Bristol author debuts her first novel
BRISTOL — Sheila McGrory-Klyza is quick to admit that she loves France.
“I’m a big Francophile,” she said.
McGrory-Klyza studied in France as an undergraduate at Wake Forest University, and in the last decade moved her family to our country’s oldest ally for a total of one year.
Now, the Bristol food writer-turned-author is releasing her debut novel, which was inspired by McGrory-Klyza’s experiences raising her children in a foreign country.
“Miming in French” tells the story of Livvie Renner, an 11-year-old American who moves to France with her mother and struggles to learn the language. She soon befriends Malika, who is Muslim, and the pair become friends as they both assimilate into French culture.
McGrory-Klyza, 50, drew on her experiences living in France to write the story. Twice in the last 10 years, she moved to France for six months while her husband, Christopher, a professor at Middlebury College, was on sabbatical. The family settled in Aix-en-Provence, a city in the southern part of the country, near the Mediterranean Sea. They brought along their two daughters, Isabel and Faye, and enrolled them in French public school.
By any measure, their new school was a world away from the ethnic and religious homogeneity of Vermont.
“Our daughters went to Bristol Elementary School, where there isn’t much ethnic diversity, and they were put into this environment that was much more diverse,” she recalled.
At first, the sisters struggled because they spoke little French.
“It was difficult in the beginning, and they were kind of mute for the first six weeks or so,” McGrory-Klyza said. “It was this process of watching them navigate in this world as outsiders that got me interested in the cultural challenges in France.”
In particular, McGrory-Klyza was intrigued by the ethnic and religious relations within France. Among Western European nations, France has the most Muslims. Islam is the second-most practiced religion in the country, after Roman Catholicism.
“One of the main issues is the integration of Muslims,” McGrory-Klyza said. “The French have a very different perspective from the U.S. As a republic, it’s not a melting pot.”
McGrory-Klyza said that in France, immigrants are encouraged to integrate into the culture. Students are not permitted to wear hijabs, or headscarves, in public schools, and veils that cover the face are banned in public.
In this way, the two protagonists in “Miming in French” are outsiders trying to fit in: Malika is adapting to a secular culture and Livvie is learning a new language.
“I just began thinking about how Muslims are outsiders in that culture, and our daughters are outsiders, and the story became a friendship between two girls who are both outsiders,” McGrory-Klyza said.
The Bristol author completed the novel several years ago, and hoped to see it published. She found an agent, who for two years shopped her manuscript around New York publishing houses. Unfortunately, they were unable to find a buyer, which McGrory-Klyza attributed to the publishing industry’s desire for bestsellers and a unique subject matter.
Undeterred, she decided to publish the novel herself, as an e-book.
“I decided I would try it on my own,” she said. “I knew other writers who had success self-publishing.”
She said she chose e-books as a method of distribution because it is inexpensive, and also allows her to share her work with readers around the globe.
“I hope to reach a much bigger audience, and e-books are wildly popular outside of the U.S.,” McGrory-Klyza said. “It’s a way non-Americans can access English literature easily.”
Readers can purchase “Miming in French” on Amazon for $4. McGrory-Klyza said she’s happy to earn money from her writing, but she doesn’t aspire to make a living from it.
“I’m really gratified when kids read it and they love it,” she said. “That’s worth so much more than being a bestseller, to have a child tell you she loves your book, or that she learned something from it.”
Though this is McGrory-Klyza’s first novel, she has spent her career as a writer and teacher. In addition to creating a food blog, The Vermont Epicure, she has an interest in poetry.
“When I was writing poetry, I often had other writers tell me my poetry was very narrative,” she said. “A writer at Bread Loaf asked if I would be interested in writing fiction.”
When she switched gears from poetry to prose, McGrory-Klyza said she chose to write for a younger audience because she is fascinated by the mindset of children.
“I’m drawn to that particular age, prior to the teen years when hormones and all of that come into play,” the author explained. “I feel that girls that age are very empowered and curious. There’s a sense of purity of self that gets clouded when adolescence begins.”
She said she hopes to impart on young readers of “Miming in France” the value of friendship and not shunning people from different cultures or religions just because they seem foreign.
“There are so many messages in the media that they’re surrounded by, and I think that’s gotten worse since I wrote this book,” McGrory-Klyza said. “I hope that kids can read this book and have an open mind to the people who are different from themselves.”
Not content to just celebrate the release of her first effort, McGrory-Klyza is working on a second novel. It’s also aimed at a young audience, and she hopes to finish it early next year.
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