MORZANT: Zulko, humans. Today I’m talking with Sherry Shahan, the author Bigfoot says he’d most like to dance the tango with. Sherry, until I prepared for this interview it never occurred to me that I have something in common with many Earth writers. Can you guess what it is?
SHERRY SHAHAN: We can fly without wings.
MORZANT: No, actually I was referring to the shared need scientists and writers have for—wait. Earth writers can fly? How did I manage to overlook that in my studies of Earth literature? I’m truly embarrassed. I’m usually extremely thorough in my research. In fact, “research” is the answer to the question I posed to you. I’m used to thinking of research as an exclusively scientific pursuit, but it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that research can be important to Earth literature, too. That’s why I’m thrilled for this opportunity to speak with you, someone who represents an amalgam of two of my own passions: research and Earth literature. Naturally you must research the topics of your non-fiction works, but it’s especially fascinating to me that your fictional works also rely heavily on information gleaned through research. I’m curious to know if there is any difference between your fiction and non-fiction research methods.
SS: Fiction, non-fiction, picture book or novel. I approach each project individually. Adventure novel DEATH MOUNTAIN was inspired by a personal experience. While attempting to summit Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous U.S., my backpacking party was caught in a deadly electrical storm. The pack mule and horse were struck by lightning and killed. When I decided to turn the experience into a novel, I studied the geological history of the area, as well as its animal and plant life. During my research, I learned how to make a fish trap and what plants my characters could safely eat.
MORZANT: A commendable research method and not dissimilar to the one I follow in my scientific pursuits, with the notable exception of exposing myself to the elements. I prefer my laboratory’s uniform climate to that of Earth’s erratic great outdoors.
Did the research for your current novel, PURPLE DAZE, include personal experiences as well? Please forgive me. I don’t know a more polite way to ask if you’re old enough to have been alive during the 60s.
SS: PURPLE DAZE was inspired by letters from a friend who was in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. I’d kept them in a shoe box nearly fifty years. Along with the usual research (newspaper accounts and other books about the era), I spent hours talking with Vietnam vets. Their stories revealed fascinating details not found in secondary research. One guy told me he hung hand grenades on the “T” handle of his truck’s front windshield for easy access. I knew that would go in the book.
MORZANT: You’ve already mentioned the dramatic events that provoked you to write DEATH MOUNTAIN. To name just a few other adventures you’ve undertaken in the name of literary research, you’ve ridden on a dogsled, surfed, kayaked and camped out in Alaska, and participated in dance competitions. Actually, I’m not sure that the dancing was research-related, but dancing in public is an adventurous undertaking as far as I’m concerned. On your Web site, you state that such experiences are “part of the fun of being a writer” and that it’s the author’s job to bring such experiences by way of the written word to the less adventurous, among which, for the record, I count myself. Alternatively, other authors I’ve spoken with have professed that an excuse to embellish the truth is their writing impetus. Are you ever tempted to write a story that requires absolutely no research whatsoever, maybe featuring magical creatures who exist in a completely fabricated world and who can defy the laws of physics?
SS: Even my picture books for the youngest readers, such as SPICY HOT COLORS: COLORES PICANTES, required research. The only way to taste freshly baked buñuelos was to make them myself. That’s how I knew what a bite sounded like. Research is part of my DNA (which I just looked up to make sure it’s all caps).
MORZANT: I’ve never examined my DNA for that trait as you have. But, like you, I feel that research is a part of my essence.
Many writers record observations and ponderings in a journal that they later refer to while working on their novel. In my scientific studies, I meticulously record observations and data on a Zeentonian device called a Mytronomar. I assume you document your research as you gather it in the field. Have you ever lost important notes to the elements or to a hungry rhinoceros?
SS: My “journal” consists of the back of grocery lists, cash register receipts, cocktail napkins, etc. My “filing cabinet” includes endless piles on the floor by my desk, the top of which is cluttered with Post-its. It’s a scary way to work. Raw and primitive.
MORZANT: That does seem a bit risky and in perfect concurrence with your adventurous nature.
You’ve written two fictional novels about young humans fighting for their survival in the wilderness. DEATH MOUNTAIN, which we’ve discussed, takes place in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The setting for FROZEN STIFF is Alaska where a shifting glacier leaves the main characters stranded without food in an inhospitable environment. Each of these novels contains an “Author’s Note” where you explain that the stories originated when you began to ask yourself a series of “what if” questions after your own exploration of those places. Alaska and the Sierra Nevada Mountains are settings rich with story possibilities. Do you ever find yourself asking “what if” in more mundane settings such as the grocery store or while napping on the couch?
SS: What if the battery in my alarm clock died and I never woke up? Could I write an entire novel while asleep? I scribbled that note on a matchbook cover, er, somewhere.
