Holman, Sheri 1966-
HOLMAN, Sheri 1966-
PERSONAL: Born June 1, 1966, in Richmond, VA; married Sean Redmond; children: Elizabeth (Ella) Redmond. Education: College of William and Mary, B.A. (theater), 1988.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Atlantic Monthly Press, 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003.
CAREER: Author. Worked as an aide at the Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency, c. 1996; temporary employee with Penguin's marketing department; assistant to a literary agent.
AWARDS, HONORS: The Dress Lodger was named a New York Public Library Book to Remember and New York Times Notable Book, both in 2000.
A Stolen Tongue, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1997.
The Dress Lodger, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 2000.
Sondok, Queen of Silla (juvenile fiction), Scholastic, (New York, NY), 2002.
The Mammoth Cheese, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 2003.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A novel about how we pass along fear—the use of scary stories as a type of currency and the news media's investment in keeping America afraid.
SIDELIGHTS: By the age of seven or eight, Sheri Holman was reading books on Greek myth, which she said during an interview on BarnesandNoble.com "cemented her love of narrative" and expanded her understanding of classical works by authors such as Shakespeare and Eugene O'Neill, in whose works allusion to myth plays an important role. Holman also noted other important influences on her work. One was her parents' divorce when she was thirteen, after which she was shipped off on weekends to her paternal aunts, where she was exposed to deep prejudices that conflicted with her budding concern about civil justice. Another was growing up in the South: "The past was so present in my life. I never made a distinction," she told Sybil Steinberg during a Publishers Weekly interview.
While Holman does not consider herself a historical novelist, she is fascinated with the connection between past and present. Indeed, her novels are dependent on and richly enhanced by historical research. The Silent Tongue centers around the pilgrimage of a fifteenth-century monk; The Dress Lodger is a thriller set in nineteenth-century London; The Mammoth Cheese, while set in the late-twentieth-century United States, draws heavily on a historical event involving President Thomas Jefferson.
Holman's writing career had a shaky beginning. Soon after moving to New York upon completing college to pursue a career as a Shakespearean actress, she realized this was not her calling. She worked briefly for a literary agent who paid her just five dollars for each manuscript she read, then "temped" for three years with Penguin in their marketing department. Deciding to write a novel, she left her job and went to Greece, returning four months later with one hundred pages of what Steinberg quoted her as calling "a really bad novel." Holman then worked as office assistant to literary agent Molly Friedrich for five years, remarking to Steinberg that this was "how I learned how to write."
After Friedrich and an editor rejected the manuscript she wrote in Greece, Holman arose at five every morning to work on A Stolen Tongue. Although Friedrich liked the work, thirteen publishers turned it down. "I cried and cried," Holman said in the interview. When the book was published, Holman received excellent reviews, particularly for her ability to construct a suspenseful medieval mystery around archaic religious practices and the realm of Christian saints; it also earned her more than one comparison to Umberto Eco.
To research her book, Holman actually journeyed to Mount Sinai and its antiquated shrine honoring St. Katherine of Alexandria, the world's oldest continuous monastery. Dating back to A.D. 330, the church was first built to give a home to the "burning bush" spoken of in the Old Testament, but in the sixth century, as Holman explained in an essay she wrote for Bookwire, the skeleton of a young woman was found on the mountain. The monks came to believe that the bones were those of St. Katherine, an early Christian martyr who died in 307 after a Roman emperor ordered her tortured for her faith. Supposedly, angels then brought her remains to the isolated Sinai monastery for safekeeping, Holman noted. Over the years, these relics became an object of veneration, and Christian pilgrims often undertook quite arduous journeys from Europe to see them firsthand. The central character of Holman's novel, Friar Felix Fabri, is one such devotee.
In A Stolen Tongue, Holman characterizes, not without sly humor, a friar who is perhaps a bit too enamored of his patron saint. Fabri, a German from the cathedral town of Ulm, embarks upon his pilgrimage in 1483. In his era, a trip to the Holy Land was a great and often dangerous trek through lands sometimes hostile to those of other faiths. Fabri, however, feels himself spiritually wed to St. Katherine and will endure a great deal in order to pray to her relics. As the book's plot gets underway, Fabri alights at various holy sites that supposedly contain bits and pieces of St. Katherine's body stolen over the years, but they turn up missing just before he arrives. "Holman pulls her readers along with odd riddles and careful suspense," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer.
An odd woman named Arsinoe joins the friar and the other faithful Germans on board their ship; called the "Tongue of St. Katherine," she is believed to be able to channel the spirit of this particular martyr. Arsinoe, however, is also a contradictory figure, and Felix is torn between his suspicions about her and the missing relics and his desire to believe she is indeed the conduit for his beloved saint. Holman creates a suspenseful scene in which Fabri stalls Arsinoe's pursuing brother—who claims that his sister is mentally unstable—so that she can get a jump on her desert trek to the Mt. Sinai shrine. But is she heading there to destroy what is left of St. Katherine? "The final stages of the journey bring privation, betrayal, and death. . . . The friar is left a wiser man, to contemplate his harrowing experience with what remains of his faith," reflected a Kirkus Reviews critic, who called the book "an unusual, probing debut." Other reviewers praised the sense of humor and irony with which Holman infuses the characters' dialogue and commentaries and lauded her for her depiction of medieval life and pointing up the ties that bound people to ancient times.
