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Sharma Shields’ debut novel makes fantastical footprint

Sun., Jan. 25, 2015, midnight

‘Hunter’s Almanac’ delves into obsession with bigfoot

In a magical place known as Stateline, Idaho, a boy lives in a small house with his mother and father.

Or at least he does until the day his mother leaves, abandoning her family to live in the woods with a sasquatch named Mr. Krantz.

That boy, Eli Roebuck, watches it happen. His mother says goodbye, then walks into the woods with Mr. Krantz, a hulking creature covered with hair, dressed in a dirty, ill-fitting pinstriped suit.

It’s the first look we get at the monsters and mythical beings – including lake monsters, a magic hat, a ghost, a gypsy fortuneteller, a unicorn and a trio of magical creatures – that populate Sharma Shields’ debut novel, “The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac,” being released Tuesday by Henry Holt and Co.

At the center of the six-decade-long story is Eli, his obsession with bigfoot and how that obsession affects his life and his family’s.

As the Kirkus Review put it, “Imagine a mashup of ‘Moby-Dick’ and Kakfa’s ‘Metamorphosis’  (with a hearty dash of ‘Twin Peaks’ thrown in), and you’ll begin to get an idea of what Shields’ ambitious tale of disenchantment sets out to do.”

Set primarily in Lilac City – a fictionalized version of Spokane, so named, Shields says, because it has a fairy-tale ring to it – “The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac” also deals with family dysfunction, depression and thwarted dreams.

The story arose from a short piece she wrote for her award-winning short story collection, “Favorite Monsters” (Autumn House Press, 2012). “A Field Guide to Monsters of the Inland Northwest” even features a character named Eli Roebuck, although Shields says they’re not the same person. She did a lot of research into the sasquatch lore for that piece and dove in even deeper when it came time to write her novel.

She studied stories from the Spokane and Colville tribes, which tell of sasquatch as a fallen man – “a Cain to their Abel,” she says. Her description of Mr. Krantz’s smell, “like a musty bearskin rug singed with a lit match,” she culled from those legends.

“All of that was really interesting to me and helped me figure out who Mr. Krantz was as a person.”

She also studied the life and work of Grover Krantz, a WSU professor who gained fame as someone who not only studied bigfoot but argued for its existence, even at the risk of his career.

Although she named her monster after Krantz, it’s the monster-hunter she modeled after him.

Grover Krantz “was also such a character,” Shields says. “I loved the arc of his story because by the end of his life he was so desperate to find this one thing in the woods that he would go out into the woods with an ATV and a rifle and a headlamp and he would rattle around the woods screaming for sasquatch to come out.”

She laughs.

“I may be exaggerating that because that’s what my character does.”

She draws a lot of parallels between sasquatch hunting and her own ambitions to be a novelist. “It is this sort of elusive thing. I think some people think it’s a silly endeavor to be a novelist. You never know if you’re going to make it or not. You keep battling for it and you get to this feverish desperation to make it. So I sort of see myself in Eli, and Grover Krantz, too,” she says. “I’d be out there screaming about novels with my rifle and a headlamp or something.”

But for all the weirdness with monsters and myths, Shields tells a human story.

“I just wanted the story to be about this family that is struggling to figure out how to love one another, and that the sasquatch would be the touchstone for the whole story, to add some weirdness and interest,” she says.

Life of a writer

Shields shares a small South Hill home with her husband, writer/illustrator Simeon “Sam” Mills, who teaches at Garry Middle School, their son, 5, and daughter, 2. As one would expect of book people, a large bookcase dominates the living room. There are plenty of local authors there: Jess Walter, Sherman Alexie, Shawn Vestal, Shann Ray. There are also books by Jonathan Franzen and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a stack of Stephen King paperbacks and two of the three “Hunger Games” novels by Suzanne Collins. The lower shelves sport kid-friendly fare. Also tucked on the bookshelf is a small TV, appropriately sized for a family of readers and writers.

Shields, 37, grew up on the South Hill. As she said in an email interview with The Spokesman-Review in 2012, she was “a relatively spoiled doctor’s daughter, in fact, one of those girls who asked for a horse and actually GOT one.” She knew she wanted to write from an early age, picking up the Danielle Steel and Mary Higgins Clark novels her mom kept. As a young teen she took a stab at reading James Joyce’s “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” which she adored for the language, even if she didn’t understand all the historical references.

And she always liked the dark stuff. Scary movies. Greek mythology. “Twin Peaks” scared her silly. King’s “Misery” “really messed me up,” she says.

“Cujo,” the first King novel she read (when she was in elementary school), was a revelation.

“I remember that ending sticking with me, because the protagonist, the little boy, dies,” she said. “How could that ever happen in a book? Because everything had been happy endings in books until then. It struck me as really true and kinda awesome.”

Her writing skills eventually brought her to The Spokesman-Review, where she worked on the former Our Generation section and had what former S-R journalist Anne Windishar Walter, her editor, called a “rare teenage internship.” She’d write news briefs, solicit other stories and work on her own pieces.

“She had a great sense for storytelling way back then,” said Walter, who now works as a school counselor. “Teenagers then were talking about all kinds of serious issues, and she wrote about them with a maturity and insight that was pretty rare.”

