Interview: Debut Author Ellen Prager, PhD

Today, Kid Lit Reviews is pleased to welcome Dr. Ellen Prager, Scarletta Press author of The Shark Whisperer, June 8th–this Saturday–is World Oceans Day and Dr. Prager will be speaking. But before she can speak there, she has to speak here. I asked her a few questions about her book series, her writing habits, and what kids could do to help the oceans of the world. Here is what she told me:

prager ellen and world ocea dayHi, Dr. Prager. What prompted you to write The Shark Whisperer?

While promoting my last popular science book (Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Ocean’s Oddest Creatures), I was repeatedly asked if I had anything specifically for middle grade students (8 to 12 years old). The answer was no. My previous books are either illustrated children’s books for younger kids or High School and above popular science books. I then investigated (did my homework) to see what type of books kids of that age like to read. The answer was crystal clear – fun fiction series, such as Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. I was particularly taken with Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and how he combined Greek mythology with adventure and totally sarcastic, creative humor. I became a huge fan and thought: Hey, what if I could do something like that with the ocean and sea creatures. What a great way to get kids engaged in reading and learning about the sea at an age where so many love marine animals and the ocean.

Many of the things that occur in the story are true. Can you tell us about one or two  fascinating facts?

In the book, one of the main teen characters develops the ability to change the color of his skin (later the shape of his fingers as well….teaser for book #2) to mimic other creatures or his surroundings. This is modeled after the octopus (and squid and cuttlefish), which is the best and fastest camouflage artist on the planet. They are also smart, have excellent eyesight, and can squeeze through amazingly small openings (the Houdinis of the sea). Truly amazing creatures!

After a series of events, the main characters go to the Exuma Islands in the Bahamas where they attempt to rescue some kidnapped teens and outwit a shark killing, coral reef blasting villain. In the Bahamas they confer in a cave, swim through coral reefs and over stromatolites, and come upon giant underwater waves or dunes of sand made up of small white beadlike grains called ooids. These are all based on my real experiences when I lived in the Exuma Islands and worked as the director of a small marine laboratory on tiny Lee Stocking Island.

Will Tristan be a central character in each book of the series? How many books will comprise The Shark Whisperer series?

Yes, Tristan will be the main character, accompanied by his friends Hugh and Sam. Right now we are planning for five books!

What was the hardest task involved in writing the book and how did you handle it?

Writing the book was the fun part. I love writing these books. The hard part was finding a publisher. Because I am a scientist and had not written a fiction series like this previously, I think publishers were hesitant to take it on. In addition, the combination of an entertaining fiction story with ocean science was also somewhat of a novel idea, so that also presented an obstacle for publishers. I received numerous “soul sucking” rejections and was nearly ready to throw in the towel, when Scarletta Press thankfully picked up the series. I am extremely grateful to them for taking a chance with the books and me. And hopefully, given the wonderful response so far from readers they are happy as well!

Sometimes I took the rejections as a challenge and was ready to fight for the book. At other times I went running, swimming in the ocean or jumped into my kayak to ward off the self-doubt and depression that occurred. And I had great friends and family who kept telling me to keep at it. The fact that my test readers LOVED the first book also gave me confidence that I had something worth publishing.

Of all the abilities the kids have in The Shark Whisperer, (such as Tristan understanding sharks and talking to them), which skill would you want to be a real thing and why?

Now that’s a tough question. I would definitely like to be able to talk to sea creatures, especially sharks, dolphins or eagle rays. Sam’s ability to echolocate is pretty cool too. Then again, developing webbed hands and feet and being able to swim fast and stay longer underwater would be fantastic. I just can’t choose!

Those skills definitely saved our heroes lives.  World Ocean Day is this Saturday, June 8th. What is most important about this day?

World Ocean Day provides an opportunity for us to recognize the importance of the ocean to the planet, marine life, and especially people. It is a chance to share knowledge of and passion for the sea, and hopefully to foster a greater connection in people of all ages to the ocean and to build lifelong stewards.

