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Mace and Crown

Fame does not change ODU novelist

Success has not changed her...on the outside.

Her office walls at Old Dominion University display no diplomas or awards or ribbons, which she has received an abundance of. Instead she has pictures of loved ones and silly postcards.

Her desk is not cluttered with her three best-selling novels. When I ask her about them, she does not even know where they are. She does not drive an expensive car or wear expensive suits. On the outside she is the same person she was before her novels and a guest appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show brought her fame.

Sheri Reynolds, novelist and creative writing professor at ODU, settles into her office chair and smiles warmly as she talks of her recent trip to Disney World with some of the women in her family. Comfortably wearing a beige dress, she props her sandal-clad feet on the bottom of an open desk drawer.

As we begin the interview, she leans forward. Her eyes look intense, but she speaks to me as thought she is talking with an old friend.

Reynolds does not feel success has changed her on the outside, but on the inside fame has somehow changed her. "It aged me," she says, speaking slowly and weighing each word carefully. "I grew up very quickly. I went from a kid to an adult, and I wasn't savvy enough. I had to learn to say 'no' when I was asked to do things such as benefits. I couldn't do a good job at anything without depleting my strengths."

Before teaching at ODU, Reynolds taught at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. After learning the college did not have a position for her the next year, she accepted a spot in ODU's English department. Almost simultaneously, her publishing company, Putnam, decided to drop her novel "The Rapture of Caanan" due to a lack of sales.

This may have been a discouraging time for the novelist, but Oprah Winfrey called and informed her that her book was selected for her book club. Since that May of 1997, both Putnam and William and Mary have made large offers to try and get her back, but Reynolds wanted to be valued for her writing, not her fame.

"I have no hard feelings against them," she says softly. "I stayed with ODU because they wanted me for my writing, not my publication. I enjoy teaching the students here. The student body is diverse, and I love a diverse college."

Perhaps more than writing, Reynolds' passion is teaching. In addition to William and Mary and ODU, she has taught at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and at Davidson College in North Carolina. Even with the success of her previous novels, she does not believe she will ever give up teaching. "Teaching is what makes me a better writer," she says.

Although many of the students in Reynolds' fiction workshops and enjoying literature classes don't know she appeared on the Oprah show, they still have the chance to learn from an author whose books have become bestsellers.

Included in Reynolds' growing list of novels are her first book, "Bitterroot Landing," which premiered in 1994; "The Rapture of Caanon," which appeared in 1996 and won her national attention and a spot in Oprah's Book of the Month Club; and her recent novel, "A Gracious Plenty,"

Reynolds refers to each of her books as her babies. She is unable to say which she enjoyed the most or which had the most impact on her, but her fans can.

A co-worker and long time friend of Reynolds, Amy Tudor, who also teaches creative writing at ODU, says she enjoyed reading "A Gracious Plenty." "I am partial to that novel because it was dedicated to me," Tudor says.

After experiencing a terrible loss of her own, Tudor helped Reynolds with the book. "She read every chapter and filled in gaps in my thinking, and I ended up dedicating the book to her," says Reynolds.

Growing up, Reynolds did not know she wanted to be a writer. When she began school at Davidson College, she was majoring in chemistry and going pre-med. Because this turned out not to fit her, she changed her major to English.

"When I grew up, writing was not seen as successful," she explains. "Bankers and lawyers and doctors were. My father once told me, 'Don't you know all the great writers are dead?'"

She continued to work on her writing, received numbers awards at Davidson College for her work. This was only the beginning of a successful writing career for her, a career which progressed further with her best-selling novels and Oprah appearance on May 12, 1997. Even to her co-workers, success was inevitable.

Michael Pearson, director of ODU's creative writing graduate program and three-year friend of Reynolds, enjoys working with her. "She is a true writer with a general care for her students. She's the real thing. She has achieved great things at an early age and the whole world is open for her," he says enthusiastically.

As Reynolds starts to work on her latest story, she reveals that with the completion of her novels, she feels a little loss. "I become so attached to my characters and give them all my energy that once the novel is complete, I feel empty," she explains. "After a book has been published, I need to be projecting forward, not back." And Reynolds knows when it is time to tell that story.

The world does seem to be open for Reynolds. She speaks eagerly of the book she is currently working on, "The Widow Luncheon." The story tells of gender roles in the South from three different points of view.

She has also just received news that her novel "A Gracious Plenty" is being made into a major motion picture. Steven Spielberg's company "Lightening" purchased the movie.

"It's only in process right now," says Reynolds, smiling. "It is going to take a while before the movie actually comes out."

One can only imagine what else might be "in process" for Reynolds' career as a writer.

This article was posted on: October 6, 2000