Q&A: GR author shares how a trip inspired her new book

Grand Rapids author Sheila Solomon Shotwell credits a special trip for setting the stage for her latest book, "The Plaid Scarf.” A key part of her inspiration came from a 2009 civil rights tour she and her husband took to the Alabama cities of Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery. 

The Civil Rights Movement is the theme of the young adult book about three teen girls who live in two different parts of the country in different time periods. Two of the characters live in Selma in 1964-65, and the other character is studying civil rights in 2018-19. 

Rapid Growth connected with Shotwell to learn more about her book and the response she received from a recent visit to a middle school class. 

CourtesySheila Solomon Shotwell

Rapid Growth: Tell us about yourself. What was your journey to becoming a writer?

Sheila Solomon Shotwell: I am an actor, educator, writer, and teenager at heart. I’ve been writing all of my life, but only in the past 12 years have I seriously pursued publishing. Prior to that time, I had a few poems and short stories published, but acting and doing improv were my main creative pursuits. I joined a weekly writers group in 2011, and that discipline was just what I needed along with the constructive feedback that the group provided.

RG: Tell us about your new book, "The Plaid Scarf." What's the book about?

SSS: “The Plaid Scarf” is the story of three teenage girls who live in two different parts of the country in two different time periods. They are all struggling with personal identity for very disparate reasons, yet there is a commonality, nevertheless, because being 13 is pretty damn hard, no matter what. I would say that the main theme is civil rights, as two of the characters live in Selma, Alabama in 1964-65 and the other character is studying civil rights in 2018-19. Their stories eventually intertwine, and I’m so pleased that readers are telling me they didn’t predict the ending. 

RG: Tell us about the research process. What inspired the book, and how did you go about gathering background material?

SSS: In 2009, I planned a self-guided civil rights tour, and Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery were at the top of my list. For some reason, Selma was the city that had always intrigued me the most. When my husband and I stumbled on a beautiful synagogue there,Temple Mishkan Israel, it added even more mystery to this town that had so much darkness in its past. We toured all of the museums, stayed at the St. James Hotel, supposedly haunted by the dog and girlfriend of Jesse James, and spoke at length to museum workers and people we met along the way. A few of them had been children when the march to Montgomery took place in 1965.

Before leaving, we stopped in an antique store across from the hotel. It had a wrought iron balcony and on the inside appeared to have once been a dry goods store. With its dusty smell and creaky wooden floors, there was a sense of history about the place that I relished. On the second level, I found a few boxes to rummage through, and as a collector I knew there were often treasures to be found in such boxes. Sure enough, in a stack of textiles, I procured a wool, plaid scarf in maroon, yellow, and forest green. Very different colors than any of the others in my wool scarf collection. On the way to the car, 

I pulled the scarf out of the bag and as the sun and air hit the scarf, I felt a sort of whoosh. A rippling of energy, perhaps. I knew right then and there that the scarf held a story which I had no idea how to tap into, but that I needed to be patient.

I wrote two YA novels before the scarf story materialized. I kept thinking that it was supposed to be a young children’s picture book.That’s what held me up. In 2016, we returned to Selma, and that’s when I realized that the story I needed to write was going to be a Jewish story in addition to a civil rights story. I began to research the history of Temple Mishkan Israel, and I got in touch with the president of the congregation. He was extremely helpful and excited about the prospect of my story, and so my idea began to bloom. My third trip to Selma in 2017 included an in-depth tour of the synagogue as well as the churches that were pivotal in the Civil Rights Movement.

RG: You've been out and about promoting your book, and recently made a classroom visit to talk about the book. What conversations has your book sparked?

SSS: I called several schools in the area to offer copies of the book and an author talk, but only got a response from one teacher. The eighth-grade teacher at Dickinson School turned out to be a wonder. She reads to her students every day after lunch, and they’d recently finished a book about Emmitt Till and “The Diary Of Anne Frank.” We were both surprised how well my book would present as a follow-up. To me, it felt like bashert (Yiddish word for intended or destined).

The students asked about my being a writer and also about the characters in the story. It was a joy for me to speak to them, as they really seemed to enjoy the story. My favorite moment was riding in the elevator with a student who’d been assigned to escort me, because as soon as the elevator doors closed, her face lit up, and she said, “We loved your book!” 

I was extremely impressed with this teacher for reading to the students every day and even having the sensibility to turn the lights out when I was there. It gave the whole experience an ambience of contemplation. 

As far as conversations being sparked, I recommend that reviews on Amazon and Goodreads be checked out for reader responses. I'm very humbled, yet proud of them.

RG: Where can people find your book and how can they invite you to make visits to their classrooms or other events?

SSS: My books are available at all area libraries. “The Plaid Scarf” is on the shelf at Schuler Books, Argos, Books and Mortar, and a couple bookstores on the Lakeshore. All three books can be ordered from any bookstore or on Amazon (e-books as well). I would love to visit classrooms and book clubs. My books are almost 100% read by adults, mainly for their nostalgia factor. I have a FB page that has over 25,000 followers due to the retro posts related to the books. 

RG: Tell us about the books you are reading. What authors inspire you?

SSS: As a former bookseller and an avid reader, I love to be asked what I’m reading! In my 20s I was an Anais Nin fiend (I met her twice). Carson McCullers is probably my most steadfast favorite. I love Elizabeth Stroud, Ann Tyler, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Jesmyn Ward and so many others. I’ve recently read “The Women” by Kristan Hannah, “The Waters” by Bonnie Jo Campbell, “The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store” by James McBride and recommend them all. I also reread my favorite chapter books from childhood once or twice a year because I’m ridiculously nostalgic and, as I said in the beginning, a teenager at heart.
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