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Remembering Tucson author Aurelie Sheehan

By Amber Victoria Singer
Published: Wednesday, December 27, 2023 - 12:51pm
Updated: Wednesday, December 27, 2023 - 4:07pm

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As 2023 comes to a close, here at The Show we're remembering several Arizonans you may never have heard of who passed away this year.

We’ll hear about Aurelie Sheehan, a Tucson resident who wrote novels and helmed the English department at the University of Arizona. Sheehan passed away this summer at 60. She received numerous awards for her writing and spent time as a writer in residence in India, Ireland and Wyoming. 

Tempe-based writer and editor Deborah Sussman met Sheehan when the two were in college. As the years passed, the pair grew apart, both emotionally and geographically, but when both women wound up in Arizona, they vowed to spend more time together. Sussman was shocked by the news of her friend’s passing, which she read about in a magazine. 

The Show spoke with Sussman.

A collection of Aurelie Sheehan
Deborah Sussman
A collection of Aurelie Sheehan's books.

One day I was flipping through Poets and Writers and I saw the in memoriam section where they list the people who’ve died during the previous year, and I saw my friend Aurelie Sheehan’s name. And I had to kind of look a couple of times just because it didn’t make any sense to me.

I’ve known Aurelie for a long time. I don’t remember how we met. We went to college near each other, and you know, she was at the cool college. And we started a writing group together, it was the first writing group I had ever been part of, you know, I was like 20, and we took it very seriously, it was Aurelie and me and this, this woman from UMass, she had long dark hair, that’s about all I remember.

Mostly I just remember Aurelie. Aurelie was very cool. She was my age but she seemed older, and more kind of worldly. She was also very funny and her writing was really, really good. And she was a thoughtful critic, she was sharp but she was kind, she was very supportive, you could tell.

She wanted me to succeed just as much as she wanted herself to succeed. We both moved to New York, even her apartment was grown up, you know, like a self respecting person lived there. And she kept writing. She lived in the Northwest for a while and she published a book of short stories called "Jack Kerouac is Pregnant," a title I loved. It just said so much about men and women and the creative life.

And sometime after I moved to Arizona, I learned that Aurelie was also living in Arizona. She was in Tucson, she was teaching in the creative writing program there. And she had a daughter, the same age as my daughter. And she went on to become the director of that program and we exchanged messages, you know, sporadically, it’s like, you know, a little thing on social media, maybe a text.

And every time I went to Tucson I would go for a day, you know, or two at most, and I thought about seeing her, but every time it just felt like, no, I don’t just want to have a lunch, like we have so much to talk about, I really, I really want to, you know, come back when I have more time and really, really talk, so, you know, next time.

Aurelie wrote several books, I have all of them and I love all of them. I feel close to all of the people, especially the women that she writes about. She just- she wrote about the lives of girls and women in a way that was very rich and very complicated, very funny, very sad. And she trained her intelligence on, on things other people might have dismissed as trivial. There’s a passage I love from the beginning of Aurelie’s novel, "History Lesson for Girls," I’m just gonna read a little bit of that. “I think of Kate all the time. I think of her like I’ve got this little silver Egyption cat in my pocket. A little silver talisman that won’t go away. The thing is, she saved me that year, and then it was my turn. That’s what friendship is. That’s how to make history.”

The last time I saw Aurelie was in 2016 she came to Phoenix to read at the Crescent Ballroom, and she was exactly the same. She was warm, she was cool, she was totally present, she was funny. She was interested in my life and I was interested in hers, and she signed — I bought a little book that night and she had a piece in it — and she signed it to Deborah with so much gladness to see you here and to remain friends for...decades.

Love Aurelie. And then I saw her name in Poets and Writers and Aurelie was gone. She got sick and died in less than a year, and meanwhile I was in Phoenix assuming she was, you know, happily living her life and writing in Tucson and that one day I would go to Tucson, I’d spend more time, I’d really get to catch up with her. And now I deeply regret not calling her every time I went to Tucson, just for the day, you know, I would take just a lunch, I would take a coffee, I would take just a glimpse of her from my car window as she was walking down the street. I really hate the thought that she’s not here anymore but I’m so, so grateful to have her books and to be able to hear her voice in the — in those books. 

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