WARNING: This bio is ridiculously long and no one could possibly be interested in Shannon this much. Read at your own risk…or better yet, go find some fun novel to read instead.|
I guess these things start with your birth. Mine was January 26, 1974 in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. I was Shannon Bryner then (no middle name, and that blank space bothered me for years). I was seriously cute. Ask anyone, I was perhaps the cutest little girl ever--until I got huge, crooked teeth, my hair went stringy, and I got taller, lankier, and bonier--and fourth grade was no picnic when I got glasses. But before that...man, I was cheek-kissable, that's for sure. My siblings all think they were cuter little kids, but I know they're just saying that, because seriously, you should see pictures.
I'm the middle of five kids--two older sisters, and a younger sister and brother. The two oldest and two youngest were 18 months apart, but I was 3 and 4 years separated from my closest siblings, and I always felt a little isolated because if it. We fought like Itchy and Scratchy growing up. We had a big tan van, and I remember many threats from my dad as we drove to go camping, "If you don't stop fighting, I'll turn this van around." Once, we didn't. And he turned the van around.
I have so many memories from childhood, it's hard to pick among them and decide what's important. We moved to a new house when I was 4 years old, so all my memories of the old house I know happened before I was 5, like playing with play dough on the downstairs carpet and making such a mess my mom cried; drawing on a wall behind my mom's chair as she talked on the phone; my mom burying a dead bird in a Cool Whip container and then my sisters and I digging it back up again to take another look; getting to ride on my dad's shoulders as we walked to church; having chicken pox the same time as my sister and taking a bath with baking soda in the water to help ease the itching.
From kindergarten on, I always loved school. I loved to learn new things and the exciting projects we'd do. I always seemed to have friends trouble, though. I felt lonely a lot and frustrated with all the fights and misunderstandings that seemed to happen. I took everything to heart, believed everyone really hated me. I've always been very sensitive--which helps being a writer for being able to feel another's pain and get inside the characters, but also makes things like negative reviews sting for a long time. I'm much better now than I was, of course. In elementary school, I remember walking home alone a lot and crying in my mom's arms. She was always warm and gentle and understanding.
My elementary school teachers were wonderfully supportive of creativity. In third grade, I'd write silly poems or make up plays and my teacher would let me involve classmates and perform them for the class. Before I knew it was possible to write books, the way I'd tell stories would be to act them out, hopefully with siblings or friends taking part in the cast. In fourth grade, I discovered the magic of writing fiction. I was hooked and declared that year that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I started writing four books that year, none of which I ever finished. My favorite games to play with my friends would be to act out the stories I made up.
I always loved reading, too. It was my personal tradition on the last day of summer, the day before school started again, to read all day. I'd get a book (I remember the year it was the wonderful Homecoming, by Cynthia Voight), set up a blanket in a shady spot, eat "Unsalted Tops Saltine Crackers" and Sprite all day, reading, moving my blanket as the shadow of the tree moved with the sun.
I remember missing the security of elementary school when I went junior high. It was easy to feel small and unimportant in such a big school with older kids who didn't care if they slammed a door in your face. I lost all my elementary school friends and made new ones, which was strange and hard. No boys ever liked me. Those two years seem sad and thin in memory. I know there were lots of good times, too. I loved being on our junior high literary magazine staff. Dean Hughes, a writer, did an author-in-residence with my English class, which was amazing. He was the only professional writer I met until college. I wanted desperately to be a writer, and I'd like to say that of all the students I shone out, and he took me aside and told me, "Kid, you got what it takes." But I didn't, and he didn't.
My other love was drama class. I loved drama! I loved making up scenes and performing them, I loved comedy and making people laugh, I loved stepping into a new character and becoming that person. Both years I auditioned for the school play with soaring hopes; both years I didn't make the cut. Ay, what trauma we live through in our brief lives! No wonder they say, if you had a childhood, you have all the fodder you'll ever need for writing books. Alice Hoffman said, "Every childhood is an unhappy childhood because that's where we first learn about unhappiness."
