Under the Skin: A Sneak Peek

by Shaun Hunter


1. Where did the idea come from for your book?

One morning, when I was busy pushing my children through school and music lessons, I looked in the mirror and saw my maternal grandmother’s face staring back at me. It wasn’t just a physical resemblance: I was becoming as negative, rigid, and demanding as Berniece. A few years later, I was diagnosed with melanoma, a deadly but preventable skin cancer. The two experiences seemed connected. The resulting exploration became my book, Under the Skin.

2. What genre does your book fall under?  

Literary non-fiction. Memoir, if you insist.

3.  What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I’m a nonfiction writer, so I’d have the characters play themselves. If my book were fiction, I might choose old Bette Davis for my grandmother, and young Audrey Hepburn for me. My grandmother, if she were still alive, would have her own views.

4.  What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?  

When you have your face pressed up against the glass of your mortality, as the poet Jason Shinder describes the cancer experience, you find out who you really are.

5.  Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m old-school: I’m going to do my best to get an agent or a literary press interested in the manuscript.

6.  How long did it take you to write the first draft?  

A dozen years ago, my grandmother popped up in a piece of freefall writing. Five years ago, in a Booming Ground course with Merilyn Simonds, I began to think my Berniece essays might be a book. It took me eight months to write a first draft. The current draft (I’ve stopped counting) bears very little resemblance to the first one.

7.  What other books would you compare your book to within your genre?  

A combination of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Mary Gordon’s Circling My Mother, and Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase.

8.  Who or what inspired you to write this book?  

A difficult, complicated grandmother; a strong, energetic mother; and my two, now grown-up children, who deserve to understand what lies under the skin.

9.  What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

This is a book where layers get peeled back – on the past, on the self, on the body. There are a couple of scenes where I take my clothes off. (Sorry, kids.)

Thank you to Rea Tarvydas for these questions, and her invitation to respond.