20 People to Watch - Sheri Joseph: The novelist
Joseph's third book explores the emotional depths that follow a kidnapping
We are familiar enough with this tabloid story: A young child is abducted, disappears for an agonizing amount of time, and is finally discovered, saved, rescued, or somehow returned to the distraught family. The media has made something of a cottage industry out of these stories, feeding a public appetite for sordid details and paparazzi-like snapshots. We may know their names — Jaycee Dugard, Shawn Hornbeck, Elizabeth Smart — but rarely do we come to comprehend their experiences outside of the scattershot reporting, the horrifying bullet points. Sheri Joseph's Where You Can Find Me, a novel due out this March, promises to give private depth to a kind of story we typically know as public and flat.
Joseph isn't the sort of writer that chases bold-print headlines. She once told an interviewer for Southern Scribe, "All I've wanted is a life that will allow me the time to write, and a publisher who believes in my work enough to print it." She serves as the fiction editor of Five Points, Atlanta's long-standing literary magazine, and teaches in Georgia State University's creative writing program. Her previous two books, Bear Me Safely Over (2002) and Stray (2007), were praised, the latter receiving the Grub Street National Book Prize. She is even demure about her interest in the tawdry, tabloid subjects that intersect with her latest novel, saying, "I'm not a big follower of that kind of story, the sensational news story, the kidnapping stories. I'm very interested in questions of identity."
Yet Joseph finds herself possessing a trifecta that currently commands bold-print attention from publishers and readers: being a woman, a writer, and from Atlanta. In 2011, she was photographed for Vanity Fair with a group of women writers described as Atlanta's "literary sorority," including our Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, thriller bestseller Karin Slaughter, and chick lit queen Emily Giffin, among others. That exposure has not been lost on her publisher, St. Martin's Press, which has dressed up the early promotional materials for Where You Can Find Me in the lavender type and melodramatic cover that communicates potential for a broad audience.
When Joseph talks about the tension between her career as a writer's writer and the window dressing of Where You Can Find Me, she comes across as a bit uneasy. "I feel like it's a more serious book than the cover suggests," she says. Mostly, though, she's interested in the work. "I'm looking to see the world from someone else's experience, the more unusual, the better for me," she says. Unusual would be an apt word for the experiences of Caleb, the kidnapped protagonist who arrives home at the beginning of Where You Can Find Me and moves, with his family, to a rough approximation of a wildlife preserve in Costa Rica.
To describe Joseph's process as thorough is something of an understatement. The roots of Where You Can Find Me go back years before her career as a writer, when she was working in wildlife rehabilitation. During that time caring for birds she learned about a "process called imprinting, a critical age for birds, where they're still trying to figure out what species they are." For some birds, they'll imprint their own identity upon the first animal they see after hatching and, for others, they have a longer period of adolescence during which imprinting happens.
Her work with wildlife eventually helped shape an environment for the story of Caleb, whose kidnapping at a critical age similarly shapes his identity. Before she began a word of Where You Can Find Me, though, Joseph wrote out 400 pages of back story, chronicling the events of Caleb's kidnapping, without any intention of using them in the novel. "I try to know everything about the character's experiences before page one," she says.
Only then, she says, does she start finding out what will happen.