A Conversation with USS Doleski

By Melissa Warner Published February 5, 2020

Originally named USS Murphy, Shannon Doleski’s book Mary Underwater takes on a difficult issue, and main character Mary Murphy is younger than the traditional YA protagonist. Ms. Doleski deals with the issue of domestic violence, but not in a “sensationalized or a glamorized version.” She aimed to focus not on the hitting (“we know what hitting looks like”), but on what happens after the hitting.

The book includes an unexpected element of nonfiction sections, about Joan of Arc who Ms. Doleski admits she was “obsessed with” as a child. She felt that Mary needed some kind of internal hero to help her through the difficulties, and noted that saints are kind of like superheros. While Ms. Doleski intended to write a romance, she admits that it is “a little unusual for middle grades to have [romance] so heavily featured.” She enjoys romance books “with other stuff going on” and where the “romance matters for the plot.” Ms. Doleski noted that there are lower grade (age 11-12) and traditional YA (age 16 and up) books, but age 13-14 is “a no man’s land in publishing right now.” She further noted how life “drastically changes” from 13 to 16. She believes more romance is needed for age 13-14. Her publisher, Abrams, is beginning to hone in on this age group, and they carry several titles for the age group.

Ms. Doleski feels that she “just get[s] kids” and feels most herself when talking to them. She finds them “so much more open to things than adults are, and they’ve got all this fresh new stuff on the horizon.” She has completed four other YA books as well as a middle grade book. The YA books are targeted to the traditional YA age and are “light speculative fiction.” Although mostly “contemporary,” they have some magic/supernatural elements, but explore feelings. For example, one character has “food issues” and she noted that “we all have little bits of stuff we need to talk about without glorifying or glamorizing it… Everybody has stuff.” She also does not like gender norms, and tries to “subvert” them. She noted that “kids are kids and each kid is different and unique.”
Revisions to her work is “incredibly difficult” for her, and “takes a lot of brain power,” but “coming up with a world is euphoric for me and I get really excited and happy” (think “Disney princess singing while tossing flowers”). While she has no expectation of becoming famous (in contrast to her family’s thoughts), she enjoys talking to people about her art and finds it “surreal to see people read your book.” Oddly, good reviews “mess” with her more than bad ones. She is working on her next book and worries about whether she can “match [the] expectations.”

Such a fear is realistic in the writing/publishing world, and Mary Underwater sat for three years before it was purchased. Working on new things kept her hopeful though, and she would just “keep going.” Ms. Doleski professed “I write strange books.” She explained that her books are difficult to compare to anything existing and that makes it difficult to pitch her books to publishers. Bok’s are generally pitched as ‘this book/movie meets this book/movie’. Her books “don’t really fit in. That’s okay, they’re quirky.” What keeps her writing is “that euphoric feeling I feel creating new things and trying to figure out…like a chess game, how it all works together. It’s such a fun feeling.”

Currently, she is researching survivalist and prepper books for her “end of the world book” for age 13-14 kids. It has made her a “little panicky about the world right now.” However, one of the key features of “kid lit” is that it has “a lot of hope” and that is what sets it apart. She finds adult literature not very hopeful, and “especially now in 2020, the more hope the better.” She has not reached the end of this book yet but she assures that it will have a happy ending that is not “saccharine,” but hopeful.

As a little girl, she wanted to be a country music singer/songwriter or a model. She did eventually wind up as the lead singer in a rock band, Phage. As a teenager, she wanted to be a teacher or a travel writer. In high school, she was a “major, major jock,” swimming (in college as well), playing softball and volleyball, playing clarinet in the band, and working various jobs including as a lifeguard. Ms. Doleski would not change anything about her teen years “because it all makes you grow.”