The Lilac stuff

“The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac” has been getting attention from national media. Entertainment Weekly has been a champion, featuring the book in its list of titles to read this year. Amazon.com listed it as a pick of the month for January.

“I’m very surprised,” Shields said. “I kinda feel like it’s happening to someone else. And I feel like ‘Hey, good job, person that it’s happening to.’ It’s crazy.”

She admits the attention she’s most worried about is the Spokane stuff. When she returned to town in 2008, she was initially terrified she’d run into someone at the grocery store who remembered her past. The controversy.

The Lilac stuff.

Her senior year of high school, Shields was elected the Ferris High School Lilac Festival princess. It was among a series of accomplishments for the 17-year-old. She played varsity soccer. She edited the yearbook. She was homecoming queen.

“I did all that stuff in high school,” she said. “I didn’t know myself very well then. I would do them for the sake of doing them. I felt compelled to do them, I don’t know why, to seem like this perfect kid.”

Her princess days came to an ignoble end in April 1996 after a firestorm of controversy and news coverage. On her 18th birthday, coincidentally, an entire page of letters to the editor in the S-R was devoted to Shields. The story of her losing her crown made the front page.

Her transgression? Drunken driving.

And because she was a teenager, she tried to downplay it.

One beer, she told Lilac Festival organizers the day after her arrest. She’d been at a party and had one beer. And it was the first time she’d ever had one.

Except that wasn’t true. She had more than one beer that night. And it wasn’t the first time. She’d begun drinking her junior year.

It didn’t take long for the lies she told the Lilac Festival, her parents and the media to unravel. Still, she couldn’t admit it. Not if she still wanted to seem like that perfect kid.

“That’s what I was clinging to so hard when I was sticking to those lies – if people know the truth about me, then they won’t think I’m a good kid anymore,” Shields said. “I had this weird backwards mindset that by lying I was making myself a better kid.”

She knows now she was doing just the opposite. “By lying so publicly and sticking to my guns, I was hurting my own image of myself,” she said. “And I had to carry it around with me for a long time.”

And that took her years to get over. If she has in fact gotten over it.

There’s a chapter in “The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac” in which Eli volunteers to help build the Comstock High School float for Lilac City’s annual Purple Days parade, as his second daughter, Ginger, is on her school’s float committee. The school’s mascot is a sasquatch, so Eli hijacks the project to build a life-size, anatomically correct and animatronic sasquatch for the float. When things go disastrously, hilariously wrong during the Purple Days parade, it seems clear Shields is exorcising a demon or two.

“I think so, maybe,” she said. “I think that’s what I do in my writing. It’s funny, because my husband has been trying to get me to write about this for years.”

Letting go of the purple dress

After high school, Shields attended the University of Washington, where she earned a degree in English with a creative writing emphasis. She worked at a bookstore after getting her degree – a job she loved – then in 2002 enrolled in the University of Montana graduate program in creative writing. That’s where she and Mills met.

Even after graduating in 2004, they stuck around Missoula and married in 2006. Still, she found her job unsatisfying and she wasn’t really writing. She was drinking too much.

After a visit to her parents’ cabin on Lake Pend Oreille, she and Mills decided to leave Montana, head to the cabin for six months and recommit to their writing.

Which they did, in early 2008. Instead of returning to Missoula at the end of the summer, they moved to Spokane. She got a job at Auntie’s, then at the Spokane Public Library, and he found a teaching job.

All this time, she was still drinking and struggling with depression.

“Ever since I started drinking in high school, I couldn’t control it,” she said. When she would drink, she’d drink to the point of blackout. She did the magical thinking that so many alcoholics do. I’ll only drink on the weekends, she’d tell herself. She was fairly functional, but it affected her ability to write.

“I’ve been a way more prolific writer not drinking,” she said. When pregnant with her son, and not drinking, she wrote some of the stories in “Favorite Monsters.” While pregnant with her daughter, and not drinking, she started the novel.

She stopped drinking nearly two years ago. Those hard first three months she survived with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. Since then she’s managed it on her own and received medical help for her depression. But now she’s grappling with a frightening diagnosis: multiple sclerosis.

She thinks she’d been living with undiagnosed MS for several years. After her son was born, she was always exhausted and was experiencing numbness in her legs and elsewhere. An MRI revealed lesions on her brain. But when her symptoms vanished, her doctor told her to wait and see.

After the birth of her daughter, she had a major relapse, and her condition was confirmed.

It’s not getting her down. Her MS is being controlled. Her depression is in check. Her drinking done with. She’s staying at home with her kids and working on her next novel. Her book is about to hit the shelves. Her family life is good. She’s surrounded by a supportive artistic community. And no one seems to care much about the Lilac stuff.

For all the dark in her life, the days ahead look pretty sunny.

“I still have symptoms that come and go, but I actually feel better now than I have in a few years, physically, mentally, everything-ly,” she said with a laugh. “I feel way more whole. I’m taking better care of myself. I feel like I know myself better, diseasewise, but also emotionally and mentally.

“I’m kind of in love with my life right now.”



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