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Fiction Spotlight: Contributor Sharma Shields

Sharma Shields’s debut novel The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac (Henry Holt) was published in 2015—and we’re still not over it. “Imagine a mashup of Moby-Dick and Kafka’s Metamorphosis (with a hearty dash of Twin Peaks thrown in),” writes Kirkus Reviews, “and you’ll begin to get an idea of what Shields’ ambitious tale of disenchantment sets out to do.” The novel, which won the 2016 Washington State Book Award in Fiction, is as delightfully weird as Shields’s other work: a short story collection, Favorite Monster (Autumn House), and stories published in places such as Electric Literature, Slice, The New York Times, Kenyon Review, Iowa Review, and Fugue. Here at Memorious, we’re happy to say we knew about Sharma Shields before she was cool. We published her short story “Morsels” way back in 2004, in Issue 2. This month, Shields answered our questions about magical beasts, creative inspiration, and what she’s working on now.

I noticed your short story collection is titled Favorite Monster, and The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac is, of course, about Bigfoot. What draws you to write about magical creatures?

My first major monster love as a young girl was Medusa. I discovered her in fourth grade while playing an old-school computer game called “King’s Quest.” My mom noted my interest and returned from the bookstore with D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Medusa really was my gateway drug to the weird and fantastical, and for a long time I became especially enamored of the monsters from Greek mythology. I wrote a lot of stories about them. I did not, I should say, write about them when I was in graduate school in Montana. I still loved mythology, but I was uncertain about how to incorporate it into my work. After I graduated, I spent three years in a really draining sales job, and I stopped writing or really even reading during that time. When I finally quit that job and started writing, I really just wanted to uncover the joy in it again, and that’s probably why I started writing the monster stuff, just to entertain myself, to have some fun with my interests and to play around with the supernatural, something I was really attracted to when I read books like Midnight’s Children or One Hundred Years of Solitude.

As a kid, I was fascinated by Medusa because of her power, her frightfulness, and her uniqueness. I loved that she could turn men to stone. I loved that she had snakes for hair. I had ratty, curly hair myself at that age, and I’d worn a bald patch into the back of my head from rocking myself to sleep at night (I had a lot of strange habits as a girl). I loved that she was ugly, and that her ugliness transformed into a respectable power, something to harness, to wield. As an adult, I’m interested in her as a character because it wasn’t her fault that she became the way she did. She was transformed into a monster because she was raped in Athena’s temple. The rapist, of course, was let off unscathed. Regarding her metamorphosis, there are tremendous metaphors and social relevance to be discussed, then and now. This is why I’ve loved writing about monsters in my work: They are ripe with metaphorical possibility. They manifest our fears and our desires. We loathe them and we covet the excitement they bring us. Seeing them, we reflect on ourselves, our heroism or lack thereof, our own monstrosities.

In his 2015 review of The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac, Paul Constant writes, “Shields is not ashamed of Bigfoot—she drags him out of blurry photographs and into the spotlight in the very first chapter of the book.” Indeed, despite its magical realism, your book feels surprisingly matter-of-fact. What led you to portray Sasquatch in this particular way—as a strange, but very real neighbor?

I like it when literature doesn’t call too much attention to itself. For example, heavy-handed foreshadowing, florid language, or nudge-you-in-the-ribs humor can really grate on me as a reader. I like it dry and matter-of-fact. I also really like it when things happen. As a writer, I try to avoid drawing things out for too long or favoring description over action. I want to grab the reader and surprise them. After a rather limp first draft, I realized I needed to commit fully to the idea of Sasquatch living among us. Once I made that decision, it became clear he needed to be one of the most immediate characters introduced.

I’ll also argue that it adds depth and believability to a work—especially in the midst of extreme incredulity—to allow the characters to exist freely within their own scene, without copious explanation. I handled the monsters in my story collection in this manner, as well. They are introduced dryly, without fanfare, the way you’d introduce a new co-worker around the office. It adds some humor to the piece, for sure, but it also ushers in hyper-reality and metaphor without interrupting the storyline. I no doubt learned this from writers like Lydia Davis, George Saunders, Diane Williams, this dryness. Explaining too much or making excuses for the presence of the strange damages a story’s reliability.

