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Words with a Wordsmith: Deborah Shepherd

By Rebecca D’Harlingue
January 28, 2022

Deborah Shepherd – Social worker turned author

If you could write any other genre, what would it be?

When I wrote my debut novel, So Happy Together, which is set mostly in the 1960s, I didn’t know it was historical fiction. To me, it was just fiction, or, perhaps, “women’s” fiction. A (very) young agent for a major publishing house clued me in when I met her at an in-person pitch:

“I like it, but, unfortunately, I don’t represent historical fiction authors.”

“It’s not historical fiction—it’s the ‘60s. That’s my life, it’s not historical.”

She broke the news very gently: “It is in publishing.”

Amazon was even more granular: On my book’s page, based on a snippet of a description on the book’s back cover: “Set in the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll ‘60s…” my novel was classified as “historical erotica.” I’d made my peace with “historical,” but couldn’t live with “erotica.” There are no bodices, ripped or otherwise, in So Happy Together (there is some sex, but none of it gratuitous–it was the ‘60s, after all). I finally got the giant, multi-gazillion dollar conglomerate to change the designation, but it wasn’t easy.

I’m now writing a memoir. Most of my writing has been non-fiction and I’m comfortable writing essays. Writing a memoir is not easy, but it feels right at this point in my life.  I’m on my fifth draft.

I like the idea of writing another historical novel, though, this time with intent. I’m intrigued with a particular mid-19th century romance set in Paris.  Time will tell—I have to get through the memoir first.

What is the first book that made you cry?

 I was ten, and on vacation with my family. The cottage we’d rented had a few well-worn books on the shelf, but no kids’ books, so I picked up A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Betty Smith’s beautifully written, timeless novel grabbed me immediately. The main character, Francie Nolan, was just about my age. I remember crying and crying and staying up late, reading with a flashlight under the covers.

 I’m so glad you asked that question. This might be the perfect time to revisit this book. I could use a good cry that’s not focused on what’s going on in our world today.

What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

 I’m going to count this as a literary pilgrimage that is also a culinary pilgrimage, because the subject of my quest, Julia Child, was the author of many books (including, in addition to cookbooks, My Life in France) that have given me hours of reading and cooking pleasure. In the summer of 2012, which would have been Ms. Childs’ 100th birthday, my husband and I were on our first trip to Paris together. I was determined to find all of the landmarks she’d mentioned in her writings, so my husband took my picture in front of 81 Rue de l’Université  (which Julia referred to as “Rue de Loo”) where she lived with her husband, Paul, and which, at the time of our visit, did not have a historical marker; and we bought a garlic press at her favorite cookware emporium, E. Dehillerin.  My spouse drew the line at dinner at Julia’s favorite restaurant, Le Grand Véfour, though: It would have broken our budget.

What’s your favorite non-reading activity?

 My favorite non-reading activity is gardening, although this, too, involves some reading.  In our house, we call seed catalogues, “garden porn.” I can’t wait until they arrive in late fall, when the garden beds look so bedraggled. Reading them gets me through the long Maine winter–as I lust after heirloom tomatoes, shishito peppers, purple cauliflower, and dahlias as big as dinner plates–until the ground finally unfreezes and I can get my hands in the dirt again.  In our short growing season, I am so focused on the flowers and vegetables and fruit trees, I can spend hours digging and planting and weeding and pruning and am not aware of time passing or anything else on my to-do list. It’s how I practice mindfulness.

Is there another profession you’d like to try?

 At nearly 75, I’m not likely to try another profession, but I spent many gratifying years as a social worker before I retired and exhumed a 30-year-old manuscript that I had stashed in a closet. On re-reading, I discovered it wasn’t so bad after all, so I rewrote it and submitted it for publication.  Most of my social work career was spent as the director of agencies that worked with survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. While none of the characters in my book are based on any of the survivors I worked with, there is one scene where a character reveals to another character that he had been sexually assaulted as a child, so my background was quite helpful in the writing of that scene.

 But if we’re in the realm of fantasy professions, I suppose I would have loved to have been a cellist, playing in a major symphony orchestra. Unfortunately, I have no musical talent, and when I briefly studied the instrument in my early teens, that was painfully obvious. So, I have to content myself with listening to and loving classical music. A consolation is that I’m married to a music historian who has exposed me to much more of the genre than I would have discovered on my own, and I have become a knowledgeable and appreciative listener. And the ringtone on my cell phone is the beginning of the Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1.

Before her retirement in 2014, DEBORAH K. SHEPHERD was the executive director of a domestic violence resource center in central Maine. Her essays have been published on herstryblg.com (“A Love Letter to Our Marriage Therapist”), persimmontree.org (“Light”), womenonwriting.com, (“The Long Haul”), booksbywomen.org (“Why Did You Write That Scene?), and her covid-theme essay, “Snow Day, Maine, April 10, 2020,” was a winner in the Center for Interfaith Relations Sacred Essay Contest. An excerpt from her novel has appeared on BLOOM.

During an earlier career as a reporter, she wrote for Show Business in New York City and the Roe Jan Independent, a weekly newspaper in Columbia County, New York, and also freelanced as a travel writer. She holds a BFA in drama from the University of Arizona and an MSW from Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service.  Deborah is the mother of two adult children and grandmother of two, and lives with one husband and two dogs on the coast of Maine. Find her online at deborahshepherdwrites.com

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Rebecca D’Harlingue
Written by Rebecca D’Harlingue

Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her second novel, The Map Colorist, won a Literary Titan Award and a Firebird Book Award.

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