The unexpected life
An interview with Sharon, by Cheryl L. Reed, Books Editor, Chicago Sun-Times, July 30, 2006:
They could be living different lives. She could still be an English professor running a literary magazine, promoting erudite short stories and hobnobbing with literati. He could still be a practicing lawyer, arguing on behalf of other people's tribulations, living life by the billable hour. Instead, Sharon and Steve Fiffer abandoned their professions and became something they hadn't planned – he a biographer and she a "cozy" mystery writer.
Between them, they have written nearly 20 books. Hollywood Stuff, (St. Martin's Minotaur, 259 pages, $23.95) Sharon's fifth book in her mystery series just came out in June. Steve's new book, Work Hard, Study and Stay out of Politics: Adventures and Lessons from an Unexpected Public Life, (Penguin, 480 pages, $28.95) a memoir of James Baker that he co-wrote with the former Secretary of State, goes on sale in early October.
On a breezy summer afternoon, Sharon and Steve took a break from signing books and scrutinizing final proofs to sip ice tea at their kitchen table and explain to me how they live and work, sometimes on the same projects, in the same house. Newly renovated, their single-floor home is shaped like a long, fat pencil, set back away from one of Evanston's consummate, tree-lined streets. From the freshly painted walls, curious faces stare out from old black-and-white photos – strangers Sharon has rescued from discarded boxes at estate sales.
"It just seemed like such a violation for people to put them out for sale," Sharon explained, adoring a colorized 11-by-14 of a young woman she has placed on the kitchen counter. "It's not anyone I know. She just looked benevolent."
Sharon's own obsession with rescuing unloved photographs is just one of many characteristic she shares with her mystery series protagonist, Jane Wheel, a middle-age woman who solves crimes and scavenges estate sales.
Just off the kitchen is Steve's office and hers is off the living room. Each has an antique window built into the wall that opens onto the dining room wedged between their offices. From here, they holler back and forth as they write, gathering in one or the other's rooms to share their work and seek gentle advice.
"I don't think there's a day that goes by where one of us doesn't say: 'Can I read you something?' " Steve says.
Sharon adds: "I don't ask him for suggestions that I don't want to take."
Tensions can mount, though, when Steve lassos Sharon into working on his quirky ideas, like a project that involves interviewing relatives of the recently deceased whose obituaries have appeared on the same day.
"I didn't want to do it on so many levels," Sharon says, shuddering. "I'll go to an estate sale and sift through people's things and think about what their life meant and imagine it, but I didn't want to go and talk to anyone about it."
Steve shrugs. "I've roped Sharon into a lot of these things . . . I have all these ideas and I don't have time to do them."
Perhaps even more interesting than the peculiar projects they've penned – including a book about body parts – or the pile of books they've written is the couple's own real-life stories.
At 17, Steve broke his neck in a wrestling accident. Doctors said he was permanently paralyzed from the neck down, but Steve spent much of his young adulthood pushing himself to eventually walk with a cane. Meanwhile, Sharon spent her early adulthood trying to crunch a lifetime of experiences into the few months her first husband, Gene Sloan, had left to live. After Gene was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, the couple sold all their possessions and traveled the United States for two years before he became too weak. By age 27, Sharon was a widow with a 10-month-old daughter.
Three years later, Steve, who grew up in Glencoe, and Sharon, from Kankakee, met by chance at a party where friends were trying to set them up with different people.
"I was wooed through fiction," Sharon remembers. "He gave me the first two-thirds of his novel on a date. It was probably our third date. I came home and read it. I never thought I would get married again, but when I read the book, I said: 'I'm going to marry him.' I loved his writing."
The manuscript was Steve's fictionalized account of how he recovered from his wrestling accident in 1967. At the urging of Steve's mentor, New York Times sports writer Ira Berkow, Steve took a year's sabbatical from his law office at Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon to write the novel. He never went back to the law firm – though he pays his bar registration every year so he can still call himself a lawyer.
Despite Sharon's needling to let her read the ending of his novel, Steve put her off until they were engaged. He was afraid she wouldn't like it.
"Then I read it," she said, wrinkling her face with disappointment.
"I could never figure out how to end it [as fiction]," Steve admitted, sighing.
Besides his prose, Sharon was impressed by Steve's discipline toward writing. Although she wrote short stories and worked intermittingly on a novel, she didn't devote a set time to writing, an approach she continues today. But having been a lawyer, Steve, methodically turned to his computer first thing every day, a routine he also maintains.
