What begins as a typical day at the beach ends in tragedy. While swimming in the ocean, with her mother and older brother looking on, Jane loses her arm to a shark. Needless to say, her life changes forever. ( Read my full-length book review. )
The book is a verse novel, and I selected one passage to share with readers for Poetry Friday. I was granted permission to quote the book from the lovely Kelly Bingham, who is here today to be interviewed.
What came first, the desire to write a novel or the plot itself? At what point did it become a verse novel?
Well, I'd wanted to write a novel for a very long time. And I did. I wrote two or three really awful ones. Then in the summer of 2001, the nation had a sudden "rash" of shark attacks around the country. This made me start thinking about what that would be like . . . to be attacked and lose part of yourself and then have it be fodder for the national news. To be the subject of nationwide sympathy (or pity, depending on how you look at it) and maybe even charity drives, cards and letters and gifts from strangers. I wondered what such a thing would do to your personal identity. Wouldn't you always be known as "that kid that was attacked by a shark?" So, I started writing.
In 2003, after you'd already started (or completed?) your manuscript, a young surfer named Bethany Hamilton lost her arm in a shark attack. You mention this tragedy in your book. Have you contacted her at all?
I completed the first draft of my manuscript in October 2003. Just a few days later, Bethany Hamilton was attacked. Like the rest of the world, I was shocked at what she had gone through.
I didn't know what else to do but put the book away for a long time. I knew that my book now looked like something I thought up based on Bethany's personal loss. I didn't want anyone, especially her, thinking I'd just capitalized on her attack. I put Shark Girl away for a year, but finally pulled it out and made some revisions, including adding a mention of her. I couldn't see just skating around the issue of my storyline coinciding with her tragic shark encounter. I finished the book and submitted it in the summer of 2005.
And no, I have not contacted her. I certainly admire the way she has continued on with her surfing and her life with no regrets. She seems like an amazing person.
How much research into attacks, amputation, and recovery did you do?
Quite a bit. I did most of my research online, visiting websites and forums, reading material about amputation, the recovery process, and the physical and emotional aftermath. I also researched prosthetic limbs, as well as products available to make everyday chores easier for amputees, such as specialized cutting boards, knives, and bowls, which I used in the book.
I also visited a southern California university and toured their facilities where occupational therapists study. They had a whole little home-like area set up where they help new amputees relearn basic necessities such as cooking, washing dishes, making the bed, etc.
I spoke with physical therapists and an occupational therapist, as well as interviewed a man who makes prosthetic limbs. Know what kind of patient he sees most often in his line of work? Men who have lost a leg in a motorcycle accident. I had no idea, did you? (But my kids are never getting on a motorcycle now.) And I interviewed a man who had lost his right arm over twenty years ago. He was quite frank in sharing his situation with me...the physical pain that lingers after amputation can stay with a person for their entire lives, as it had him. The pain can be sharp, dull, tingly, or achy . . . but it's pretty much always there. Can you imagine having to live with such a thing? I listened to this man tell me how he deals with the daily pain year after year, mainly by trying to have a positive outlook, not take it out on other people, and to focus on healthy outlets, because he was quite adamant that he did not want to spend his life on pain pills. For that, I admire him tremendously.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to everyone who shared their time and expertise with me. People really are so generous and wonderful . . . the research part of this novel really turned out, for me, to be a reflection on the human spirit . . . how so many are drawn to helping others, and how so many can deal with such adversity with such calm courage.
Shark Girl also includes phone conversations between Jane and her friends and relatives. Did you read anything out loud - with others or by yourself - to test it out?
I often read out loud while I'm drafting, but only to myself. I'm pretty private about my work. I have one friend, Betsy, that I like to share my work with because she is so very good at pinpointing what works and what doesn't. And I have discovered that I enjoy sharing my work with my husband Marty. But only bits and pieces.
I do read parts of it out loud when I'm alone, I find it helps me in the revision process to do so.
You set the book in Los Angeles, with the tragedy occurring at Point Dume State Beach. Why there?
I wanted it set in Southern California because I lived there at the time and wanted it set in an environment I knew well. Also, there are the occasional shark attacks out there. I had to pick a real location to have it happen, so I put it there. Sadly, that turned out to be a spot where a shark attack actually did happen, and it was fatal.
Your picture book Z is For Moose sounds zany and fun. When is the Moose hitting the shelves?
I really don't know. Greenwillow has had it for quite some time and my understanding is they are searching for the right illustrator.
You worked as a story artist on many Disney films. What was your favorite?
I had the most fun working on Hercules . . . we had a great story team and fantastic directors in Ron Clements and John Musker. The entire project was a joy for me. But I guess my favorite film was the last one I worked on that never got made -- a movie about garden gnomes called Gnomeo and Juliet.
Are you still working in the animation industry? What led you to the writing world?
No, I left the industry a few years ago. I was ready to peruse my writing full time and spend more time with my children. I decided to leave California and move to Georgia to be closer to my family. I had sold a picture book (Z is for Moose) and had Shark Girl underway---I told myself "go for it," and took the leap.
What are your ten favorite novels?
Hmm, that's a toughie. Only ten? Well, I'd say . . .
(and this list could be altered on any given day)
The Midwife's Apprentice
A Corner of the Universe
The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency
Gone With the Wind
Walk Two Moons
Sarah, Plain and Tall
The Second Summer of the Sisterhood
Related Booklist: Verse Novels