Holman gleaned much of her insight into the Holy Land through her own somewhat arduous journey there. She was given a silver ring, inscribed with Katherine's name, by the Archbishop of Sinai, with whom she met at the monastery when she was conducting her research. He also allowed her to view the relics—now just a small bony hand and the fragment of a skull. The experience moved her greatly. "When at last I ask him to explain the power of the contemplative life," Holman wrote in an essay for Bookwire,, "he says merely, 'If you express what's on the inside, you lose what's on the inside.' He sits quietly, and I too am still, wondering how to square that with the life I've chosen as a writer."
As a teenager, Holman developed a serious interest in historical fiction and biographies of women and, while at Penguin, she came across an obscure book, London Labour and the London Poor, in which she discovered a type of prostitute called a dress lodger and the woman who continuously followed her—the watcher.
Steinberg wrote: "The image fascinated her. 'A gaudily dressed woman being closely followed. Like your mortality following you through the streets.' Holman jotted it down in her journal; eight years later, it morphed into her second novel."
Holman places the protagonist of The Dress Lodger in an English city called Simderland, where cholera was first introduced into that country. "As was her habit," Steinberg observed, "Holman wanted to address a contemporary issue in a historical setting. During the cholera epidemic, people thought that the government had unleashed the disease to rid society of the poor. Holman saw a relationship to AIDS, which had similar rumors about its origin and motivation." Her book received wide acclaim and became a best-seller.
Holman began her third book, The Mammoth Cheese, as a "work about American excess and the media culture," commented Steinberg. Then, following the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States, Holman experienced "disillusionment and awakening," and the focus of her book changed. "It became about the difficulty of keeping any sort of idealism in the face of overwhelming corruption," she said during the interview.
The Mammoth Cheese is set in a small Virginia town where Margaret—a cheesemaker, divorced mother of teenage Polly, and a rigid idealist—is trying to keep her ramshackle dairy farm afloat. Several story lines run through the novel: A "white trash" woman in town delivers eleven babies, which brings notoriety to the community. However, when several babies die, fame turns to shame, and the Episcopal priest who convinced the mother not to abort any fetuses blames himself. To regain positive publicity for the town, he suggests Margaret make a half-ton block of cheese (historically, a 1,235-pound block of cheese was transported from Massachusetts to President Thomas Jefferson) to send to the newly elected present, who has promised to cancel all small farmers' debts. Margaret agrees, hoping the gesture will encourage the president to pass the bill. The priest's well-educated son, Margaret's devoted farm hand, is secretly in love with her; and Polly—rebelling against what she sees as her mother's betrayal of her own principles in the process of making the mammoth cheese—develops a dangerous crush on her seductive history teacher.
Sharon Barrett explained in her review in the Chicago Sun-Times that it is on the journey to Washington with the mammoth cheese "where all the plot lines come neatly and believably together. Believability is one of the things that makes this such a wonderful book. Sheri Holman performs a nearly faultless balancing act between reality and satire." Amanda Davis commented in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "As much as The Mammoth Cheese is a book about a mother and daughter's fractious relationship, it's a story about modern culture and the punch it packs in all corners of America." And Anita Shreve wrote in her review for Book, "Sheri Holman's new imaginative sprawl of a novel explores quintessential American themes—independence, patriotism and politics—to great tragicomic effect. . . . A gifted writer, [she] has written a deft novel about duty and rebellion and the ways we seek to mend the wounds of history."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 10, 2003, David Kirby, review of The Mammoth Cheese, p. Q4.
Book, July-August, 2003, Anita Shreve, review of The Mammoth Cheese, p. 75.
Booklist, August, 2003, Brad Hooper, review of The Mammoth Cheese, p. 1953.
Chicago Sun-Times, August 3, 2003, Sharon Barrett, "Cheesy This Isn't," p. 12.
Entertainment Weekly, January 24, 1997, p. 53.
Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 1996, pp. 1553-1554; June 15, 2003, review of The Mammoth Cheese.
Library Journal, December, 1996, p. 150.
Los Angeles Times, March 23, 1997.
New York Times, August 6, 2003, Richard Eder, review of The Mammoth Cheese, p. E10.
New York Times Book Review, August 17, 2003, Jennifer Reese, review of The Mammoth Cheese, p. 16.
People Weekly, August 25, 2003, Bella Stander, review of The Mammoth Cheese, p. 43.
Publishers Weekly, November 4, 1996, p. 62; June 9, 2003, Jeff Saleski, review of The Mammoth Cheese, p. 33; July 28, 2003, Sybil Steinberg, "Guarding Perfection, Flaws and All," p. 72
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Amanda Davis, August 24, 2003, review of The Mammoth Cheese, p. F10.
BarnesandNoble.com,http://www.barnesandnoble.com/ (summer 2003), "Interview with Sheri Holman."
Bookwire,http://www.bookwire.com/ (March 3, 1998).
Creative Loafing,http://www.cln.com/ (March 3, 1998).*