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Avenue Author Uses Fairy Tales to Break Through Clichés
Mary Sharratt's debut novel, Summit Avenue, is about a woman who finds love in the Twin Cities just before World War I. But Sharratt, who grew up in Bloomington, wrote the story in Germany.
"I was writing in a basement study in Munich, but I was remembering the Victorian house I lived in at University and Western in 1985," Sharratt said in a telephone interview. "My run-down neighborhood was within walking distance of Summit Avenue, and those mansions stuck in my mind."
In Summit Avenue, a young German woman named Kathrin immigrates to Minnesota, getting a miserable job sewing sacks at a Minneapolis flour mill. Then she meets Violet, the beautiful and sophisticated widow of a college professor, and moves into Violet's Summit Avenue mansion so she can translate a book about fairy tales that the older woman is writing.
Kathrin, who was raised on fairy tales, sees Violet as a magical sorceress and seems to fall under her spell. But when Kathrin realizes she and Violet are physically attracted to one another, she flees the mansion and marries.
Her life after that is hard, but she lives by telling the old fairy tales to her daughter. In the end, she realizes that gentle Violet will be part of her life forever.
Poet Many Sivers says that this novel "while apparently telling of a lesbian relationship, is talking even more about the flight back into the mythic depths of womanhood--the pre-Christian, woman-centered community.
Sharratt says that's exactly the terrain she wanted to explore. That's why the book is divided into three sections that reflect mythic stages of women's-maiden, woman, and crone.
She points out that neither Violet nor Kathrin knew what to call their relationship, since the word "lesbian" wasn't used in their era.
"That's my point in writing the book," Sharratt says.
"Kathrin had no frame of reference for her feelings about Violet. She could only fall back on fairy tales, seeing the older woman as an enchantress who casts a spell. What I was interested in was putting their relationship in a historical context, breaking through contemporary cliches of sexual definitions."
Sharratt has lived in Europe for 12 years, but she has family in Minnesota. Her mother, Adelene, is a retired Control Data employee who lives in Bloomington, and her dad, Elwood, worked for Minnegasco and is in a nursing home.
Writing has been an important part of Sharratt's life since her junior year at Lincoln High School in Bloomington, where she learned the joys of publishing when poet Ruth Roston helped her and another girl put together a poetry chapbook.
She worked her way through the University of Minnesota, where she studied German and English, saving enough money to spend her junior year in Freiburg, Germany. When she graduated in 1988, she got a Fulbright Fellowship to teach in Innsbruck, Austria, then moved to Munich to teach creative writing and coordinate the Munich Writers Workshop. She and her partner live in Grafing, a town of 10,000 in the beautiful part of southern Germany near the Alps.
Sharratt stopped writing during her college years, but she began again when she got her first teaching job in Germany and didn't like it very much.
"I started writing in the evenings to get more creativity into my life," she recalls. "I had no how-to book, no writers' group. I was on my own, starting from scratch."
The story of Violet and Kathrin "took root in my life and kept retelling itself," she says. "My experience as a foreigner in Germany was mirrored in the story of a German immigrant in Minneapolis. I put into the book all my estrangement. From this distance, Minnesota seemed like a longed-for place that I wanted to re-create."
The novel's fairy-tale motif was born when Sharratt was teaching English to Japanese children and fairy tales were the only written materials she could find.
"I fell in love with fairy tales," she says. "They are intended to give depth to Kathrin's story because I didn't want it to be just a love story or immigrant story or coming-of-age. I wanted to go deeper, like an archetypal fable."
In her reading of fairy tales, Sharratt found that tales from many European countries feature the same characters.
"Originally, fairy tales were adult entertainment, told to pass long winter's evenings. Some were quite bawdy and sometimes obscene," she explains. "It wasn't until the 18th century that the educated classes rejected fairy tales because of supernatural and irrational aspects and decided they were old wives' tales fit only for entertaining small children."
In Summit Avenue, Sharratt gives fairy tales back to adult women.
St. Paul Pioneer Press -- June 6, 2000