What can kids do to help restore and maintain the ocean?

Kids have enormous power! But they don’t hear that all too often. Kids are a huge influence on their parents and other kids. They can get involved in coastal cleanups, ocean camps, programs at nature centers and aquariums, and share they commitment to the ocean with others. They can teach people about marine life and why we all should dispose of our trash properly and recycle so it doesn’t end up in the ocean. Kids can write their local leaders or even the President to tell them we need to take better care of the ocean. They can also ask their parents to only purchase seafood that is fished sustainable with seafood delivery service or other sustainable centers(see Monterey Bay Aquarium or the Blue Ocean Institute website for information on this). And they are the leaders and innovators of the future. Kids have power!

Can you give us a little insight into book 2?

If you liked book #1, you are going to love book #2. Tristan and his friends go on a mission to investigate mysteriously dying fish in the British Virgin Islands, an area well known for its pirate history. They will encounter strangely aggressive sharks, spooked manta rays, get trapped, be set adrift at night, and have to deal with an oncoming hurricane. There is also some cool underwater technology in the second book, including a small submersible and a robotic jellyfish.

The teens will explore some of the most beautiful and fascinating real locations in the British Virgin Islands, such as the giant boulder trails and caves of The Baths. And in dealing with a creepy new villain, Hugh surprises everyone in a move that is a real shocker. Also included in the story is a mantis shrimp with anger management problems, some squid, a moray eel, sea turtles, tarpon, dolphins, frigate birds, and more.

There is nothing worse than a fish with a sharp tail and a anger management problem. Let’s shift gears, but just slightly. Describe where do you do most of your writing. 

I write mainly in my office at home. It is light, airy, and overlooks some palm trees. I can even see the ocean in the distance. I like it to be quiet or with just the sounds of nature, such as birds chirping. Sometimes I write while traveling, but I find that harder. Though if the inspiration hits, I suppose I can write just about anywhere!

When you wrote book 1, did you write the first draft straight through before editing anything or did you edit along the way? If you can recall, how many drafts were written before the manuscript was polished enough for submission?

For me, writing is all about re-writing. I try to write pages at a time and then come back repeatedly to edit. And I definitely edit as I go. I’ll work on sections at a time to get them pretty well crafted and then move on. Many, many drafts were done before I submitted the manuscript. No idea on the number, let’s just say lots!

Is there anything you would like to add? Maybe tell us a bit about the upcoming books.

Real world ocean issues are integrated into each book. In the first book the bad guy is shark finning. Tens of millions of sharks are killed each year for their fins, meat, cartilage, and oil. As top predators, sharks are very important to the ocean ecosystem, they help to keep prey populations in check and weed out sick or diseased animals. We need to better protect sharks to protect the ocean and all of its valuable resources we depend on, and so that we as well as future generations can continue to enjoy the sea and sharks. In the second book issues such as marine pollution and overfishing are integrated into the story.

We’ll start the editing process soon for book #2 so that it will be ready to publish early May 2015. And I’m well into writing book #3. Grand Cayman’s Stingray City plays a major role in the story. If people want to learn more about the science in the books or me they can also go to www.tristan-hunt.com.

I love Stingray City. Such a cool place. Just don’t jump into the ocean with a pocket full of squid. They will make you scream as they converge upon you as you hit the water.  But great fun!

Dr. Prager, thank you for being here and answering my questions. I very much enjoyed The Shark Whisperer and will be thrilled when book 2 arrives.

SharkWhisperer LargeReaders can read a REVIEW of The Shark Whisperer HERE or an EXCERPT HERE.

The Shark Whisperer can be bought at Amazon B&NScarletta Press—at your local bookstore.

Visit Dr. Ellen Prager at her website:  http://www.earth2ocean.net/
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Readers, Thanks for hanging in there!

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