How have people from your hometown in Washington reacted to and engaged with your novel? Do they agree with Constant that your depiction of Bigfoot “really gets it right”?

I’ve had comments from regional readers about sightings, either their own or a grandmother’s or a friend’s, but I haven’t had any arguments over it (so far). And I love hearing from Inland Northwest readers who are excited to see street names, parks, and inside jokes in the text. One of my favorite scenes to write was the one where Mount St. Helens exploded, which is such a memorable event in our recent history. It’s a regional novel for sure. Sasquatch, himself, his smell, his carriage, his more-animal-than-man-ness, was inspired by local tribal legends. Some of my favorite interactions between readers occurred when I spoke at Wenatchee Valley College in Omak, which is near the Colville Reservation (my mom is from a small town near Omak called Okanogan). A woman there told me about how her grandmother had been abducted by Sasquatch near Lake Chelan. She was found weeks later, wandering around in a comatose state. Another woman told me that as a girl she and her grandparents would put out gifts for Sasquatch, and in times of need, gifts would be left for them in return, berries and more. These stories show the many sides of Sasquatch, how he can be a menace, or how he can be a compassionate being. He’s like us. If you haven’t read Sherman Alexie’s “The Sasquatch Poems,” I highly recommend it. You can find the piece online at ZYZZYVA and it’s incredible and speaks to all of this. Sasquatch has a rich Native history and presence in the Inland Northwest that needs to be respected and admired. I really had this in mind while I was writing. It’s hard for me to know if I “got it right.” It’s definitely my interpretation, and it’s probably a goofy one, but I hope his humanity rings true for readers.

The novel spans nearly the entire life of its protagonist, Eli Roebuck, and shifts among many perspectives, including those of his wives and daughters. Could you talk about the journey of writing and marketing such a complexly structured book, especially as your debut novel?

This is my first published novel, but not the first novel I’ve written. The first two novels I wrote (and I even got about 300 pages into a third, although I never finished it) were long, rambling, literary tomes where little happened except in the narrator’s head. They were boring. The truth was, the first one might have been salvageable—not the second, it was total garbage, haha—but I didn’t have the maturity or confidence to approach editing them, which is really the only thing that can turn a first draft into a publishable work. Around the time I started this novel, I learned that my short story collection won the Autumn House Fiction Prize, and that Autumn House would publish it the following year. I’d also had quite a bit of luck with landing short stories in literary journals, and I was accustomed to editing those shorter pieces. I decided I would write the chapters of this new novel the same way I write my short stories. I figured it would be a more familiar landscape for me, and that I would be less intimidated by the editing process if I could tackle the chapters piece by piece. Of course, this sort of backfired in my first draft. The novel read far more like a story collection and had zero cohesive arc. Eli and the hunt for Sasquatch became that arc, although I was admittedly more interested in the satellite characters (the women) in the book as I was writing.

I really didn’t worry about marketing with the book. I usually assume while I’m writing that very few people will ever read it, and I think a part of me never believed it would be published. It is a feral, sprawling, strange book, and that’s a turn-off for some. I feel really grateful that it found such a cozy home with Henry Holt and editor Caroline Zancan.

I love the videos of you, featured on The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac webpage, walking in the woods near Spokane and in The Palouse. What went into creating these? Were they your idea?

My publisher sent me a fancy video camera and a tripod and minimal instructions. They thought it would be fun to show people where I’m from and where the novel was set. I decided on the Steven’s Creek Trailhead, the hills of the Palouse, and the Moran Prairie Grange because they show three different settings highlighted in the book, namely the forest, the farmland just south of Spokane, and the location where a funeral takes place at the end of the novel. I did all of the filming myself and it was pretty hilarious—there were a lot of outtakes. I managed to return all of the gadgets to them in one piece. It was hella icy out there and I’ve turned into a complete butterfingers these last couple of years, so I’m so glad I didn’t break that camera.

