Minotaur Takes a Break -- Sherrill's Debut Novel Takes Off

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Meet M (the Minotaur, for those who prefer full names). Having escaped the labyrinth, he now works as a line cook at Grub's Rib in North Carolina, where he manages, despite his poor eyesight and horns, to have only occasional accidents. He moves regularly but for the moment M lives in Lucky-U Mobile Estates, population 10, where he repairs weathered vehicles in exchange for rent. Mostly, though, he tries to keep a low profile. Burdened by his difference, his seemingly inescapable loneliness, and the weight of eternity, he savors his brief connections with others and survives on last shreds of faith and hope. His poor memory is a blessing.

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by first novelist Steven Sherrill is M's tragicomic tale -- a debut heralded in a multitude of reviews, from USA Today to the Chicago Tribune, from Rain Taxi to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, for being fresh and innovative and for combining intellectual heft with a heartfelt, deeply moving tale. There's something deliciously risky in prose like this -- and it's the very kind of debut that reviewers celebrate. So do independent booksellers. Both the hardcover (John F. Blair, 2000) and the recently released trade paperback (Picador, November 2002) became Book Sense selections. And it seems that momentum for the book is only building, aided by a December 13th full-page review in the New York Times Book Review, rare for a reprint, and a slew of foreign rights sales. To date, the book has sold in the United Kingdom to Canongate (which also has the rights to Sherrill's second novel) and in Spain, Japan, Israel, Portugal, and Italy.

Although he now has an agent, Sherrill initially sold Minotaur himself. "If anything, I'm persistent," he said.

He is also abundantly creative, a painter and poet as well as novelist.

Sherrill doesn't prefer one genre over another, and he even interspersed Minotaur with a few poems. The poems convey key points of M's history to the reader but spare M himself the specific, rather horrible, memories. Sherrill said he never considered handling the history any other way.

Sherrill is now in the process of submitting a poetry manuscript to publishers. He earned his M.F.A. in poetry at the University of Iowa in the early 1990s, where he applied to both the fiction and poetry programs. Of his prose, he said, "I attend to every single word, attend to the music in every sentence, every paragraph." Of his poetry, he offered this: "I usually write poems when I'm in love and prose when I'm not." He also paints when he's in love, and he appreciates that painting allows him a creative outlet that is also a respite from words.

For years, though, he wanted to be a chef. "Many of the scars M got, I have." He also studied welding for a year, though by the time he graduated the economy had stalled and there were no jobs. But he has never been an auto mechanic, though Minotaur is filled with car repair and searches for parts. "In the South," Sherrill said, "you're born with a wrench in your hand." He worked on motorcycles and cars when he was younger "and sometimes put them back together successfully."

A writer since childhood (his first publication, a poem about getting his tattoo, was printed in The Statesville Record & Landmark when he was 19), he turned to creative writing as an outlet for his "driving imagination," an imagination clearly reflected in the breadth of his subject matter.

After tackling how the Minotaur lives in the contemporary South, Sherrill returns to the same geography in his second novel but mines a different emotional terrain. Visits From the Drowned Girl is "about the power of secrecy and how much damage it can do." It begins with a powerful scene. A young man, who services radio and television towers, watches helplessly as a young woman sets up a video camera and films herself drowning in the river below.

Sherrill has finished Visits From the Drowned Girl and is already at work on a third book, in which he pursues yet another subject. Here, he takes the King James Bible as his launching point. He said the book will be a comedy, but will be dignified and respectful.

In all three books, though, Sherrill's setting is the socioeconomic climate of North Carolina, where he grew up.

Sherrill teaches at Penn State Altoona, a school that allows students to combine fields of study to create more personalized degrees. For instance, a student may pursue a joint degree in gallery management and an M.F.A. in painting. Sherrill has taught at Penn State for three years (he got the job after having published Minotaur) and lauds the school for their support.

Both for the hardcover and for his trade paperback, Sherrill gave readings in the South. His hardcover tour began with a 6:00 a.m. television interview sandwiched between a breaking news story about a murder and a feature on a student who had never missed a day of school in 12 years. Sherrill said the tour was "so much fun, so bizarre." He kept a journal while traveling, drove over 1,500 miles to his events, and concluded the tour at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he knew not a soul in the audience of 50. A complete switch from how his tour began, in Cornelius, North Carolina, at a Little Professor Book Center, where he read to nearly 70 people, most of whom were relatives. Sherrill said reading at Quail Ridge to fans of the book was "wonderful, really, really wonderful." --Caitlin Hamilton