Sharisse T. Smith graduated from The New School’s Nonfiction Writing Program in 2013. Since then she has published with The New York Times and Ebony.com, among other publications. Her work will next appear in the play Not Someone Like Me, directed by Chris Sarandon (the voice of Jack Skeleton from The Nightmare Before Christmas), which features five monologues about rape.
We sat down with Sharisse to discuss Not Someone Like Me, what it was like to cold pitch The New York Times, and which professors inspired her.
Paul Florez: You’ve written for The New York Times about your experience being a high school dropout and then going back to school to get an MFA at a time when your husband was being deployed to Afghanistan. Wow! Can you talk to us about summoning the courage to write that kind of story in a very public forum?
Sharisse Tracey: I don’t find it courageous at all to write publicly about being a military wife, high school dropout with a husband being deployed to Afghanistan. I’d been telling my high school dropout story to anyone who’d listen. The military wife, the new batch of kids and deployed spouse put a different spin on a long commute, but I was like a dog with a bone.
PF: Dog with a bone? That’s a great way to describe your ambition.
ST : That’s how my mother describes me when I really want something. I prefer to be called “graciously optimistic.” To be honest with you, I was over the moon when the Motherlode editor decided to publish my story in The New York Times because I knew that no matter what else happened or didn’t happen in my life as a writer, I would forever be a New York Times published writer.
PF: It’s an amazing accomplishment.
ST : That wasn’t too bad for a little girl from Pasadena, California.
PF: How was pitching to The New York Times?
ST : I pitched it using the information provided in the publication with what I thought was an irresistible title. After a few weeks I didn’t hear back and was pretty upset because I thought the piece was perfect for the publication. I followed up with no reply. About three months after the initial pitch, I followed up again and not only did I get a reply I got a, “we want to publish your piece!”
PF: You must’ve been over the moon!
ST : I did one of those cartoon double takes. My essay ran about three months after the initial acceptance, six months from the first pitch.
PF: Wow! That’s inspirational. Guess the moral of the story is it never hurts to follow up with editors you cold pitch.
ST : You can’t tell me it’s not at least a little about how you follow through and follow up.
PF: BigOthers.com named you one of the best writers who had not yet published a book. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
ST : In 2011 BigOthers.com asked Kyle Minor (author of Praying Drunk and In The Devil’s Territory) who was one of the best authors to not yet have a book deal and he graciously named me.
PF: Has that now changed? Is there a book on the horizon?
ST : Now, as far what’s on the horizon for my book. I have to laugh at that because my book has been on the horizon for some time now. Forever it would seem. I wrote my book—my memoir, or what I was calling my memoir—in 2009. In real dramatic fashion I wrote the last words hours before New Year's.
PF: Do you think that meant something?
ST : Yes, I really thought that meant something back then. Then, I re-wrote it and re-wrote it and ultimately pursued an MFA at The New School to learn that I might need to re-write it again. One of the hardest things about learning to be a writer is learning to be a writer.
PF: So what’s the status of the memoir?
ST : The memoir that I’m working on now will of course have large quantities of material from the previous book, but it is an entirely different piece of work. This may be the hardest work I’ve ever done.
PF: Switching gears, what was your experience like at The New School?
ST : My New School experience could best be summed up by four television shows and any random reality TV show: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Army Wives, a little bit of Shark Tank and Community. I could explain my choices but that would take the fun out of it.
PF: We’ll leave it to our imaginations. But tell us, what was your first day on campus like?
ST : My first day on campus—I had three first days. The first day I stepped foot on campus was about twenty hours after I received my acceptance letter into the program. I was so excited that I took what was going to be my standard three-hour commute into the city from upstate New York to personally thank the Admissions Department. I would have arrived sooner but I was unfamiliar with getting to and around New York City, so it took some time to navigate the rail schedules and arrange someone to pick my children up that day.
PF: You went to personally thank the admission’s office? That’s incredible. What was their reaction?
ST : I called Anita in Admissions and she saved a little time for me knowing how far I was traveling to see her. I think I brought her a card and asked if I could hug her. I thanked anyone who would allow me. I was so corny.
PF: What about your first official day of class?
ST : On what we will call my final first day, the first day of classes, I got lost. The two prior trips, maps and directions didn’t stop me from being utterly panicked and lost on my first day of school. I was a few hours early and it was a lovely August day. As for actual class, it’s a blur. What I remember from that first day and still miss is the most glorious smile that greeted me and all the other students in our building that was given so freely by our security guard, Will.
PF: Who were your professors?
ST : Susan Cheever, Robert Antoni, Zia Jaffrey, Robert Polito, Darcey Steinke, Darryl Pickney. Lori Lynn Turner, who I feel could easily share my MFA, not that she doesn't have her own. Lori Lynn taught me—or shall I say, always reminded me—how to be so completely graceful under pressure. Her guidance throughout my time at The New School was immeasurable. And the other is Susan Shapiro. I accredit her for my love of the power packed three-page essay.
PF: Before we wrap, any upcoming projects that you can talk about?
ST : I have a piece that will run at Ebony.com on healing relationships. And, some very exciting news…there is the play featuring five monologues about rape called Not Someone Like Me, written by Susan Rice and Directed by Chris Sarandon. There’s been a reading at The New York Theater Workshop recently. One of the monologues is my personal story taken from an interview with the writer.
Paul Florez is currently receiving his MFA in fiction at The New School. He is a contributor for the Huffington Post and his work has also appeared in Slice Magazine, Queerty, and The Advocate.