Rebecca Adams Wright’s new story collection, The Thing About Great White Sharks, just came out this week, and she kindly stopped by to answer a few of my questions. Please give her a warm welcome!
Will you tell us a bit about your new collection, The Thing About Great White Sharks?
This collection is the literary equivalent of the big family reunion you might throw if it were possible to invite all your crazy relatives living, dead, and not-yet-born. The stories are unified by themes of love and communication, and a lot of them share a dark absurdity and a certain obsession with animals. Pets and urban creatures show up a lot in these stories, in part because I think the way we interact with the animals we’ve made a part of our daily lives says a lot about us as individuals and as a species.
Other than those connective links, the collection runs pretty wild. I’ve written science fiction stories, stories with fantasy elements, and a few stories that you could say have no speculative angle at all (though even those stories are a bit…eccentric.) Some of the stories are set in modern small-town America and others take place outside our galaxy thousands of years from now. There are flash fictions tucked in between longer stories. Aliens. Ghosts. Ornithopters. Cats and dogs, living together. Mass hysteria! Okay, maybe no hysteria. But you get my point.
Do you have any personal favorites in the collection?
My favorites change all the time, depending on what aspect of craft I’m focused on at the moment. That said, I’ve always felt that “Yuri, in a Blue Dress” captured the tone I wanted. I’m also happy with the absurdity of the collection’s title story, “The Thing About Great White Sharks,” the narrative voice of “Orchids,” and the odd-duck actors in “Melville Loves Hawthorne.” My story “Tiger Bright” took a long time to get right and I’m very proud of how it turned out. I think that piece is a good representation of my work.
You have MFA in fiction, but have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a little more about yourself and your background?
I’ve been writing stories since I can remember—as a kid, I used to bind them into books with illustrated covers. Lots of them were about monsters, or animals who transformed in some way, and I guess that hasn’t changed. I always knew that I wanted to make writing my career. It was just a matter of practicing and maturing to a point where the work was strong enough to speak for itself.
I came to my MFA program at a great time: I was young and enthusiastic, committed to the craft, and had lots of ideas, but the vignettes I was writing weren’t full stories yet. At the University of Michigan, I learned to slow down, explore my characters, and really push them into crisis. I absorbed so much in such a short time, not only from the faculty but from the other writers in my cohort.
A few years later, I attended the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop out at the University of California, San Diego. That was my second transformative experience. Clarion was where I learned about this thing called plot, and how to write concisely while teasing out narrative tension. I met people there who not only celebrated weirdness but were looking to expand the boundaries of what was possible in short stories. The blending of these two experiences had a profound impact on the writer I am today.
What authors, stories, or books have inspired you the most, in your writing, and in life?
That’s a tough one! The list is so long because, of course, different authors and books speak to you at different times in your life. With that as a disclaimer, some of the authors that have inspired my own recent work are George Saunders, Karen Joy Fowler, Neil Gaiman, Richard Matheson, Haruki Murakami, Ursula Hegi, Kelly Link, Alissa Nutting, Andy Duncan, and Helena Bell.
It’s no coincidence that all of these writers have penned exceptional short stories or story collections. That’s the mode I’ve been working in for a long time. But I’ve also been influenced by some incredible novels. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day showed me how much could be accomplished by eliding and writing with restraint, and P.G. Wodehouse’s incomparable farces demonstrated the exact opposite. I still go back to novels like Right Ho, Jeeves every time I want entanglements and word play and generally perfect silliness. I received Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts as a wedding gift a few years ago and have never gotten it out of my mind—I love the way that the movement of text on the page becomes part of that experimental narrative.
I also love a good book on the writer’s craft. Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife was a beacon of hope for me, full of practical advice about building and maintaining a professional career as well as a private writing discipline. Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel is an absolutely brilliant overview of the dialogue books have been having since even before the invention of the novel form. Whenever I turn back to that book I get fired up to join the conversation.
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
I want to say the Lord of the Rings, which I just realized is not technically one book. So, maybe The Fellowship of the Ring? Lots of people consider that the dullest in the trilogy, but I love Tolkien’s evocative descriptions of the countryside and the careful unspooling of detail used to set the scene for the rest of his great epic.
What are you currently reading?
I have a habit of reading several books at once. I just picked up Neil Gaiman’s new collection Trigger Warning, which so far is eerie and delightful, and I’m on the second book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. I really enjoyed Annihilation, so I’m looking forward to the new perspective Authority promises on all the Florida-based weirdness. I’m also reading a book about chicken coops (my girls desperately need a new house).
You’ve got your pick of any literary guest (real or fictional), for a dinner party. Who would be on your guest list?
I’d say Sherlock Holmes, whom I admire in the abstract, but he would be a terrible dinner guest. You know who I’d love to actually have a meal with? Lynda Barry. I just finished rereading her graphic collections One Hundred Demons and The Greatest of Marlys, and I was reminded all over again of the power of precise observation. Her books are so humane and expansive and they capture just perfectly the terrible, awkward, beautiful strangeness of childhood. Sherlock is clever, Lynda Barry is wise. I love the way she eschews labels and encourages everyone to make art. Plus, she has the added benefit of being alive!
When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
I’m a quilter—nothing fancy, but it’s a hobby I enjoy. When I’m sewing I feel the abiding pleasure of physical craft, which lets my hands do one thing while my mind wanders off to assimilate snippets of all sorts. I also have a marvelous baby daughter who devours both free time and books. (The books she devours literally.) I spend a lot of the time we’re not playing peekaboo or push-the-ball patrolling the bookshelves at home.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m working on a novel about a single teen dad who discovers that his son is maybe not quite…human. I’ve been playing with the concept for a while—I wrote a short story many years ago that planted the seed of my protagonist’s dilemma—and two summers ago I got some great feedback on my outline at Kij Johnson’s fantastic Novel Writers Workshop, hosted by the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction. So I’m ready to attack! I’m a few chapters in and feeling good about where the story might be headed. My narrator is a stubborn character with his own ideas about the novel’s trajectory, however, so anything could happen.
About The Thing About Great White Sharks:
In this collection’s richly imagined title story, our brutal and resourceful protagonist is determined to protect her family from a murderous, shark-ridden world—at any cost. Elsewhere, an old woman uncovers a sinister plot while looking after a friend’s plants (“Orchids”), and a girl in the war-torn countryside befriends an unlikely creature (“Keeper of the Glass”). In “Barnstormers,” a futuristic flying circus tries to forestall bankruptcy with one last memorable show. At the heart of “Sheila” is the terrible choice a retired judge must make when faced with the destruction of his beloved robotic dog, and “Yuri, in a Blue Dress” follows one of the last survivors of an alien invasion as she seeks help.
Extending from World War II to the far future, these fifteen stories offer a gorgeously observed perspective on our desire for connection and what it means to have compassion—for ourselves, for one another, for our past…and for whatever lies beyond.