Searching for Shark Girl

It’s hard to say where stories come from. It’s a sort of archaeological game that we tend to play if we’ve ever taken a literature class and made the wildly speculative assumption that such origins exist. The online journal Failbetter.com published my novella @SharkGirl79 earlier today, so I guess if there’s a moment to spend on this speculation, it may as well be this one.

@SharkGirl79 is the story of a brilliant young scientist who sacrifices her career and reputation to save a remote coral atoll somewhere in the vast, blue Pacific. It takes place mostly over the course of one day when she goes diving with a photographer from a noted science and geography publication and gets into a deadly situation involving sharks, corals and a leaky oxygen tank. On one level, visible to me only in hindsight, it’s a commentary on the patriarchal culture that still exists among the old guard in the scientific world. It’s about stereotypes and how advocacy or activism on behalf of science is dismissed, especially by those who like to hide out in ivory towers, plus anyone else who doesn’t like what the data show. On the other level, though, it’s just an adventure story. And then, ultimately, it’s the story about a daughter and her father, and that’s the thing I probably like the most about it.

The first (and maybe only) longish piece of prose I read entirely in one sitting was Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. That story or short novel is what I like to call “gateway literature.” It’s as rich in language and layers as anything, but it’s approachable by anyone, even a kid growing up in a union household where none of the preceding generations had gone to college. When I was growing up, our house was filled with books…mostly Readers Digest condensed anthologies, plus every National Geographic published between 1964 and 1992 when the old man cancelled the subscription because he was, “finally tired of reading another article about ants.” The Old Man and the Sea was different from just about everything else I’d read before it, probably because it was as gripping as the fantasy and adventure novels I’d read in the past but I found so much more there, too. It was more accessible on the surface than the other tattered classics that English teachers tend to send you home to read. I’m guessing that was largely due to the sharks. But then after I’d finished reading it, it also made me think about things like fate, courage, poverty and faraway places. It stayed with me, lingering on the palette longer that the rest. In hindsight, it feels like my story @SharkGirl79 might be a kind of homage to that lingering sensation left by Hemingway’s novella, a story that follows a similar timeframe and shape but that deals with current issues, where old Santiago has been swapped for a young scientist. But there are still sharks, and hopefully a similar sense of adventure and a bit of an iceberg below the surface to give it a little weight.

The obvious answer of where this story came from is that it arrived on the doorstep of my subconscious sometime during the four years I spent filming Saving Atlantis with co-director/producer Justin Smith. For a solid period of time I immersed myself, both literally and figuratively, into the world of coral science. I had the incredible opportunity to visit research projects around the world, to dive on reefs and to explore the world of coral research. I probably earned the equivalent of at least an associates degree in the subject and then promptly forgot it. But along the way I read countless papers and collected thousands of details, some of which made their way into this story and other novellas in my collection in progress, Beneath the Skin of the World. Scientists of all stripes have become heroes to me ever since my day gig telling research stories first put me into regular contact with them, so it only was a matter of time before one became the hero of some of my fiction as well.

“Let us weep at the grandeur of rebellious women.”

Jim Harrison

The scientist in this story, Gabby Peacock, wasn’t initially the protagonist. There’s a frumpy writer who appears in the first scene, and I was planning to tell this whole story from his perspective. But he soon boarded a plane and slipped out of the plot with little fanfare…who knows how these things happen…and I stuck with Gabby. Her point of view was the most fascinating, especially when I began to discover the complex relationship she had with her father.

Some of the things in this story borrow from actual events or situations, and the rest is all made up. I actually overheard the main plot point, about an overeager photographer chumming the water for sharks while a researcher worked below, during a conversation at a research station one evening in the outdoor kitchen after someone had opened a bottle of rum. The details are vague in my memory, and quite different from what happened in this story, but that’s the fun thing about fiction. Windows and doors open up while you’re writing and you can decide which ones you climb through. You can just make things up to fill in the gaps…something that’s frowned upon in my day job a writer and nonfiction storyteller. Making things up is also not acceptable in my administrative and budgeting work.

Something else I recall overhearing at a research station during cocktail hour at sunset (some research stations can feel like a summer camp for extremely erudite and workaholic adults) was one male researcher talking to another male researcher about a third, non-present male researcher who was extremely savvy with and vociferous on social media. The subject in question had managed to earn a lot of publicity for his research and raised awareness for the policy problems to which the data pointed. One of the fellows bitterly referred to the social media guru as a, “media whore.” Whether it was jealousy or contempt, I’m not sure, but I always wondered why advocacy is intermingled with such patriarchal bias and misogyny. I guess that I had to create Gabby to try to figure this out.

She’s not based on anyone I know in real life, though I’ve met a lot of people with her admirable qualities. Since I’m looking for origins, though, I think I have to look to old Santiago from the Hemingway novella, adding a dash of Spencer Tracy from the film version and then a little bit of Concha, a cow dog from a Jim Harrison poem. In Harrison’s poem, Concha is the alpha female of a pack of cow dogs on an Arizona ranch. She is stridently independent, leading the other dogs off into adventures that harry the cattle and startle the horses. And for this reason, she’s exiled to a ranch in Mexico where they need a, “crazed bitch who’s kick ass with range bulls.” To me, that’s a good metaphor of a male-dominated system that is uncomfortable with female protagonists. Of course, it’s a poem written by a white dude, just like my novella, so take it for what it’s worth.

There’s one line in that poem in particular, though, that I think is the true heart of this character of Gabby and thus the whole story: “Let us weep at the grandeur of rebellious women.” This line arises often in my mind these days, having a teenage daughter stalking the house. She’s going to inherit a broken world someday, a planet we’ve messed up, so she deserves the opportunity to express righteous fury.

The best thing about publishing a story or book is that, after dozens of drafts and endless tinkering and revision, you’re done. It is what it is and you never have to read it again or even try to make sense of what you were trying to say. That’s now the domain of the readers. They can read a few lines or the whole thing and have their own opinions and either forget it and remember it as they like. I hope readers find some satisfaction in the story. I hope it makes them angry at the world, at systems and institutions that have royally fucked up the planet and belittled people who try to fix it. But I also hope it makes readers a little bit hopeful, too, that there are people like Gabby out there fighting against great odds until their final breath to save the things that they love. I hope readers think about the fact that our species, and especially our generation, has wiped out half of the world’s coral reefs for the sake of banal convenience and luxury, like driving to Wal-Mart or flying to Bali or charging our cell phones. I hope we’re at a tipping point where humans in positions of privilege and power will start to take this rapidly unfolding ecological disaster of the Anthropocene seriously. And finally, I hope that somehow, somewhere someone sits down and reads this story all the way through in one sitting and then closes the page (or browser) and feels just a tiny bit like I did when I finished that Hemingway novella all those years ago. If my story achieves any or all of the above with just one reader, then it will have been worth the effort.


Read @SharkGirl79 on Failbetter.com. The story is from a collection in progress called “Beneath the Skin of the World.