In her novels and short stories, Sharma Shields mines veins of horror and myth that run through everyday desperation. So what better subject than Washington’s own Hanford Nuclear Reservation? The Spokane author of The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac and the story collection Favorite Monster spent the summer completing a new novel, The Cassandra, focused on that historic and deeply troubled facility.
She admits the work has penetrated into her dreams. “I actually had a dream of nuclear warfare,” she says. “I’ve never had that sort of thing before . . . This work is definitely getting into my subconscious.”
Shields plumbs her subconscious yet further October 27 for Bedtime Stories Spokane, one of Humanities Washington’s two major fundraising events of the year. For the evening’s theme “Beacon in the Night,” she crafted the original short story “Light House.” Of course there’s a Shieldsian element of the fantastic: In this story, she says, “the houses are so light they’re floating through the air. That’s kind of the most I’ll give away right now.”
For The Cassandra, Shields delved deep into the legacy of Hanford, in part fueled by another Spokane writer. Journalist Karen Dorn Steele documented the effects of radioactive drift on communities and ecosystems downwind from the facility; her 1985 Spokesman-Review article “The Night the ‘Little Demons’ Were Born” reported on a slew of deformed births among livestock in the drift zone. The scene could have come from Shields’ own fiction, if it weren’t real life.
Her third Bedtime Stories appearance is a homecoming of sorts, as Shields’ fellow author Jess Walter receives the Humanities Washington Award. The two have known each other since Shields was sixteen and wrote articles for Walter’s wife Anne, then a features editor at the Spokane Spokesman-Review.
Humanities Washington: Do you think monster stories prepare us for monstrous happenings in real life?
Sharma Shields: I do. I think that’s why people are attracted to monster stories — because they are such amazing metaphors for life’s difficulties, life’s ugliness, and vulnerability as well. Those are all themes I like to explore in my writing. I also think monsters are fun things to implement in a story. They’re abnormal, and they can heighten the emotional realism of a story with their illogical nature. So for me, I still have such a great time exploring those monstrous themes in my work. I just seem to always be drawn to that surreal touch in my writing. I feel sort of transported by it as I write, and I hope it can trap the reader as well, into a place that’s metaphorical.
Spokane seems to have really blossomed as a literary community in the last several years.
I think so. I have always felt that Spokane has had its fair share of authors, like any town has, but right now what’s so amazing is they’re networking so well. And people are so generous with their time for each other. There’s not really this huge sense of ego going on. People tend to be very gracious and grateful if they have success, and willing to share that with others, and share advice with others. It’s been a powerful place to be. I think it’s not just the literary scene, it’s also the artistic scene in Spokane in general. Just a year or two ago I was at a city council meeting where we asked the city council to triple its public arts funding, and they did it. I feel like it’s kind of uncommon, and it’s such a beautiful thing we’re having here in our town right now.
What are you reading now that you can recommend?
I’m reading the novel Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, which is one the best longer reads I’ve ever consumed. It’s set in Uganda, and it starts in the 1700s and goes all the way to the present, and is basically about a curse on one particular family. Man, I love it so much. It reminds me of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I just went to an incredible exhibit with my kids at the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture in downtown Spokane, and it was the Salish stories. I did feel like when I was there, every painting was doing its own type of storytelling. I think the next one I’m going to read is a translated work, and it’s called The Children, by Carolina Sanín.
Do you find you have to schedule your reading?
I just tend to check out too many books at the library, so I always have a slew of books sitting on the bench next to my bed, and right now, hers is the next one I’m eyeing. But usually I end up having to return some, because I’ve kept them too long and somebody else has a hold on them. It’s part of the fun of working in a library — I’m constantly getting new ideas for things to read.
Writing fantastical and sometimes frightening stories, do you ever write passages that spook even you?
You know, I do. I remember reading years ago that Stephen King, after he would write a really terrifying scene, would find himself looking over his shoulder, out of fear that something would manifest itself from whatever novel or story he was writing. I sometimes get a similar feeling. I notice when I go to bed at night and my mind is dwelling on themes I’ve been writing about, sometimes I have a hard time falling asleep. Particularly with this last novel — there’s some pretty awful things that happen to people in it, women especially. So I feel sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the subject matter, and other times I worry and hope I’m doing it justice. Classic author insecurity.
Shields will be reading as part of Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories fundraiser in Spokane on October 27. Tickets and more information is available here.