Gene Helfman, EcoLit Books contributor and author of Beyond the Human Realm, has a new book out — a “novel of relentless satire” and an impassioned defense of sharks. I recently asked Gene about the book and what inspired him to write it. Here’s what he had to say…
Tell us about your latest book FINS, A Novel of Relentless Satire.
FINS is a parody of the sharkspoitation horror genre that asks the question, “Don’t you think sharks should have rights too?” In FINS, the sharks are sick and tired and they’re not going to take it anymore. The story is intended to be a humorous, short (173 pages), enjoyable read. It is eco-fiction, as was my orca novel, Beyond the Human Realm, but that’s where any similarity to Realm stops. Realm had emotional weight, whereas FINS, as described by a fellow author, is mind candy with a conservation message. Think of it as a quick beach read that may keep you out of the water.
FINS as a novel had a long and checkered history. It was originally conceived as a screenplay called Undead Sharks. I shopped it around, entered contests, got good reviews, but no one was bold enough to produce it. It languished, as do most screenplays, for close to six years. Meanwhile, I published my orca novel, and quickly became sick of marketing. Writing is fun, marketing is mind-numbing. So I unearthed the screenplay. FINS emerged because the story was already there, albeit in shortened form due to the page restrictions placed on screenplays. Clearly, it needed to be fleshed out. That was fun.
You’ve moved from writing about orcas (Beyond the Human Realm) to writing about sharks. What inspired you to write about sharks?
I wrote FINS to fulfill a desire to right a wrong, namely to counter the influence of the hyped, sensationalist, grossly unfair portrayal of sharks in a few novels and far too many sharksploitation movies, such as Jaws (I, II, III-D), The Meg (I, II), Sharknado(I-VI), The Black Demon, Cocaine Shark, Deep Blue Sea, Jurassic Shark, Doll Shark, Sharkula, Sharkenstein, etc, etc. My goal in FINS was to show how silly those movies and books are, that they can be easily (but too infrequently) satirized. “My” sharks are sentient, compassionate, maternal, cooperative, and goal-oriented. Admittedly, I’ve taken liberties with biological facts for—to quote Midge Raymond— “fictional purposes” to make a better story, although the sentient part may not be far from the truth given sharks have exceptionally large brains for their body size, larger than some mammals. But FINS is in fact a fantasy, fiction, not a reference book (I’ve also written the latter: Sharks, The Animal Answer Guide). However, FINS does contain enough factual shark science to give it credibility that might motivate people to want to know more.
Why do sharks get such a bad rap in society?
The bad rap starts with bad press. Any shark attack, what scientists prefer to call “incidents” to reduce the hype, immediately gets national and even international attention across the broadcast media. Just a sighting of a shark off a popular beach winds up on the evening news, often involving interviews with bathers who had no idea the shark was there until advised by lifeguards but who claim to have come within a hair’s breadth of being disemboweled. The annual summer onslaught of shark “documentaries,” such as The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, is designed to frighten more than enlighten. NatGeo’s wannanbe entry, SharkFest, is only slightly better because it, too, focuses too much on sharks as threats and less on their critical role as predators that maintain balance in natural ecosystems.
This question could just as easily be asked as, “Why do sharks attack people?” That seems to be the underlying motivation for the bad rap, or at least the personal interest aspect of the question. The answer lies largely in mistaken identity, both by the sharks and by us in our perception of them. Most incidents result from misidentification: a shark bites, recognizes it made a mistake, and leaves, and the victim has a good beer-time story and small scars to show off. Most non-fatal incidents, and the vast majority are non-fatal, involve sharks that normally feed on fish but mistake a human partially submerged in the water, or a body part in murky water, as something bite-sized. Since most bite-sized morsels in the ocean are fish, a shark will bite, realize it had literally bitten off more than it could chew, and spit it out in disgust (idle speculation there on my part).
And then of course, we have the JAWS phenomenon. Jaws as a novel (that will be 50 years old in 2024) and then as a blockbuster movie turned the tables on sharks, from a minor/nagging concern to an international panic. Sharks in general have suffered. Fear of sharks keeps something like 40% of the population out of the water. This despite the low likelihood of an attack: about seven fatalities occur annually worldwide from shark bites (one per year in the U.S.). In contrast, we kill an estimated 70 to 100 million sharks each year, mostly for their fins. The statistics claim you’re more likely to be killed by a falling vending machine or coconut or asteroid, champagne cork, electrocuted by your Christmas tree, or die in a traffic accident on the way to the beach, or drown in the water, or be stomped to death by a cow, than be killed by a shark. Sharks don’t fall from the sky, hybridize with octopuses, emerge from the Marianas Trench (no, Virginia, Megalodon is extinct and has been for 5 million years), don’t come in various mutant forms produced by mad scientists, don’t erupt from the sand (or your kitchen faucet or Ouija board), come alive from plush toys, embody alien invasions, seek revenge on humans, or commonly target humans as prey. You have a better chance of winning a Megamillion lottery than being bitten by a shark.
What do you hope readers take away from FINS?
My objectives in FINS, after pointing fun at the sharkspitation horror genre and giving sharks a say in the matter, are twofold. First, to get people to recognize that cutting fins off sharks and discarding them while still alive is barbaric and reprehensible. Second, I’m hoping people will recognize that sharks are not mindless killing machines but important ecosystem components that deserve to be treated as co-inhabitants of our planet with the right to live.
What’s your next writing project?
Now that I have two novels to promote, I’m back to writing a sequel to Beyond the Human Realm. I’ve got plenty of ideas, most of a plot, and fragments of several chapters. I just have to stitch them together in a coherent whole that won’t disappoint me or the many folks who were kind enough to say they liked the first one.