It’s been a while since I’ve done this, but I occasionally post interviews with self-pub authors whose work strikes my fancy in one way or another. Sylvia Maner Nickels is a quiet one in person, genteel, amiable, considerate of comments she might hear in conversation, but once she lets down her hair with you, she does have rather fierce opinions on things. I recently read her latest book, Life Slices – A Medley of Musings After Three Score and More, and was charmed by her subtle wit and her ability to question her own perspectives. The book is exactly what the title implies – her opinions and insights on just about all facets of life she’s experienced. What more can I tell you about her before diving into the interview? Here’s her bio as she sees it:
A Georgia native, Sylvia Maner Nickels has lived in East Tennessee for many years. Her award winning short stories have been published online and in print. She published her memoir, Eight Miles of Muddy Road in 2004, followed by a volume of short mystery stories, Best Served Cold, Revenge a la Carte. She has recently published a volume of her newspaper columns, Life Slices, a Medley of Musings after Three Score and More, and the first in a series of mystery novels set in East Tennessee, Disguise for Death. The first book in her second series, Requiem for a Party Girl, is under contract with a publisher.
Tell our readers a bit about yourself – your interests, important events in your life, places you’ve lived and visited, etc.
I was born in and grew up almost entirely in the state of Georgia. My family did twice live briefly in Alabama. When I was twenty-one I moved to Tennessee a couple of years after marrying and have lived in Tennessee since that time. My family is mostly still in Georgia and I feel a strong attachment to the state, but Tennessee is my heart home. Marriage and the birth of our daughter were life-changing high points of my life. Other high points were when my only grandson was born and later my two precious great grandsons.
The lowest point was my husband’s stroke and then death in 2011, after almost fifty-three years together.
I’m interested in many things, reading, writing, trying to understand the area, country, world I live in. As with most parents and grandparents, I worry about the world my great grandsons will live in as they grow up.
I visited New York City and Washington, DC once many years ago on my high school graduation trip, and I was fortunate enough to take a ten day tour of Israel and Rome, Italy, almost twenty years ago. I’ve visited all the Southern states, but never been west of the Mississppi River.
How did you come to begin writing?
From childhood the idea was in the back of my mind, but it was the ‘impossible dream,’ mostly. I didn’t consciously frame the thought. I loved books and read constantly. Books opened my mind to a wider world than the red-dirt farming country of my youth. In school I only wrote what was required, but my head was filled with dreams I would not commit to paper. After graduation I worked at a business in Atlanta, where I met my future husband. Always and always I read books, jotted a few things down. But not until my daughter was in high school did I seriously consider writing as something I might actually do. In the next few years I submitted a few things which were rejected, with good reason, they were bad! Only after I had taken early retirement did I have a story accepted and published. I continued to work at improving, took a short online fiction class, joined an online critique group because I did not know any other writers in my area. Other acceptances followed, online and in print.
“Life Slices” would seem from its subtitle to be a random series of musings, as you call them, but they’re not random. How do you see these pieces tied together?
The book, Life Slices, is a volume of my weekly columns for a small local newspaper, actually three papers, Kingsport Daily News, Washington County News and Scott County News, and the column is published in all three. The columns themselves are random, each week I write about whatever strikes my interest. The owner of a local indie bookstore who has been very supportive of local writers urged me to publish a book of the columns. I didn’t want to just throw a bunch of them together, though it probably would have been okay. So I read and re-read to determine several categories that a reasonable number of them might fall under. When I began the column I wanted it to be varied, not just about family or writing or nostalgia. I still do and think I’ve managed it pretty well.
You seem to want to identify with the South’s “redneck” culture, but these pieces clearly depict you as more than that. Can you talk a bit about the other cultural influences that “Life Slices” portray?
Thank you. I think! You’ve probably heard the old saying, “Don’t try to git above your raisin’,” or something to that effect. I was raised in what’s often referred to as the ‘redneck’ culture. Definitions differ, but it seems to me that the general understanding of the term, ‘rednecks,’ is ‘poor white trash’ (poor and white maybe but I dispute that most were/are trash),’uncouth’ (and some are), ‘uneducated’ (lack of opportunity, at least in my youth).
If I am ‘more than of the redneck culture,’ I submit that it’s only because I’ve had opportunities many don’t/didn’t. So maybe I’m overcompensating/identifying because of a bit of feeling unworthy of my blessings!
It’s hard to exactly pinpoint other cultural influences. Though I did not earn my college degree until later in life, I believe my wide reading interests educated me. Probably living for years in a different place than that I grew up in, interacting with people from many different walks of life through work and church activities, and now with my writing, has been a big influence in my life and the book and columns.
In a number of instances, your writing here is filled with irony. Did you intend this, or is this a characteristic of your makeup? Can you explain?
I think it is a characteristic of my makeup. At least now it is. And of my love of words, how they can express different meanings. I see irony in much that people do. I observe others, and myself, whose aspirations sometimes outstrip ability to do. I don’t think that’s a reason to give up, as we often do just before the goal would have been ours. Another ironical aspect of our human nature is that we say one thing, but our actions clearly show we believe something else. What a handicap. I want to say, ‘just be who you were meant to be.’ But most won’t hear that, so I write/say it in a way so that maybe they will see the ironic humor. Some sarcasm creeps in, but a little of that goes a long way.
Many of these pieces beg to be extended to include much more. Why did you decide on such short pieces?
You’re right. And maybe someday they will be lengthened. But, as I said, these pieces were originally a newspaper column, which I try to keep to between 300 –350 words. This has been good for me. It has reinforced my ability to more easily spot redundant words and phrases, how to keep to the point and not ramble all over the place.
How has your writing evolved over the years? What, as you see it, are your strong points, the points you’re working on to make stronger?
I’m convinced that new writers realize that their writing must reflect themselves to an extent, and they resist it. So the writing is stilted and wooden and not very interesting. I know mine was. I believe my writing has become more honest over the years, even in my fiction, which doesn’t sound reasonable, but I think it is. And that is one area I’m working on to make even stronger. For most of my life I was too shy to say ‘boo to a goose.’ The growth in strength of my writing probably parallels my gradual overcoming of that handicap.
I know you write fiction as well as personal essays. How do you see writing such essays as different from writing fiction?
Personal essays by their nature are more openly about the writer. Even if the writer is not the main subject, his or her thoughts, beliefs, etc., color the writing. Many writers, myself included again, start out with essays, and get cold feet about submitting them anywhere when they realize, subconsciously, how they have exposed themselves. We use all manner of excuses, ‘it’s not good enough yet,’ ‘need more information,’ ‘more editing,’ on and on. My motto finally became ‘Just do it.’
Do you have a project in the works now? Can you tell us about it?
I’m so glad you asked! I actually have two series of books in mystery fiction going. The first book in one series, Requiem for a Party Girl, is under contract with a publisher, Oconee Spirit Press, release date unknown to me yet.
I recently published the first book in the other series, Disguise for Death, through CreateSpace. It and my other books, Life Slices, a Medley of Musings after Three Score and More, Eight Miles of Muddy Road, a small romance book, Love Comes Home, are available from online retailers, in print and ebook, and may be ordered through bookstores or myself. A tiny volume of flash fiction, Just Deserts, is available only as an ebook.