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  • Writer's pictureRachel E. Pollock

Backstory: Shake Sugaree

I had this idea that it might be fun to do some meta-writing in this section of the website, and tell some stories about stories--inspiration, background, the origins of various work. I have always loved hearing those kinds of things, Faulkner writing As I Lay Dying in six weeks flat, or J. K. Rowling creating Harry Potter in an Edinburgh coffeeshop, little mundane facts that are just cool to know.

So, my first post of this sort concerns the short story "Shake Sugaree," published by the literary journal Mason's Road in 2011, in which a desperate gunman attempts to rob a Knoxvllle fabric store at Christmas, but thanks to a cantankerous clerk named Starlene, things don't go as planned.

I wrote this story in response to a writing prompt, to take inspiration from a song that came up in a random shuffle of your music and a job you once had.

The song turned out to be Elizabeth Cotten's "Shake Sugaree," which gave me the title of the story, the name of one of the characters, and the underlying theme of financial desperation that would drive someone to pawn beloved possessions.

The job i decided to work from was my first actual paid job, that of a sales clerk at a fabric store. I got the job as part-time income while in college at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in the early 1990s. I had no work history or retail experience, but I did know my fabrics and a bit about sewing. I'd made a few of my own clothes from commercial patterns, and I was studying costume design in school.

I felt a bit out of place though, since I was the youngest person on staff and everyone else at the store had worked there full-time for five, ten, fifteen years. We did have the kind of call-codes described in the story for various events, and to my recollection, a two-twelve was in fact the code we were supposed to call if the store ever got robbed. In the time that i worked there, thankfully, it never did.

The character of Starlene is based in part on one of my coworkers at that job, Rosie, who made beautiful quilts and had a tattoo of a rose on her forearm. I loved working with Rosie--she had a dry sense of humor and a very matter-of-fact approach to dealing with frustrating issues like a mean customer or a cash-register malfunction.

So when i set to thinking about writing "Shake Sugaree," I thought, Wonder what would have happened if somebody called a two-twelve while Rosie was on shift? And the story just grew from there.

Don't know where Rosie is now or what she's doing, but i hope she's well, and i'm sure she's made about a hundred more beautiful quilts in the interim.

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