A Conversation with Bev Marshall
After she completed Walking Through Shadows, Bev Marshall couldn’t get Sheila out of her mind. She could feel her presence daily and came to believe that Sheila wanted to contact her; that she had more to say. After Bev shared her feelings with the members of her writers’ group, they suggested that perhaps Bev and Sheila could be reunited in a séance. Here’s what happened on the night seven women and one man sat around Bev’s dining room table hoping to reunite author and character.
The group hears laughter. Bev recognizes Sheila’s giggles.
Bev: Sheila? Is that you?
Sheila: Hey, Bev. It sure is. Ain’t you something to think this up! I been wanting to talk to you.
Bev: Well, it wasn’t really my idea. But I wanted to talk to you, too. Where are you?
Sheila: I’m sitting beside you. You just can’t see me because you aren’t dead like me and Stoney.
Bev: You and Stoney are together?
Sheila: If you could see me, you’d know I’m grinning big as all get out. We sure are together, and me and Stoney’s got some questions to ask you.
Bev: Questions for me? But I want to ask you about your new life in the spirit world.
Sheila: All right, but I get to ask first.
Bev: Okay, okay, go ahead. What do you want to know?
Sheila: First off, I want to know where you got the idea to make me up. I mean you didn’t give me a model’s figure, that’s for sure. Putting me in that cornfield with mud and bugs and all that, well, I ain’t mad about it, but I do want to know how come you to write it as such.
Bev: Well, it’s a long story, but I’ll try and explain it as best I can. You were inspired by a real girl, who lived a long time ago, who my father knew slightly. She was murdered on my uncle’s dairy farm when my dad lived there with my mother. I used his description of her as a model for you. As for the mud, well, my dad said it had rained the night before she was found. The beetle was my own addition. Sorry about that.
Sheila: It’s okay. You did make me pretty enough for Stoney to fall in love with me. I wish you’d a let me have that baby though. I love babies. You must, too, ’cause you wrote a lot about that Lil’ Bit. That made me think you do.
Bev: Oh, I do! And Lil’ Bit is based very loosely on a real person, too.
Sheila: Really! Who is it? Is it somebody dead I might run into?
Bev: No, no, he’s very much alive. He’s one of my many cousins. What happened was his mother and my mother were cousins, not sisters like Rowena and Doris, but they loved each other very much. When my mother’s cousin got cancer, she was pregnant, and she asked my mother if she would take care of her baby after the birth. When my mother brought him home, he was very weak and small, and I helped take care of him. I was just thrilled to death to have a baby brother.
Sheila: But it was so sad when his daddy took him off in our story. I could hardly stand it. Did that happen, too?
Bev: Not exactly. My mother’s cousin wanted her baby back at home after he got stronger. She had two other sons, and she wanted them all together when she died. Their father never remarried, but raised those three sons by himself. I still got to play with them often when I was growing up, and I still see them from time to time. Now about you . . .
Sheila: I’m not through. I got more to ask about.
Bev: Okay, what else do you want to know?
Sheila: That Mr. Lloyd? I knowed he was unfaithful to Miss Rowena, but he was a good man really. Is he somebody you know? Is he your daddy?
Bev: Absolutely not! My dad isn’t anything at all like Lloyd Cotton. I created the affair as a device. I wanted to cast a small doubt, a glimmer of suspicion, that Lloyd may have possibly been the murderer. In the first draft of the novel, he was a model husband with no faults at all.
Sheila: You mean you wrote the book twice?
Bev: (laughing) Not just twice, I reworked it through several drafts, but in the first version of the book, I wrote the entire manuscript through only Annette’s point of view. I told the readers who was guilty in the first chapter, so there was no mystery at all. But my agent thought that the book would be stronger if I told it from several points of view, because Annette
was too young to know a lot of things the readers really needed to know. So I threw out about 200 pages and began again.
Sheila: Phew! And I thought dairy farm work was hard. How you come to tell it in the way you done, like telling the same things over by different folks?
Bev: I had help with that. A marvelous author named Shelby Foote wrote a book back in 1950 called Follow Me Down, and I used his technique as a guide. I reread that novel and thought that it was a brilliant way to devise the plot. I tried to emulate his example as best I could.
Sheila: So you really did follow him down just like the title says.
Bev: I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but yes, I did.
Sheila: This ain’t a question, but I wanted to thank you for giving me a best friend. I loved Annette.
Bev: Me too. As a matter of fact, those 200 pages I mentioned?
Bev: Well, some of the events I wrote about Annette in those pages I excised will reappear in the life of a girl named Layla Jay in my new novel, Hot Fudge Sundae Blues.
Sheila: Am I in that one, too?
Bev: No, you’re dead.
Sheila: Oh, that’s right. I reckon Stoney ain’t in it neither.
Sheila: Now Stoney and me, we done talked about this. How come you to make him hurt me? You know he loved me, really and truly and forever and ever and always. He told me that.
Bev: I know. I hated to do it, but most violent crimes occur between family members, so it was logical that he would be the murderer. I never believed he meant to do it.
Sheila: Oh, he didn’t. He told me so. He shouldn’t drink no alcohol, that was one reason it happened the way it did, wasn’t it?
