Sandi Shelton, a.k.a. Maddie Dawson, behind the Henry Whitfield State Museum in Guilford, CT

Happily Ever Laughter

Whether she’s telling a true story about attempting to install an air conditioner or a fictional story about an elderly Brooklyn matchmaker, Sandi Shelton knows how to make people laugh. She’s had lots of practice, beginning with a humor column she wrote for the New Haven Register in the 1980s and ’90s. Her first book was conceived when a publisher asked his wife what she was reading in bed that was making her laugh so hard. It was another of Shelton’s columns, this one for Working Mother magazine. He called the next day to sign her on for You Might as Well Laugh, a collection of her columns that was published in 1997. More recently, Shelton has turned to writing what the publishing world calls “upmarket women’s fiction”—novels about everyday women navigating not-so-everyday experiences.

Those experiences aren’t always so funny—the loss of a mother, marital infidelity, an inheritance that looks like a big liability. But Shelton—who has written her last four novels as Maddie Dawson and now lives in Guilford—deploys wry, easy humor on just about every subject. Early in The Stuff That Never Happened (2010), for example, her protagonist, Annabelle, sleeps—or, rather, stays awake—beside her pregnant daughter, who is on bed rest and whose husband is away. “Even in sleep, she looks worn out. How can you be both tired and asleep? At one point I get so neurotic that I reach over and take her pulse while she sleeps, just for information’s sake.”

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Shelton-as-Dawson’s novels are populated with valuable insights delivered in deceptively breezy, funny prose. Readers may realize only later how weighty they are. Blix Holliday, the 85-year-old heroine of Shelton’s brand new novel, Matchmaking for Beginners (2018), tells her future ex-great-niece-in-law about her third husband, a lobsterman: “‘the thing about him is that he could talk to me for four days straight without stopping about lobsters and their shells and the different tides and the sky, and nothing he ever said would bore me because the language that Houndy is really speaking in is all about love and life and death and appreciation and gratitude and funny moments.’”

Shelton’s first novel was the proverbial book in the drawer. She spent 17 years dipping in and out of it as she divorced, raised three children and remarried, all the while working as a reporter and editor and freelancing for women’s magazines like Redbook and Ladies’ Home Journal. Her humor book You Might as Well Laugh led to Sleeping Through the Night…and Other Lies (1998) and Preschool Confidential (2001). But always in the back of her mind was her original career plan: to become a novelist, even one who was never published. “I thought it was going to be just my life’s work, that I would always be back in the bedroom going type-type-type-type-type,” Shelton says.

What she was typing was a fictionalized version of her own upbringing, a mother-daughter novel full of “hijinks” that was finally published in 2005 as What Comes After Crazy. As with so many of her novels, the tone is light, but the subject is downright serious: growing up with a bipolar mother. “I think that I needed to write that story to kind of get to the other side,” Shelton says today. “I always saw it as a coming-of-age novel after you’ve come of age.”

Since her second novel, A Piece of Normal (2006), she says she’s stopped relying on her family for inspiration. But whether she’s writing fictionalized experience or sheer fiction, Shelton’s understanding of human nature often strikes a chord with readers. She was amazed by how many older women came to her at book club meetings where The Stuff That Never Happened was being discussed and quietly confessed to their own long-ago affairs and the lasting effects on their marriages.

Blix Holliday’s mantra in Matchmaking is, “Whatever happens, love that.” It seems to be just the right advice at the right time for many of her readers, Shelton says. “I’m going to try that, too,” she adds with a laugh. “You need to be able to live in the world that we live in, you know? It’s kind of a tough thing sometimes.”

After 30 years at the Register, Shelton’s work world is now at home, where she writes full-time. As an extrovert, she finds such a solitary job challenging. Sometimes she writes in coffee shops, just to have people around. And she teaches workshops for non-writers, helping them tell their own stories. There’s power in both the telling and the listening, she believes. She talks about her seven-year-old granddaughter, who recently read a book about a character whose actions she disagreed with, but who said to Shelton, “I could see how he felt.”

“I just wanted to stop and hug her and say, ‘That’s exactly why we read books: I don’t agree, but I want to understand…’” Learning to understand may also be why Shelton writes. Writers tend to travel the same ground again and again, she admits. “Mine always to be finding your place in your family, and it’s often not your real family, but the family you’ve brought together… he people that are closest to me are often people that I’ve brought to me or who have just shown up when I’ve needed them,” she notes. “And I guess I believe a little bit in the magic of that.”

That “magic” has crept into Matchmaking, where Shelton may have put just a little bit of herself into Blix Holliday, who strides into the side room of the church where her future ex-great-niece-in-law appears to have been left at the altar. Blix’s “eyes are extra beady and sharp today—X-ray eyes, … the better to see deep into your soul.”

Sandi Shelton, a.k.a. Maddie Dawson
Where to Buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | RJ Julia

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims. Image depicts Sandi Shelton behind the Henry Whitfield State Museum in Guilford, Connecticut.

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