Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Interview with Suzanne Strempek Shea and Tom Shea

On today's blog we are very pleased to feature an interview conducted by Sandy Chmiel with Suzanne Strempek Shea, Bay Path's Writer-in-Residence and the lead facilitator of the MFA Ireland Seminar, and her husband and fellow writer Tom Shea.  

You will both be taking part in Bay Path University’s Creative Writing Seminar in Dingle, Ireland again this year.  Can you tell us why you chose Dingle?

SSS  We’d been there many times due to Tommy’s parents growing up there and one of his sisters living there, plus many other relatives to visit – on top of that, it’s simply a truly gorgeous part of the world and I felt immediately at home on my first visit, back in 1988. Every one of my nearly annual trips has included writing, on my own, in conferences, for a freelance piece or book project. I find such an air of inspiration, and also acceptance of creative lives, souls, and endeavors. Plus, the literary culture is strong, revered, a fact of the country’s history. When we were thinking of the perfect place to meet with our writers, Dingle came immediately to mind.

TS My parents are from the Dingle area. It is just a beautiful piece of earth with a great writer’s vibe. Writing and storytelling are alive and well in the west of Ireland.  (It might help that rain is no stranger in Ireland!)  Dingle also has two world-class bookstores.

What are some memorable “snapshots” from last year’s seminar?

SSS The buzz in the room when we all met for lectures, the wide eyes taking in the view of the harbor, the mountains, Slea Head. The pride as participants did the final-night reading at a bookstore in town. 
TS My favorite snapshot from last year was coming down for breakfast. Not the food, though the food was great – do try the black sausages – but the buzz in the breakfast room. It was the contagious hum of people excited about what they were doing and about to do. It was the sound of people making new friends.

What did you most enjoy about the 
seminar in Ireland? 

SSS Getting to expose others to this very magical place, and to see how it truly transforms them and their work. Because we are familiar with the town and area, we don’t worry much about not having the answers to participants’ questions about what’s where and what to do in their spare time, how to find this or that. We feel centered, we can be helpful, and we can focus on the students and work rather than Googling the locations of the nearest copy shop.

TS The workshops. I was simply blown away by the talent. All the right words in all the right places. And the subject matter. Powerful stuff. I was honored to be in the same room.

What, if anything, will be different at this year’s seminar?

SSS We will have Leanna James Blackwell, the MFA program director, along to lead workshops in playwriting. In keeping with that theme, we’ll also have a performance by Curlew Theater of Connemara. It’s exciting to add a new option to the mix of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, and it’s going to be wonderful to have Leanna along.

TS Leanna is doing a workshop on playwriting. And there will be at least two plays.  And the stories will be different. They always are!

What are each of you currently at work on?

SSS I’m working on a collaborative project with Susan Tilton Pecora – she and I volunteer at Blue Star Equiculture, a draft horse rescue in Bondsville, right down the street from our houses. We spent last year writing (my part) and painting (her part) moments from a year at the farm. We hope to have the resulting book out as a fundraiser for the farm. Next March I will celebrate the launch of a collection of soap opera essays by writers obsessed by such shows. I’m co-editing that with my literary soul sister Elizabeth Searle, a novelist, essayist, and librettist who lives in Arlington. Some Writers’ Day regulars would have met Elizabeth at a talk she gave at the event a few years ago.

TS I’m working on a biography of a priest, kind of lost to history, who was an important person in the 12-step movement. (I’ll also be promoting Dingers, a book about baseball that will be out in April, which I co-wrote with Joshua Shifren.)

Will you each tell us something about the other that inspires you?

SSS Tommy simply is the kindest, most goodhearted and real soul I’ve ever met. He also lives for the written word; reading and writing are enormous parts of his life and day. He was like that when I met him in 1974, and he’s like that just this morning. He makes me want to be a better person, writer, better everything. It’s no cliché when I say I feel like the luckiest person to be his person.

TS Suzanne’s discipline in getting her work done. Her power to put herself in front of the screen and work. No ifs, or...she does her work, be it two pages a day or working on something for three hours. Then it is back again tomorrow. And the day after…and the day after that…

Is there anything else you would like to share?

SSS We did enjoy seeing the connections made between MFA students who otherwise only knew one another long distance. That and bonds made with non-MFA students, too, just so nice to witness. We had a lovely group and are anticipating the same this year.

TS What was really holy about Dingle last year was the camaraderie.  Writing can be often isolating and lonely. Dingle can help shake off those feelings along with providing nothing but inspiration when you come home.