This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Prayers and Lies

Mediaculture: Reflections on the effect of media and culture on our faith

Apparently it is still possible for regular people to hit it big with a first novel. That is now happening to a friend of mine.

Sherri Wood Emmons did not set out to write a novel. Instead, she wanted to record some childhood memories of her family’s visits to relatives in rural West Virginia. But over six or seven years, the memoir turned into a novel. On Feb. 1, Kensington Press released Prayers and Lies.

Thomas Everett 2“On publication day,” Sherri said on March 8, “my husband and I drove from bookstore to bookstore in [Indianapolis], taking pictures of the book on the shelves. That was pretty exciting.”

Sherri was an editor with the now defunct DisciplesWorld magazine. I learned to know her through Associated Church Press conventions. We traveled with others to Jordan in 2005 in a press tour sponsored by the Jordan Tourism Board (Dec. 6, 2005). I took a picture of her mock-wrestling Jim Rice, managing editor of Sojourners, beside the creek purported to be the one where Jacob wrestled with the angel. Sherri was the angel.

About the time DisciplesWorld was ceasing publication and she would lose her job, Sherri learned that her book agent had two publishers bidding against each other for her novel. It ended in 2009 with an $80,000 payday and a two-book deal. After reading the novel, I can see why both publishers wanted it.

The novel follows Bethany, the main character, from her childhood in the Coal River valley into high school. Bethany is close to her cousin, Reana Mae, an odd-looking child who mostly just stares at people without expression. The two girls are oppressed by Bethany’s older sister, Tracy. But we know from the beginning of the story that Reana Mae will eventually retaliate against the incredibly mean Tracy.

I asked Sherri what it is like to suddenly be a successful novelist.

“Since the book was released,” Sherri said, “I have been doing signings at area bookstores. These are a lot harder than I thought they’d be. People show up expecting to meet an author, and what they get is just me. I do a reading, talk a bit, answer questions and then sign books. Sometimes, I feel like I’m a fraud, but so far people seem happy.”

One test for fraud is whether the expressions, syntax and dialect of a region—in this case Appalachia—sound right. In nearly all cases, Sherri’s do, particularly in the descriptions of mental illness as “bad blood.”

Another test for authenticity is the integrity of the narrator’s voice. I have not yet read a novel, written by a man with the main character a woman, where the characterization rings true. Nor have I read a novel, written by a woman with the main character a man, that sounds authentic.

But a strength of Prayers and Lies is that the thoughts, actions and dialogue Sherri created have authenticity. For anyone interested in Appalachia, this novel will provide a window into that uniquely American culture.

Prayers and Lies currently is on two “Top 100” lists. It ranks 35th for the Literary Guild and 38th with the Doubleday Book Club. But these are not what mean the most to Sherri.

“By far, the most rewarding thing about the entire experience was putting the finished book in my father’s hands and knowing that he is proud of me,” Sherri said.

So am I, friend, and I am eager to read that second novel when it is finished.

Everett Thomas is editor of The Mennonite.

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