"One weekend Steve called and I said: 'What did you do this afternoon?' " Sharon remembered of a time when they were first dating. "He said: 'Well, I read the Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux and I thought it was so great that I reread it and outlined it just to see how he did that.' And I thought: 'Oh my . . .' "
After two decades and many, many rewrites, Steve finally figured out how to end the book about his accident. This time, he penned it as a memoir. But just as he was finishing the manuscript on Dec. 7, 1996, he was struck by a car while crossing the street at the intersection of Kedzie and Berteau. The car had run a red light. Steve's right leg and arm were shattered. It took more than a year for him to recover. He was never able to get back to walking with just a cane, but had to adopt a single crutch to get around.
Finally in 1999, Steve's book Three Quarters, Two Dimes and a Nickel: A Memoir of Becoming Whole, was published. By then, Steve had written nine books as diverse as a biography on civil rights lawyer Morris Dees and a book about how to understand baseball.
"It took living all those many years to be able to write the final ending," he said of his memoir.
After his book on James Baker comes out in the fall, Steve would like to write a history of the spinal cord, an idea that won him a Guggenheim fellowship in 2001 – two years before Steve tripped and broke his hip, which initiated another lengthy rehab. Since then he has walked using a combination of crutches, a walker and or wheel chair.
Dropping the literary pretensions
Shortly after Steve's memoir finally appeared in print, Sharon experienced her own epiphany. Having already written her own non-fiction book and collaborated with Steve on four other books, Sharon was determined to write a novel or a series of short stories drawing from her own childhood experiences of growing up in her parents' tavern, the E Z Way Inn in Kankakee. By then a mother of three children herself, Sharon needed some uninterrupted time to write. So she packed up her laptop and headed off to Ragdale, the writers colony in Lake Forest.
(Steve adopted Sharon's daughter Kate, now 29 studying for her M.F.A in writing at Naropa University in Boulder. The couple also have two other children. Nora, 22, just graduated with a B.F.A from NYU and is an actress. Rob, 18, will be a freshman at Beloit College this fall.)
After much anxiety, Sharon finally wrote a chapter, almost non-stop about a woman named Jane Wheel who likes to go to estate sales looking for forlorn objects, like Bakelite buttons and old photos. Within pages, Jane stumbles upon her neighbor's dead body and becomes the key suspect, having been caught kissing the woman's husband at a recent party.
"When I got done, I thought I really like this. I think it's really good. But my bottom line was – I'm not a mystery writer," Sharon remembered.
Eventually Sharon and another writer at Ragdale agreed to read each other a chapter from what they had been working on. When Sharon finished reading hers, she was disturbed that she hadn't written a literary novel or a short story but had penned a common mystery.
"Stop being such a snob!" her friend ordered. "You need to get over feeling less of yourself for writing a mystery and just write what you enjoy writing. Besides, my book's a mystery!"
Then the woman read Sharon the first chapter of her manuscript, which would be later titled The Lovely Bones. Sharon's friend was author Alice Sebold.
Sharon was stunned by the character and voice of Susie, the narrator in The Lovely Bones who is dead but tells the story of her abduction and rape by looking down from heaven.
"You are going to be famous!" Sharon said. The book quickly became a best seller.
Sebold recalled her own impression of that night to me in a phone interview: "She sounded like she was having fun. At the same time, she was working on a literary short story to send out to small magazines and she didn't sound like she was having fun with that. You could actually feel the difference when she read the two of them aloud. She wasn't being self-conscious when she was writing the mystery whereas in the short story she was much more self-conscious and restrained."
At the time, Sharon didn't read mysteries and didn't know what she had penned was called a "cozy mystery" – a whodunit involving a domestic crime solved by an amateur. Such books rarely involve graphic violence or strong language and often take place in small towns. Sharon just called her writing "stuff," which is the name contained in each of her books' titles: Killer Stuff, Buried Stuff, Dead Guy's Stuff, Wrong Stuff and now Hollywood Stuff.
"I've written literary short stories. I even won prizes and I'm sure that the eight people who read them really thought they were great, but I just decided I'd like to tell these stories and I'd like to create some character who I could work with for awhile," Sharon said.
Jane Wheel's parents, who were based on Sharon's own parents – Don and Nellie – were clipped so closely from real life that Sharon didn't even bother to change their names. After the first book came out, Sharon was concerned what her mother might think.
"My mother just said, 'Oh dear, don't worry. I won't read the book.' It was classic," she said.
Now that she's produced the fifth work in her Jane Wheel series, Sharon is thinking about writing a stand-alone book. That morning, she and Steve spent 45 minutes mapping out the novel over coffee. She is still under contract to produce more Jane Wheel stories.
"I like the idea that when you write a series that a character can grow and change," Sharon said. "I think the favorite of the mysteries is Buried Stuff because it involves so many things with my mother. It's not all done. It's never all done. [But] I gave her resolution that she could grow from that."