A Q&A with Emily Habeck, Indies Introduce Author of the August Indie Next List Top Pick “Shark Heart”

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Emily Habeck is the author of Shark Heart, a Summer/Fall 2023 Indies Introduce selection as well the August 2023 Indie Next List top pick.

Habeck has a BFA in theater from SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts as well as master’s degrees from Vanderbilt Divinity School and Vanderbilt’s Peabody College. She is from Ardmore, Oklahoma.

Beth Seufer Buss of Bookmarks in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, served on the panel that selected Habeck’s debut for Indies Introduce. Of the experience, Seufer Buss said, “Shark Heart is a powerfully creative debut novel that tells the story of newlyweds Wren and Lewis, and the challenges they face after Lewis is diagnosed with a rare medical condition that transforms his body into that of a great white shark while leaving his mind and memories intact. This beautiful and heartbreaking story explores the power of love, grief, and taking those first steps towards moving on. Habeck eloquently weaves together a compelling narrative that will captivate readers and inspire countless book club discussions.”

Here, Habeck and Seufer Buss discuss the creation of Shark Heart.

Beth Seufer Buss: Shark Heart is such a creative novel, one that will stay with me for a very, very long time. The book tells the story of newlyweds Wren and Lewis, and the challenges they face when Lewis is diagnosed with a rare medical condition that transforms his body into a great white shark while leaving his mind and memories intact. Can you share your inspiration for the story with us?

Emily Habeck: Thank you for your kind words, Beth! Growing up in Oklahoma, the ocean always felt like a wonder and a novelty to me. And even though I’ve lived within an hour from the coast for most of my adult life, I still feel so captivated by its mysteries and vastness. Writing a shark with human sentience was a way of exploring this ecosystem so near and yet so different from our own.

But separately from that, I think Lewis’ transformation into a great white shark was a metaphor for my own inner experience in that time of my life. I was questioning everything I thought I knew for sure. I wondered, what do we do with all the grief in this life? What is the meaning of work and art? How do I genuinely embrace change? Writing Shark Heart was how I made friends with some of those questions.

BSB: I truly felt like I was experiencing Lewis’ transformation into a shark. What was your process for so perfectly capturing the psyche of Lewis (and other characters) before and after their transformations?

EH: Like the character Lewis, I also have a background in theater and acting, and even though I haven’t acted in years, I’m still very much an actor in the way that I write. The characters in Shark Heart experience some devastating losses, tragedies I fortunately have not experienced myself. In lieu of pulling from my own life, I tried to imagine myself having the characters’ experiences, as if I were playing them.

With all of that, writing this book definitely had its moments of emotional labor. So, when people tell me that they cried reading it, I want to reply, “Well, I cried writing it!” And thank god — it’s not just me!

BSB: Were the shifting styles (prose to poetry to dramatic composition) part of your process early on, or did the formatting present itself to you after you’d made progress in the book’s writing?

EH: Yes, the shifting styles were present from the first pages of the first draft. It was an intuitive decision, and it always felt like the right way to tell this story. I was intentional about why certain parts had to be told in a particular way. For example, many of the scripted scenes are moments of derealization where the characters are untethered from themselves, as if they are watching their life happen from above. In the poetry, I hoped to give the reader some breathing room, some readerly quiet time.

Telling the story with varying styles was also a byproduct of my life’s circumstances. Some days, all I had time to write was a line or two, scene, or poem. Rather than set a word count goal, it felt more forgiving and inviting to set goals of moving the characters along in the story. For example, “I want to take a character from point A to B, but I can get there any way I like.”

BSB: In addition to Lewis and Wren’s relationship, you also explore Wren’s relationship with her mother, Angela. Can you speak to the role of intergenerational trauma in the story and how that influences Wren’s present and future?

EH: Intergenerational trauma wasn’t something I consciously named while writing this, but I was considering how we are shaped not only by the people in our lives but also by people who lived before our time. I believe our ancestors live within us, sometimes even as us, in both concrete and spiritual ways.

While Wren and Angela certainly share intergenerational trauma, I think they share other traits as well. Wren is so brave when it comes to overcoming hardship and heartbreak, and I think that resiliency and courage is also intergenerationally learned and inherited.

BSB: One of the major themes of Shark Heart is transformation and change. I think your book is particularly powerful as we come out of the pandemic when so many people experienced grief and loss. What message do you hope readers will take from this story?

EH: I hope Shark Heart is a comfort to readers in some way. Maybe it will be the kind of book that makes people feel less alone. I also hope that it connects readers to their own joy and appreciation for the small, good things in life, as so many books have done for me.

BSB: Bonus question! When we shared the news about Indies Introduce, you spoke about the special relationship between authors and booksellers. I wondered if you could elaborate on that here for readers?

EH: Visiting an independent bookstore makes me feel like I’m experiencing culture as it’s happening, and I know that’s all because of booksellers. They are curators of minds, ideas, inner landscapes, and knowledge. Booksellers do so many amazing things for communities: orchestrating events large and small, supporting new authors (like me!), cultivating inclusive spaces, and reading a prolific number of books to match readers with stories they’ll love. (I must add that bookseller recommendations often end up being my favorite books of all time.) Most of all, booksellers are a critically important bridge between writers and readers. To all the booksellers out there, I could not be more grateful for your support.

Shark Heart: A Love Story by Emily Habeck (Marysue Rucci Books, 9781668006498, Hardcover Fiction, $28) On Sale: 8/8/2023.

Find out more about the author on her website.

ABA member stores are invited to use this interview or any others in our series of Q&As with Indies Introduce debut authors in newsletters and social media and in online and in-store promotions. Please let us know if you do.