The summer that 19-year-old Kate Allen lived at home in Beverly, Mass., and worked in a candy store while on break from Bates College, a fisherman caught a great white shark in her town and pulled it into the harbor. “I couldn’t believe it,” Allen says. “I had just been swimming in the ocean the night before. Everyone thought the water was too cold for sharks.” Years later, when Allen started a novel-writing class at the Loft in Minneapolis, she returned to the subject of that shark capture.
In Allen’s novel, The Line Tender (Dutton), after a fisherman accidentally catches a shark, 12-year-old artist and narrator Lucy and her best friend Fred, a scientist, find a new subject for their extra-credit field guide. TV stations broadcast footage of Lucy’s late shark-expert mother, which dredges up old grief that becomes intensified by another tragedy.
“I wanted to show that hard things happen, but that there is a pathway forward from struggle,” Allen says. An eclectic multigenerational cast helps Lucy heal and discover more about her mother’s work. “We all need connections,” Allen adds, “especially when we’re facing loss and tough times.”
Allen didn’t set out to write the book for middle grade readers. “But as Lucy emerged as the main character and it was in her voice, at some point I realized it was for kids and started to reshape the novel,” she says. Allen conducted careful research as she wrote to ensure accuracy, including extensive interviews with the fisherman who brought in the shark in Beverly, the biologist who dissected it, and a renowned shark expert.
A strong environmental thread runs throughout the book, and it’s the element that Allen most hopes readers will absorb. The now-established migration of great white sharks to the Massachusetts coast as they follow the seal population in the summer means, Allen says, that “beachgoers have to adapt.” She adds, “They have to change how they behave. We are at a point where we can undo damage to the ocean. We are all part of the ecosystem, and we have to be aware and respectful.”
Allen found querying agents to be one of the hardest parts of the publishing process. Some agents wanted an entirely different book and were hesitant to deal with the subject of grief. “I really had to stand firm and go with my gut,” Allen says. But agent Michael Bourret of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret “read the story and really just got it,” she notes.
Bourret submitted the novel, which received a few offers, and Allen chose a two-book deal with Dutton, working with Andrew Karre. “He’s an amazing editor and such a sensitive reader,” she says. “I love character and narrative, but my challenge was seeing the big picture. Andrew always had his eye on the book as a whole.”
The starred reviews and positive reception from readers on her national book tour thrilled Allen. But as a former third grade teacher, connecting with students on school visits proved to be one of the most gratifying aspects of publication. “I love talking to the kids about sharks, seeing their excitement, and getting their feedback on the book,” she says.
A full-time senior proposal writer for Thomson Reuters, Allen writes primarily on weekends and steals time early in the morning when her husband and two sons are asleep. She’s hard at work on her next novel, which is also set in New England. “This new book also has an environmental thread, but this time with a different species,” she says.