‘Come From Away’ actor Sharon Wheatley on her latest book and the community that made it possible
My Aunt Nancy often says to me, “You know I don’t read books.”
I do know that. She’s been my TV and puzzle buddy for as long as I can remember. We never sat down and read anything together. We watched Three Coins in a Fountain and ate Cheetos.
She is the perfect aunt and one of my favorite people on the planet.
But when I sat down to write my first book, ‘Til The Fat Girl Sings, I had my Aunt Nancy in mind, thinking, If I can get Nancy to read this book, I’ll be happy.
I am happy to report that she read it, and she liked it. I can die happy.
She’s also read and liked my latest book, Drive: Stories From Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere, telling me again (with such seriousness and surprise), “I read this book, too. And you know what a compliment that is, coming from me.”
I get it. Just the reading is compliment enough.
The thing about books is — and we’re talking about this because it’s World Book Day on April 23 — a good book is like a good piece of theatre. It transports you.
And when life is hard in the here and now, isn’t it nice to be transported?
My friend John Wescott had this great phrase, “Move a muscle, change a thought.” If I called him depressed or complained about something, he would tell me, “Get up and get out — go look at some flowers. You’ll feel better.” So, when the Great Broadway Shutdown of 2020 happened (no one calls it that, just me, but go with me because it makes it sound as awful as it was), I cried a lot, raged a lot, and pouted a lot, and then I thought of John.
I had to move a muscle and change a thought. This was no way to behave, and I was certainly not being the kind of mom I wanted to be to my kid. We got going. First, we moved to an AirBnB in my hometown of Cincinnati and then, faced with the question of how to get my child across the country to their dad at a time when no one was getting on airplanes, I got creative.
I rented a 30-foot RV.
Even as I type that sentence, I can’t believe I did it. I hate everything about camping. It’s dark, it’s dirty, it’s uncomfortable. And I was not excited about driving a 30-foot-long, gajillion-pound thing across the country. But guess what? It’s completely self-contained. And — bonus for me — my wife Martha, who is a production stage manager, not only was thrilled about it, but she was also the natural person to get us organized and prepared, and to drive that monstrosity across the country.
There were some issues, a huge one being: the RV came with nothing in it. Not a sheet, not a tin coffee mug. Nothing. And we were away from home with one suitcase each full of clothes and nothing else. Me, Martha, my kid Tobi, 2 dogs and 2 cats.
So, me being me, I did what I always do, and I turned to social media for help.
Below, you’ll find is a section from my Facebook post wherein I solicit advice:
Friends, we are hitting the road in an RV. Might we ask if we could borrow some things from you if you have extras? I will make a list and then just….let me know? I am trying to avoid buying things. We will keep track and return them, Cloroxed and disinfected, when we leave.
Here’s what we are looking for!!!
-Plates for outside
-Big mixing bowl
-Blender for smoothies
-Little shallow bowls for cat food
-Queen size sheets
-Anyone have a couple of outdoor chairs we could borrow?
-A gate to keep the dogs away from the cat food.
This is what I can think of. I love you all. Thank you for reading my appeal which I think of as not a GoFundMe but a GoStockMe. LOVE LOVE LOVE AND STAY WELL.
Okay, it’s me again. I want to you to remember this was early lockdown time: no one driving on the streets, people wiping down their delivered groceries. You remember (shudder). But, just like the story goes in the musical I have been associated with for the past seven years, in true Come From Away fashion, people showed up for us. Before we could say “Blankets and Bedding,” we had doubles and triples of nearly everything on this list. I could not believe how many people helped us — some people I knew, like friends from high school, and plenty of people I did not know at all. Just showing up. Making a dropoff on our AirBnB front porch.
Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the writers of Come From Away, often say there is a Fred Rogers quote that helped them focus the story of the musical. “Look for the helpers.” In a time of tragedy or upset, Mr. Rogers told kids to look for the helpers. That’s what happened in Gander, and again, in my own life, when I was faced with a seemingly unsolvable problem. The helpers came out to deliver.
My book Drive (endorsed by my aunt) is about a lot of things, but the journey itself is brought to you by the helpers, who brought us the tools, and John Wescott (who is no longer with us), who brought me the motivation and strength. And of course, Martha, who drove the RV and pumped out the waste (shudder again).
I could sit over coffee and tell you the story of our trip. I could post pictures on social media for you to scroll through. But I dare you to slow down long enough to read. Immerse yourself in a story. Maybe moving a muscle and changing a thought is as simple as the action of picking up a book and turning the pages. Maybe my book sounds dumb and drippy, and maybe sci-fi is your thing instead. There are books for that!
And not for nothing, all you non-readers out there, you made it all the way to the end of this essay. You did it! So now for step two. Take a trip to a new place. Read a book.
Happy World Book Day, friends. I value you. Even if you are one of the Aunt Nancys of the world. In fact, especially so.