Like the few Greenland Sharks aged around five hundred years old, some intriguing things can take time to percolate before surfacing to other eyes. In December 2019 I met up with Melissa McCarthy: writer, researcher and author of Sharks, Death, Surfers: an Illustrated Companion. Our conversation took place in what now seems like the eerie abyss of another world where the threat of some great change lurked, shark-like, just out of sight.
Submerged predators, moments of political threat and the lives of beings who move outwith the experiential realm of the human senses emerge as metaphors and lines of enquiry in Sharks, Death, Surfers; a contemporary almanac of deep observation that fuses obituary and documentary with critical thought. The simultaneous other-worldliness and mundanity of the subject matter creates waves of information and reflection that render the book’s categorisation as one thing or another an obsolete task. It is a unique literary exploration which can provide an informatic current on which the reader is invited to travel, swimming alongside McCarthy as she acts as a witness to both human and non-human conditions of friction, movement and death, through metaphor and cinematic biologies.
‘It ends as it begins, in motion, in between various modes of being and belonging, and on the way to new economies of giving, taking, being with and for and it ends with a ride in a Buick Skylark on the way to another place altogether.’
This quote from Jack Halberstam’s ‘The Wild Beyond: With and For The Undercommons’ the introduction to Fred Moten and Stephen Harney’s essential book on the subject  situates the position in which I feel our conversation took place. After being given SDS by a mentor-figure who assumed it would pique my interest, McCarthy and I established a conversational friendship through football, cinema, writing, pregnancy, miscarriage, pandemics, life outside institution, and all things underneath. Although our exchanges inevitably didn’t result in us riding away in a Skylark—instead we spoke while sat one way or another, backward and forward on the fast train between Edinburgh and Glasgow and now Tier separated, by email—this document of that conversation sits in both in the suspended time of then and drifting home-thinking of now.
Christmas Time 2019, Summerhall, Edinburgh
RR: When I first read the book, I was overwhelmed by imagining the parallel lives of the person who researched it. The writing holds many ideas, it could almost be authored by a collective—the archivist, the photographer, and then this ethnographer of sharks. Maybe it seems glib to say, but, how does a book like this, in the form and genre we find it, come about?
MM: I come from a fiction and arts background, but for all of this marine biological research, I wanted to know enough to understand the scientific papers, but from my own position. When you’re in a new field of knowledge, everything sounds poetic and glamorous: sharks have got squalene, and flicker fusion rate, and calcified otoliths; denticles and copepods—these are great words! But you have to understand it on its own ground. I haven’t yet had any complaints from people that I’ve completely misrepresented their field.
RR: I suppose there’s something about a ‘blind interpretation’ though that is interesting too: it takes away the bias of an institution of thought, and can enable a researcher to pull out details and threads in a kind of bombastic way forging new epistemologies from a combination of fields. To be aware of that, and the potent possibilities it can present, is exciting.
MM: Yes. I did—like everyone does—so much research, and sometimes from a huge body of knowledge it’s just one tiny phrase which becomes what matters, what you extract.
RR: Let’s take this moment to talk a bit about the structure of the book, it’s layout, the subheadings, images and paratext—chapter titles such as ‘YOU’RE GOING TO NEED A WIDER CONTEXT’, ‘DUDE WHERE’S MY COUNTERPART’ and ‘NOTHING SORTS OUT MEMORIES FROM ORDINARY MOMENTS’ are pretty strong gestures towards maybe a kind of wider purpose in your work?
MM: So those are quotations, or misquotes, from, respectively, Jaws the film; the Stoner film [Dude Where’s My Car] from 2000; and from Marker’s La Jetée. It’s a kind of pointing outwards to other films, other books, in the same way that when you read a paper map (like the A-Z streetmap; I don’t use mobile phone navigation), it’s designed so that you look down at your page, but then up and out, into the world. I wanted my book to be like that, an encoding or representation that you then take into reality and use. The brilliant designers A Practice for Everyday Life described it as designed ‘like a pocket guide or journal that might be taken on voyages round the world’, which I really like.
RR: And also, in the book we really do ‘travel’ and you’ve talked before about this being a kind of ‘armchair investigation’—you go between, California, Hawaiii, The Bodelian Library and you do it without physically going anywhere. It struck me as a kind of gesture towards a method of universal access to places, histories and archives that generally need means to get to—whether that be money, resources, title, time or gills.
MM: That’s the journey that a library can take you on. And partly I wanted the experience of reading the book to be like listening to someone telling you a story. I don’t go to the theatre much but when I do I like to see one person standing up, telling you a story for a specific amount of time, and then that’s the end. The idea of time is quite important in the work, its compression and expansion. You can read a book in two hours and travel five hundred years.
In terms of composition of the book: it took a long time. I began the project ten years before it came out, and initially my idea was to quickly make a calendar, for merchandising for my organisation. But a calendar is of course about marking the passing of time, and it turned into a slow process. Then after Sternberg accepted it, they said, ‘We think it should be a very beautiful book with pictures of sharks.’ During the writing process, I had worked with images, but this was in terms of a big hardback notebook I wrote in every day, while gazing at postcards on my shelf, of things and people related to what I was writing about. Then there was a hiatus in the editing process which actually worked really well because I just went off and researched shark images for six months, which was brilliant. In the ten years since I began, so much more material has become available through digitization. The online collections and access are a treat.