High school again was a huge change that I ended up loving. I went to West High, which had a reputation for being a "gang" school. That way-overblown identity ended up being cool to me. It was a wonderfully open school that didn't resemble the high schools I saw in the movies at all. There weren't cliques that I knew of. The cheerleaders and football players weren't the cool kids and everyone else schmucks. There were lots of groups of people with shared interests, but you could go between the groups with little problem. I had drama friends, debate friends, nerdy smart friends, athletic friends. It was also very diverse culturally (for Utah, anyway), which was so refreshing to me! I loved getting to know people who'd had very different backgrounds than me--people of different religions and economic backgrounds, family structures, beliefs, experiences, ethnic heritages, looks, interests. Compared to my time at West, my early life started to seem weak and stifled. For the rest of my life I wanted to be surrounded by interesting people very different from myself.
In movies and books, a teen's life often involves drinking, sex, or drugs. It sure didn't in mine. While I think it's important to have stories about all kinds of people, I think it's also important to acknowledge the other side. I did not drink alcohol or take drugs or have sex with boyfriends because I chose not to. I did have a lot of fun, though.
In high school I continued to forge a bond with my great loves--books and theater.
English was my second favorite subject. I loved reading, loved finding hidden meanings in poetry. I loved especially any creative writing assignments. I took Creative Writing as an elective and was on the school literary magazine staff as Fiction Editor. There was no question in my mind that I needed stories, needed books. One tragic outcome of English classes, however, was I believed (and didn't question for some time) that the "classics" were the only good books around. I stopped reading for pleasure, choosing books that I thought were good for me but were often boring and quite depressing, and so soon fell out of love with reading. I didn't question the only-classics-are-good mentality for many years.
My most favorite subject? Drama. I think drama class got me through those 4 years. I did eventually make some of the plays I auditioned for, and I took drama every year, competing in drama competitions. I was into serious drama then, crying and death and misery. My best year in competition I did a piece from A Patch of Blue. Drama class was wonderful! I really thrived on classes that allowed some creative thinking, moving, speaking out of turn. I was in an improvisational theater group for three years. We made up and performed scenes about different teen issues and traveled all over the state (and sometimes, the country) performing them and then processing the issues with the audience. I became the go-to person for creating new scenes, a designation that I felt very proud of. I didn't think of it this way at the time, but scene creator and storyteller were synonymous. It was all great practice for writing books.
In addition to school drama, my freshman year I auditioned for a part in a community theater production of The Secret Garden. I made it! I was a maid and I even had a line: "They're Mrs. Medlocks orders. She said no one is to be allowed on the grounds for the afternoon." Yep, still remember it. I was in heaven. Each night I'd go to the theater for rehearsal, then there were the shows five times a week. I kept auditioning and kept making it, though usually without a single line and always with a very minor role. The best thing about the theater was the people I met there. They were all creative, fun, funny, wild, interesting. I could be friends with grandpas, divorced moms, older teens, and little kids all at the same time. I thrived on diversity. At one point, I think I held the theater record for the most non-human parts played--fairies, a rabbit, snow person, and on one program I appeared as "Plankton." True story. That was for The Little Mermaid. Plankton. I mean, really.
I was in over a dozen plays at that theater, and the best part of it was the life long friends I made. Theater is very good for relationships. It's also very helpful for a writer. Acting is about character creation; directing is about world creation. I feel the benefit of those skills when I sit down alone to write.
My freshman year I ran for sophomore vice president and somehow won (though believe that I was never, ever remotely popular in the traditional sense). There was this senior named Dean Hale who was student body VP that year. He was also in my drama class and the improv theater troupe. I seriously dug that boy. But though we were friends, he didn't shine that way for me. Alas. There was much silent heartache on my part. We remained friends for years, and he'll show up again later in my tale. I'll bet you can guess how...
By the end of my senior year in high school, I was so ready to be done. Though I'd always liked school, I was feeling pretty burned out and a bit apprehensive about starting college. And then the wonderful surprise--it was awesome! (and I don't use that word lightly) One of my most favorite things in all my life has been the moment when I'd get the semester catalog in the mail. I'd sit down for a couple of hours and go through it, marking all the classes I wanted to take. The freedom! I got to set my own hours (no class before 11 am), choose what interested me. No one took role or got mad if I sluffed (that was our term for "skipping class"). I was an adult. I was in school because I chose to be. I loved that it was all up to me.
I attended the University of Utah. I'd always fancied the idea of going to an Ivy League school or go away somewhere and live in a dorm. Instead I attended the college just minutes from my house. Part of the reason was that I'd been sick my senior year, schooling from home for a month and then attending again rather weakly. The diagnosis said Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and I hated being "sickly," as my siblings called me. But I really didn't have the energy to do much, certainly not apply to multiple colleges, so I took the path of least resistance. I've never regretted going to the U of U. I think you choose what you get out of your education. I could have had a great or terrible education almost anywhere.
