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Southern upbringing teaches author storytelling

Greenville native Chris Shirley has learned that as a writer, sometimes the story finds you.

That was certainly the case for Shirley, the author of Playing by the Book.

“My best ideas hit me when I least expect it,” Shirley said. “They can come from a dinner conversation, a news article, or from just being keenly aware of what’s going on around me. For example, the inspiration for my debut novel, Playing by the Book, came while sitting in a church pew. I heard this pastor — whom I respect very much — say some very hurtful things against homosexuals from the pulpit. I wondered if there was any possible scenario that could bring this preacher around on the topic, then thought that if he had a son that turned out to be gay, perhaps the preacher might come around a bit. Or not. It was hard to say, but as I turned this scenario over in my mind, I realized that the more interesting story would be told from the point of view of this fictitious gay son and whether he could survive growing up in such a household. Boom! Just like that, I had the idea for Playing by the Book.”

Shirley will be signing copies of the book at High Horse Gallery Thursday.

“I’ts always exciting to realize what an abundance of talent Greenville people have,” said High Horse Gallery owner Mary McKinley. “After reading Chris’ first novel I am sure that it won’t be his last. The book held my attention from beginning to end. I am pleased that Chris could find the time to come to Greenville for a book signing at the gallery. One of my goals is to honor local people and their work.”

Shirley, a 1982 graduate of Greenville High School, said his writing style was greatly influenced by growing up in the South.

“Storytelling is a huge part of being a Southerner, so I feel pretty blessed to have grown up in a family of exceptional storytellers like my Mom and my aunt, Leah Hudson,” Shirley said. “Also, the two pastors I grew up hearing at Southside Baptist Church — Bro. Jerry Haley and later Bro. Herbert Brown — are both exceptional storytellers. New Yorkers are too busy to give you a proper handshake much less tell you a proper story.”

Shirley has also found inspiration in the writing of others, including Monroe County’s Harper Lee.

“I’ve mostly been inspired by the great American novelists I was forced to read at gunpoint by Barbara Kelly and Rose Ellis at Greenville High School like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Harper Lee,” he said.

Shirley got his start as screenwriter. In fact, Playing by the Book started a screenplay.

Playing by the Book actually started out as a screenplay, but after a couple of Hollywood types noted what a great book my ‘movie’ could be, I spent eight years trying to make it just that,” Shirley said. “I always chuckle when readers describe the book as ‘cinematic’ — there’s no hiding the fact that it started out as a screenplay.”

Shirley, who now resides in New York City, said he is looking forward to visiting his hometown.

“I’m very excited about reconnecting with old friends and former classmates, but I’m most excited to bring my entire self home for the first time in my life,” he said. “You see, Playing by the Book is about a gay teen who is struggling to reconcile his faith and his sexuality, which is something that I wrestled with for decades and something that I didn’t feel I could ever bring home to Greenville. So, I’ve always left a big part of myself back in New York when I came home. Sharing the story of Jake Powell at High Horse Gallery is more than just a book signing for me—it’s a very public coming out. I’m so grateful to Mary McKinley and everyone at High Horse Gallery for the opportunity to bring my entire self home for the first time in my life.”

The book signing is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.