How the Harry Ransom Center Led Author Jenn Shapland to Her Debut Novel

Jenn Shapland, MA ’12, PhD ’16, has always been a snooper. Growing up, she loved sneaking around the houses of people she babysat for, contemplating the secrets that objects can tell you about their owners. “My snooping has always felt justified, internally,” she writes in her award-winning essay “Finders Keepers,” originally published in the literary magazine Tin House in 2017. “Like research: How to Be a Person, Exhibit A.”

During her internship at the Harry Ransom Center as an English graduate student at UT, her snooping soared to new heights. Shapland found herself sifting through the effects of famous authors—straightening a button fly on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s suit pants or examining a jewelry box that belonged to Alice B. Toklas.

When she read love letters written between early 20th-century female novelist and author of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter Carson McCullers and a woman named Annmarie Shwarzenbach, a photographer and writer, she was hooked. The letters were warm and didn’t hold back. Shapland then devoured McCullers’ books, inspected her artifacts (eyeglasses, a cigarette lighter, a coat), and even stayed in her former home in Columbus, Georgia. She noticed details that history on the writer has left out and discovered parallels between McCullers’ life and her own. The result is My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, a work that blends memoir and biography.

The Alcalde spoke with Shapland, now living in Santa Fe, about her debut book.

What drew you to McCullers?

She was living as a queer woman in a time and place where it was difficult to be open and comfortable with her sexuality. She grew up in a super conservative small town in Georgia. When I visited her hometown, it reminded me of where I grew up: a suburb on the north shore of Chicago that was similarly very conservative and kind of repressed. A lot of the material that she rehashes in her book has to do with secrecy and isolation and being queer, but not really having the language to even recognize that to yourself. I felt a lot of similar things, even though I was living in a much different time and place.

What have you learned from her?

So much. One thing is that even though she was living in a time when you were persecuted for being a queer woman, she was always pretty out to herself and to the people immediately around her. She was never dishonest about who she was in love with at any given time. She became closeted kind of after the fact, after she died. Something I really admire and take away from her story is her own willingness to be who she was regardless of how anyone else felt about it.

How did your research contradict how she’s been portrayed previously?

She married Reeves McCullers two different times during her life. That story is often framed as the one romance of her life and her one true love. But when I read the autobiography that Carson had written and when I read her letters and her transcripts from her therapy sessions, a very different picture emerged. Her life was really driven by powerful relationships with different women. A lot of those do make it into her biography, but they’re not disclosed as romantic relationships. They’re described as crushes or obsessions, but they’re not really treated as these very important relationships that defined who she was.

When did you know you wanted to incorporate your own narrative?

When I first started, I was trying out writing about some of this research and it all came to me as my own interactions with these archival materials: Carson McCullers’ coat from the Ransom Center or with her eyeglasses, with her letters. I was writing from where I was the moment when I found them. I was embedded in the story from the beginning. I think that part of that had to do with wanting to get it right. Acknowledging who I was as the person telling the story and bringing in more of my story with hers came naturally as I recounted how I encountered each of these different artifacts.

What do you hope readers take away?

One thing I’ve heard from people that I find really heartening is that they take away this idea that just because we have gotten a certain story about a historical figure doesn’t mean that that’s the whole truth. The other thing is that there are many ways to write a biography. I think it’s important to remember that biographies are constructed, that no one has the whole truth about someone else’s life or even about their own life. Once you acknowledge that construct, you can play with the form and be more honest about the story that you are telling.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo courtesy of Christian Michael Filardo


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