20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.
“Nobody knows your work better than you do. No one can tell your stories better than you can.” Chicago native M Shelly Conner spent her summers bouncing between her grandmother in Memphis and relatives in Los Angeles, reveling in the sprawl of the Great Migration. She received her B.A. in English from Tuskegee University, M.A. in Education from Concordia University – River Forest, and her Ph.D from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she wrote the beginnings of her debut novel everyman — available everywhere now — as her creative dissertation.
A multi-genre writer, she is the creator of the Quare Life web series and has published essays on dapper queer aesthetics, Black womanhood, self-sustainable living, and their intersections in various publications, including the A.V. Club, theGrio, Playboy Magazine, and Crisis Magazine. An excerpt of everyman appears in Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora. Having also taught in Chicago Public Schools for a decade before working as an educational consultant for several private education companies, Conner is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas and lives in Arkansas with her wife and their dog, Whiskey.
I had the pleasure of getting to know Shelly for this week’s edition of 20 Questions, where we spoke about everyman, creative angst, the inability to choose one favorite book, how much of her work is in returning to the past as a way of understanding herself in the present, and more.
What is the earliest memory you have of wanting to be a writer?
I started writing my first novel in the sixth grade. It mostly consisted of recording all the interesting things that were going on around me and recording overheard dialogues verbatim. I guess it’s where I started recognizing the value of every day occurrences and relationships as stories.
What time of day are you most inspired?
It seems that my best time of day for everything is nighttime.
Favorite book of all-time?
This might be the cruelest questions you can ask a writer. My answer changes periodically. It’s been Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Jones’ The Known World, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. And now more contemporary works like Johnson’s Pym and Laymon’s Long Division. When I encounter books that mark me at important points of my life and my writing, it makes an indelible impression tied to those moments and the work I produce in such a way that it feels very “of all time” at the time.
What’s one vice you wish you could give up?
I’m a very productive person considering how much I interact on social media. I think that if I gave social media up, I’d make better use of my time and emotional well-being.
One movie that will always make you cry?
The scene in The Color Purple where Celie and Nettie are reunited.
What’s the most challenging part of writing for you?
There’s a moment after I submit or share a piece where I experience self-doubt that my vision isn’t going to be received as I intended. Or valued. Or understood.
The best book you’ve read in the last year?
Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw.
Your first novel, everyman, has been referred to by Publishers Weekly as a work of fiction that “wonderfully evokes a sense of place, and a palpable curiosity about the past.” Was it your intention to question the state of the present by returning to the past?
Absolutely. A lot of my work is in returning to the past as a way of understanding myself in the present.
The last series you binge-watched?
Besides the YouTube channels that I watch, I’m currently bingeing Time Wasters on Netflix. I love time travel narratives and really love that this one centers Black characters. Plus add my slight obsession with British telly and comedy and this was a no brainer.
Laptop or desktop?
Desktop with two monitors. Great for teaching, especially virtually in this pandemic and surprisingly helpful with researching while writing.
The best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Nobody knows your work better than you do. No one can tell your stories better than you can.
If you could have one writer, dead or alive, to compose your obituary, who would it be and why?
Audre Lorde. As a Black queer woman, I feel that she would not only understand and appreciate what my work attempts, but she’d also receive it in all of the ways that it seeks to engage.
One song that you will never be sick of?
“This Bitter Earth” by Dinah Washington and Max Richter. It’s also in everyman.
As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, how would you explain the importance and significance of queer visibility in literature and media right now, especially for people of color?
Not only is it important for queer people of color to be significantly present in literature and media (beyond roles that are exclusively to aid non-POC, cis, hetero desires), it is equally important to value the people and experiences beyond fictive narratives.
What’s your current read?
The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr. and Chronicling Stankonia by Regina Bradley.
You’re stuck on a long flight. Which world-famous musician would you want sitting next to you and why?
I feel like Meshell Ndegeocello and I would have a lot to discuss and I’d be interested in conceptualizing a score for everyman.
Favorite quote of all-time?
Issa Rae: “I’m rooting for everybody black.”
One thing that’s been keeping you sane during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Learning our new homestead with my wife.
Favorite board game?
Monopoly. Growing up in Chicago, it was serious and we went through several boards as tempers flared. Alliances and enemies made during the game sometimes spilled outside of it.
What can we expect to see next from you?
I work on so many things simultaneously. I hope to do more work on my Quare Life web series and to continue to write and publish essays as opportunities present.