Interview with KELLY BINGHAM author of SHARK GIRL
Author Kelly Bingham has loved to read, write, and draw pictures since she was a little girl. She attended college in Southern California and earned a degree in animation. Bingham then spent twelve years at Walt Disney Feature Animation, where she worked as a storyboard artist and later (briefly) as a director. She worked on movies such as: THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, HERCULES, TARZAN, ATLANTIS, and THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE.
In 2004, she earned an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College. Her first novel, SHARK GIRL was published in 2007 by Candlewick Press. A picture book called Z IS FOR MOOSE, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, is due out in Spring 2012.
Gigi: SHARK GIRL gets right to heart of the question: What makes us who we are? Before the shark attack, Jane Arrowood pretty well knew who she was and what she wanted out of life. Suddenly, everything she had planned and figured out needed to be redrawn. Jane has lots of people around her, helping her recover, but ultimately she has to do the work herself and she succeeds. What makes her so resilient?
Kelly: In some ways, Jane is resilient because she has to be. She does not have much choice but to deal with what happened, and to do her best to recover. But I think Jane is stubborn, and in her own way, brave. Her uncompromising nature comes into play as well….Jane is not willing to compromise much in her pursuit of a “normal” life, even though she now has plenty of excuses to give up on a lot of things that have become too hard. Jane also has a strong desire for independence, and a sort of refusal to see herself as someone who she’s not. Although Jane spends a lot of time searching for her new path in life, I think she actually has a pretty strong sense of identity. Her resilience helps her redefine the path she’ll take to maintain that identity.
GA: When writing SHARK GIRL did you worry about Jane or did you know from the beginning that she was going to turn out okay?
KB: I actually had no idea how the story would end the entire time I was writing it, which was a lonnnnng time. I did worry about Jane. I wrote and wrote, putting her deeper and deeper into the worst period of her life, and often asked myself, “Wow, I wonder what she’s going to do next?” Or, “How is she ever going to get past this? Or will she? What if she doesn’t? What then?” I worried as I wrote that I was creating a story I could not finish in a satisfactory way. So yes–I did worry about her, but I did notice that she was determined to keep going, no matter what. I just let her lead the way and though it sounds corny, in some ways, we found our way through that nightmare together.
It was not until the moment that I wrote the last page that I knew how the book would end. The final letter in the book was a surprise to me, but it sure felt right.
GA: There is so much humor in SHARK GIRL – Jane is funny and sarcastic, her buddy Justin, from the hospital, is hilarious, and her brother, Michael, too. What roles did you intend humor to play in the story?
KB: Thank you so much. Humor was not something I thought of when originally drafting the book. I just found out as I wrote that Jane had a sort of biting wit, and deep sarcasm. As I worked, I got feedback from several trusted mentors, who all pointed out that humor was necessary to lighten up the bleakness of the subject matter, and it would be a good thing to weave it in when possible. As far as Justin, I leaned towards imagining things my son might say. With Michael and Jane both, the jokes and snarky remarks literally seemed to write themselves—those two were very “real” in my mind and Jane practically dictated her lines to me.
And in reading biographies by people who had been permanently handicapped, I found over and over again that people wrote about how they had to have a sense of humor in dealing with their lives—one person commented that if they couldn’t joke around or see the lighter side of things, they probably never would have survived. I took that to heart when I wrote about Jane.
GA: I really love Jane’s relationship with Michael. He’s supportive of her, yet also senses when it’s time to splash a little water on Jane’s face. What was on your mind as you were constructing Michael?
KB: Nothing too terribly conscious at first—Michael, like most of the ‘extra’ characters, seemed to form himself as I wrote. I knew I wanted an older male in Jane’s life, particularly since she is missing her father. And I knew from the beginning that Michael would save her life. I also had in mind that Michael could contrast nicely with Mom as far as how they handled Jane when she returned home from her long hospital stay and set about rebuilding her life. Other than that, I didn’t know who I was dealing with when I began writing. Michael showed me pretty quickly that he has a good sense of humor, that he has little patience for nonsense, and that he likes to keep things real. I grew to like Michael and found myself writing scenes with him I had not planned to, simply because I wanted him in the story more. I liked what he brought to the mix.
I had also not planned to have him leave for college in the story, originally. But soon it became obvious that his leaving was a note that would add to the layers of what Jane was experiencing—layers and layers of loss and growth and change. And it felt right. In some ways, Michael throws down the challenge when he leaves–it’s now up to Jane to push herself like he would. Or….not.
I also think Michael gave me the opportunity to say things many of us might be tempted to say to Jane, if she were our friend. Not everyone in Jane’s circle can handle her like she’s delicate or incapacitated. In truth, I found Michael’s bluntness and his humanity a refreshing change from her concerned and hovering friends. Also I had read several books about families who deal with a handicapped family member, and one book pointed out that often people become annoyed, jealous, angry, or impatient with the handicapped person. Then they feel bad because it’s wrong to feel that way. But it’s a very human emotion–to feel negative things in our hearts that we know in our heads we “shouldn’t” feel. In some ways Michael allowed for the dark, ugly emotions that a brother might feel in that situation, and in other ways he allowed for the “tough love” that Jane honestly needed. I liked that about Michael, and I felt it gave him a little depth.
