An Interview with Sharma Shields and Caroline Zancan, by Celia Johnson
February 13, 2015
Sharma Shields’ debut novel, The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac, is about a family pulled into one man’s hunt for the elusive sasquatch. The book is populated with myths and yet it feels strikingly real. Shields’ editor, Caroline Zancan, said that, when she first received the manuscript, “I was partly reading with childlike wonder, using parts of my imagination I hadn’t used since I was a kid, but at the same time, there were forces at work that were terrifying to me even as an adult.” I spoke with Sharma and Caroline about myths, the editorial process, and unsung heroes in the publishing world.
Sharma, you’ve mentioned that your love of mythological creatures began with Greek myths. Do you remember when you first read Greek myths? And when you were first inspired to incorporate myths into your writing?
SS: My introduction to Greek mythology began with an old computer game, King’s Quest III, which was released in 1986. In it, I had to guide my avatar into the desert and battle a snake-haired woman. She kept turning my avatar to stone. I mentioned this monster to my mom and she went to the bookstore and brought back Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. I read that book over and over again, first becoming obsessed with the Perseus myth and then growing to love all of the other stories, too. I kept writing obnoxiously long myths of my own and trying to read them aloud to my 5th grade classmates, which probably annoyed them all to no end.
What fascinates you most about the sasquatch?
SS: Its history here with the Spokane and Colville Indian Tribes is really fascinating. They really saw him as more man than animal, and that perspective really rang true for me in the novel, too.
Caroline, are you too drawn to myths?
CZ: I’m drawtn to them in the extent to which they feel epic. I love big stories that encompass large stretches of time, and huge events in their characters’ lives—events that have major consequences or implications for not only the people directly involved in them, but the people around them, or even the people who come after them. And of course, myths require a little participation from the imagination, and a suspension of disbelief—a willingness to adapt or give yourself over to a different world order. And exercising my imagination is a big part of why I read.
When did you first encounter Sharma’s work?
CZ: I hadn’t read her work until her agent, the wonderful Julie Stevenson, sent her novel to me on submission. She sent the first half out, and told editors that if they liked it, they could request the second half. I couldn’t hit send on the email begging for the rest of the novel fast enough! I had never encountered anything like it.
What stood out about her manuscript?
CZ: Everything. The writing was so assured, especially for a debut novelist. It also did so many things at once. The arrival of Mr. Krantz in his suit immediately called to mind this children’s book I loved growing up, about a little girl whose stuffed gorilla comes to life and takes her on an adventure. So I was partly reading with childlike wonder, using parts of my imagination I hadn’t used since I was a kid, but at the same time, there were forces at work that were terrifying to me even as an adult. I think chapters like “Living Large in the Electric City” are every bit as frightening as some of Shirley Jackson’s creepier stories. And I never expected a book to speak to the seven year old in me and the darkest regions and fears of my adult mind at the same time.
Sharma, what was the editorial process like for your short story collection versus your debut novel?
SS: The novel was far more overwhelming, editorially speaking. The short stories were parsed out over several years, with bits of editing taking place when I tidied them up for publication in literary journals. When the short stories won the Autumn House Press Fiction Prize, I expected Autumn House to request a load of edits but they didn’t: They felt Stewart O’Nan had chosen it partially because it was so polished. I still changed a few things, however, on my end.
The novel was a behemoth to edit. Julie Stevenson, my agent, asked me for a major edit before she would take me on as a client. Based on her edits, and on the edits of my friend J. Robert Lennon, I shaved over seventy pages from that first draft and wrote several entirely new chapters. The first draft had a major cohesion problem and it was a bear to pull it all together into one narrative arc. After several months of deleting and rewriting and reorganizing, Julie liked my changes and accepted me as a client; then she put me through another rigorous draft that I took a full summer to complete. After that, we were ready to send it off to the publishers.
When Holt expressed interest in buying the book, Caroline called me with specific edits about the ending. I could tell right away that she understood the novel and understood my vision as a writer; she compared me to Shirley Jackson, which made me want to kiss her on the mouth, haha.
