.
  • As a child I moved over a dozen times. I attended four high schools. My book follows me through all of them.
  • When I got stumped while writing the first draft, I’d often go for a long run. These runs were my “processing time.” I worked through many scenes while running down the dirt roads and corn fields that surround the subdivision where my husband and I live.
  • The most recent memoir I’ve read is Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love , by Dani Shapiro. It’s a book about secrets kept within families--something my book and Shapiro’s have in common.
  • Many early readers have asked if there will be a follow-up book. Honestly, I haven’t thought about what’s next. Right now, I’m going to take a moment and enjoy and appreciate this accomplishment before I worry about what’s coming next.
Your Journey to Publication
I didn’t wake up one morning and say, “I think I’ll write a book.” Instead it happened over a long period of time. It was a 20-year journey. After I stopped working in medical practice management, I spent ten years thinking, reading, and taking notes and another ten writing and editing.

The idea first presented itself when my husband Marc and I were on vacation in Jamaica with friends. After enjoying a couple of Red Stripes and a day of wading in the pool, my friend Greg began asking me questions about my childhood. He said, “I find it strange that you never talk about your family.”

Completely out of character, I answered his questions instead of diverting the conversation. After a few minutes, he said, “Gee whiz, Teressa. That’s unbelievable. You can’t make this stuff up. You should think about writing a book.” I began to wonder if he might be right.

Getting started was hard. When I returned from vacation, I got a dozen yellow legal pads and sat down to begin writing. I started with what I knew: an outline annotated with questions, ideas, and lots of bullets. After months of working on this outline, I realized that I might just be adding bullets forever. The outline had turned into a procrastination tool. Enough was enough. It was time to start writing.

But trying to get words on the page paralyzed me. I’d sit in front of the computer for hours, laboring over every word. Even so, nothing I wrote was good enough. I’d spend a day writing a paragraph and then erase it. I tried to pump myself up. “Just get something down,” I told myself. “You can go back and fix it later.” But I was so caught up in how every sentence and paragraph fit within my outline that I had gotten myself stuck. I was trapped in a vicious cycle of write and erase. So, I just put the whole thing away in my desk.

A few years later I came back to it, only to battle with the outline once more. Every couple of years, I’d dig out the outline and attempt to write, but I always had the same outcome. Finally, my husband, Marc, helped me break the cycle. He told me, “Just tell your story.” And those four little words snapped me out of my rut.

This time, before I tried writing again, I prepared by reading. A lot. I thought of this as research. It may seem funny to propose research for a memoir. After all, who could be more of an expert on the subject of my life than me? But I wanted to familiarize myself with as many different approaches to the genre as possible. I read every memoir I could get my hands on.

While I read, I took notes on how the authors dealt with sensitive material, particularly domestic abuse, which was at the heart of my story. I also observed how they described love-hate family relationships, something that I also planned to write about. In other words, I read other memoirs not only because that was my genre, but also so I could get a sense of how to approach the parts of my story that I knew would be most difficult for me to tell. Then, once I started writing, I stopped reading. I wanted to make sure that my book was my own, informed by memoirists before me but not mimicking their work.

How did your family and friends react to the news of your book?
When I told family and friends about the book, two camps quickly emerged. From one camp I heard things like: “You’re not an MFA or even an English major.” And “Real writers spend years studying and perfecting their craft.” And the one that really hit hard was, “Do you know that only an infinitesimal number of manuscripts actually get published?” Of course, I knew what they were saying was true, and that they were trying to protect me from getting my hopes up. But still it was hard to hear. Frankly, it hurt my feelings.

Camp Two told me the opposite. “I know you, Teressa,” they said. “You can do anything you set your mind to!” And “I’ll be so proud when I see it at the airport bookstore,” and “I can’t wait to read it and see the movie!”

Now that the book is out, it feels good to have proven Camp One wrong!

How did they help you or inspire you?
Looking back, I can now see that harsh feedback from Camp One helped. I was determined to prove them wrong. Ironically, their discouraging words fed and emboldened me.

What is the first job you have had? 
When I was a kid I babysat children in our neighborhood. My first job as a teenager was as a carhop at A & W Root Beer. My first professional job was the Assistant Director of Admissions at George Peabody School for Teachers in Nashville, Tennessee.

What is the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning? 
How soon can I get my coffee! Then it's straight for the paper and the Sudoku puzzle.

What's your most missed memory? 
I miss reading to my children. They loved it and so did we, especially since reading time was the only time they sat still and tolerated unlimited hugs and kisses. Marc and I read to our oldest, Heather, together. Later, the three of us would fight over who got to read to our two younger children, Heather’s brothers!

Have you ever stood up for someone you hardly knew? Or hadn’t met? 
Yes. When I worked in St. Louis, Missouri, the University’s parking lots were blocks away from my office building. One day when I was driving toward the lot, I happened to look down an alley and I saw a man who had a young boy by the head and was shaking him violently. The child’s limbs and torso were swinging wildly back and forth. Without thinking, I turned the car and sped down the lane, coming to a screeching halt. When I stepped out of the car, the man dropped the child and they both ran away. I knew I hadn’t “saved” the boy, but at least this one time, someone intervened.

When you looked in the mirror this morning, what was the first thing you thought? 
Gosh your hair is thinning. But hey, not bad for 61!

What do you usually think about right before falling asleep? 
I always review what I need to accomplish the following day. Professionals say it can inhibit sleep, but it inspires me to rest up for a full day.

As a little girl, Teressa’s father dotes on her and little sister, Karen, while mercilessly mocking her older sister, Debbie. Teressa thinks its Debbie’s fault―until she gets a little older and he begins tormenting her, too. Soon enough, his verbal abuse turns physical. Her sergeant father brings his military life home, meeting each of his daughters’ infractions with extreme punishment for them all. Meanwhile, their mother watches silently, never defending her daughters and never subjected to physical abuse herself. Terrified to be at home and terrified to tell anyone, Teressa seeks solace in books, music, and the family she can find outside of her home: a best friend, a kind neighbor, and a doting grandfather. At first cowed by her father’s abuse and desperate to believe that maybe, one day, things will change, Teressa ultimately grows into a young woman who understands that if she wants a better life, she’ll have to build it for herself―so she does.

You can purchase The Sergeant’s Daughter at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you TERESSA SHELTON for making this giveaway possible.
5 Winners will receive a Copy of THE SERGEANT’S DAUGHTER by Teressa Shelton.
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