Sharma Shields grew up on Spokane’s South Hill. As she wrote in an essay for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, she always wanted to leave Spokane to “flee the idiot ghost of my younger self.” Still, she never got very far. Seattle, Missoula, the Idaho Panhandle. So rather than fleeing that “idiot ghost,” she wrote, she kept “tiptoeing closer to her.”
Now she is married, with children and settled happily in Spokane. She’s also just published her first book, a collection of short stories called “Favorite Monster” (Autumn House Press), in which she writes about serial killers, neigborhood one-upmanship, a cyclops, Medusa and infidelity. She’ll read from her book Wednesday at Auntie’s Bookstore.
Q. How did the stories in “Favorite Monster” come about?
A. Some of these stories I wrote while at the University of Montana – “Lying Down,” “Sunshine and the Predator,” and “Pulchritudinous,” for example. These stories are longer, more “normal” (i.e., no literal monsters), and have a bit of a workshopped feel to them. In each story, a young woman makes a monstrous decision that she will likely regret for the rest of her life. I think, in my 20s, I was especially obsessed with the idea of regret/remorse, so it’s a theme that crops up again and again in the collection.
The rest of the stories I wrote after graduate school. They are perhaps more experimental, quite a bit weirder, and a few of them play directly with the idea of monsters. Shuffling through these stories are a werewolf, a modern-day take on Medusa, a cyclops, a serial killer. There was no one inspiration for these stories, other than I enjoyed writing them, and many more stories were severed from the collection before I submitted the manuscript for review.
Q. It doesn’t take long before readers can see that you have an off-kilter take on the world. What hand did your childhood in Spokane have in sharpening your sense of humor?
A. I love this question, although it’s a tough one to answer for me. I discussed this with my husband and he laughed and said that my stories do have a bit of a David Lynch/“Blue Velvet” feel to them, meaning what seems like an innocent, sunny place is also home to some very dark and sordid happenings. I grew up a pretty privileged kid in Spokane – a relatively spoiled doctor’s daughter, in fact, one of those girls who asked for a horse and actually GOT one – but I was also hypersensitive to Spokane’s disparities. There is such intense economic diversity in Spokane, and there is also some intense domestic hypocrisy – things I noticed even in my own loving if imperfect family. I think it’s interesting that just a couple of blocks away from where I grew up – in an attractive, serene, well-to-do South Hill neighborhood – family man Robert Yates was arrested for murdering over a dozen women, some of them buried in his backyard. I think some of these things influenced my morbid sense of humor, although I would also like to blame my older brother and his buddies – and also my childhood friends – who were always funny and surprising.
Q. Do you have a favorite story in the book?
A. This changes constantly. Mostly, I feel sort of blah about the stories now, like I’ve evolved beyond them (wishful thinking, no doubt). That said, I still like “The McGugle Account,” the one about the cyclops and his lonely co-worker, which won the Tim McGinnis Award for Humor from The Iowa Review. I also like “The Chirp of the Cricket,” probably because it’s the freshest story in the book, so it feels more true to what I’m writing now. It’s about a mercilessly controlling housewife. It was partially inspired by the short stories of Roald Dahl, which are really terrifying and fantastic. That guy can stick an ending like nobody’s business.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m almost (fingers crossed) finished with the first draft of a novel.
I’ve written two separate novels in addition to this one, but I didn’t like them enough to pursue their publication. This one, though, I’m more excited about. It’s very loosely based on an anthropologist/ cryptozoologist from Washington State University named Grover Krantz – a guy who decided in the middle of his respectable academic career to argue for the existence of Sasquatch. It’s different from my work in “Favorite Monster” in many ways – for example, I’m sort of in love with third-person narrative now, and the writing concerns more “adult” themes like marriage and child-rearing (no doubt because I’m married now, and rearing children), but it is also very surreal and, to steal a word from you, off-kilter. It will probably be too weird to find a home with a traditional publisher, but here’s hoping.
Q. Who are the writers who inspired you?
A. As a kid, I read and reread two books: the collected works of Hans Christian Andersen and D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. As an English literature major at UW, I fell in love with the classics: “Wuthering Heights,” “Frankenstein,” the longer novels of Tolstoy, anything James Joyce (except for “Finnegan’s Wake,” which was a bit too dense for me).
Graduate school and especially working in bookstores and the library introduced me to new favorite authors: Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, Jennifer Egan, Etgar Keret, the graphic novels of Chris Ware. Right now, I’m blown away by “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” written by Hilary Mantel. That chick can write.
Our regional authors are also really inspiring: Jess Walter, Shann Ray, Sherman Alexie (I actually wept at the end of “Absolutely True Diary”). I’ve also been reading a book of poetry, “Rust Fish,” by Maya Jewell Zeller, which is fantastic. Spokane is chock-full of literary talent. Another good reason to live here.