This week’s PW has a great Q&A with Sharon Shinn, conducted by Alana Joli Abbott. This was one of those Q&As where I really struggled to edit it at all. There’s so much in The Shape of Desire to talk about: animals and people, shape-shifting, secrets, romance, family. Here are the Qs and As we couldn’t fit into the magazine.
AJA: Most of Dante’s life is beyond his control, due largely to his magical abilities — or curse — much the way that Maria’s problems are all grounded in reality, but with supernatural reasons. Does Dante’s chaotic existence have a similar real world corollary?
SS: I think the real-world corollary would be with anyone who leads a double life. So, perhaps, a man who has two wives, two families, who don’t know about each other. A man who works for the CIA or the Mob. Someone who has to conceal the truth about himself either because it’s dangerous or because it’s unsavory.
To her credit, Maria considers some of these alternatives! Since she has no proof Dante is telling her the truth, she has to wonder what his lies might be concealing, and she knows it might be something pretty dark.
AJA: Dante and his siblings have very different feelings about what it means to shift shapes; Dante views himself as a monster, while his brother William prefers to spend his time as an animal, and his sister Christina feels confident enough in managing the change to have a baby. How did the three siblings come to have such dramatically different worldviews?
SS: From what I’ve observed, even though they have so many shared experiences, siblings often have very different worldviews! And they follow different paths. For instance, I’m a writer, my sister is a nurse, and my brother is a CPA who moonlights as an actor. And the differences don’t stop there.
But Dante, William, and Christina also have such contrasting outlooks because of the way their shape-shifting abilities work. The fact that Dante can’t control his body’s impulses leaves him angry and uneasy; the fact that shecan control hers makes Christina more optimistic in general. And William—well, I think William would have been a quirky loner no matter what kind of hand fate dealt him.
AJA: Dante and his siblings are named after a family of poets; one of the poems Maria has read by that family perfectly captures her feelings about Dante, and she repeats a line from it throughout the book. How did that line of poetry come to be?
SS: Oh, it’s one of my very favorite lines of poetry ever! Christina Rossetti led a somewhat isolated and shadowed life, and many of her poems deal with death and despair. The first poem of hers I ever read opens with the melancholy line “When I am dead my dearest, sing no sad songs for me…” She died a spinster, having had three major romances end badly. But in the midst of all this darkness, there’s that one ecstatic poem. There’s that one glorious welcome—“the birthday of my life/Is come, my love is come to me.” That’s how Maria feels every time she sees Dante, so that’s the line that haunts her.
AJA: Your first published novel, The Shape-Changer’s Wife, also deals with shapeshifting, but in a more controlled, intentional sense. What was it like to revisit that magical concept from a completely different angle?
SS: There are also shape-shifters in my Twelve Houses series, so this is a concept I’ve revisited multiple times! But the shape-changing protocol, if you will, is different in each book.
In The Shape-Changer’s Wife, the characters who shift shapes have been ensorceled by an evil wizard, so the plotline focuses on how they can be released from his spell. In the Twelve Houses books, the shiftlings have complete control over their abilities, and although that magical power has certainly complicated their lives, it is also something they wholeheartedly embrace. In all those previous books, I followed fairly traditional fantasy tropes of shape-changing magic.
The situation is different in The Shape of Desire because I wanted a much greater sense of realism. If you were living in the Midwest in the 21st century and your body would suddenly transform from a human to an animal shape, how would you cope? Especially if you didn’t want anyone to know you could do this? How would you hold down a job, how would you keep yourself safe?
In The Shape of Desire, the ability to change shape isn’t a magical power, it’s a severe liability. It’s a source of real danger. And it makes life very precarious.
AJA: Many of your books are series, but you’ve also had several successful stand-alones, including 2010′s Troubled Waters. Dante and Maria’s story feels complete, but the world you’ve created is big enough to hold other stories. Do you see stories of other shapeshifters — such as Christina’s daughter — in the future?
SS: In fact, there’s an indirect sequel, Still Life with Shape-Shifter, coming out in October. It’s set a few months afterThe Shape of Desire, and although it follows a new set of characters, people from the first book make cameo appearances. For instance, in The Shape of Desire, a reporter named Brody Westerbrook witnesses the climactic scene in which someone publicly transforms between human and animal states. He becomes obsessed with trying to find more shape-shifters because he wants to write a book about them. At the opening of Still Life, he’s trying to track down a woman he believes is a shape-shifter—but he can only find the woman’s sister, who insists such creatures don’t exist. But she’s hiding a very big secret…
I have a couple of other ideas for stories in this world, so I think I could easily write two or three more books about some of these loosely connected characters. But I also want to work on a sequel to Troubled Waters. Maybe I’ll find time to do both!
Don’t miss the first part of the Q&A in this week’s issue.