About the Book: Shark Heart

For Lewis and Wren, their first year of marriage is also their last. A few weeks after their wedding, Lewis receives a rare diagnosis. He will retain most of his consciousness, memories and intellect, but his physical body will gradually turn into a great white shark. As Lewis develops the features and impulses of one of the most predatory creatures in the ocean, his complicated artist’s heart struggles to make peace with his unfulfilled dreams.

 Emily Habeck Emily Habeck

About the Author: Emily Habeck

Emily Habeck has a BFA in Theater from Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts as well as master’s degrees from Vanderbilt Divinity School and Vanderbilt’s Peabody College. Her debut novel Shark Heart was a Book of the Month selection, a New York Times book review editor’s choice, and the #1 Indie Next pick for August 2023. She is from Ardmore, Oklahoma, and currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Shark Heart - Discussion Questions

Shark Heart - Additional Discussion Questions

An Interview with Emily Habeck

Growing up in Oklahoma, the ocean always felt like a wonder and a novelty. And even though I’ve lived near the coast most of my adult life, I still feel so captivated by its mysteries and magnitude. Writing a shark with human sentience was a way of exploring this ecosystem so near and yet so different from our own. I also think Lewis’s transformation into a great white shark mirrored my seeking when I started writing the book. I was questioning everything I thought I knew for sure. I wondered, what do we do with all the grief in this life? What is the meaning of work and the purpose of art? How do I genuinely embrace change? I still don’t have answers, but writing Shark Heart was how I made friends with the questions and began to see the beauty and freedom in not knowing.

Honestly, I didn’t! In hindsight, I think the premise’s singularity allowed me to access some ideas and feelings that I wouldn’t have been able to see so clearly were I writing about a real disease. There are so many mysteries, uncertainties, and absurdities that we must accept to live in the world: things we’ll never know about our bodies, our minds, each other, the depths of the ocean, the universe. I really hope the readers see the animal mutations in the same way. Of all the collective absurdities we must accept in life, what’s so strange about a man becoming a great white shark?

Like the character Lewis, I also have a background in theater, and sometimes when I write, I like to inhabit the character’s inner life, like an actor might. With Lewis, I really tried to imagine and understand what he might be experiencing. So, in bringing the reader to his emotional reality, I hoped that Lewis’s physical reality would become accessible and relatable, too. But more so, I’m beginning to realize that the believability has less to do with my writing and more with humankind’s astounding capacity for love and empathy. The fact that readers are connecting to a fictional man becoming a great white shark is beyond humbling and makes me feel that, for all the doom and gloom in the world, the core of humanity really is loving and good.

I gravitated toward provocative, predatory animals because they complicate and raise the stakes. (It would be a much different story if Lewis and Angela turned into poodles!) The danger and the drama mixed with circumstantial absurdity made the animal mutations so interesting and creatively satisfying to write.

The styles and forms were present from the first pages of the first draft. It was an intuitive decision, and it always felt like the right way to tell this story. Many of the scripted scenes are challenging moments where the characters become untethered from themselves, as if they are watching their lives happen from above. And of course, on another level, the scenes hearken to Lewis’s (and my) love of theater. Some of the scenes might even be part of the play Lewis writes in part one, but I haven’t decided, so I’ll leave that up to the reader. On the spare pages, the blank space tells the story, too.

I think Shark Heart says that love, whether for a romantic partner, parent, child, friend, or oneself, is a process just as much as it is an action or feeling. There’s a line at the end of the book about Wren seeing life as “a spiraling trail up a mountain. Each circling lap represents a learning cycle, the same lesson at a slightly higher elevation.” Through Lewis, Joy, and really, all the characters she meets, Wren gets multiple opportunities to climb the mountain of knowing herself. The title, Shark Heart, actually applies to both Wren and Lewis. While Lewis has a literal shark heart by the end of the novel, Wren’s shark heart exists on the metaphorical level. Just as a shark can only swim forward, Wren persists in love, wholly knowing the risks.

Intergenerational trauma wasn’t something I consciously named while writing this, but I was considering how we are shaped not only by the people in our lives but also by people who lived before our time. I believe our ancestors live within us in both concrete and spiritual ways. Wren would not exist in the way that she does—pragmatic, careful, meticulous, hyper-vigilant—were it not for her childhood, mothering her mother. Wren bravely overcomes hardship and heartbreak multiple times throughout the story; her resiliency and courage is also intergenerationally learned and inherited.

I hope Shark Heart is a comfort to readers in some way, the kind of book that makes people feel less alone. I also hope that it connects readers to their own joy and appreciation for the small, good things in life, as so many books have done for me.

I always liked writing for school, but I didn’t consider writing seriously until my mid-twenties. Before that, I was a performer. When I started to identify as a writer, it felt like a big identity shift, and it was also a huge relief. At the time, I was trying to break into film and TV in LA as an actress, and the grind of that life had begun to feel pretty impossible to sustain. Writing offered me this expansive feeling, like I could take up space as an artist and not be limited to the roles I could play. It was liberating to hold an entire world in my mind and shapeshift, emotionally and imaginatively, into different characters and aspects of the story.

Well, let’s say it’s only for a day—I don’t take this seriously, but I am a little superstitious! (Knocks on wood.) I keep thinking that the life of a honeybee sounds quite appealing for many reasons. A beehive seems like a nicely organized community, and humans generally want to protect the bees. Most of all, I really love working and being outside in the warmer months, and I wouldn’t mind making myself useful to the world. Also, flowers and flying! Once I returned to my human form (and ideally with Sue Monk Kidd’s blessing), I would write a memoir about my adventure learning the secret life of bees.

When I think of libraries, the things that first come to mind are the two libraries in my hometown, the Ardmore and Chickasaw Public Libraries. As a kid, I read widely, especially in the summer, and I think the resources and freedom offered by those libraries created the foundation for the way I read and write today. In my adulthood, I’ve moved quite a bit, and getting a library card is one of the first things I do when I land in a new city. The Cambridge Public Library, my local library now, is so impressive both in its beautiful physical presence in the community and its virtual one. Browsing Libby on a snowy, cold day is one of my favorite cozy activities.

Page Last Modified Tuesday, April 9, 2024