Q&A: Local award-winning author Sharon Bippus

Local author Sharon Bippus recently won the Michigan Writers Cooperative Press annual chapbook contest for her fictional story collection titled This Blue Earth.

Bippus’ book contains five short stories each with settings and characters unique, yet also comfortingly familiar. This Blue Earth is a compilation of tales intricately woven together while encompassing the mystery of a family legend, the charm of a small town, the adventure of a road trip, and the mystery of strangers we meet along the way.

For more on This Blue Earth, Watershed Voice interviewed Bippus:

Beca Welty (BW): What inspired you to write This Blue Earth?

Sharon Bippus (SB): To begin with, I decided to enter the Michigan Writers annual chapbook contest. The contest is designed to give a boost to serious writers that have not yet published a book. Winners get recognition for winning a prestigious contest along with publication of their winning submission. Submissions could be up to 10,000 words and include stories that had already been published individually.

I have around 20 published stories plus a few that I’m actively submitting. So the next step was to choose stories that seemed to fit together as a whole. The stories in This Blue Earth are all about women navigating through life, and demonstrates my kind of off-center sensibilities.

BW: Which character in your stories do you find yourself relating to the most, and why?

SB: My favorite story is the first in the selection, “Blue Earth.” Notice that I named a character Sharona. I relate to her because of her spirit of adventure. I also connect to the girl with the backpack, who is a little different, but okay being that way. The story, “Amber Alert” is mostly my own experiences. I did have a friend that was stabbed in college and I do still get quiet whenever I pass the hospital that she was in. And my dog did catch a possum late one night.

BW: There are little gems tucked away for local readers in two of your stories in This Blue Earth which seemingly reference Three Rivers. What is it about Three Rivers that inspired you to choose it as the setting for those stories?

SB: I love small town life. I moved to Three Rivers after living in Chicago for over 10 years. The two longer stories have a setting very much like Three Rivers. Part of one story is set at the KFC, and the other story is kind of about the Water Festival, with a parade and all. I thought it was fun to add familiar names to the stories, but also small town life offers a familiarity with people and places that doesn’t come as easily as in big cities. I base almost all my stories in small Midwestern towns. It’s like that John Mellencamp song, “I was born in a small town…”

BW: How have your real-life experiences and encounters with people impacted the way you told the stories in This Blue Earth?

SB: Well, first off I was a special education teacher for a pretty long time. In that field you get to know all kinds of people, all kinds of families, and there is very little judgment, just acceptance. I’m also a very inquisitive person. I can talk to anyone about anything. During census I knocked on a lot of doors doing surveys. I really enjoy meeting and talking with people.

And I’m also a formally trained writer. I attend writing conferences all over the country and now since Covid, I take a lot of online classes via zoom. So, I’m trained in the best way to spin a story. Each of those stories in the book might have 10 drafts before being finished. The story has to have a nice rhythm, draw the reader in, maybe have subtext, like in “Amber Alert,” where there is a strong intentional connection to animal world. I want each story to resonate with the reader.

BW: What do you hope readers will relate to and connect with as they read This Blue Earth?

SB: Joy and sorrow. Life is full of challenges, but also beautiful harmonies. I’d like my reader to consider an experience from a new angle, to appreciate the small things, but also consider the common threads in all of us, the strength to move on from disappointment, to acknowledge a sadness that lingers, the beauty in the natural world, and maybe just the strength of the human spirit. My characters are all survivors.

BW: What can readers look forward to seeing from you next, project-wise?

SB: I’m just finishing up my website, and it should be live by July 1. I’ll have a blog called, “All The Things.” I’m about halfway through writing a novel that is set in a small rural town, much like Three Rivers. The story is loosely based on an unsolved murder and that is about all I can say right now.

Other work by Bippus has been published in a variety of literary magazines and online journals including: The Dunes Review, Bear River Review, Jellyfish Review, Green House Literary, The Pinch Journal, The Lullwater Review, and The MacGuffin.

She holds a B.A. in English from Michigan State University and an M.Ed. in Special Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. She also attended the MFA program at Sewanee, the University of the South. She is currently working on a novel and a short story collection. She has been married to John Bippus for over 25 years.

Bippus will hold a book signing for This Blue Earth at Corey Lake Orchards on Saturday, July 15 from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. 

Beca Welty is a staff writer and columnist for Watershed Voice.