Sharma Shields holds an MFA from the University of Montana and is the author of the short story collection Favorite Monster. Recipient of awards such as the Autumn House Fiction Prize and the Tim McGinnins award for Humor, Shields's work has appeared in Electric Lit, The New York Times, Kenyon Review, and Iowa Review, among others. She has worked in independent bookstores and libraries throughout Washington State and now lives in Spokane with her husband and children, and serves on the board of the Friends of Spokane County Library District.
Shields's first novel, The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac came out in January 2015. The book follows one man's fanatical search for the Sasquatch haunting him from his youth, and how his obsession shapes the lives of his family, who have monsters of their own to contend with.
LibraryThing staffer KJ caught up with Sharma this month to talk about her work.
For our readers who haven't had a chance to read it yet, can you give us the nutshell version of what The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac is all about?
When people ask me what the novel is about, I typically tell them, "It’s a family drama involving Sasquatch." That is an extremely truncated plot, of course, but it also rings very true to me, because it is definitely about family first and foremost. The weird stuff is really meant to be secondary to the struggles of the Roebuck family.
You've previously published a book of short stories, >Favorite Monster, which also discusses monsters. Did The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac evolve out of any of these stories?
The last story I wrote for Favorite Monster was called "Field Guide to Monsters of the Inland Northwest," and featured a woman who may or may not be Sasquatch. She is humiliated and publicly tortured by a cryptozoologist named Dr. Eli Roebuck, who became the central character in The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac. He is not as ruthless or immoral in the novel; he morphed into a more vulnerable and interesting character, although he is still deeply flawed and mistaken. That story appeared in "The Kenyon Review" just before Stewart O'Nan chose Favorite Monster for the Autumn House Fiction Prize. It was originally a chapter in the novel but I deleted it from the second draft. It was a great starting point, but it no longer fit with the story I was trying to tell.
What kinds of cryptozoology resources did you use for research into this myth?
I used a lot of library resources at both the Spokane Public Library and Spokane County Library District branches: Reference books about local Native legends; online databases like ProQuest for articles on cryptozoologists such as Grover Krantz; books from the library's general collection such as Jeff Meldrum's Sasquatch, Legend Meets Science. I also used basic internet searches when at home or elsewhere; this was how I stumbled on Sherman Alexie's outstanding "The Sasquatch Poems."
There are entire organizations based on Sasquatch research. The most notable for me was BFRO (Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization). I scoured their website, too, and based a fictional organization off of them in the novel: SNaRL, the Sasquatch National Research Lab.
Information is right at the writer's fingertips these days, and I love researching almost as much as I love writing. It really breathes life into a scene or into a character. It also brought some much needed verisimilitude to a novel that flirts with utter incredulity.
I was reminded while reading at several points (mostly when Eli was being an emotionally or physically distant father) of books that involve family curses carried through generations (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao being one of them, One Hundred Years of Solitude another). Do you think the rest of the monsters in the Roebuck family line came from the first one?
I did think all of the monsters in the book were related in a distant way; I imagined them, initially, as manifestations of the Three Fates from Greek mythology. I didn't want to explain this idea too much in the book, lest it drag the reader out of the storyline, but I did think of them as materializing from the same mystical Land of Shadows (Purgatory), and disappearing back into that land after meddling with the human characters.
I love that you mention One Hundred Years of Solitude here; it's one of my very favorite novels. I love that novel's epic scope and Garcia Marquez's seamless, deadpan marriage of Colombian mythology and history. It's truly a masterpiece.
Monster stories often have a moral tone to them (i.e. "don't go out after dark or the thing will eat you"), which, in a patriarchal culture might manifest in monster myths built to preserve the existing cultural norms (i.e. "don't go off with strange boys or the thing will eat you"). Do the monsters in the lives of your women characters follow this model?
Wow, this is a killer question. I certainly didn't intend for there to be any moral aggrandizing in the novel, but I do think the monsters force each character to reconsider her opinion of herself. There is a certain morality to the book: How do we treat our loved ones? How do we forgive them, and forgive ourselves? How do we maturely handle rejection and loss? Is it better to be selfish or be selfless in terms of one's family? I don't personally believe that there are set answers to these questions, but my obsession with them became central to the book's emotional movement.
Despite the fate-like appearance of these monsters, I didn't write them to suggest that we are not given choices in life. Rather, the monsters in the book tend to appear when a character is at an emotional crossroads, and they are merely forcing the question, "What will you choose?" I see these women as principal agents in their own life: They alone will make the decisions that determine their own happiness or undoing.
What about the Pacific Northwest geography do you think lends itself to monster myth creation?
The line between the outdoor and the indoor here is incredibly thin. I try to get out into the woods as much as possible, daily if I can. I spent a lot of my childhood playing in them, too, sometimes terrifying myself about what might be lurking in the shadows of the trees. There is a mystery in the wilderness, and an otherness, that I find very humbling and real. Sometimes when I'm wandering in the forest or walking at night and looking up at the star-stippled sky, I feel my ego slip away and I realize how small I am; I sense the insignificance of my own life. I love this sensation. It's incredibly calming to me. And I think it's easy to imagine in those settings how anything is possible, because our understanding of the world is very limited. The geography here in the Inland Northwest, with its mile-deep lakes, chimerical forests, mythical mountains and more, is multifarious and daring. It's easy to let the imagination here run wild; it's thrilling to feel tiny and envision giants and monsters and more filling the great dark spaces around you.
Paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton, Neil Gaiman once wrote: "Fairy tales are more than true—not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten." While you've written a more horrific version of a fairy tale, to what extent do you think the act of transforming emotional monsters into more tangible ones make them easier to grapple with or discuss? For example, was it easier for Eli to devote his life to finding Sasquatch than to fully examine how he felt about the loss of his mother?
