Crime & Courage: An Interview with Sheryll O’Brien

By Alyse Mgrdichian

Sheryll OBriend interview

In memory of Sheryll O’Brien, who passed away on Sunday, September 25, 2022, we are re-running an interview with her from our June issue.

Here at Shelf Media Group we have many readers, advertisers, and contributors whom we love. However, Sheryll O’Brien is one of our oldest partners, and holds a very special place in our heart. As an experienced author and long-time Shelf Unbound advertiser, Sheryll is currently in hospice. While a private person, we wanted to share Sheryll’s authorial journey while we still have her with us — and she was gracious enough to answer some of our questions. Below you can find our conversation. I hope that, by the end of the interview, you’ll find yourself as fond of & charmed by Sheryll as I was. 

Could you tell me a bit about your journey as a storyteller?

SO: The starts and stops of my storytelling journey have always begun with a health crisis. I wrote my first book, Suzanne, during the weeks before I had surgery to remove a tumor that had nestled against my brainstem. That book was strictly for me — I needed to fulfill a lifelong dream of writing a book, or more comfortably stated, I needed to fulfill a lifelong dream of telling a story.

I do not consider myself a writer, though I am okay with the word ‘author.’ It’s a matter of semantics, I know, but I am most comfortable with the term ‘storyteller’ because that’s where my talent shines. If a reader picks up an SOB book (yes, those are my initials — how perfectly delightful), I am quite sure they will finish it and enjoy it. 

As for the mechanics of writing, I know how to string words into sentences and paragraphs into chapters, but I have always felt at a disadvantage because I missed out on the whole college experience. I never took a creative writing course or studied important things like POV, tense, or narrative beyond what I learned in high school. I never got to hone my writing skills under the helpful eye of a scholar who felt an obligation to leave their red mark on my work.

Whatever I learned about the important ‘writing stuff’ came from the how-to guide, Creative Writing for Dummies. I bought it, I read it, then I wrote, and wrote, and wrote on a clunky old word processor. The end result was seven crappy manuscripts — and — seven really good stories. I passed them around to family and friends who enjoyed my work enough to wait their turn for another ‘SOB’ to be written and handed off. As time went on, I thought, ‘Maybe one day I’ll write a real book, one that I’d be proud to publish.’

And then I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. I stopped writing so I could have surgery, radiation treatments, and drug therapies. I was deemed ‘in remission’ in the fall of 2017, and on February 1, 2018, I typed the first sentence of what would become my first independently published book, Bullet Bungalow. That book was intended to be a standalone novella — it ended up being the first book of Pulling Threads, a seventeen book series.

For how long have you been writing, and what has creativity and self-publishing looked like for you over the years?

SO: Writing in earnest actually began on a whim and on an iPad. I took up residence on a living room recliner, typed the first line of Bullet Bungalow, and didn’t stop until I typed the last line a few weeks later. I knew I had written a really good story, but I also knew I had written a terrible book. I changed POV and tense countless times, and my mechanics were dreadful.

Creativity has always been the easy part for me. I start a sentence, put a character in motion, and just follow along. The process is very much like watching a movie reel and typing what happens. I don’t outline beforehand, but I fill spiral-bound notebooks with bullet points of what happens in each chapter and add prompts for things that need to happen at some point during the story.

When I finished my first novella, I dragged my ‘how-to’ guide from my desk drawer, fixed what I could, then found an awesome editor who hooked me up with an awesome publisher. They excelled in areas where I needed help, and they let me know they really liked my work and were perfectly happy to let me be the storyteller in our little team. If not for the talented professionals in the world of Indie publishing, I would not have realized my dream — I would not have my name on the spine of a book, let alone on the spine of twenty-four books.

What, to you, is the power of storytelling?

SO: I want to start my answer by using something my editor wrote when I questioned whether I had pushed the envelope too far with a character.

“…whether heart-wrenching confessions, ethereal spiritual experiences, shameful painful secrets, or spicy sex scenes — any writer who has the courage to dig deep and write vulnerably and truthfully tells the very things that others are thinking and don’t have the courage to say. When we write bravely, we put words to thoughts others can’t find; we identify emotions and motives and wild sides others want to express, but do not. THIS is the best writing. So Sheryll O’Brien, you are ON POINT. Don’t hold back.” ~Andria Flores (Permission has been obtained through email for use of this quote).

