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Q&A with Emily Habeck - Shark Heart

Shark Heart

By Leah Wingenroth

We are happy to welcome Emily Habeck to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release Shark Heart, released on the 8th of August 2023.

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.

At first, Wren internally resists her husband’s fate. Is there a way for them to be together after Lewis changes? Then, a glimpse of Lewis’s developing carnivorous nature activates long-repressed memories for Wren, whose story vacillates between her childhood living on a houseboat in Oklahoma, her time with a college ex-girlfriend, and her unusual friendship with a woman pregnant with twin birds. Woven throughout this bold novel is the story of Wren’s mother, Angela, who becomes pregnant with Wren at fifteen in an abusive relationship amidst her parents’ crumbling marriage. In the present, all of Wren’s grief eventually collides, and she is forced to make an impossible choice.

Shark Heart

Is there significance behind Lewis becoming a Great White specifically? And Angela, a Komodo dragon?

Yes, absolutely. I choose apex predators that could not coexist safely with humans because it makes the stakes high and interesting. With both Lewis and Angela, Wren must grapple with the question, “How do I care for someone I love who is not only unrecognizable but potentially a danger to me?”

Do you think Lewis would’ve eventually seriously harmed Wren had she stayed with him? Or was his remaining human consciousness strong enough to stop his animalistic urges?

That’s interesting— I never wanted to cross that line because I didn’t want Wren and Lewis’s story to be one that included domestic violence. Like the threat of a shark attack when we’re having a nice day at the beach, I think the anticipatory fear of something terrible happening is often more impactful than the actual thing we fear. Also, great white sharks are quite misunderstood. It was important to me that Lewis have characteristics that play against the brutish, predatory shark stereotype. So, as Lewis develops into a shark, he unleashes as a poet, too.

Why entwine Angela and Wren’s stories together? Do you see their lives as foils to one another? A breaking of the cycle?

It’s not just Angela and Wren’s stories that are entwined. In a less concrete way, Lewis and Angela are connected, too. Wren would not exist in the way that she does— pragmatic, careful, meticulous, hypervigilant—were it not for her childhood, mothering her mother. Lewis’s best qualities remind Wren of her mother, and that’s part of what made her choose him as a partner. Through Lewis, Wren gets a chance to heal the past.

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.” That line might be the thesis of the whole book. I don’t know if Wren will ever fully heal from the tragedies she’s experienced, but I think she will keep climbing.

How did your theater background inform your construction of this story?

On one level, Shark Heart is my love letter to theater, an artform that was completely formative to me. There are chapters written as stage play scenes, Lewis is an actor, theater teacher, and playwright, and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is prominently featured throughout the book. One of my favorite things about theater is how it’s immediate and fleeting, and I think that’s a perfect parallel for a story that’s largely about accepting the present moment and an always uncertain future.

What role do the Tiny Pregnant Woman and her baby birds play in Wren’s eventual acceptance of her circumstances and subsequent journey into motherhood?

Identity is a headlining theme in the Tiny Pregnant Woman’s story. She feels trapped in a culture and marriage that does not see her as a whole person. She also has a great deal of ambivalence around motherhood, and on top of this, her high-risk pregnancy has a pretty bleak prognosis. She longs for freedom but can’t find a way out because she knows no other way of life.

Wren’s grappling with motherhood is different. More than the loss of autonomy and freedom, Wren fears future loss. The Tiny Pregnant Woman’s situation helps Wren see one possibility with both eyes open, but Lewis’s influence on Wren reminds her there could be a more optimistic outcome, too.

In your mind, do the animal transformations have an origin? Like a biological factor or a virus?

I imagine they do, but I wasn’t interested in exploring that cause in the story. I was thinking more about how, in the face of an unpreventable terminal diagnosis, the origin of the illness does not really matter. Like sharks, we can really only move forward and try to do the next right thing.

This book ruminates on one of the toughest quandaries we have to face in this life: how to grieve someone who is still alive. Wren lost Lewis to the ocean but, in turn, gained Joy. How do you see motherhood in relation to Wren’s journey through her grief?

We see Wren in several types of relationships, and I think motherhood is the ultimate challenge, moment of surrender, and opportunity to both love and grieve. Joy contains parts of both Lewis and Angela, so Wren’s venture into motherhood is also her way of keeping these beloved people alive while also opening her heart once more.

I heard it said once that there are three ways to heal a mother wound—to allow oneself to be mothered, to mother oneself, and to become a mother. In Shark Heart, I think Wren does all three.

Where does Rachel fit into Wren’s story? Do you think her queerness opened up her heart a bit?

With Rachel, Wren acknowledges her queerness for the first time, but most of all, learns that to have a healthy relationship, she must be emotionally available. In Wren’s childhood, there was never space for her feelings because she was so often in a caretaking role. This kind of learned compartmentalization—taking up as little space as possible with her emotions to make room for her mother’s—becomes an obstacle in her adult relationships. If it weren’t for Rachel, I don’t think Wren would have been able to commit to Lewis.

Wren’s relationship with Rachel is also significant because it is the first time in many years that Wren has been cared for by a woman. She hasn’t done any processing around her mother at this point, so the relationship is both very comforting and at the same time, deeply uncomfortable. So, while the attraction is there romantically, I also think there is an important maternal element as well.

Arguably, Lewis was more grounded in his own humanity than the guarded, near-robotic Wren. He was more in touch with his emotions and dreams and had a joie de vivre that Wren lacked. Yet, he was the one to ultimately lose his humanness. In that case, what does being human mean to you?

I really think of Wren and Lewis as compliments rather than opposites. Maybe it’s because they represent a tension within my own personality. I often ask myself, how can I play, experience wonder, and see the beauty in the world (like Lewis) and at the same time, plan for the future and be a practical, organized adult in the face of all the injustice and heartbreak in the world (like Wren)?

I subscribe to the idea that we choose partners who have mirroring or complimentary wounds and that love is, among many other things, an opportunity to heal. I think Wren and Lewis unconsciously do significant healing work together by integrating parts of the other— Lewis, finally focusing on the work he’s dreamed of doing and Wren, stopping to enjoy the good moments. Even though their time was cut short, I think their relationship was a complete success.

To that end, I don’t really know what it means to be human. I think this process of loving might have something to do with it. But the more I think about it, the more I feel like I don’t know anything. Today, at least, that feels like a relief.

Lastly, where can readers find this stunning debut?

It is currently on sale at bookstores and online retailers!

Shark Heart

Emily Habeck is an alumna of SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts, where she received a BFA in theatre, as well as Vanderbilt Divinity School and Vanderbilt’s Peabody College. She is from Ardmore, Oklahoma. Shark Heart is her first novel.


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