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Teacher, Author, Survivor

Suzanne Strempek Shea didn’t know her office number, but she had a good idea where it was. She moved down the narrow hallways, glancing at the identical doors for her name. She didn’t have a key yet, but after all, it was only her second week.

Traveling from western Massachusetts, Shea is a visiting professor. In the middle of winter, she received an e-mail from Hunt Hawkins, the English department chair, inviting her to come teach at USF. She is teaching Fiction III and Fiction Workshop for graduates.

“So far, so good,” said Shea. “It’s just a big place and my college experience was (at an) art school and (there were) about 100 people.”

Today she will be reading from her two most recent books, Shelf Life:

Romance, Mystery, Drama and Other Page-Turning Adventures from a Year in a Bookstore and Becoming Finola.

Shelf Life is about her experiences working at an independent bookstore in Massachusetts called Edward’s Books. She worked there for six years.

“It’s something I really enjoy doing and it’s a different side of being an author,” said Shea. “You get to see what books mean to people and what they are looking for.”

Shea has just finished her eighth book, Sundays in America, which will be out in March 2008. She grew up as a Catholic and had never been to Protestant church, so she decided to spend a year going to different churches nationwide.

Fifty of the 52 Sundays that year, Shea made it to a different church. She was snowed in on the two Sundays she missed. Of the 50, Shea attended one of the first missionary churches in Hawaii, a church on an American Indian reservation and Jimmy Carter’s church, where he was teaching Sunday school.

“I literally just finished the editing of it. It’s a big project (to have) behind me – it was so vast,” said Shea. “You’re talking about people’s beliefs and you’re talking about something that is so close to so many people. I wanted to treat it with reverence and also wanted to treat it with the eyes of a newcomer, too.”

In 2003 she published a memoir: Songs from a Lead-Lined Room: Notes – High and Low – from My Journey through Breast Cancer and Radiation.

“If it had been a deliberate book about it, I would have said ‘How am I going to do this?'” she said. “Basically, it was just a journal I kept while I was undergoing treatment for cancer.”

Shea had never kept a journal before. She wrote stories of what she went through each day for the seven weeks she went through radiation. She thought she would show it to a few people and then have a bonfire, but when people read it they thought it could help other people going through similar trials.

“It was all done and it wasn’t supposed to be a book, and then it became this thing,” she said. “It really has been a different kind of book for me, because previous to that I had five novels out and they were just things that I was making up. This was something very honest and very scary to me at

the time.”