Me: You begin with a sailing journey from Seattle. Was there a reason for this?
Sharon: Yes. I wanted Callie to know there are people in the world she can trust. Her father is dead, her mother is missing, and she has just witnessed a grisly murder. She has her little brother to take care of, but she has never felt more alone. The captain (Eric) becomes a father figure who proves valuable in locating her lost mother. In Hawaii, Callie faces the gray areas of trust with Uncle Azman and his questionable forgiveness.
Why is the second half of The Shells of Mersing set in Malaysia and Thailand?
It’s hard to say which had more impact. My stay in Malaysia in 1995-1996 or the novel that resulted. I only know that when my husband accepted a teaching position at a Malaysian polytechnic in 1995, nothing would ever be the same again. I joined him three months later, following a job lay-off at the telephone company where I had worked for fifteen years.
What was it like becoming an expat?
Huge learning curve. I received travel specifics and instructions for expats from my husband’s stateside employer about what to wear and what not to do in a Muslim run country. For instance, knee length skirts and tops with capped sleeves (no bare shoulders, please) were recommended.
Your main characters Callie and Lucas travel to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia alone. Are their impressions yours as well?
Some of the sights, sounds and smells they experience are straight from my diary. Malaysia was over 50% native Malay (Muslim), 35% Chinese (Buddhist), and 15% Indian (Hindu) in 1995. Each ethnic group has their own language and dialect, but they use English to communicate publicly. Callie and Lucas are relieved to hear English spoken at the market in Kuala Lumpur when they lose their way. The Muslim girl Hayati is based on a teen girl I met on the bus in Kuala Lumpur.
Callie and Lucas meet their Muslim family in Mersing, Malaysia. Do they experience any religious conflicts?
Yes. Malaysians are a religious people. In 1995, expats were warned not to share their Christian faith or pass out bibles if so inclined. It was likewise illegal for Chinese and Indian Christians to do so. I couldn’t resist putting Callie in a situation where she accidentally gives a cousin a Christian flyer handed to her at the market. She has a brief falling out with her Muslim family. As Muslims do not celebrate Christmas, Callie and Lucas then find a way to give gifts to their aunt and uncle, and cousins.
Where did the idea for The Shells of Mersing come from?
I was volunteering at a local orphanage in Kluang, Malaysia. I learned that one of the boys (aged 7) had been rescued from domestic slavery. I was aware of human slavery, of girls mostly, but my shock level jumped to a new level. This was the little boy I had made yarn dolls with at Christmastime. My heart was melting. I then learned that human trafficking and slavery did indeed exist in Malaysia and more so in Thailand to the north. From this experience a story grew.
In Thailand, Callie and Sam kiss for the first time and learn to trust each other. Did you find inspiration anywhere?
Yes. I imagined Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens when I wrote about Callie and Sam. The innocence of first love portrayed in Highschool Musical 1 was my go-to source. I must confess also, that my husband and I very much relate to their romance. We were high school sweethearts♥♥.
Excerpt: Floating Market scene in Bangkok:
“…The air buzzes with the din of boat engines winding down and taking off.
Sam takes my hand when it’s time to board. Eric beams at us from across two rows, noticing. That obvious, huh. Earlier he was worried about the prison arrangements tomorrow, but I’d rather think about this cool guy holding my hand. I can’t think about Mom right now, because every time I do my thoughts go dark and I’m instantly depressed. Not today, not now.
Sam squeezes my hand. “You okay?” he shouts over the engine.
He always seems to know. “I’m fine.” And I am, just gazing into his light brown eyes.”
Who is your ideal reader?
Teen girls primarily (13 up), and anyone who identifies with a teen’s point of view in an otherwise out of control adult world. The choices made at the brink of adulthood can have a powerful effect on one’s future, even when the odds are against success. Callie’s experience ranges from losing a father and mother and being placed in a disreputable foster home, to fending off smugglers and human traffickers, and then finding favor with the King of Thailand. On the other hand, a seventy-plus year old male relative of mine said he identified with the characters and cried at the ending.
(Print & E-Book) (Suspense, Mystery & Romance)
Short synopsis: When notorious Uncle Azman disobeys orders, and secretly sends Callie and her younger brother Lucas to meet their mother's sisters in Mersing, Malaysia, 14-year-old Callie hopes their troubles are over. After all they have endured, what more could go wrong? Their American dad is dead, Mom is missing, and their foster dad in Seattle was murdered, with Callie falsely accused. Pawns in a crime operation gone awry, Callie and Lucas barely escaped being targeted by their uncle's sinister boss for sale in Thailand’s human trafficking market. Although Uncle Azman's turnaround was a miracle, Callie knows that real safety lies with family in Mersing, where they can begin searching for Mom, but a shell box, a ruby, and a boy named Sam from Chicago are about to change everything.
Sharon spent more than ten years developing The Shells of Mersing, a story first outlined in Malaysia in 1996. With a B.A. in American Studies, she has a soft spot for history and other cultures. Malaysia is a rich storehouse of culture, with its Malay, Chinese and Indian populations. Today she is working on a second novel (a sequel to Shells…) at her home in Eastern Washington, where she lives with her husband on the edge of a desert runway . . . but that’s another story!