A Rich Retirement: Sheryl Bize-Boutte Proves It’s Never Too Late for the Write Words
by Nita Sweeney, author of the running and mental health memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink.
One of the many joys of participating in the Women’s National Book Association of San Francisco is the opportunity to learn from talented, successful authors such a Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte. As could be expected from even a quick review of her work, Sheryl provided generous, insightful answers to my questions.
NS: You enjoyed a rich work-life before you turned to writing full-time. Did your work experience prepare you for this phase of your career?
SJBB: The two things my work experience did for my writing career were 1) to provide a nice retirement with freedom to write and 2) to let me know that I could write in many different forms. In those ways the career off-ramp was totally worth it. Although I wrote a bit now and then throughout my government career, my work-related writing was often lauded and I became the “writer” in the office. I once wrote a section of congressional testimony for a cabinet level secretary that was delivered to the House without one word being changed. That sealed it for me. I knew what I would be doing in my retirement!
NS: Your work has won some impressive awards. Have those helped further your writing career?
SJBB: Awards are impressive to some and I am sure have caught the eye of readers and some important people in the writing game. But I have found that much of my recognition and furtherance as a writer has been a result of my readings, involvement in the writing community and face-to-face casual literary encounters out there in the world of writing. I don’t write for the award of it. I write for the love of it. I think people feel my love of the writing and sometimes that alone makes them want to hear and see more of it.
NS: You have been described as a “talented multidisciplinary writer whose works artfully succeed in getting across deeper meanings about life and the politics of race and economics without breaking out of the narrative.” What did you think when you read this review?
SJBB: I can only surmise that this is what she received from reading my stories. I will say that since an African American mother who was often treated badly because of her skin color, and a Creole father who was often mistaken as White raised me, some may view my writings about my observations of the differences as artful, but for me they are what my life was and is made of. I had an “inside view” so to speak of what it meant to be treated as Black as well as White in Oakland as well as in the South, and since I was an extremely nosey child who listened to and looked closely at everything, I remember it, I kept it and I can write it. As far as the narrative part: My favorite writing form is the short story. I learned a long time ago that be to an effective short story teller one must make each sentence a story in itself, have very few characters and stay on point.
NS: Which of your many publications made you the proudest and why?
SJBB: I am most proud of my first published story, “Dead Chickens and Miss Anne” as it was the first short story I wrote after I retired and was published by the first and only place I submitted it. In addition to that, the comments about the story included that people felt I had found my voice, but in fact I was humbled to know that I had never lost it.
NS: Much of your work is set in Oakland. Can you talk about why this suits your work?
SJBB: I think Oakland is one of the most vibrant, creative and artistic cities on the planet and I am so fortunate to be here. As I have watched it change, grow, shrink, and morph, it has informed and nurtured my writing from the day my 12-year-old self wrote a story on my new Smith Corona, to now and beyond. My real memory and imaginary muse have their base in Oakland and both remain solid and rich with many more stories to tell.
NS: You successfully write in many genres. Are there common threads among these works?
SJBB: I think the common thread is my unique voice. My way of expression that is just me. I see things in a different way than some. I write with that difference.
NS: Crowds have enjoyed your readings, which were said to “bring down the house.” To what do you attribute your success at such events?
SJBB: I come from a family of voracious readers, storytellers, singers, poets, writers; you name it. One of our favorite pastimes as children was to act out scenes or mimic favorite characters as we told stories. I still do that. I find myself changing tone, pitch and voice when reading, especially poetry where there may be more than one character or message. Audiences are tickled and sometimes enthralled by that or perhaps how much I seem to like what I am saying. But the bigger attribution comes from the fact that I do not see myself as separate from the audience. I am not a presenter. I am a person sharing my life and work with people who have been gracious enough to sit quietly (until the end, hopefully when they applaud raucously) and listen.
NS: Do you have a go-to writing technique that you would care to share with the WNBA-SF members?
SJBB: I am not much on technique but I do have a few habits I follow. I am not afraid of breaks in writing. They provide rest for the imagination and allow words to just “fall out” when they are ready. I do not use $50.00 words when $5.00 words will convey my message and allow me to read it without stumbling. I limit the number of characters in my short stories. If there are too many, then it is easy to “fall out of the narrative” and end up with dribble.
NS: Are you working on any new writing projects?
SJBB: Yes, I am about 75% through the writing of my first novel, “Betrayal on the Bayou.” I am having a blast doing it and even I am wondering what will happen next.
NS: Is there a question I didn’t ask that you would like to answer?
SJBB: No. I think you covered it and I thank you very much.
NS: Thanks so much, Sheryl for your time, insights, and for a behind-the-scenes look at your process!
Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte was born in Berkeley and raised in Oakland, California. Her first published writing experiences began while she was a student at the prestigious Mills College in Oakland as a columnist for the College’s newspaper, and as the youth editor for a local magazine called “Jump Bad.”
After college she embarked on a 30- year management career with the U.S. Government where she tried to satisfy her need to write by becoming the “go to” person for writing and communication. When that didn’t totally scratch the writing itch, she turned to helping her math-oriented daughter with all of her school writing assignments. During this time her poem “That House” was published by the Poetry Guild’s “Gallery of Artistry.”
Mercifully, retirement provided the freedom to engage that creative writing gene again, resulting in contributions to Harlequin anthologies “The Dog With The Old Soul” (her story, “The Green Collar”, received a positive mention from Publisher’s Weekly) and “A Kiss Under The Mistletoe”; and, the award winning “The Walrus- A Mills College Literary Journal.”
Oakland often serves as the backdrop for her always touching and frequently hilarious works. Her first book, A Dollar Five-Stories from A Baby Boomer’s Ongoing Journey (2014) has been described as “rich in vivid imagery”, and “incredible.” Her second book, All That and More’s Wedding (2016), a collection of fictional mystery/crime short stories, is praised as “imaginative with colorful and likeable characters that draw you in to each story and leave you wanting more.” Her latest book, Running for the 2:10 (2017), a follow-on to A Dollar Five, delves deeper into her coming of age in Oakland and the embedded issues of race and skin color with one reviewer calling it “… a great contribution to literature.” In Summer 2019, Medusa’s Laugh Press published her fictional story, “Uncle Martin,” and MoonShine Star Company (Bradford Productions) will publish two more of her short stories in 2020. She is a contributor to award-winning author Kate Farrell’s upcoming book “Story Power,” an anthology on how writers build and create their stories, and has a novel in progress titled “Betrayal on the Bayou,” slated for publication in early 2020.
An expressive and exciting reader, Sheryl has participated in readings and presentations for the Bay Area Generations literary reading series, the California Writers’ Club, Authors Large and Small, Hayward B Street Writer’s Collective, The Mechanics Institute Library, The Oakland Octopus Literary Salon, and the Mills College annual Writer’s Salon. In 2017 she was selected as the ongoing MC and co-curator for the annual Montclair Library (Oakland) reading and celebration of National Poetry Month, and proudly serves on the board of directors of the Women’s National Book Association-San Francisco Chapter.
Contact Sheryl at Bize11@Mac.Com
Follow her blog at http://sjbb-talkinginclass.blogspot.com/
Check out her author profile on Amazon