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Posted on January 22, 2015 at 6:00 am
Sharma Shields is a rising star in the literary world. Her first book, a collection of short stories called Favorite Monster won the 2011 Autumn House Fiction prize, and her novel The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac releases on January 27. Sharma lives in Spokane with her family (and she can often be found bringing her children to the library). More than just a deeply imaginative, deft writer, Sharma is an advocate for the Spokane County literary and arts scene, and simply one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. It’s such an honor to call her a friend, and it has been a delight watching her rise closer to the level of notoriety she deserves.
I had a chance to chat with her about her newest book, which Jess Walter described as “this epic of Northwest weirdness, this tense, funny tale of obsession, this terrific introduction to her fierce and inventive talent.” I hope that you enjoy getting to know Sharma through this interview, and that you’re compelled to get your hands on a copy of her book immediately afterward.
This is a book about a sasquatch, and not about a sasquatch. What got you going in this creaturely direction?
My gateway drug to all things creaturely really began with a love for Greek mythology. My short story collection, Favorite Monster, toyed with a lot of mythological tropes such as Cyclops and Medusa. I started realizing that not only were my stories linked in a monster-ish kind of way, they were also linked geographically: I was setting stories again and again in Spokane and its environs. So it made sense to hone in on local monsters, and I wrote a short story called “Field Guide to Monsters of the Inland Northwest,” featuring our region’s favorite hominid, Sasquatch. That story gave birth to the novel, it being my introduction to the character Dr. Eli Roebuck, who is at the center of Almanac.
You’ve also published a book of short stories, what was different about the process of crafting a novel?
In the beginning, not much. In my novel’s first draft, I tried to tackle each individual chapter the same way I tackle writing a short story, namely designating a central character with a clearly stated desire, and creating an arc in the narrative based on whether or not the said character achieves said desire, and what results of the achievement (or lack thereof). This meant that when I finished the first draft of Almanac, it read much more like a short story collection than a novel. That’s when the real work began, trying to make the entire narrative cohere. So I would say, for me, the difference between writing a short story collection and writing a novel can really be defined by the editing process. It is a much fuller, arduous, and overwhelming process for the novel, but it is also very rewarding and can be quite fun, almost like working on a giant puzzle. I rewrote two entire drafts and deleted hundreds of pages and rewrote hundreds more. It’s amazing to look back on the all of the work that it took, and man, I learned so much.
Does the Spokane County make it into your writing in any way?
Yes! The book is set in a fictional town called “Lilac City,” and readers will recognize lots of familiar places in the text, such as Rathdrum, Stateline, Mount St. Helen’s, Pullman, the Moran Prairie Grange, and the Palouse. I had a lot of fun setting the book locally, and I hope local readers will have fun reading it.
Would you tell us a little about how you got into writing (for any aspiring writers who are reading?)
I never really “got into” writing so much as I was just sort of born a writer—I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I wrote and created books from an exceptionally early age. My mom says that before I even learned how to write, I was drawing stories on pages of paper and stapling them together. I think there is a storytelling gene hardwired into our genetic make-up, and some of us inherently process our entire world in that way.
That said, I really believe you can get into writing at any age, and your success with it has nothing to do with how long you’ve been pursuing it, but rather how dedicated you are to the daily rhythm of sitting down and writing and editing and submitting your polished work. I know writers who never wrote anything until later in life and ended up being successful, published authors.
Have you ever hunted for a sasquatch (or any other cryptid)?
Not Sasquatch, exactly, but as a young kid, I did spend an inordinate amount of time hunting manticores and Nemean Lions in the woods behind my home. I liked to take a bow and arrow back there and pretend I was Artemis. A lot of that playtime influences my writing still. I really think being outdoors draws out the best, most courageous part of our imagination, and I try to get out into the woods every day even now.
What draws you to fiction? Do you write in other genres?
I’ve always loved fiction the most, but I have written a couple of non-fiction pieces and I used to write a lot of poetry. I’ve also journaled quite a bit. But fiction is my first love, mostly because I love storytelling and I love the imaginative, and fiction feels like the most liberated medium for expressing those loves, at least for me.
How do you picture the ideal reader of The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac?
Someone who loves it unconditionally, flaws and all! Haha. No, honestly, I think the book is written for someone who enjoys fabulist literary fiction. If you enjoy Grimm’s Fairy Tales, say, or books by Karen Russell or George Saunders or Franz Kafka, you might enjoy this one. It’s a weird book with a lot of narrative curiosities, but I also tried to suffuse it with a contrasting emotional realism: I really tried to write a universal family tale in my own weird, wild, Sasquatch-y way. I hope it finds an audience here with Spokane readers, who have been so supportive and kind about my writing career thus far.
Sharma Shields is the author of Favorite Monster: Stories and a novel, The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac. She had worked in independent bookstores and public libraries throughout Washington State. She lives with her husband and children in Spokane.