Bev: Yes, and he grew up in a violent home himself. Violence breeds violence unfortunately. While some victims of abuse never hurt others, there are those who repeat the pattern. I had great sympathy for Stoney, and I tried to show the torture he suffered from his guilt. I hope my readers understand him and feel a little sorry for him, too.
Sheila: Well, readers is all nice people generally, so I’ll bet they do. You made that electric chair sound like one of the worstest things ever invented.
Bev: It is. It’s abominable really. I read accounts of so many botched executions, even saw photos of them. I was literally physically sick after researching them, but I had to know as much as I could to write the scenes.
Sheila: It seemed like you think people shouldn’t be put to death even when they’ve done terrible things.
Bev: My intent wasn’t to denounce capital punishment. Everyone has to look at the issue for themselves and decide how they feel about it. Whether I’m for or against it doesn’t really matter. I’m only telling a story and recording the facts of one man’s ordeal. Now about you, I’d like to ask . . .
Sheila: Hold your horses. I ain’t done. What about that reporter man, Leland Graves? I want to know how come you to put him in our book. He wasn’t no country boy, kind of a sissy. I hate to say it, but he was.
Bev: (Laughs) Well, I thought of him as refined, cultured, but I guess he would get labeled as a sissy by the country people back then. Leland didn’t show up in the novel until after everyone else had told their stories. I needed someone to tell about the execution, to be objective, to be in places and know things the other characters couldn’t. So I waited until Leland appeared in my mind, and when I heard his voice, I knew he belonged in the book. Have I answered all of your questions now?
Sheila: Almost. We ain’t said nothing about Miss Rowena. She sure was a good person, and she sewed, and canned, and cooked all them dishes that made me hungrier than a starving mutt. I sure loved her. You must’ve liked writing about her and her jumping jack baby and all.
Bev: I did love writing about Rowena. But not as much as writing about you.
Sheila: Shucks! I wasn’t near as smart as her. I bet lots of folks thought she was the best person in the book.
Bev: No, you’re the star. I get more fanmail about you than any other character.
Sheila: Really! How come, you think?
Bev: Well, sadly, there are a lot of young women who suffer abuse in their lives, and your story speaks to them in a way that gives them hope and strength. You may not have been educated, but you had what my family calls “horse sense” and you had a beautiful philosophy on how to live life. Your belief in walking through the shadows in our lives is just one good example of that.
Sheila: Do you believe in walking through them shadows, too?
Bev: With all my heart!
Sheila: I knowed it! Uh oh, I got to go. Me and Stoney has to be somewhere else. It might be his poor old mama that needs us.
Bev: Wait! I didn’t get to ask you my questions!
Sheila: I reckon they’ll have to keep for another day. We got to go. Bye.
Bev: Wait, one more thing! I’m sorry about all the sad things that happened to you that I wrote about.
Sheila: (Her voice fading away) That’s all right. There ain’t no shadows to walk through where you sent me. You gonna love it when you get here.
1. What do you think the author is trying to accomplish by telling the story from five different perspectives? Do you think this goal is achieved? Why do you think these particular points of view were chosen? Is there another character you wish she had chosen, and if so, why?
2. Sheila has a significant effect on the lives of nearly every character in the novel and their perceptions of her differ greatly. How would you assess her qualities? Was she strong, wise, simple, or merely pathetic?
3. Sheila’s optimistic outlook influences nearly everyone around her. Do you know anyone like Sheila who seems to brighten the lives of everyone around them?
4. Annette grew up without siblings until Lil’ Bit came along, and this is in part why Sheila becomes her best friend. Do you have any brothers or sisters? If so, how do you think your life would have been different if you had been raised as an only child? If you are an only child, how would your life have differed with siblings?
5. Do you think Uncle Walter and Gloria should have taken Lil’ Bit away from the Cotton family? How could the situation have been handled differently?
6. When Rowena is incapacitated after Lil’ Bit is taken away, it is Sheila who pulls her out of her depression. Have you ever experienced a similar loss? What, or who helped you recover?
7. Why do you think Sheila chose not to tell anyone about Hugh raping her? What do you think would have happened had she told? How do you think the story is changed by the baby being conceived by rape as opposed to by Sheila having an affair with Hugh?
8. Lloyd and Rowena have both suffered disappointments in their marriage and yet there seems to be a strong bond between them. How would you characterize their relationship? What roles do Lloyd’s affair, Sheila’s murder, and Rowena’s pregnancy play in their marriage?
9. What do you think would have happened if Sheila had lived? Would she and Stoney have raised the baby on their own? Would Hugh have eventually learned that the baby was his?
10. The identity of Sheila’s murderer isn’t revealed until very late in the novel. Were there other characters whom you suspected? If so, why did you suspect them?
11. Earlene Barnes feels guilty for not coming forward about Hugh’s behavior earlier. Do you think that her information would have changed the situation? In what way? Has there ever been an instance in your life when you felt there would have been a different outcome if you had spoken up about an issue earlier?
12. Sheila teaches Annette the trick of walking through her shadow to help overcome her sadness and her fears. Do you have any tricks that help you deal with your emotions when something upsets you?
13. What are the “shadows” that each character faces? In what ways do they deal with these shadows differently? What shadows do you face in your own life? How do you handle them?
14. To what extent is the story dependent upon the time in which it occurs? Could these events have taken place in today’s society? How might they have been different?