MORZANT: A novel authored by a somnambulist? That would make for an intriguing experiment. Please let me know if you ever try it.
Do you have any new research excursions planned? Ones you plan to maintain consciousness for?
SS: It’s sometimes dangerous to discuss future plans, because you never know who might be listening. Ideas, like fast-food mustard packets, are easily stolen. But since we’re such good friends I’ll tell you that I’ll be spending July in Istanbul. (I rarely mention how many times I’ve been to Cuba, because our Treasury Department frowns on it.)
MORZANT: Oh, dear. I was under the impression that those mustard packets were complimentary. I have so much to learn about Earth customs.
Speaking of future plans, Briar the Psychic Beagle asked me to pass along a message to you. I apologize, but I can’t seem to remember what it was. All I remember is that she said it was urgent. I hope it comes back to me eventually.
In the meantime, speaking of dangerous, I feel compelled to urge you to pursue less hazardous topics that won’t require you put yourself in jeopardy for the sake of research. Actually, because I suspect your brain isn’t wired to consider less perilous topics, I’ve compiled a short list of suggestions: cribbage, the use and history of rocking chairs, famous lepidopterists. And because you obviously enjoy camping, how about campfire activities?
SS: I’m getting a visual. Cribbage in a rocking chair strapped to the wing of a biplane at 20,000 feet.
MORZANT: As I feared, thrill seeking must be as much a part of your DNA as research.
On a side note, I have to ask about your “worst things about camping” list posted on your Web site. After bears, rain, and mosquitoes, you name the aggravation of “frogs in your sleeping bag” as a drawback to camping. I’ve never heard of the frog-in-sleeping-bag phenomenon. Have you experienced it often? How do you coax the slumberous amphibians out?
SS: Whisper sweet words where their ears should be and a frog will follow you anywhere. As everyone knows the eardrum of a frog is a large exposed disk behind its eye on each side of its head.
MORZANT: Yes, it’s called the tympanum. I have a similar physical trait, though I am not a frog.
You may be aware that I frequently bemoan the lack of gastropods in Earth literature and that I encourage the authors I interview to consider including gastropods in their future books. In your case, no such exhortation is necessary. While studying your work I was delighted to find your non-fiction book BARNACLES EAT WITH THEIR FEET: DELICIOUS FACTS ABOUT THE TIDE POOL FOOD CHAIN. It includes entries about sea slugs and snails. It also introduced me to a gastropod I was previously unfamiliar with, the limpet. Thank you.
I noticed that not only did you write BARNACLES EAT WITH THEIR FEET, you also photographed the tide pool creatures featured in the book. I then discovered that you’re the photographer for several other books as well. Is photography an extension of your writing or is writing an extension of your photography?
SS: Early in my career as a travel writer I discovered my articles were more marketable if I could provide images. Since I was already a hobbyist in that art form I thought, Why not? Many years passed before I decided to try photo-illustrated books for children.
MORZANT: There’s an Earth expression that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” As both a writer and a photographer, do you believe there is anything a photograph can contribute to story that is beyond the power of words?
SS: An emotion seen on someone’s face can be so telling, yet so difficult to convey in words. Emotions can even be captured visually with inanimate objects. It’s very tricky with words.
MORZANT: For some, photographs are as problematic as words. Bigfoot’s photography impediment prevents him from taking a clear photograph. Do you have any suggestions for what might be causing his inability to produce a decent photograph?
SS: The problem may be in the developing trays. And I suggest checking your dark room for light leaks. A dark fabric will fix it.
MORZANT: Those are excellent theories that I already tested. Since the problem persists in digital cameras as well, I suspected both theories would be disproved. Even so, as a scientist I can’t rely on assumptions and I was obligated to test the theories. I did and my original doubts were confirmed. That led me to hypothesize that Bigfoot’s photography impediment isn’t an external problem, rather its cause must be—I’m sorry. I tend to get distracted by this topic. Let’s return to our discussion of your work.
You’ve written several bilingual picture books: COOL CATS COUNTING; SPICY HOT COLORS: COLORES PICANTES; and FIESTA!: A CELEBRATION OF LATINO FESTIVALS. ¿Hablas español?
SS: No comprendo.
MORZANT: ¡Qué lástima!
These books are informative, combining Spanish and English to educate young readers about counting, colors, and Latino celebrations. However, they also employ a playful use of language in the form of poetry. Further evidence of your interest in poetry exists in DEATH MOUNTAIN in that the main character writes song lyrics. It’s little surprise, then, that your newest novel is written in part as poetry. PURPLE DAZE is a young adult novel that presents a cast of teenaged characters in the year 1965. Interspersed with poems written from the points of view of fictional characters are actual quotations and details of real happenings from that year. Blending research material with fiction is your forte, but was there an additional challenge to balancing the facts of the period with this book’s poetry format?