Those words gave me the freedom to let my characters tell their stories the way they wanted to tell them. I referred back to Andria’s advice whenever I thought I might be holding back — when I might be self-editing. Without question, her words kept me from taming my writing power. I could have done that in certain scenes with certain characters, but I didn’t. I certainly could have done that when I introduced a dashing rascal by day / covert spy by night, Rocco Fiancetti. Thankfully, I didn’t.

In my opinion, Rocco is my most unique character in the Pulling Threads series. He speaks a kitschy mashup of sexy Italian playboy and polished British upper crust. As for his effect on women, let’s just say he could have any, but he wants only one. This character steals scenes with comedic-verbiage, then gets down to business, his business — saving himself and, when need be, the world. By pushing into my writing power, my readers and I were introduced to an incredibly funny and sexy character — a slapstick superhero. Go figure!

What made you choose to pursue storytelling? 

SO: The need to write chose me, though the seed of storytelling was planted when I was in elementary school. Mr. Dave Shea, my seventh-grade English teacher, decided I should write a book. Sort of a bold thing for one person to decide for another, but Mr. Shea was nothing if not bold. A larger than life, take no prisoners teacher at Columbus Park Elementary, Mr. Shea relied on a bellowing voice and punitive essays to rein in students who dared step out of line.

I received my first ‘Shea Essay’ after he caught me running the school corridors whilst chewing gum. I received my second ‘Shea Essay’ because I wrote the first one. The opening sentence of my punitive essay covered the basics:

“Don’t run or chew gum in school because doing so is against the rules.

Easy-peasy. The next 25 words focused on the dangers of running in close quarters. The next 25 words focused on the dangers of choking on the gum I was chewing. It was the last words that warranted additional punishment:

“Don’t run the halls or chew gum in school because Mr. Shea will bust you and make you write a stupid essay.

I wrote many, many, many essays that year. Mr. Shea, still my favorite teacher, graded my essays and edited them. When he handed back a writing assignment, he offered words of encouragement, then assigned another ‘Shea Essay’ — sometimes for a bogus infraction, and sometimes for legitimate cause. I think I knew it back then, and I certainly know it now; the extra work was his way of making sure that I wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

On the last day of 7th grade, Mr. Shea gave me my final assignment:

“You should write a book one day.

I began that assignment 35 years later.

Could you tell me a bit about your two series — Pulling Threads and Twisted Threads?

“Pulling Threads is about the characters, Twisted Threads is about the crimes.

Pulling Threads is a crime fiction series that begins in the fictional seaside village of Mayflower – Laurel Falls. It follows the lives of the Mahoney-Maxwell clan, and the cast of characters who either help light their way or darken their doorstep. This series is what I describe as cozy crime mysteries delivered with a blunt edge. There are murders and assaults, but the reader isn’t always in the room when the crimes occur.

On each cover, I tell the reader who the villain is for that story. Technically, each novella could be a standalone mystery because each has its own crime to solve. The fun part of the Pulling Threads series, though, begins with the very first novella and runs through to the end. Clues, or what I refer to as ‘threads’ are dropped into each novella. When pulled and followed, the threads eventually solve the ultimate mystery — the series’ mystery — which is revealed in the series’ finale, Alva.

Twisted Threads uses the same technique, but the stories under the banner headline are faster-paced and more definitely in-your-face crime dramas.

The first two-books, Her Scream and Stay Safe, take place in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York. Police departments from Syracuse to Geneva work together to apprehend REDO, a serial rapist who attacks his victims twice. The sequel, Stay Safe, has many of the same officers working overtime to stop a serial killer who is hell-bent on avenging the death of REDO. These novels will send most readers behind closed and locked doors. They are gritty, raw, and disturbing.

