Author Interviews/Features

       

Susan Ewing

Susan Ewing Susan Ewing is the author of The Great Alaska Nature Factbook, The Great Rocky Mountain Nature Facebook, Going Wild in Washington and Oregon, plus several books for children, including Ten Rowdy Ravens. Her articles and essays have appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, Outside Bozeman, Gray's Sporting Journal, Big Sky Journal, The Seattle Times, and other publications. She graduated from University of Alaska-Fairbanks and now lives in Bozeman, Montana. Visit her website.

Read Susan J. Tweit's review of Resurrecting the Shark for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.

Interviewed by Susan J. Tweit

Posted on 05/29/2017

You've written books about nature for kids and adults, from The Great Alaska Nature Factbook to Lucky Hares and Itchy Bears. Did you ever imagine writing a whole book on a fossil shark? Or, more accurately, on the personalities involved in the century-plus quest to figure out a fossil shark?

Never in a million years. Or even 270 million years!

When your friend Ray Troll, piscine artist extraordinaire, introduced you to Helicoprion, the long-extinct buzz-saw shark, did you think "this could be a book" right away?

Ray and I are old friends, so I have been aware of Helicoprion ever since he included Helico in Sharkabet, his 2002 shark alphabet book. At that time, it was just one weird beast in a crowd of weird beasts. I didn't think give it much thought. That changed when I went down to the opening of the "Whorl Toothed Sharks of Idaho" exhibit in Pocatello in 2013. The exhibit coincided with the publication of new research, which I found fascinating—and it was stunning to see the actual fossils. Meeting some of the researchers and picking up bits and pieces of Helicoprion's backstory is what really lit the fire for me. It seemed like a story worth tracking down and telling.

Resurrecting the Shark is a science detective story with a huge cast of characters. How long did it take you to research and write the book?

I worked on the book for about three and a half years, researching, interviewing, and educating myself enough to understand the world of paleo sharks and the Helicoprion research. The writing itself took about a year and a half.

One of the things I really admire about Resurrecting the Shark is your ability to bring alive the human characters involved in the tale, their personalities and the era they worked in. At what point in the writing process did you realize that you were writing a story about the people involved in figuring out the creature that left behind those mysterious fossilized spirals of huge teeth, more than the story of the shark itself?

Thank you! I knew from the very beginning that people would be at the heart of the book, because that was the part of the story that most compelled me.

What was it like talking to Team Helico, the disparate assortment of scientists who came together to figure out the anatomy and life of this top predator who prowled the seas so long before dinosaurs appeared? Were they welcoming and forthcoming? And how difficult was it to get up to speed on marine paleontology, sharks, anatomy, and taxonomy, among many other disciplines, in order to understand what they had found?

To a person, everyone was incredibly warm and welcoming, and very patient. I conducted hours upon hours of interviews with Team Helico members and others (in person, on the phone, and in cars on the way to somewhere), and they always made time for me. They were equally helpful and accessible for follow-up questions, and then more follow-up questions. I met spouses and kids, shared meals, and was graciously hosted in guest rooms and even a guest tent at a field camp. I'm in debt to them all.

Getting up to speed on the specific science of Helicoprion and Paleozoic sharks was one of the hardest things I've ever undertaken. There were moments at my desk when I felt literally sick to my stomach trying to decipher a journal article. It would take me an hour to work through one paragraph because I had to research every other word. Surprisingly, other than a few sections in a few textbooks, there are no books out there that summarize and explain the evolutionary science and paleontology of Paleozoic sharks, so most of my information came from interviews and academic articles. But I had to power through it because I needed to understand it all myself so I could share what was amazing and important with readers.

How did you ever keep track of the incredible amount of information you drew on to write the story, from the history of paleontology to the means of attachment of shark jaws to the names of pioneering scientists in the fossil world? (By the way, I loved that you found a woman scientist) from the Victorian era involved in the story!) Did you use a particular kind of software or do you have a particular method to track all of those bits of information?

"Miss" Fanny Hitchcock! She was the first woman to receive a doctorate in chemistry from University of Pennsylvania, in addition to being a champion of women's education and early conservationist. Discovering people like Fanny was the most fun part of the research.

For keeping track of info, I ascribe to the "binders, file folders, and e-folders" method of organization. Miscellaneous hard-copy notes or images went into manila file folders with various topic labels (jaw suspension, phylogeny, Permian, Karpinsky...). Notes that I kept on my computer were sorted the same way, each in its own "topic" document (I think I had 115 topic files). Excerpts that I photocopied from text books or journal articles got three-hole punched and put into binders. Which reminds me, thank goodness for interlibrary loan. I was able to get obscure resource books and journal articles through my local library for no fee. What a great country we live in.

