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Sena Jeter Naslund
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Sue Grafton

An Interview with Sena Jeter Naslund

Author of Ahabís Wife: or, The Star-Gazer

 

An epic-scale, brilliant, and compelling saga, inspired by a brief passage in Moby-Dick, Ahab’s Wife: or, The Star-Gazer is the uplifting story of one woman's spiritual journey. In this interview, conducted by New York journalist John Woodley, author Sena Jeter Naslund reveals exactly how this new universe of literary fiction evolved.

Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund Q: Describe the development of Ahabís Wife. How closely does the finished product resemble what you'd planned?

SJN: The concept for Ahabís Wife seized me while I was driving a rented car in an unfamiliar city. I had come up to Boston for the publication of my novel Sherlock in Love, and I felt wonderful: my publisher and editor at David R. Godine, Inc. had been so kind and supportive, and I'd gotten a stunningly good review on National Public Radio and in Kirkus Reviews. I was in celebration mode, stepping on the gas, and finding my way when a sentence came to me: "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last" and an image: a woman on a Nantucket widow's walk at night looking out to sea, hoping to see the burning try-pots of her husband's whale ship. She had waited and watched for him a long time. Then she stopped looking out and began to look up, her gaze traveling the stars. Thus began her own spiritual journey. I stepped on the gas and realized that Una's adventure was every bit as important and could be as compelling as the sea adventure of her husband. The whole concept for the novel seemed present in an instant, in the first sentence and in the star-gazing image.

 

Q: Is this how astronomy entered the novel?

Sena Jeter NaslundSJN: Yes. Melville had written the quintessential sea story. I needed something more vast - the heavens. The first time I visited Nantucket (which was Ahab's home), I went from the wharf into a tour guide mini-bus, and the guide immediately began to speak of the historical woman Maria Mitchell, who was the first person in the world to discover a comet using a telescope. She did this from her roof-walk observatory in Nantucket. For a moment I thought she might be Ahabís Wife, but as I learned more about her, I saw this was impossible. Melville also amazingly enough was struck by Maria Mitchell and wrote a long poem, "After the Pleasure Party," based on the woman astronomer. In my book, Maria becomes a good friend of my totally fictional character Una Spenser, who does marry Captain Ahab. It also happened that my bedtime reading for the two years before I conceived Ahabís Wife was in physics and astronomy. I met my husband, an atomic physicist who has also worked at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, about six months after I had the vision of Una on the roof-walk.

 

 

Q: What about cannibalism? Why is it a feature of Ahabís Wife?

SJN: Melville wrote a couple of books, Typee and Omoo (based on his South Sea Islands experience), that caused him to be known as The Man Who Lived With the Cannibals. He also went to Nantucket to interview the captain of the whale ship the Essex, which was rammed by a sperm whale and sunk. Members of the crew, adrift for many weeks in 16-foot whaleboats, turned to cannibalism. A close reading of Moby-Dick suggested to me that Melville had originally intended to explore cannibalism, following the Essex story in that particular as well as in the sinking of the whale ship, but for some reason turned away from it - perhaps the decision was part of his resisting the reductive label as the man who lived among cannibals. But Melville does describe the Pequod as a "cannibal craft" all trimmed in ivory and bone, and he has Captain Ahab refer to himself as "cannibal old me." So I wanted to explore a territory that Melville had decided against, but one that was in keeping with the ambiance of Moby-Dick. Since I was a child, taboos have interested me - how do people invent ideas that they consider the boundary conditions of being a human being? It's a question about the origin of moral values. My early novel Sherlock in Love explores another taboo. From Moby-Dick, it's clear that Ahab has a philosophical turn of mind. Captain Peleg says of him that he's fixed his lance in "mightier, stranger foes than whales," that he's tried to penetrate the mysteries of reality. If I was to create a wife worthy of him, she too needed to have had a profound wrestling with fundamental questions and experiences.

 

Q: Why did you dip into the slavery issue?

SJN: Again, my starting point was Melville and what he didn't do. Melville does deal with slavery in books other than Moby-Dick, and in Moby-Dick the best friend of Ishmael, the narrator, is Queequeg of the South Seas and of another race. Melville very much wants to promote brotherhood and to work against racial prejudice - remember Moby-Dick was published in 1851, nearly ten years before the civil war. I gave my narrator, Una, a dear friend who is a runaway slave to promote sisterhood and to work against racial prejudice, which of course is still too much with us. Just as Ishmael and Queequeg share a bed in the opening chapters of Moby-Dick so do Una and Susan.

 

Q: And so do you also include the issue of religious tolerance because Melville did? He not only has Ishmael embrace Queequeg but also Queequeg's religious practices - placing a wooden idol on his head and worshiping it.

SJN: If anything, the need for religious tolerance is greater today than in Melville's time. Consider the current horrifying tensions between Irish Catholics and Protestants, Moslems and Christians, Jews and Moslems, Hindus and Moslems, between the fundamentalists and liberals within most religions. Ahabís Wife tries to embody the idea that each person has the right and often the need to make a spiritual journey - ;it need not fit into any established religion. For a while, Una becomes a Unitarian, because of their great openness to world religions, social justice and the individual spiritual quest.