The Stony Beach series: Ashore, Adrift, and Awake, takes place on fictional Whisper Island in Casco Bay, Maine. The twisted threads in this trilogy bind a murdered teenage girl to the only witness to her murder — another teenage girl. Readers of these novels are taken to the crime scenes and to the ocean’s floor, where the central victim fears she’ll spend eternity.

Twisted Threads are longer novels, each about 400 pages. The stories are full of creepy villains, backstabbing co-conspirators, and plenty of plot twists and turns to keep the reader guessing.

I have a question about your time in hospice, if you do not mind. This is an emotionally and physically painful time, and you’re facing an inevitable, immovable thing. In what way have you chosen to face it? 

SO: On October 18, 2021, I had my first physical exam in two years. Like millions of Americans, I chose not to make a trip to my physician’s office in 2020 because the risk of getting Covid was just too high. As it turned out, staying away was the deadlier choice. A review of my pre-physical lab work revealed off-the-charts alkaline phosphatase levels. As a breast cancer survivor, those levels suggested I had metastatic breast cancer in my liver or my bones. In early November, I was told I have systemic bone cancer from my skull to my knees.

Prior to my appointment in October, I’d been living the best life. I was writing upwards of 15 hours a day, and working with a talented group of women who helped publish and promote my books. Despite long hours at my desk or kicking back on a recliner working on my laptop, I experienced nothing more than an occasional ache in my lower back and in my right thigh, and a slight twinge of pain here and there. There was absolutely nothing to suggest I had Stage 4 terminal cancer.

When I learned there wasn’t a worthwhile skirmish let alone a winnable fight for me, I decided I’d enjoy the holiday season: Christmas, my 64th birthday on December 28th, and New Year’s celebrations, then I would begin at-home hospice care.

While I waited for those milestone days to come and go, I shared the news of my impending death with my family. I spent long, tearful hours with my daughters and husband, and I prepared myself for the day when I would have to tell my seven-year-old granddaughter, Hadley, that she would be losing her MammyGrams.

My limited life-expectancy changed my writing focus. I put my last two novels into the hands of my publishing team, and pushed into two very important projects: Writing a book of grandmotherly advice for Hadley, and writing a blog about my end-of-life-journey.

The publication of Be was intended as a guidebook, something to help Hadley navigate through life without me. The simple messages behind topics like Be Kind, Be Thoughtful, Be Strong, or Be Faithful were important lessons for me to leave behind. They are even more significant now because we’ve had the opportunity to read the book together and share examples of how to Be Open and Be Resilient. My girl will be able to hold this keepsake in her hands and keep the memories of our sharing it in her heart.

As for the blog, it was intended to be a way for me to continue writing — a way for me to deal with my emotions about my end-of-life-journey, the one that would keep me confined to a recliner 24/7. Given the advanced stage of cancer, and the fragile state of my skeleton, the greatest and most imminent death risk for me is bone breakage, or the collapse of my spine. Either of those would be a catastrophic event and would result in a quick passing. Barring that, I was told I might have six months before cancer claimed me. It was ‘suggested’ that I get off my feet and stay off of them. Taking to my recliner was an easy decision — filling the long, lonely hours hasn’t always been easy.

I promised myself when I started the blog that I would be completely honest about everything. That I would offer a view into the life of a dying woman, but more importantly that I would give my readers a look at the ‘secretive’ world of hospice. While waiting for the first meeting with my social worker and hospice nurse, I made assumptions about what the program was — it’s a place where people go to die. Right? Well, yes, but mostly no, no, no.

Given the dreadful and urgent state of my health, I came face-to-face with Really Big Decisions that needed to be made. I let my readers accompany me through my contemplation of, and the signing of, the most important documents of my life: ‘Do Not Resuscitate’; ‘Do Not Intubate’; and ‘Do Not Transport To A Hospital’. I let people I knew, and some who I didn’t know, press in when I presented scenarios that tested the power of the forms I’d just signed.

I remember asking my nurse if she would perform CPR if I had a heart attack right then, and whether she’d get an ambulance team on scene if I broke my femur. Without pause and with utmost compassion she let me know there’d be no chest compressions or assisted breathing done on my behalf, and unless the femur break was a compound fracture resulting in blood loss, there may not be a trip to the ER. But, she assured me she’d do whatever needed to be done to keep me comfortable during those two hypothetical death scenes.