Caroline’s edits were incredible and I happily listened to her. We trimmed out a lot of fat from the ending and I wrote one more chapter to breath more life into our Sasquatch (“Removal”). I was also really impressed by how sharp and necessary the copy editor’s suggestions were for the text. She caught a lot of tiny details that would have driven me crazy if I’d encountered them in the final version of the novel.
Your debut novel was spun from a short story. Are there any other short stories that you’d love to transform into novels?
SS: Not at this time, no. I feel more inspired by random bits of local history I’m researching: The Hanford Site in Southeastern Washington, the Whitman Massacre in Walla Walla, the Mount St. Helen’s explosion of 1980. The latter event, in fact, made its way into a chapter of the novel (“The Mountain”).
Caroline, what do you feel is an editor’s most important role, beyond shaping a manuscript?
CZ: Oh my gosh, I just got SO excited to read whatever you do with the research you’re doing about the Whitman Massacre, Sharma!!! No one works wonders out of dark material better than Sharma, so whatever that history inspires is sure to be gold. I know that’s not entirely relevant to the question, but it kind of is, because I think a lesser known part of what an editor does is champion the books they take on, both in-house and out—we try to get other departments who will be working with the book excited about it, and try to spread the word among other publishing people. I don’t think I went on a single lunch between the months of August and January that I didn’t take along a galley or finished copy of Sharma’s book for. Truly loving the books you take on helps when it comes to this part of the job, and Sharma’s book is one of my all-time favorites, so the cheerleading was a very fun part of the process.
In a more traditional editorial sense, I think my job as an editor is to make sure a writer is aware of what the reader’s experience is while reading what they [the author] currently have on the page. While I do offer concrete suggestions and line edits and rearrangements, I also often make comments like “I don’t necessarily mind what’s happening on these specific pages, but it’s giving the impression of x, y, or z—do you mean for that to be the case?” Really, I want the editor to achieve the effect they’re after, so I want to make sure they know how they or their characters or plot twists are landing. More than anything, I’m an enthusiastic reader of the text, so I want to offer the writers I work with some insight into how other readers are going to experience and interpret what they’re doing, to try to close the gap between intent and actual outcome.
Sharma, from your perspective, what’s an editor’s most important role?
SS: Doing exactly what Caroline Zancan does, and by that I mean appreciating a writer’s unique vision and noting what helps support that vision and what weighs it down. My novel is a way better novel for her input, and for the input of Julie Stevenson and friends who gave feedback along the way. I would never want to publish a book without a great editor, or a handful of great editors. I feel like I have an incredible team on my side for this novel. I really lucked out.
Sharma and Caroline, who would you say are the unsung heroes of the publishing world?
SS: The editors! And the copy editors! Seriously. I’m really grateful for all of their hard work here. Caroline was so thorough that she even called me out for the word “turd.” She pointed out to me that Mr. Krantz (the Sasquatch) wouldn’t deposit “turds” in the woods. Rather, he would leave large, powerful, intimidating “shits.” I laughed out loud when I read that edit but it was also so fricking true! As silly as it sounds, those really are the precision details that will make a book come alive for its readers. And it also shows how committed Caroline was to this book’s bizarre feral world. An editor doesn’t get better than that.
CZ: Oh man, Sharm, I’m blushing over here! (And I’ll take that kiss now! The love is very mutual.) Obviously writers are at the heart of all this—without authors there’d be no books, and nothing for the rest of us to work with. I do think crucial participants in the process who operate more behind the scenes are the publicity and sales and marketing people who present books to the outside world. You can make a book as sharp and engrossing and perfect as possible, but if nobody outside of the publishing industry knows about, it doesn’t matter. The publicist for Sharma’s book, Leslie Brandon, loved the book as much as I did, and did a knockout job of getting it covered in both local and national media. She sits within shouting range of my desk, and it’s been fun to get publicity updates and good news about the amazing reactions people are having to Sharma’s book as they roll in. It really has been one giant Sasquatch lovefest around here.