Monday, December 29, 2014

My First Time: Sharma Shields

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Sharma Shields, author of The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac, coming from Henry Holt in early 2015.  This debut novel has been described as "a dark, fantastical, multi-generational tale about a family whose patriarch is consumed by the hunt for the mythical, elusive Sasquatch he encountered in his youth."  It's been gathering a lot of praise prior to its publication, like this from Kirkus: "Imagine a mash up of Moby-Dick and Kafka'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."  (On a personal note, I am an unabashed champion and evangelist for The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac.  It took me to unexpected places and genuinely moved me in ways that few recent novels have done.  I'm strongly encouraging you to pre-order this book and/or request it at your local library.)  Sharma is also the author of a short story collection, Favorite Monster.  Her short fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review, Iowa Review, Fugue, Sonora Review and elsewhere.  She received her B.A. in English Literature from the University of Washington (2000) and her MFA from the University of Montana (2004).  Sharma has worked in independent bookstores and public libraries throughout Washington State and now lives in Spokane with her husband and two young children.  Click here to visit her website.  She can also be tracked down on Facebook and Twitter.

My First Book and (another) Baby

In the late spring of 2011, I received word from Autumn House Press that my manuscript, Favorite Monster, was a finalist for their annual fiction contest.  The manuscript had, in previous years, been a finalist for similar competitions (the Flannery O’Connor Award and the New American Press Fiction Prize), but it had never won, and part of me thought, Well, that’s nice, but we all know it’s never going to happen.  My therapist likes to tell me I’m a loyal skeptic, and my consistent doubt about my writing is a great example of what this entails: I was committed to editing and submitting my work, but I doubted it would ever be good enough to find a happy home.  In general, I believe I’m protecting myself by assuming the worst.

A couple of weeks later, my cell phone buzzed, and I glanced at it and then chose to ignore it, not recognizing the number.  I worked as an information specialist at the Spokane Valley Library, and I was running late, handing off my toddler to my mom, scurrying (as usual) to find my keys and glasses.  The phone buzzed again, indicating a message left, and I put it to my ear and listened to it as I headed out the door.

It was Michael Simms of Autumn House Press.  Stewart O’Nan, a writer I deeply admired (and still do), had finished reading the manuscripts ahead of schedule, and he’d already chosen the winner.  Could I give Michael a call back, please?  He had news that would likely make me very happy.  I turned around, trembling, and reentered the house.

My mom was downstairs in our basement.  She has always been a hard-working woman, the sort who must be helping someone or cleaning something at all times, and she was already at work on our intimidating mountain of laundry.  She was a lifesaver for me then.  I was exhausted.  I had recently had an MRI for numbness in my legs, and three lesions on my brain suggested multiple sclerosis, although my doctor at the time dropped the ball when my symptoms subsided and I would not be officially diagnosed for another two years (right about when my debut novel sold—another “first time”).  I was also, as I would learn two weeks later, pregnant with my second child.  My mom’s industriousness made me both keenly guilty and grateful.

My mom probably thought I was sick as I approached, pale and shaking, still gripping my phone.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

I enfolded her in a hug.

“I think I won,” I said, and I started to sob.  “I think I won the fiction contest.  They just called.  I think they’re going to publish my book!”

My mom, with her big heart, started crying, too.  We stood there in my dank, unfinished basement crying together, and when my hands stopped shaking, I had the wherewithal to say, “Well, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.  Maybe I’m a runner-up or something.”

That would make me happy, too, I told myself, but I hoped, and hoped hard, that the book would be published.

I called Michael back but he wasn’t there, having left for lunch, so I drove to work with my phone sitting on the passenger seat.  Michael called right as I pulled into the Spokane Valley Library’s parking lot.  To my relief and absolute joy, it was true: Stewart O’Nan had selected Favorite Monster as the winner.  My book would be published the following year.  I could not thank Michael enough.  I must have sounded like a crazy person, jabbering and laughing and crying into the phone like a total nutjob, but I’m sure he’s used to it, having published so many of us fledgling writers.

A couple of weeks later, I figured out I was pregnant.  My April 2012 publication date coincided amusingly with my pregnancy: Louise was born on 4-12-12.  She came on a day I was scheduled to be on a humor panel with writers Jess Walter, Steve Almond, and Shawn Vestal, which was to be the first big event of my literary career.  I missed that great event, but I took part in an even bigger one, and I have no regrets about it.

My first book, my second child.  It was an amazing year.


  1. I love this.
    Congratulations Sharma, you deserve it.

  2. Books are the second most wonderful kind of babies.