I have no doubt that it was easier for Eli to seek out Sasquatch than hunt down his own mother, especially because he's doing it as an act of revenge. Anger is one of the easiest emotions to feel; we feel it before we allow ourselves to properly grieve. The hunt gives him an unending focus for his anger, a way to blame someone else not related to him. I think he innately understands that his mother does not want to be followed and found, and in a way he respects that decision (and later, when she seeks him out, he's able to reject her without regret), but his rage and curiosity need a scapegoat, and so he pursues Sasquatch with a relentless fervor.
I do love the metaphorical quality of his hunt for Sasquatch. For me, a writer who loves weirdness, it made the story more fun to write. I even saw Eli's hunt for Sasquatch as running parallel in this very comical way to my desire to make it as a writer. The singular focus, the selfishness, the ambition, even the desperation rang really true to me as a very human experience. As bizarre as some of the plot points are in the book, I tried to root the emotions in a universal, recognizable place, so that the reader would feel rooted in a familiar emotional landscape even while being exposed to extreme surreality.
What was your favorite scene to write?
I always like the last thing I wrote best, maybe because it's the freshest in my mind, and that would be the chapter, "Removal," about the Sasquatch undergoing laser depilation. It was a blast to write that one.
You've written about werewolves in your short story collection, which—like many monster myths—came over from Europe with the waves of immigrants. Do you think Sasquatch is a distinctly North American monster? If so, why? What kind of particular fears do Americans have, do you think, that manifests in Sasquatch?
Sasquatch is distinctly North American. Stories of Sasquatch existed long before white settlers ever bullied their way onto the landscape. Spokane and Colville Tribal lore inspired certain aspects of my own version of the creature. They saw Sasquatch not as an animal but as a fallen man, a brother of sorts (similar to the Cain and Abel story). While I tried to write my own story about Sasquatch, I wanted to make sure that people came away from the novel understanding that Sasquatch is not a pop culture reference, but a creature that has existed in our region for hundreds of years. Respecting its traditional Native origins for me is huge, because it’s about respecting the Spokane and Colville Indians who still live here.
As for the last part of your question, about American fears, I think Sasquatch traditionally is seen as almost a trickster figure, a meddlesome troublemaker more than a threat to humans. Hilariously, he's become someone to lust over. Amazon sold a ton of self-published Bigfoot erotica last year, which made headlines in the Huffington Post and Jezebel. I think fear and lust can be pretty strongly connected, and clearly some people are feeling pretty horny about having sex with something potentially very dangerous.
I heard a piece on NPR a few years ago talking about how in times of economic stress or war, people turn to monster stories to work out some of their fears of the unknown future. I've always liked this idea, but I feel like monster stories have always been a part of the human consciousness. Like Beowulf or the Greek myths, or Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. People have always been fascinated by monsters, I think precisely because they are such rich metaphors; they allow us to emote over the mysteries and fears of our own being.
What is your favorite cryptozoological creature (that isn't Sasquatch) and why?
There is a lake in Northern Idaho called Pend Oreille. It's so deep and rocky that the navy tests submarines in its waters. The lake has her own monster: the Pend Oreille Paddler, a Northwest version of the Loch Ness Monster. The rumor goes that the navy introduced the story of the Paddler, themselves, to explain the serpentine figure of surfacing submarines. I've always wanted to write something about it but I've never been able to come up with anything decent. I've thrown out lots of poorly written drafts. Maybe one day...
My first monster love, I should say, was Medusa. And she still holds a place in my heart. She was my gateway drug to all things monsters. I became obsessed with her in grade school and she led me to an even bigger obsession with mythology. All of that powerfully influenced my writing.
If we were to take a look inside your library, what types of books would we find there? Any favorites?
We have a line of bookshelves in our living room, spanning almost the entire wall. You'll find the complete novels of Beckett there, Hilary Mantel's novels, books of classical myths, coffee table books about unicorns, two entire shelves of poetry books and story collections. The bottom shelves are choked with picture books for my kids (I have a five and two year old named Henry and Louise). We have a Little Free Library now in our front yard, and a lot of our books are making their way out there, too. Most of the books I read now come from the library; it's rare when I actually buy a book, unless it's a gift for a friend.
What was your writing process like for The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac? When and where do you like to do most of your writing?
At the time I had one kid in preschool and one kid at home with me, so I hired a babysitter three times a week and wrote during those three hours of solitude. I generally took my laptop to the South Hill Library or Moran Prairie Library (where I worked for a time) here in Spokane, or I wrote in bed or on my couch. I'm awful about sitting at a desk, although I'm trying to get better about it because my posture sucks and my neck and back are in knots. Nowadays, my children are in preschool together on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. I write furiously then. On the weekends my husband, Simeon Mills—he's a schoolteacher, writer, and graphic novelist—and I trade time with the kids so we can alternate getting work done and focusing on these wonderful children. My mom lives in Spokane, too, and is extremely helpful. Every now and again, my husband and I get a babysitter so we can have time together, too. It's a great and very busy life and I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Can you tell us what you're working on next?
Right now I'm researching Hanford and its pollution of the Columbia River, and I'm eyeballing a novel about a mad scientist and a jar of brains, somehow involving this research. I'm not entirely married to it yet, and I'm a bit worried by the pause I've had in momentum these last couple of months. I'm hoping that as the dust settles from the new novel this spring I'll be able to dive back into those private waters. That's my favorite part of all of this whole process, the writing, itself.
—interview by KJ Gormley