Lesser Moons and Folding Chairs
We can’t wait to see everyone at our annual fundraiser of food, wine, and words in Spokane this Friday! The event features prominent Pacific Northwest authors reading original work written specially for the event. This year Jess Walter, Charles Johnson, Sharma Shields, and Simeon Mills will write to the theme of “Quarter Moon.” Journalist E.J. Iannelli sat down with Sharma and Simeon to talk about their story, “The Support Group for Lesser Moons.”
Sharma Shields and her husband Simeon “Sam” Mills are each artists in their own right. Shields is the author of The Cassandra (2019) and The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac (2016) as well as the short story collection Favorite Monster (2012). Mills is a graphic artist who also has a novel of his own, The Obsoletes (2019), as well as a graphic novel, Butcher Paper (2015).
For the first time—in an official capacity, at any rate—the Spokane-based couple will be pooling their respective talents for a reading at the 2023 Spokane Bedtime Stories event. Shields will read her original short story while Mills presents his accompanying original illustrations.
Sharma, how many times have you participated in the Bedtime Stories event?
SS: There have been a few for sure. I think this is four or five. For one—and I think the theme for that event was Red Eye—I wrote a short story called “Identity Theft.” It was about a husband who could steal anyone’s identity for himself and literally become that other person. And it was also about how much his wife ends up really wanting him to become another person.
Another year I wrote one that ended up being published in Catapult. That one was called “Residents of the Air.” It was about houses that end up floating out of this particular neighborhood during a very fiery summer when there’s a ton of forest fires. And while those houses lift up into the sky, there are still a lot of houses left down below. So the people that are the residents of the air live a very privileged life, whereas the people below them are suffering.
And I’ve also written a story for Bedtime Stores that I really didn’t like. I can’t even remember the title of it. I think I’ve tried to forget. But it was almost like I was trying too hard to be funny. Or at least that the way I felt about it. Then again, I’m a person that can be very hard on my own work.
And now this is the big 25th anniversary of the event, which bears the theme Quarter Moon. How are you running with that theme?
SS: I wrote a short story called “The Support Group for Lesser Moons.” It involves crescent moon, quarter moon, gibbous and new moon holding a support group in a school auditorium. And it’s about them lamenting the fact that they don’t feel whole. It’s based on some of my own experiences in AA and some other support group situations.
That fantastical conceit is very much at home with your other fiction, no?
SS: Yeah, I mean, it’s funny, because I write these really metaphorical, really fantastical pieces, but I almost feel like I take the themes the most literally. It’s like I hear the theme of Quarter Moon, and then all of a sudden Quarter Moon is literally a character within my work. I find that kind of amusing.
And Simeon, what’s your role in all this?
SM: Well, my contribution is to illustrate Sharma’s story. I remember when she was first discussing that theme of Quarter Moon and being like, ‘Quarter moon? What can possibly relate to that?’ And we were like, ‘Well, maybe you can just write about anything and just kind of tie a quarter moon into it somewhere at the end.’ But it ended up being very much about moons as characters, so I’ll be illustrating those characters.
There’s a lot of conversation and dialogue, though, so if you didn’t see them as moons, they could be people. It’s my job to show them as these surreal entities as well as to convey all the emotions that they’re going through, because they’re going through quite a bit. They’re confiding in each other, and even though there’s humor in the story, there are also some serious topics, because they’re there to help one another. All of that is what I’m trying to capture visually. In the end, there will be about 100 to 150 different illustrations.
“I write these really metaphorical, really fantastical pieces, but I almost feel like I take the themes the most literally. It’s like I hear the theme of Quarter Moon, and then all of a sudden Quarter Moon is literally a character within my work. I find that kind of amusing.”
Does that mean you’re taking that same literal-meets-fantastical approach?
At a certain point, you just have to kind of take a leap of faith that they’re going to look like this or that. So they do look like the moon phases…
SS: … right down to the texture, which is so cool…
SM: … yeah, they have a moon’s surface, but they also have faces. I think people are somewhat used to seeing faces on moons. You can even just look up at the moon and see a face in it. But these are fairly human faces. There was also some discussion as to whether they should have bodies. These representations don’t have bodies. They’re just moons — floating moons. But, as is often the case with support groups, they’ll be moons in folding chairs in a circle facing each other.
SS: They have a mantra too. I’m not sure if I can remember the exact wording, but it’s something like, ‘We do not have to be full to be whole.’