I loved the huge campus, walking between classes, hanging out at the student union for a bagel, all my classes, feeling so grown and intellectual. I hated the parking.
I set off to get a double major in English/Theater. Theater classes were great. The more I learned, the more I realized what a real craft acting is. It seems so easy, it seems like something you either have a knack for or you don't. But it's a skill that can be learned with a lot of practice and effort. Outside of drama classes, the only play I was in was Romeo and Juliet, but it was at a professional theater. This was an amazing experience. I was an equity candidate and truly considered trying to be a professional actress. At the same time, a friend of mine came back from Chicago, having been in an improv comedy troupe there, and he formed our friends' group into a troupe, The Do-It-Yourself Players. It was a blast. I never thought I'd be able to do improv comedy, but once I learned the rules and practiced, I did okay. "I could do this forever," I thought. (A few years later and out of practice, I think, I never want to humiliate myself like that again.)
So I had two impossible dreams--being a writer and being an actor. My writing was going no where. I was never able to finish any book I started, and I felt that my poems and short stories were weak. So I had to decide--what's my real passion? Acting came close, but in the end, I knew that I didn't have "it." That sparkle, that presence, that look. As hard as I worked, so much of acting is out of your hands--you have to be cast. And I realized that writing books truly was my utmost desire, even though I didn't know what kinds of books I wanted to write. I still hadn't given myself permission to read for pleasure since high school.
I took an 18-month hiatus from college to serve a volunteer mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You don't choose where you go, so it's a big deal the day your "call" comes in the mail. I was delighted to find I'd been called to Paraguay. My time there was extraordinary--living in a very different culture, speaking Spanish (and sometimes Guarani), paired with a Paraguayan companion 24/7, teaching anyone who cared to hear the message we shared, performing service. I was determined to strip away my American sensibilities and just experience the time as a Paraguayan. It was very, very hard being away from family and friends and working so hard, but it was also so wonderful. Besides being a spiritual experience, it was marvelous to take myself out of myself, to not think about what I wanted and to focus on other people. As a writer, it was wonderful training to imagine new cultures. It was also intensely educating in humanity--people are people wherever you go.
During this time, one of my faithful pen pals was Dean Hale, my friend from high school. He was in school in Washington state. When I returned home, he was back in Utah, and we were living in the same state for the first time in years. Of course we hooked up. It was so exciting, since I'd been carrying a torch for him since I was 15 (I was 22 now). But it was also frightening. He was the only person I'd ever met that I thought I could marry, and I felt young and not at all ready to get married. (You can read about our first kiss together in the anthology First Kiss, Then Tell.) A year later, we broke up--sort of. It was very confusing. I really had to leave the state to figure that whole muddle out.
After getting my BA in English, I applied to the four best rated MFA programs in the Western US that were also state schools (not eager to pay high tuition and traveling costs). My first two choices denied me (U of Arizona and U of Washington), two accepted me: The University of Utah and The University of Montana. I chose the latter because I wanted to go out of state and experience a new place. Unfortunately, I wasn't offered a teaching assistantship. Those with teaching assistantships teach undergrad classes and get free tuition. When I asked the department head how they chose which students got to be TAs, she told me they were granted based on who they thought were the best writers. She looked away politely while I tried not to cry. By my second year, I was the only one in my group who wasn't a TA--effectively, I was considered the worst writer in the program. This stung, yes, quite a lot. (Incidentally, I believe I'm the only one of the group now to have published multiple books by a major publisher, let alone spend time on the New York Times Best Seller list.) All I'm saying is, I was never considered the best or the brightest at any stage in my education, and that's never a good indication of whether or not you've got what it takes.
Again, I loved school. Missoula is a wonderful town, I met so many lovely people. The writers Debra Magpie Earling and Larry Brown were especially influential and memorable to me. The best part of being in an MFA program is being around other writers and not feeling like a freak. All your classmates and professors have the same impossible dream. They take you seriously, and you can take yourself seriously. But not too seriously. The only way, I think, to really make it as a writer is to be able to laugh at yourself liberally.
