A human woman must decide whether to hide her shape-shifting lover’s secret after a mysterious beast attacks people, in acclaimed fantasist Shinn’s The Shape of Desire.
What led you to so strongly equate humans and animals via both puppylike affection and animalistic domestic violence?
Just as all the “animals” in the book aren’t bad, all the humans aren’t good. I think the real point is that some people can be dangerous, whether they’re human or whether they’re freaks. The trick is figuring out who can be trusted and who can’t—or realizing when someone who seemed trustworthy has suddenly become lethal.
Maria sees magical things, but nothing magical happens directly to her. Why tell a fantasy story from this perspective?
I wanted the book to feel very much like a contemporary novel in the real world. I wanted to write about ordinary people struggling with familiar problems, such as deciding how much they are willing to sacrifice for love. And I wanted to write about something a lot of people have felt—the immense effort it takes to keep a profound secret about something that shapes their entire lives. But I wanted to do all this in the context of a fantasy novel. So Maria has to keep the identity of her lover a secret—not because he’s an international spy, not because he’s a married man, but because he’s a creature out of myth and legend.
How did you develop Dante’s particular sort of shape-shifting?
I knew I wanted to create a hero who would show up at the heroine’s door at odd moments, in different incarnations—someone who had told her a fantastical story that she had chosen to believe. I decided to make Dante a shape-shifter because that kept him completely grounded in this world, and presented him as an almost ordinary man, with a single extraordinary trait. It also allowed me to give him siblings and parents, which would have been difficult if he were visiting from another time or planet. And it allowed me to create a tortured hero who is always at war with himself.
How did the concept of family play out in the story?
Family tends to be one of the recurring themes in my fiction. I’m fascinated by the idea of disparate, difficult people learning to trust each other when they’re thrust into hellish circumstances. Dante and Maria love each other, but at the beginning, that’s not enough. They have to see each other through the fire; they have to learn if their love has any limits. And they also have to get a glimpse of what life might be like if they lost the other person. By the end of the book, they know that, whatever the odds against them, they have a better chance if they’re facing the world together than apart.