The Big Idea: Rebecca Adams Wright

Rebecca Adams Wright was one of my students at the Clarion Writer’s Workshop. I’m delighted beyond words to spotlight her first, terrific, collection, The Thing About Great White Sharks, here on the Big Idea. As she explains, the title may say “sharks” but what it all really comes down to is people.

REBECCA ADAMS WRIGHT:

My stories begin with people. People from all walks of life, people in unlikely circumstances, people that I can’t get out of my head. An old man, stroking the head of his robotic dog.  A young girl, befriending a man made of glass. A husband, obsessed with the furnace his wife maintains on their claustrophobic space station.

My great delight in the sculpting of character means that when I was first working on the stories that would later make up my collection, The Thing About Great White Sharks, I didn’t intentionally set out to tackle any ideas of Great Meaning. Mostly, I set out to write about people who were confronting ghosts, odd golems, alien invasions, hordes of murderous bees, flying circuses, and talking gardens. All of these situations were all interesting to me. I cared intensely about my protagonists but I didn’t yet grasp what their stories had in common. My characters came from so many different backgrounds, were evenly split between men and women, ranged in age from twelve to their seventies, lived on different planets and existed in different eras (sometimes millennia apart).

Basically, I wasn’t sure my little band of narrators was united by any Big Idea. But hey, they were all living inside their own self-sustaining story pods, so what did it matter? They had rations in there. They had oxygen. They were fine trundling along their small orbits alone.

Then a few of the stories got picked up by magazines, and a few others won awards, and I started to think about putting them together in a collection.

Now, to me, the best story collections are often—I’m going to date myself here—like great mix tapes. The mix tapes your closest, coolest friend made for you in high school.  The voices on the tracks may be wildly disparate, some of the songs may scream in thrash metal and others may whisper to you in velvety jazz, but that juxtaposition is part of the appeal. Placed so improbably back to back, well-selected songs speak to you in ways you don’t expect. All of a sudden you’re looking at your own complicated jumble of perceptions from a new perspective.

I wanted my collection to work like that ideal mix tape. I gathered my stories together and panicked. I despaired. I stacked and shuffled, trying to find a way to make all the seemingly disparate narratives fit together in such a way that the sum total would take on Lofty Overtones. Finally, I realized that the only way to make any progress toward a book was to stop trying to paint apples to look like oranges. I decided I would simply do my best to polish each individual story and damn any thematic union between them.

It was only then, as I released desperation and re-immersed myself in the individual narratives, that I began to see the Big Idea peeking out of all of them. The unifying factor was coming out of character, of course. How had I missed the pattern?

The grieving couple in “Tiger Bright,” who inherit a big cat and devote themselves to the animal’s care.

Ed, the Korean War veteran and traveling salesman in “Storybag,” who quickly becomes protective of the very strange item that appears in his magical sample case.

The artist in “The White Chalk Road,” who manufactures an entire world in an effort to make it home to one fiercely-loved old dog.

My protagonists have a tendency to be isolated—by war, by work, by sickness, by life on alien planets, by their own neuroses. But over and over again, these characters were trying to climb out of isolation, to make contact. Sometimes they could only manage a small wave from a long distance. Sometimes they stood screaming directly into each other’s ears. Sometimes they missed the potential for communication entirely and went sailing out into some weird stratosphere, raving. But the point is that they were all battling to communicate, to build connections, to form relationships.

The idea that humanity is defined by our need to connect to one another, that we all, every one of us, require at least one meaningful relationship to hold us together.  That’s the Big Idea and the unifying theme running throughout the stories in The Thing About Great White Sharks.

There are a lot of other ideas here, too—about animals, and what they mean to us, and how both strange and familiar they are.  About violence. About humor and wonder, and how we should never stop looking for either one. But the very human need to make contact—that’s what drives all the rest forward.

This book about ghosts and golems and aliens and robots and bats and sharks is really about people.

I should have known.

—-

The Thing About Great White Sharks: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read a story in the collection. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

13 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Rebecca Adams Wright

  1. I haven’t read the story on which the cover is based but I have to say the cover is a big honkin’ disconnect from the title. If the story is entitled “The Thing About Great White Sharks”, why use a picture of a deer to illustrate it? It may very well be that it all makes sense one you’ve acquired the context of having read the story but as an incentive to purchase the book I’d have to consider it as a fail.

    And while the illustration may be technically accurate as to how it (apparently) displays the view of a deer poking its head out of water, it still looks wrong.

  2. I’m looking forward to reading the stories this new collection! I’ve read Wright’s heartbreaking story, “Sheila,” about a man and his robot dog and that story alone is worth the price of admission. I love the big idea she tackles–that humans are about making connections, and each of us needs at least one meaningful relationship. I look forward to seeing that idea and others explored in “The Thing About Great White Sharks.”

  3. Gosh, seems silly to be the second person to comment on the cover art but it is super cool. Any idea who the artist was? I would love to hunt down a peice of their work to grace the walls at home.

  4. That cover is amazing! I assume the shark is lurking out of frame. As they do. I also assume there is a camouflaged octopus hiding out in the grass.

    Oh yes, the stories sound pretty great, too!

  5. Purchased this one the second it became available. Really looking forward to diving into these stories. And the cover is a whole load of awesomeness.

  6. I downloaded the Kindle sample, started to read, and was immediately hooked. What a writer! So I went back and bought the full book. Can’t wait to finish “Sheila” (even though I know that it will break my heart) and explore more work of an exciting new-to-me writer.

  7. The art on the cover is by Josh Keyes, a brilliant painter. His prints usually sell out pretty fast but I’m sure he an email list so you can be notified about the next one.

  8. Purchased …. It was a toss up between Scalzi’s Subterranean Press bundle or your book. You won :) Looking forward to reading it!

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