Once the book was done, I assumed Michael was done, too. Imagine my surprise when an occasional reader will comment on how much they like him. Several people have suggested to me that Michael should have his own book! I’m so glad that he’s struck a positive note with so many people. He’s a good guy.
GA: You used poetry, inner dialogue, news clippings, and other formats to tell SHARK GIRL. I think I picked up on the “I remember” pattern in some of the poetry. Can you reveal any little cheat codes or hidden Easter eggs to be aware of when I read it again?
KB: Well, one thing that may be somewhat interesting is the first letter that Jane gets–the letter from Mary. When I wrote that letter, I had no idea it would come back to play in the book later on.
GA: Yes, I thought that was perfect….like everything came back around to close the circle!
KB: Also , I think out of all the ‘non-verse’ writings in the book, my favorite are the inner monologues. If you read them all in a row, without all the other stuff in between, hopefully you can see the journey Jane takes just in her own thinking. It’s sooooo easy for us to listen to our inner critics, isn’t it? Sometimes we talk to ourselves so horribly—telling ourselves we’re stupid, we’re weak, or we can’t do something. We allow the inner critic to speculate that people don’t like us or that we have reason to lose hope. It’s easy to just sit and listen to that, feeling worse and worse. And to question, question, question, “why did this happen to ME?” It takes a lot of strength to stand up to our enemies, but very often the first person we have to stand up to is our self!! Telling your inner critic to take a hike is easy to say, but hard to do. But I think Jane did a good job, once she reached a place where she was strong enough to do so.
GA: Your debut novel defies any single form – it’s a young adult book, an epistolary novel, one big journey poem, even. Taking on this story and telling it the way you did seems so courageous of you as a writer. Were you consciously approaching the work in this way?
KB: Well….. I don’t know. To be honest, you’re the first person to use the word “courageous” in regards to my work! (Thank you!) I guess I can’t say I wrote in any real courageous-conscious way. I actually began writing SHARK GIRL in straightforward prose. But that went horribly. Then I started writing in verse. I added a few newspaper articles and letters. Some friends suggested I really mix it up to break up the “monotony” of all the poetry. I found myself expanding on articles, phone conversations, and letters and inner monologues. I just did what felt right. And in the end, it all worked out to be a blend of different things. I’m happy with how the book turned out but I do feel it was a journey of discovery to get it just right.
GA: You just returned from Alaska, right? Was that a fantastic trip?
KB: It was! The trip started out a little rough, with our flight being cancelled and then our luggage being lost in Toronto. We had a day in Vancouver before we left for Alaska, and it was looking like we may have to set out on the cruise with only the clothes on our back for a whole week! But our luggage arrived in the nick of time. Vancouver is a lovely city, by the way. And Alaska was wonderful–so rugged and so remote. A real glimpse into how the world used to be, and of course Alaska is rich in history as well. I especially enjoyed seeing all the wildlife–we saw humpbacked whales, seals, sea lions, and lots of eagles. We also had a great photo session with a mother black bear and her cub. My husband is a photographer, and there was so much there to take pictures of! And we had great weather, which everyone told us was unusual. All in all, a spectacular trip that I’ll always remember.
GA: What are you working on next?
KB: I’m working on a sequel to SHARK GIRL, which is being written because of all the many requests I have received from my readers, asking for more. And in the spring of 2012, I will have a picture book coming out from Greenwillow. It’s called Z IS FOR MOOSE, and is illustrated by Paul Zelinsky, who has won the Caldecott Award about a billion times. I am so thrilled that he has illustrated MOOSE, and am excited to share it with everyone!
GA: What are some of your favorite books for strong girls?
KB: A long time favorite is THE MIDWIFE’S APPRENTICE, by Karen Cushman. (She also wrote KATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY which features another wonderful female lead.) The main character is a homeless girl called Brat, and she certainly has a world of challenges ahead of her. But she finds her way in a harsh world through the courageous choices she makes, and lots of hard work, and facing her own fears. It’s a wonderful story. I also love Winnie Foster from TUCK EVERLASTING, by Natalie Babbitt. Winnie faces a huge temptation–does she want to live forever? She has to give that question a lot of thought, and she also has to come to the rescue of some dear friends in danger. She has to be very strong and very brave. Another favorite are all the books in the LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE series–Laura Ingalls knows the meaning of being “strong,” doesn’t she? She had to be strong to survive life on the frontier. She faced hardships, tragedy, and all kinds of challenges, including near starvation one winter. But Laura hangs on with such tenacity, and regardless of what the environment throws at her, she revels in the beauty of the prairie and the woods around her; enjoying the animals, sights, and sounds that make up her world. I’m also a fan of the MAKE LEMONADE trilogy, featuring LaVaughn and a girl named Jolly. Both girls have been handed a pretty tough life, but both girls are determined to rise above their circumstances and make a good life for themselves, both doing so through a great deal of hard work and courage. Those are just a few of my favorite “strong girl” books–there are so many to choose from!
GA: Finish this sentence: Strong girls _________________________________.
KB: ….aren’t always aware they’re strong! Strong girls love themselves and accept themselves–all parts of themselves, the good, bad, ugly, and attractive, inside and out, and strong girls believe in themselves. When put to the test, strong girls do their best–and are often surprised at the results.
Girls of Summer readers, even aliens and BIGFOOT love SHARK GIRL! Don’t believe me? Morzant the Alien interviews Kelly Bingham here, over on Bigfoot Reads.