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Exploring the spiritual isolation of misfits

“My Autobiography of Carson McCullers” by Jenn Shapland.

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Jenn Shapland didn’t know what kind of response she would get with her first book.

After all, it had taken her the better part of a decade to complete.

Months after the release of “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers,” the Santa Fe-based author is at a loss for words.

“I never expected any of this,” she says from her Santa Fe home. “There have been messages from readers who have found extreme value in the book. That is amazing to me.”

Shapland was also humbled with the book’s selection as one of six finalists for the National Book Award for nonfiction and its spot on the long list for the 2021 Carnegie Medal of Excellence.

To top off a great year, “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers” became available on paperback on Jan. 5, via Tin House.

The inception for the book began when Shapland was a graduate student and researching Carson McCullers.

The author and poet is best known for her 1940 novel “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” which explores the spiritual isolation of misfits and outcasts in a small town of the southern United States. Her other novels have similar themes and most are set in the deep South.

During the research, Shapland uncovered letters written to McCullers by a woman named Annemarie.

Though Shapland recognizes herself in the letters, which are intimate and unabashed in their feelings, she does not see McCullers as history has portrayed her.

Her curiosity gives way to fixation, not just with this newly discovered side of McCullers’s life, but with how we tell queer love stories.

Santa Fe resident and author Jenn Shapland

“Why,” Shapland asks, “Are the stories of women paved over by others’ narratives?”

These letters were super interesting and made me want to know about McCullers’ identity,” Shapland continues. “I started reading things that I could find on her. An autobiography wasn’t published before her death, so she couldn’t really tell her story.”

Shapland did feel some apprehension in writing the book because the information she uncovered went against anything written about McCullers.

“It’s a little scary to go up against what has been written or challenged,” she says. In getting the story as accurate as possible, Shapland also traveled to McCullers’ childhood home in Georgia.

“It was super strange and interesting,” she says of the experience. “It gave me the chance to experience Columbus. I had never spent any time in Georgia. The town has changed quite a lot, and there was a feeling of living a parallel life and seeing what it would be like for a lesbian living in the ’40s and ’50s.”

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