Also, I recorded all my interviews, which I transcribed and printed out to put in binders. Transcribing is a tedious and enormously time consuming process, but very productive. It's amazing how much I get out of listening to an interview the second time around. Also, then I can search the transcripts for key words when I'm looking for something in particular.

It seems to me that all great science writing depends on a lively ability to use analogy and metaphor to help readers relate to abstract concepts, unfamiliar creatures, and the personalities behind the science. Your imagery is particularly vivid and often humorous, as when you describe Team Helico as "a quirky band of boundary-bending collaborators that looked more like a roots-rock band than ivory tower intelligentsia." Did you intentionally use metaphor and analogy to illuminate what could have been a pretty dry and mind-numbing story or is it just part of your natural writing voice?

That's always been my natural writing style—although I was surprised at how much fun I was able to have with the language and images in this book. I didn't expect that.

Do you have favorites among the many personalities in the large cast of characters in Resurrecting the Shark? Did anyone particularly surprise you as you learned the part they played and who they were?

They all surprised me in one way or another. Ray is the high-personality thread that pulls it all together, and I think meeting Jesse Pruitt and Leif Tapanila sealed the deal for me. Such cool guys. Funny and brilliant and scrupulous with their science while also being unconcerned about academic convention. I loved Fanny of course. And Alexander Karpinsky—the Russian geologist who named Helicoprion in 1899. Not only did Karpinsky have a lovely singing voice, he also saved significant archives and equipment during the chaos of the Russian revolution.

Explain the use of augmented reality in visualizing the shark, and how it is used in the book. Was it your idea to develop an app so that book readers could see the "live" digital renderings of Helicoprion that can't be portrayed on a book page (even an ebook)?

Augmented reality (AR) models are 3-D digital models that pop up on a smartphone with an app. You open the app, focus your phone camera on a designated piece of target art, and a 3-D image pops up. Jesse built the app (called "Resurrecting the Shark") and created four models for the book. The app is available free for Android devices though Google Play. He wrote an app for the iPhone platform, but hasn't been able to break though Apple's developer labyrinth to get it up on the Apple Store. Yet!

On my last trip to Pocatello for the final round of interviews, I was yakking with Jesse and he said, "Hey, how about I develop some augmented reality models and an app for the book?" I'd never heard of augmented reality before. He was teaching himself how to do it, and showed me a model. I loved it, so jumped on his offer. One of the AR models that Jesse created is the jaws opening and closing around the tooth whorl, which really helps people visualize how it worked. So there's a great educational component, plus they're just really fun.

What did you learn in researching Resurrecting the Shark that you never imagined you needed to know? Or put differently, how did researching Helicoprion and the scientists involved in figuring out the buzz-saw shark change you and your perspective on life?

It's hard to know where to even begin answering this question. Working on the book changed and broadened my life in so many ways. First there was the science itself—developing a greater appreciation for the concept of deep time; really thinking about our beautiful planet and how incredibly dynamic earth processes and biological processes are. The complexity and resilience (given the chance) of natural systems is mind-boggling. Every leaf, every frog, every shark is a wonder. I was also very inspired by the stories of all the people I encountered, from historical figures to modern players. Each one of them was driven by intellectual curiosity and passion for discovery. Social or academic convention didn't dissuade them from their pursuits. A lot of them were outsiders in one way or another, but it didn't matter. Sort of in that vein, researching and writing this book stretched me as a writer more than any other project I've ever worked on, but I believed in it from the beginning. It was agony at times, nevertheless, I persisted. :) The positive reviews and notes from readers have made it all worth while.

What are you working on now?

My good friend and artist extraordinaire, Evon Zerbetz and I are "resurrecting" a project we started years ago—a fable about two sisters who are as different as night and day (hint), but who discover how much they need each other. The time feels right, and in any case, we're having a lot of fun. (Evon and I collaborated on Ten Rowdy Ravens and Lucky Hares and Itchy Bears.)

For all you writers out there—writers or scientists or gardeners or artists or race car drivers—remember: all you have to do to find your own true buried treasure is dig. Don't ever let anyone steal your shovel!


Susan J. Tweit is the award-winning author of twelve books (including her memoir, Walking Nature Home: A Life's Journey, and Colorado Scenic Byways, winner of the Colorado Book Award), numerous magazine articles, and newspaper columns. Visit her website.
       

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