And Dean? I was engaged before heading back to Missoula for my second year and we were married the next year. He'd fallen pretty hard for me, I can tell you. Oh yes, I was his ideal, he couldn't live without me, I was the most beautiful woman in the world and his best friend and the perfect companion and irresistible to boot (hey, I'm telling the story here, I can do it how I please).
By the end of my time in Missoula, I thought I'd be a short story writer. I'd decided at a younger age that I needed to write one hundred stories before I'd be good enough to write for publication. And of course I don't just write one draft--I do many rewrites, as many as it takes. By now I'd reached my goal of 100 stories, and I was sending off my best short stories to magazines and bringing in just as many rejections. I was afraid to write a book. What if I couldn't carry a story for that long? And what story is important enough to give up a couple of years for? Tiffany Trent, another grad student, and I challenged each other to write a first draft of a book over the summer before our second year. Looking for inspiration, I thought of Robin McKinley, who was my favorite writer when I was young. Her first book was based on a fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, and so I decided to write my own favorite fairy tale into a novel.
The process was much harder than I'd thought. I didn't know how to write a book, and I didn't know what kind of book I was writing. When I was younger, I loved fantasy, but lately I'd only been reading the classics and contemporary literary fiction, mostly short fiction. I set a writing schedule for myself, a page count for each day (now I do a word count--at the time I think it was 5 pages or 1500 words/day). By the end of the summer I had a pile of dross and put it aside so I could concentrate on my thesis.
In 2000, I graduated with my MFA and returned to Utah and to the book. I'd had some distance from it and could see that I was going in the wrong direction, so I threw away almost everything I'd written the summer before and started over. I never once thought that I was writing for children. However, I was mindful of my own younger self. Reading had been the most fun for me when I was 10-16 years old, and I did have a desire to write something that would have pleased me then and still please me now. It was almost two years after I'd begun before I had a draft of The Goose Girl that I was proud of.
By the end of 2000, my student loan payments had kicked in, and I had to give up the heyday of my life and get a job. I found work as an instructional designer, writing computer-based trainings for large corporations. I'd email portions of my novel to work and rewrite them on my lunch break. By summer of 2001 I'd found an agent to represent my novel--a real miracle in and of itself. Amy thought it was a young adult book and she began to shop it to the big children's publishers over the next several months. They rejected it again and again--nine rejections in all. It was an exciting and emotionally exhausting year. I had an agent! And she was sending out my novel! And everyone hated it...and said no, no, no... Now seven years later, The Goose Girl remains my most popular novel, has gone through many printings, translated into several languages, earned several awards, and inspired three sequels. I think it goes to show that rejection doesn't always mean "You stink!" It can mean, "You haven't found your home yet. Keep looking."
Amy sent it to Bloomsbury, the UK publisher of Harry Potter that had just opened a US branch. My company closed down in Utah and everyone was laid off, so I returned home while I looked for work and started writing what would become Enna Burning. I was at home doing yoga one morning when I got a call from my agent--Bloomsbury wanted to make an offer! Can you imagine how I felt? I was like one of those little fireworks that buzz and jump around, spitting pink sparks. I couldn't sleep for two nights. I sat up watching TV to pass the time. And more days went by, and two weeks, and still Bloomsbury didn't make an actual offer. Did they change their mind? Was it a mistake? No, Victoria the editor was busy and at a conference and completely oblivious to the fact that I was having a long term coronary waiting for her word. (I've taken her to task for it since--she apologizes.) So at last the offer was made. It was very little money. Let me just disabuse anyone of the idea that all authors get huge advances that enable them to write full time. Some people say you need five books in print before you can earn a living as a writer--some say ten. But I couldn't have cared less about the money--I would've given it to them for free! (Suckers.)
Elation turned a little sour as the company my husband worked for also folded and we both found ourselves unemployed during a recession. Scary times. And yet also so fun to be at home with Dean, both looking for work and working on our own projects during the day, hanging out at night. He truly is my best friend. During that time, I revised The Goose Girl with my editor and finished a first draft of Enna Burning. I found a new job as an instructional designer and worked there for another year and a half until after Dean and I had Max, our first child, and Dean's work allowed me to quit. I've been a full time mom who writes on the side ever since. We had a baby girl, Maggie, three years after Max, followed by twin girls Dinah and Wren, and writing time has become scarce. But I find little bits here and there. I'm slower than I was, but I so love being a mom. These kids are better than all the books in the world.