RR: I guess it means that there’s so much more thinking that can be done, which is exciting. It also kind of de-hallows the archival space which is important too. I’ve always been interested in the idea that the more eyes there are looking at something, the more ideas come out of it—not disregarding the beauty of privacy and the unseen though I suppose…
I guess also in academic situations people can be quite cagey about information: who gets to analyse what and with what knowledge, and there’s an important discussion there about access, time and power and how these things often become framed by institution, university or a brand of personal capital.
MM: That’s the skill, of navigating through the excess of information. And yes, I’m glad in a way of having the freedom of being outwith academia. I know there are a lot of pressures on them, but I do notice people being scared to look at new ideas, resistant to anything outside of what they already know.
Another archive that I used was one I’ve built up myself, of obituaries. So every day I’d get the newspaper, cut out the page, make a huge pile, and then this is my matter, what I work with.
One of the areas I look at is twentieth century Californian surf culture, and an interesting thing about this is that it’s a sort of archive and academy in miniature. The amount of publications, magazines, history and mythology around surfing—is very small, containable and recent. I liked the idea of casting a rigorous, analytical eye over that corpus of work. You can take this academic approach towards something as countercultural as surfing; you might not get an exactly academic result, but it’s very much worth doing the investigation properly. It’s about taking any sphere or world and paying the respect of thinking thoroughly and deeply about it. Then you find incredible connections. It’s the idea that anything is interesting, if you look from close enough up.
MM: One of your questions, Rosie, from earlier, was, ‘Did you know the Kennedys would become an issue, and especially connecting them to Jaws and other lines of thought?’ and that was easy to answer—completely not at all! I think that’s quite important about the whole book; if I had known the things I was going to say in it, there wouldn’t have been any point in writing it. It advanced day by day, and there were moments of discovery that I can remember striking me: like realising that ‘resolution’ refers to a ship, and a photographic image, and a scientific process, and a frame of mind. Or some of the jokes—I’d be sitting at my desk, laughing. That’s the whole pleasure of writing—you don’t know what will happen until you start.
RR: There’s this current that runs through the book that’s about behaviour, whether it’s the behaviour of scientists, sharks, surfers, or, the behaviour of readers; one of the things I loved about the book is that you didn’t—or as far as I was aware—go into too much post-structuralist behavioural theory explicitly, which a lot of time can dominate texts of this nature. Was that a conscious decision?
MM: It’s just the way that I write. I like things to have a certain clarity that some contemporary academic writing doesn’t have. It sounds a bit philistine but if the idea can only be expressed in this very codified language then that’s not good communication
What behavioural stuff caught you particularly?
RR: The chapter DEATH BECOMES ATTRACTIVE, it was about Ron Stoner and two scales of work—contrasting the landscape view, which is external and large-scale, with the portrait view, which is smaller, more personal. The landscape external and the scale and the portrait of an individual structure—and in it there is this discussion of photography and depression where Stoner’s response to his illness is to step out or take himself out of the picture: ‘to dissolve himself’. As someone who suffers with long-term mental illness, I found it moving, to read that documentary of an image-based transition of thought, and that you observed that Stoner did this literally, not just metaphorically as he was a photographer and he wanted his image to disappear.
MM: I was trying to be sympathetic to the fact that these are real people I’m looking at. I read and work with obituaries because I love them, but I’m well aware that when you know the subject, it means something very different. The book is academic in a way, but it’s also a fiction, a story about things that I care about, about people I try to care for. Stoner, for example, is this fantastic photographer with a very sad life story and I don’t want to make light of that in the few pages I talk about him.
RR: By the end of my reading of the book I imagined you almost as a ghost in all these places, standing on the beach for instance looking at Cook’s crew about to commit a horrible crime, unawares, thinking ‘if they only knew what they were doing and the end result’. What’s successful about the writing is that you had somehow put yourself in the picture, almost literally.
MM: That’s exciting, because another strand of the book is literally about position and vision, what you can and can’t see…
RR: Yes, there is this revelation in the book that regards perception and the proximity of intention to perception and how that is affected by time.
MM: I began with considering seeing—vision and understanding—as metaphors, but then I took the subject and ran with it, to excess, including research all about scientists who slice up shark eyeballs, But I like this whole collision, between the literal meaning and the metaphor, the jelliness of an eyeball and its meaning. And I found that even the most hardcore biology papers have a morality, a poetry to them. I was reading one about the social mobility habits of great white sharks, which explained that all other shark populations have a main, breeding population, and then some outcasts who don’t do what is considered normal—they are ‘lost, and usually permanently lost.’ But for great whites, the scientist found that they are a society entirely composed of outcasts. And I was just reading it and weeping, thinking aren’t we all, aren’t we all outcasts. But also laughing, because it’s like Groucho Marx not wanting to join any club that would have him as a member.
 The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, 2013
Sharks, Death, Surfers - An Illustrated Companion is available from Sternberg Press: https://www.sternberg-press.co… McCarthy is a writer. She comes from South London but lives in Edinburgh. Sharks, Death, Surfers: An Illustrated Companion was published by Sternberg Press, Berlin, in 2019, and is available from Sternberg and all good / art bookshops. See her website http://sharksillustrated.org for more, including a listen again of the 2019 Resonance FM radio series Melissa McCarthy’s View from a Shark.
Rosie Roberts is an artist, writer and editor from Glasgow interested in overlapping relations. She recently published ‘portals’ with SPAM Press, available here: https://www.spamzine.co.uk/product-page/portals-rosie-roberts-preorder