Those discussions were weighty and eye-opening. I think there is a universal expectation that no matter who is with you when you clutch your chest with the pain of a heart attack, some life-saving measures will begin, especially if one of the individuals on scene is a nurse. That is not the case if the person on scene is a hospice nurse, the rarest of healthcare professionals — the one who holds your hand along each well-placed (and last-placed) step on your final journey — the one who will do nothing to alter your final footfalls.

If you are surprised by my confusion over something named ‘Do Not Resuscitate’, you are not alone. I knew I’d just signed the DNR, and I knew what it meant, but I’d assigned a complexity to it — a hopeful assumption that there’d be a pick-and-choose crisis where intervention is on the menu. There is no complexity, no gray-area, no reason to expect life-saving measures. It might sound harsh, but death is harsh, and death is what happens when there’s a DNR. Right? Right.

What I have come to learn about hospice is an opinion: Hospice is not about preparing someone to die — it is about helping someone live the best life possible for as long as possible. Hospice nurses are a rare breed. I believe they answer a higher-call to do this type of work. They are nurses, healthcare givers, professionals normally charged with saving lives, and yet hospice nurses are not there to save your life, they are there to monitor your journey and keep you comfortable while you are on it.

Pain management is the central focus of a hospice team, which is a team of two: The patient and her nurse. The process of dying is painful. It is really hard work, and it is done at an accelerated pace. To ensure pain is effectively managed, direct questions are asked, direct answers are given, and a look toward the future is taken at each hospice visit.

During my time in this program, I’ve come to accept many things. The most important thing is this: My death journey is very similar to my life’s journey. Both have had painful parts and times of really hard work. Both have had all the other stuff, too — the good and joyful and rewarding stuff.

These past months haven’t been easy, and they most definitely have been painful, but this time is a gift. I hope I’m paying it forward by offering a peek into the world of hospice with weekly blog posts, and with the publication of a very special book, Be, Still. The writing of this book was a labor of love for hospice patients and the people who love them. Be, Still is my gift to any who read it and find comfort in it — more to the point, it is the greatest gift I’ve given to myself.

I am most grateful for the blessing of time. During this slice, I have been reminded to Be Kind, Be Thoughtful, Be Strong and or Be Faithful as I prepare to leave this life. I am most humbled by the lessons I’ve learned, the friendships I’ve made and renewed, and the love I’ve received. Those are the reasons why I went all-in and wrote one final story — my story.”

What has it been like for you to blog about this deeply personal experience?

SO: It has been tough at times. Expressing feelings about what is happening to me physically and emotionally has definitely taken its toll. But, overall, this time has been the most rewarding of my life.

I’ve had time to do things, say things, and write things before I leave this world. Each one has touched the deepest, rawest places in my heart. It was bittersweet having a final date night with my husband of 35 years and sharing our tape-recorded words on the blog. It was heartbreaking having to tell the love of my life that her MammyGrams is dying, and then share our recorded words on the blog. 

It has been difficult working through the fear of a sudden death and the fear of a lingering one, all while sharing my thoughts and feelings with the outside world. But, it has been gratifying to be lifted from pain and uncertainty by people who are following along, and who are taking time to encourage and support me on Facebook and in emails through my website.

I have faced my diagnosis and impending death the only way I know how — with acceptance. I admit there have been times, rare and fleeting, when I’ve been pissed and resentful, and have asked, ‘Why me? Why now?’

In the end, the overriding truth for me is this: I see no reason to go kicking and screaming from this life. I want to remember every wonderful thing from days gone by, and embrace every wonderful thing in the days still ahead. I want to count my blessings because there have been so many, and I want to enjoy my remaining blessings under the wonderful care of hospice.

Mostly I want people to consider this truth — my truth — being told you are going to die is dreadful, but if you are told you still have time to live, and you find something worthwhile to do during that time, then you’ve been given the greatest gift of all. Right? Right.

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Article originally Published in the June/July 2022 Issue: Summer Issue.

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