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An Interview With Robert Sharenow

Why did you write My Mother the Cheerleader?

The writing of my book was directly inspired by John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, a nonfiction account of a cross-country driving trip Steinbeck made with his poodle, Charley. The book climaxes with a visit to New Orleans to witness the spectacle of the Cheerleaders protesting the integration of the city’s public schools in the Ninth Ward.

I was reading Travels with Charley around the time that my first daughter was born. Becoming a parent was the most transforming experience of my adult life. To me, it seemed to be an experience that cut across all racial, social, and religious barriers. So when I read Steinbeck’s book, I was astonished at the savagery of the Cheerleaders toward Ruby Bridges. These were, after all, mothers. How could they treat a child so horribly when all she was trying to do was go to school? What kind of person would make death threats to a six-year-old girl?

I had always admired Steinbeck’s writing because of his humanity. He wrote about downtrodden people who typically didn’t get written about (Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, The Pearl, etc). I was disappointed by his one-dimensional portrayal of the Cheerleaders. He failed to see any humanity in them, which seemed to contradict his point of view as a writer. Steinbeck didn’t provide any insights as to their motivations or reasons for thinking and behaving as they did. I really set out to write the book to explore what causes people to hate like that.

You weren’t born until after the time the book takes place. How did you go about researching the time period?

I really got sucked in to the research. I read a stack of books on the civil rights movement. I also befriended a wonderful historian who is an expert in the field, who helped direct me to the best sources. She shared with me hundreds of pages of FBI reports on the Cheerleaders that were incredibly helpful.

You aren’t from Louisiana originally—did you ever live there, or spend time there?

I’m originally from the Boston area, but I’ve visited New Orleans and I really fell in love with the city. It’s got such a unique culture. The Ninth Ward, where the action of the book takes place, was one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, so almost no one remains who was there in 1960.

Do you have a favorite character in your book?

That’s a very difficult question. I love all of my main characters. I guess Pauline, the mother, is the most interesting to me, because she is the most unlike me.

Was it hard to write convincingly from the point of view of a girl?

Surprisingly—no. In fact, that was one of the easiest parts of the writing. Once I discovered Louise’s voice, the writing became much easier. I grew up in a house with two older sisters, my wife and I have lived together for almost twenty years, and now we have two amazing daughters, so I’m used to being surrounded by females.

How long did it take you to write My Mother the Cheerleader?

I researched the subject for several years and was writing and rewriting for about two years.

What were some of your childhood ambitions? Did you always want to be a writer, or did your writing career come as a surprise?

On some level, I’ve always wanted to be a writer (although the desire wasn’t fully expressed until I got out of college). I’ve always been awed by books and have been drawn to libraries and bookstores. But for a while I aspired to be a cartoonist and when I was in college I created a comic strip for our school paper. To me, writing a comic strip is one of the hardest creative disciplines because you have so little space and so few words to convey your characters and story. Charles M. Schulz, who created the comic strip Peanuts, has always been a hero of mine. With just a few spare lines of ink, he was able to communicate an entire universe of characters and stories representing so many aspects of the human experience. Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and Snoopy are amazingly dimensional and real to me.

What’s your writing routine?

I have a full-time job and two amazing kids; so most of the writing I do takes place in the early morning. When I’m working on a project, I generally get up at 5:15 a.m. and work until 7:00 a.m., when my wife and kids get up. I also travel a lot for my job, so I’ve learned to write on airplanes and at night in hotel rooms. It’s ironic, but I think my writing improved when my life got more complicated and I had less time to write. Because my time is so limited, I really have to believe in what I’m working on.

Do you have a favorite place to write?

I prefer to work in my office. But for me, one of the keys to being able to finish projects was learning how to write in almost any environment. Given my current lifestyle, I can’t afford to wait until I am on a mountaintop retreat or in some soundproof sanctuary to get my writing done.

What is your other job, when you’re not writing?

I currently have a great job as head of nonfiction programming for A&E network. I started as a television writer and producer, so I’ve had the chance to work with some amazing people and a very diverse array of characters, from legendary rocker Gene Simmons to master illusionist Criss Angel. Being exposed to so many different people from all levels of society has definitely given me insights into the world that I use in my writing.

How does the writing process compare with process of working in television?

Producing television shows and writing novels are vastly different experiences. TV is completely collaborative. For every show you watch, it takes a small army of people to get it on the air, including producers, editors, camera people, writers, sound engineers, composers, and musicians. If any one of the people on that chain doesn’t do their job well, the final product suffers.

On the other hand, novel writing is a solitary endeavor. In some ways that’s great because the author is more in control of the work (at least in the first draft). Having a great editor is extremely important, too. But I never even met my editor face-to-face until after the editing of the manuscript was complete. I will say that having strong writing and storytelling skills is the most important part of the TV producing process.

What were your favorite books when you were a teenager?

To Kill a Mockingbird made a big impression on me (and influenced the writing of my novel). I read William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice when I was in high school and it’s still one of my favorite novels. I also went through a big Kurt Vonnegut phase when I was in high school. It broke my heart when he passed away. He always had such a young spirit in his writing; it was hard to imagine him getting old and sick. In one of his final interviews, he said, “The function of the artist is to make people like life better than they have before. When I’ve been asked if I’ve seen that done, I say, ‘Yes, the Beatles did it.’” I love that quote, being a fan of both Vonnegut and the Beatles.

What advice would you give an aspiring writer?

Write whatever you are passionate about. Don’t try to write what you think is cool or what you think you’re supposed to write. I had no direct connection to the subjects of my book. I’m not a thirteen-year-old girl. I’m not from New Orleans. And I wasn’t even born when the book takes place. Yet, I was inspired to write that story.