Interview with Emily Habeck (SHARK HEART)
Emily Habeck is an alumna of SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts, where she received a BFA in theatre, as well as Vanderbilt Divinity School and Vanderbilt’s Peabody College. She is from Ardmore, Oklahoma. Shark Heart is her first novel.
Welcome to the Hive, Emily. Firstly, congratulations on your stunning debut, Shark Heart. Can you tell our readers a little about it?
Thank you so much Nils! Shark Heart is at its core the story of a woman, Wren, and her husband, Lewis, who over the course of nine months transforms into a great white shark. People have called it magical realism, science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy, but in writing it, my goal was to write about reality and the manifestation of love in different types of relationships as we go through life.
Give us an insight into your characters, Wren, Lewis and Angela? What inspired their contrasting personalities and their characters’ journeys?
Wren is the central character. Lewis, her husband, is Wren’s present, and Angela, her mother, is the past. In the way that we often seek partners who share our parents’ traits, Lewis and Angela are quite similar. Both dreamers and playfully ungrounded at times, they balance Wren’s pragmatism and sense of responsibility.
Each of these characters have insights that have occurred to me at one point or another. The beauty of fiction is that, unlike life, characters can have realizations that stay with them. But for me at least, life is a cyclical process of remembering and forgetting. One moment, I’m like, I’ve got it! But a year or two later, I might learn that same lesson all over again. It gives me peace to imagine Wren, Lewis, and Angela in the literary ether, living beyond this finite story, and that they have retained their wisdom.
Shark Heart wonderfully delves into emotionally heavy themes such as loss, grief and caring for an ill loved one. Were these themes something you had planned to explore from the beginning or did they naturally emerge as you began writing?
The characters in Shark Heart experience some devastating losses that I have not personally faced. So, while I’ve not lost a parent or a partner, I do think I’ve always been acutely sensitive to change, and I think that’s why so much loss turned up in the book.
The shifting of seasons, the change in light throughout the year, birthdays, moving to a new house or city, witnessing my friends get married, have kids, and achieve professional milestones—these are expected and even happy changes, yes, but to me, they are also small deaths and reminders that life moves so fast. My anxiety about time passing and my fear of not fully realizing or appreciating people, places, and seasons while they’re here is something I reflected upon while writing.
I have to ask Emily, what inspired you to write about people spontaneously mutating into animals? Did you have to do much research into these animals to include details of the transformation?
Like many writers, I am inspired by the natural world both in its everydayness and the magnificent, sublime extremes. Writing about animals and humans in relationship with each other seems like an extension of that awe. Animals obviously have a more intimate reliance on nature and the elements than humans, and whenever I am camping or hiking for an extended time, I feel closer to that animal reality. And you didn’t ask, but yes, I am the kind of person who gets worried about the bunnies and the birds during a blizzard.
Some writers research for years before ever writing a word of the manuscript, and I find that so admirable. The patience! But I love to get right to it and focusing on technicalities too early kind of stresses me out. With Shark Heart, I did a little research as I went, but most of the research happened toward the end of the process. I wanted to write a book where the facts and research enhance the stakes of the story, complicate the characters’ inner lives, and give readers just enough information to stay emotionally engaged but not so much that it becomes intellectual, creating distance.
If you could mutate into any animal, which would you choose and why?
I love this question so much! Well, let’s say it’s just for a day—I am superstitious (and not that this would ever happen), but I don’t want to invite calamity! Today, a honeybee sounds very appealing. For one, a beehive seems like a nice community. Two, I love flowers. Three, I would love to fly. Four, honeybees are such good pollinators, and I wouldn’t mind making myself useful.
Now let’s discuss your innovative narrative style (which I personally loved so much!) Had you always planned to write a mixture of drama script, blank verse poetry and third person narration? How easy was it for you to build a picture of Wren, Lewis and Angela’s lives using this mixture? Did you come across any difficulties?
From the start, Shark Heart had an intuition all its own. The choice to use multiple styles and forms just felt right. I have a background in theater and film and writing in those forms is just as natural to me as prose. And one of the things I love about poetry is how it leaves negative space on the page. The world can be so intense and loud, and I am all about finding spaces that are quiet amidst the chaos. Sometimes, I gravitate to poetry simply because of how the words are arranged on the page. My reading mind needs horizons and breathing room, too! Novels are absorbing and wonderful, but they are also very stimulating. I hope Shark Heart feels like the best of both worlds— an engaging narrative with space to be and breathe.
The only real challenge I faced was my own self-trust. There are so many ideas about the right way to write a novel and get published. At a certain point, I just had to trust the current pulling me and put the external voices aside. I have a friend who’ll jokingly say “There are no rules!” At least in writing, I think it’s probably true.
We see such varying opinions from authors when it comes to the time of editing their books. How have you found the editing process? Enjoyable, stressful or satisfying?
Editing is the best part of the process and why I love writing. When I am revising my own work, which happens countless times before my agent or editor sees it, it is a cross between solving a mystery and going on a treasure hunt. When I’ve been living with a project for a long time, my unconscious mind starts to harmonize with the story’s lifeforce, and all kinds of surprising things start to happen. There is no more enjoyable or rewarding experience.
After I did my own work on Shark Heart, my editor, Marysue Rucci, asked such great questions, things I had not even considered. Her suggestions never felt like critiques but rather, invitations. I cannot recall a time feeling so energized, purposeful, and joyful in a creative context than when I was working on her notes.
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover and the flower-shark artwork on your book is gorgeous! How involved in the process were you? Was this a particular aesthetic you hoped the artist would portray?
Thank you! I love it, too! The artist, Vi-An Nguyen, is totally brilliant, and I can’t stop thanking her. She came up with about a dozen cover designs, and each of them reflected a facet of the book close to my heart. From big skies to the heartbreak of loving someone slipping through your arms—she just got it. The cover we chose is one that struck everyone on the team unanimously. It was an amazing moment. The flowers on the shark are wildflowers native to Oklahoma and Texas, where part of the book takes place. These wildflowers bloom in the spring, which hopefully tells the reader that while Shark Heart has its share of goodbyes, it is full beginnings, too.
Just for fun, how would you pitch your book as a 1-star review?
Ha, okay! “Aren’t great white sharks supposed to eat people? Very disappointed that the shark in this book is a poet instead of a maneater.”
Who are the most significant authors who have shaped and influenced your work?
This is an almost impossible task; there are so many! Many of the writers who were formative in my creative development are playwrights from Chekhov to Eugene O’Neill to contemporary playwrights like Sarah Ruhl and Suzan-Lori Parks. I read everything by Jennifer Egan, George Saunders, and Anthony Doerr. There is also a special place in my heart for Flannery O’Connor.
What’s next for you, Emily? Can you tell us anything about any upcoming projects?
I am working on a new novel, but my lips are zipped for the time being! I’ve also got a play rattling around in my head, and I would love to adapt Shark Heart for film if the opportunity arises.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
I hope Shark Heart makes readers feel seen and less alone, as so many books have done for me.
Thank you so much for joining us, Emily!