SS: The historical pieces were chosen because I thought they added authenticity: a mirror reflecting the vibe of the sixties, politically and socially. When I read about Norman Morrison, father of three, who set himself on fire to protest the Vietnam war, I sat at my computer and cried. Later I included the story behind Arlo Guthrie’s famed song “You Can Get Anything You Want At Alice’s Restaurant.” I could have added more snippets from history, but I didn’t want PURPLE DAZE to seem text-bookish.
Ultimately, it’s a story about six high school friends during a tumultuous time.
MORZANT: I just now remembered Briar’s message to you. She asked me to thank you for not choosing to write about the year 1964. I deemed it imprudent to attempt to explain to her that even had the book been set in 1964, you wouldn’t have included President Lyndon Johnson picking up his beagle by the ears in a book with such serious subject matter as the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Hmm…that doesn’t seem like a very urgent message, does it? I wonder if there was something else she wanted me to tell you.
In any case, you very specifically chose to write about 1965 and how that year’s events affect the characters as they deal with issues typical to teenagers. As you wrote the book, did you feel that teenagers from 1965 would have a distinct appeal to today’s young readers?
SS: I don’t think about my readers while I’m working on a novel. With PURPLE DAZE in particular, I was completely focused on my characters and their sometimes humorous, ultimately dramatic lives.
MORZANT: Can you elaborate on the title of your book? My friend Norman the Half-Invisible Turtle told me it’s a play on an old song title, but it’s rarely advisable to believe anything he says.
SS: Norman is right on! “Purple Daze” is a nod to one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest songs, “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix, released in 1967. For many, it’s his signature song.
MORZANT: Norman told me the truth? This is a momentous occasion! Either that, or you’re pulling my leg, too. In that case, I’ll need to reexamine your claim that wingless Earth writers can fly. Considering my past conversations with authors, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find myself doubting the statements of even a research-obsessed storyteller.
Taking into account that you incorporated personal experiences in your previous novels, and putting aside my current apprehension as to the veracity of what you say, in addition to the letters you received from your friend who served in Vietnam what personal experiences did you draw from while writing PURPLE DAZE?
SS: Don’t tell my daughters, but like Cheryl in the novel, I used to crawl out my bedroom window in the middle of the night to meet friends. During the Watts Riots we drove the Los Angeles freeways looking for a break in the National Guard barrier. We wanted to see the fires and devastation up close. We were dangerously curious kids.
MORZANT: And you’ve grown into a dangerously curious adult. I’m almost afraid of how you’ll answer my final question. It’s a hypothetical question I constructed factoring in your penchant for adventure, your desire for firsthand experiences, and the interest in history you demonstrated by writing PURPLE DAZE: If you had access to a time machine and could travel anywhere to conduct research for a novel, where and when would you go?
SS: Seventy-five years in the future to write about my grandson’s grandson as an angst-riddled teen.
MORZANT: Your answer provides further evidence of your intrepid spirit. To my mind, there’s nothing so frightening as the future, except maybe a rabid Zeentonian Merflatulope.
Thank you, Sherry. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you. And, thank you for joining us, humans. Until next time—wait a moment. I remember Briar’s urgent message for Sherry! Oh, dear, she’s already left. Well, I’m sure if she really does go skydiving she’ll carefully inspect her parachute first. Until next time, humans, good-bye!
Some of Sherry Shahan’s books:
SPICY HOT COLORS: COLORES PICANTES
(illustrated by Paula Barragán; August House LittleFolk, 2004)
COOL CATS COUNTING
(illustrated by Paula Barragán; August House LittleFolk, 2005)
THAT’S NOT HOW YOU PLAY SOCCER, DADDY
(illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss; Peachtree, 2007)
FIESTA!: A CELEBRATION OF LATINO FESTIVALS
(illustrated by Paula Barragán; August House LittleFolk, 2009)
(Sherry is also the photographer for these books)
BARNACLES EAT WITH THEIR FEET: DELICIOUS FACTS ABOUT
THE TIDE POOL FOOD CHAIN
(Millbrook Press, 1996)
THE LITTLE BUTTERFLY
(Random House, 1998)
DASHING THROUGH THE SNOW: THE STORY OF THE JR. IDITAROD
(Mondo, 2007; originally Millbrook Press, 1997)
CURRENT MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS
(Delacorte-Random House, 1998)
FUTURE MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL
(as predicted by Briar the Psychic Beagle)
(Delacorte-Random House, 2012)
(Running Press Teens-Running Press Book Publishers, 2011)