I also noticed the quote on your author webpage from J. Robert Lennon that says, “My favorite weirdo in American letters.” And I agree: one of the best aspects of your writing is its weirdness. Has that been an explicit aesthetic goal of your work? Or is it a quality incidental to your natural interests?

That’s a great question. I’d say the latter, that the weirdness is more organic, born of disparate interests and a lifelong appreciation of dark and frightening things. My goals, I’m sad to say, are pretty dull: Write at least four days a week. Finish this project. Now this one. I plod forward with one foot in front of the other and it amazes me when I finish anything. I’m constantly feeling a sort of, “When did I write this? How?” It’s such an out-of-body experience for me. But yes, aesthetically, I write what interests me, although that’s always in flux, too. I have to dissolve into the world I’m writing and if I’m not married to it, then I don’t enter that world properly. So yes, I think my natural interests are at play here for sure, although I feel like I’m less interested in weirdness than I am in the illogical.

What novels did you read for inspiration while you were writing this one?

While writing this, I thought of other novels written in a linked-stories manner, like Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (which is not at all fantastical), Gloria Naylor’s Bailey’s Cafe (which is awesomely fantastical), and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Rumbling around in my head was also a strange hodgepodge of Shirley Jackson’s novels (I believe I read all of them, and I’m not kidding, around the time I was writing this book), Hans Christian Andersen stories and, of course, Greek myths. One chapter was even influenced by Stephen King. I really like writers who can move fluidly between fantasy and reality, humor and horror. As a rule, I typically read pretty widely, without worrying about what sort of immediate effect it has on my writing. Reading and writing are a symbiotic relationship—they really do keep one another healthy and sharp—but I definitely benefit as much from reading authors who write nothing like me as I do from writers who write in a similar vein.

This is slightly off-topic, but I saw you got your MFA at the University of Montana. I had the chance to visit Missoula for the first time this year, and it was a magical place. What was it like studying writing there? In general, how do you think place influences your work?

The writing program was great. For the first time in my adult life, I really concentrated on writing every day, and on the craft. I had a lot to learn not just from the professors, but from my peers. They were an uber-talented, kooky group. There are always issues with those programs, of course, they can become incestuous by the second year and a bit poisonous, which I think is just part and parcel of living, breathing, and sharing your passions with your professors and a small group of like-minded people. The pond gets stagnant, you know? It can bring the worst out in people, and I was a nervous, paranoid twit my second year. When I didn’t get a teaching gig, I was shattered. I felt like no one believed in me. Eventually I had to say, Fuck it, and I got over it. I knew it was silly to take rejection personally. And all of the other writers really were better than me, so it was cool. I learned so much. I met my husband there, Sam, who is still my best editor and friend, so total bonus.

My husband and I never thought we’d leave Missoula, we loved it so much, but we had to, finally, because jobs were hard to come by there and I was suffering from a wretched depression that was no doubt fueled by my job, my inability to write, and my alcoholism. I returned home. I sobered up. I got a job with the public library. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Sam and I had a kid. Then another. I was near to my mom and dad and sister and brother. It was the best thing I could have done for my writing. Much of what I write about springs from this very sense of place, the Inland Northwest, Spokane, the memories here, and the tension, the bad and the good.

Finally, what are you working on now?

I just finished the umpteenth draft of my new novel. It’s a whole other beast entirely. It’s much more focused compared to The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac. It’s told from one perspective, takes place in one year, is much more political, and is set in one (very frightening) location. It does take place in Washington State though, this time at the Hanford Nuclear Site. There are no monsters in this one, but there is a talking coyote and a clairvoyant woman, so I’ve definitely injected elements of the illogical and supernatural into what is also a historical novel.

Natalie Mesnard currently serves as Director of Programs & Strategic Communications at the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses. Her fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and book reviews have appeared online and in print with journals such as Copper NickelThe Gettysburg ReviewGreen Mountains ReviewThe JournalKenyon Review Online, and Tampa Review. She can be found online at nataliemesnard.com.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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