By Philip Walzer

For Sheri Reynolds, "a novel emerges piece by piece. It's almost like a treasure hunt. I have to figure out: Where does it lead and where does it come from?"

The first piece that inspired Reynolds' new novel, "The Tender Grave," came from her life.

About a decade ago, "someone kicked in my grandmother's door" while she was at the chiropractor, said Reynolds, who is chair of the English department in Old Dominion University's College of Arts and Letters. "I was so angry about it. What would make somebody kick in an old, old lady's door and steal her pills?"

In her imagination, the intruder took form as a 17-year-old girl. Reynolds next had to figure out: "How could somebody do such an unsympathetic thing and still be sympathetic?"

"The Tender Grave" goes far beyond the break-in to examine a hate crime, the poisons released in a dysfunctional family and the first meeting of stepsisters from different worlds.

"The novel's as vibrantly alive as everything Sheri writes, and I do mean everything," said John McManus, professor and director of the M.F.A. creative writing program. "Even a departmental assessment report - not a genre of writing I turn to for pleasure reading - has heart and soul when Sheri's the one writing it."

It's Reynolds' seventh novel, and her first in nine years.

"I kind of thought I was done," Reynolds, 53, said during a reading in March sponsored by the Muse Writers Center in Norfolk.

Her agent had unsuccessfully shopped the book. She had taken the role of chair of the English department, an all-consuming job.

Plus, the publishing world was changing. "Even when my books were published, they would just disappear," said Reynolds, who is also the Ruth and Perry Morgan Chair of Southern Literature.

But when Bywater Books, a feminist and lesbian press based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, contacted Reynolds, asking if she had anything near completion, she got interested.

She revised "The Tender Grave" last summer. "I loved working on this book so much," she said. "I reconnected with something in me that I had let go a little bit."

Reynolds also relishes the connection with a small publisher. She helped choose the cover art. She can reach the editor to resolve distribution problems. "It has felt very sweet to be able to work with people in such an intimate way."

Reynolds' writing career got a big boost in 1997, when her second novel, "The Rapture of Canaan," was chosen for Oprah's Book Club. "It really brought my work into a national and international light," she said. The book subsequently appeared in 16 countries.

Another of her works, "Firefly Cloak," is being adapted for a movie.

"The Tender Grave" is her third novel set in Cape Charles, where Reynolds has lived since 2000. But the hate crime occurs in North Carolina.

"For me, as a lesbian woman, a person who commits a hate crime seems the most unsympathetic of people," she said. "But I wasn't interested in representing the brutality of the crime. I'm interested in redemption - the possibility for healing on the other side of destruction."

She also hopes the book, which is in its third printing, encourages readers to see beyond their beliefs. "We love to take sides. We want to put on a team's jersey. It can be baseball or politics. We have got to find ways to have compassion and love for the other."

Reynolds joined Old Dominion in 1997 and became chair of the English department in 2016. "I felt like it was my turn," she said. "I was supported by the people who came before me, and I wanted to give back."

The English department is massive, with more than 50 full-time faculty members and another 50 part-time faculty. Every undergraduate takes at least three general-education courses in English, Reynolds said.

"I knew the job would be demanding, but I didn't know how and in what ways," she said. She hasn't been able to teach one of her favorite classes, Southern Literature, since she became chair. It's also forced her to limit her writing to the summers.

What she's loved most has been "working with individuals trying to help them do what they need to do to succeed."

It's also put her literary talents to work. "Being a chair has required many of the same skills as writing a novel, in terms of being willing to do long-term projects and investing in a small piece and following the leads," Reynolds said.

Reynolds will leave the position in the summer of 2022 after she finishes her second three-year term. "One of the things this job has made me realize is how important our general-ed courses are. When I am no longer chair, I want to work with first-year students. I want to help them tell their stories."

This summer, she'll return to her next novel, which chronicles the last day of an elderly woman's life.

One thing Reynolds can guarantee about her future books: "If anyone is worried, I am not interested in modeling my characters on anyone I worked with."

Sheri Reynolds' novel "The Tender Grave" is available at Old Dominion University's University Village Bookstore at 4417 Monarch Way.

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