So was this unique text-and-image pairing something that Humanities Washington suggested to you? Or was it something you proposed to them?
SS: They asked us right before the pandemic to team up on something. They knew that Simeon is a graphic artist. He does comics and he teaches for the design program at Eastern Washington University, so they knew that we could pair his illustrations with my work.
It’s very cool because we have a lot of collaboration that always happens between us. We collaborate on a daily basis. We collaborate with everything – our careers, parenthood, our relationship, writing. I’m positive that Simeon has edited almost every piece I’ve written, and this was such a cool way to take that one step further. He would give me some illustrations, and we would talk about the way that these characters look based on my early draft of the story. And then the characters would change. He is defining how the characters are evolving within the story, and it’s very fun for me to then go back in and make the story better by giving each moon more personality and sort of cleaning up scenes based on what you see. And he always sees things in such a visual way.
We actually met in grad school in Missoula in the MFA program there, so I knew him first as just a writer. But I just love the visual way that he approaches his work and my work. It makes this project so much better. I feel like it’s going to be really fun for the audience to see.
In other words, this has been an iterative process where the text informed the visuals that then informed the text?
SM: Definitely. You know, when you’re trying to tell stories with both images and words, there’s always a bit of back and forth. There are strong elements of text that can inspire an image-based choice. And then the choice in your head is one thing, but how you execute it once you finally make the drawing further changes it. There’s also the matter of timing as the images are shown. Sometimes a pause can be effective to let the illustration linger if it shows a changing emotion.
SS: And another thing to keep in mind is that there are several stories embedded within the overall arc of the story. For example, Endymion makes an appearance. That’s from the Greek myth about the shepherd who’s sleeping and the moon passes overhead and falls in love with the shepherd, and then they end up having a lot of sleepy babies together. There’s a Grimm fairy tale in there too. And in this children’s picture book that I love, illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa, there’s a story about the moon maiden, and I pull from that as well. I almost wanted it to be little jewelry boxes of stories within this larger story. And Simeon’s input is even going to influence how I’m reading the work aloud. It’s a whole new process for me.
Speaking of that process, has Simeon shown you every sketch so far, or are there still some that are waiting to be revealed?
SS: I still need to see “the smile.” He told me that there’s one image that depicts what’s probably the most gutting portion of the story. And the story, as a lot of my work does, goes to a pretty difficult place, and he said that he made a choice to have one of the moons smiling as she’s telling the audience this part of the story. So he was kind of warning me in advance. But I have a feeling that, when I see it, it’s probably going to be pretty moving and real. I love that he’s always thinking outside of the box like that. Because we do smile through pain. We smile through anger. And that’s really what this moment is — a lot of anger that this character is going through.
And are these accompanying images going to come in the form of a slideshow or more like a cartoon?
SM: At EWU, I teach a class called Visual Storytelling, and the students make animatics, which are kind of like storyboards with audio. I think maybe that’s the closest thing. So, it’s still images, but there will be moments when they move somewhat rapidly—every few seconds—to catalogue the moment-by-moment changes in emotion that people go through all the time. And that’s one of my favorite things about illustrating something like this, where characters themselves are telling stories. And I feel like people’s changing expressions while they’re telling stories add just as much to it. So I’m trying to capture those changes on their faces, which, again, is kind of playing off the story that’s being told.
During all this creative collaboration between the two of you, have you also chatted with your fellow Bedtime Stories storytellers, Jess Walter and Charles Johnson, to see what they’re working on?
SS: Jess and I were joking around about it at his house at the end of August, back when we were both at the start of writing it. He told me he was going to put a dog named Quarter Moon in it, but I don’t think he meant that. I just know that I’m always excited to hear what Jess writes. He always brings the entire range of emotion into his work, and it’s always a moving experience to see him read.
And I’m very excited to be there with Charles Johnson, who I met in an elevator at the University of Washington when I was a literature student there. There was a really astonishing novel that he wrote, Middle Passage, with some really incredible writing. I introduced myself to him, and he was really kind to me. I was really thrilled to meet him back then, and I’m looking forward to seeing him again at Bedtime Stories.
E.J. Iannelli is the arts and music director at Spokane Public Radio, and a freelance writer, editor, and translator. He’s a regular contributor to regional newspapers and magazines as well as the Times Literary Supplement.