 

Q: Melville doesn't deal with feminist issues, yet even more than astronomy, cannibalism, slavery, or religious tolerance that issue is central to Ahabís Wife.

SJN: Moby-Dick along with Huckleberry Finn used to be mentioned as candidates for "the great American novel." It always bothered me that neither book has any significant women characters in it. A large part of re-writing history, thanks to feminist thought, is to include women. I feel a need to do that with the fictive landscape. The Sherlock Holmes canon also largely ignores women; I wanted to suggest there was a woman worthy of that great intellect, Holmes, and of equal integrity (or more). Of course adding a figure to the landscape of Moby-Dick was a much more serious and ambitious undertaking since Moby-Dick is now an undisputable literary masterpiece though it was not recognized as such till well after Melville's death. Melville does include, in three places, the information that Ahab had a wife and child back in Nantucket and that he loved them; Ahab wished he could turn away from his obsession with killing Moby Dick so that he might return to his hearth. With those passages in the novel, Melville gave me a kind of "license" to suppose, at least, that Ahab had a wife. Melville also has Ishmael say near the end of the novel that his book is like the great cathedral of Cologne which was not finished by the original architect. I use the metaphor and add the image of the slowly finished Chartre cathedral with two unmatching spires, built a century or two apart. By Melville's saying within the text that his novel was unfinished, again, I felt Melville was giving permission for someone to complete some aspects of it; that I might attempt to create a woman's story to place beside that of Ishmael.

Of course we all have limits to our vision, no matter how much we want to be open-minded and inclusive, as Melville was on so many important issues of his time. If Melville had given a significant role to women, if he had seen women as having their own quests, I wouldn't have felt it necessary to write Ahabís Wife.

I've long admired the historical feminist figure Margaret Fuller, who edited the Dial literary magazine with Emerson and was the first foreign correspondent in Europe, of either sex, for an American newspaper- Horace Greeley's Tribune, and I let her become Una's friend. I wanted to anchor my fictive character with two outstanding historical women, Maria Mitchell the scientist and Margaret Fuller, the feminist and woman of letters. Of course there were many such women of that time; I wanted to establish a convincing context for Una's radical and original thinking. Una is a feminist in that she takes charge of her own unconventional life. She defines herself, explores her own nature rather than always waiting for a husband to define her. But she loves several men, has children, and creates a home.

 

Q: Did the Transcendentalism of Emerson, Fuller, and other New England thinkers influence the thematics of Ahabís Wife?

SJN: Yes, but neither Melville nor Hawthorne, who became Melville's great friend and neighbor at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, were Transcendentalists; to them Emerson's thought did not give sufficient weight to the reality of evil and suffering. In Ahabís Wife, I do try to give sufficient weight to suffering and death, and yet I believe those realities can be transcended.

 

Q: To what extent did these thematic ideas figure into the original concept?

SJN: The original concept consisted only of the first sentence and the image of the woman on the roof-walk at night, of her looking up at the stars instead of out to sea for her husband. But both the feminist concept for Una and the notion of transcendence were inherent in that original image, and, yes, the book is true to that original concept.

 

Q: But was there an evolution in your concept of Una or in other characters? Do you have them figured out in advance, or is there a point at which they take off by themselves and guide the action?

SJN: Tolstoy once wrote to his friend the critic Starkov that he (Tolstoy) was in his most creative mode when his characters surprised him and events took an unexpected turn. I agree, emphatically. I didn't know that I would need to drop back to Una's childhood in order to develop a young woman who would choose to marry Captain Ahab. I didn't know until I started writing that Una would rebel against her fundamentalist Christian father, or that she even had one, or that her mother would send her to live at a Lighthouse with aunt, uncle, and cousin. The adventure just unfolded as I imagined it. I didn't even know Una had a cousin at the Lighthouse until she was approaching the Island: she (and I with her) saw some goats from the ferry and then she saw another little white figure jumping up and down. As she (and I) drew closer to the Island, we saw that this figure was a little girl, Cousin Frannie. She literally jumped out of the rocks into existence. She wasn't pre-planned at all. Several other characters also just materialized out of thin air, or snow, or whatever the landscape background was.

In the opening, a pack of bounty-hunters come through the snowy woods to Una's cabin, looking for a runaway slave. I looked at the pack more closely and saw that one was very short, a dwarf in fact, wearing a wolf skin over his head. Much late, hundreds of pages later, to my surprise, he came back to Una's Kentucky cabin a second time. They began to talk, and David became a friend of Una's. He also changed his mind about bounty hunting. And Susan, the runaway slave girl, got all the way to Lake Erie, and then to my surprise and hers, she felt she had to return to the South.

I didn't know who would be Una's third husband until I was halfway through the novel, even though some additional husband had been promised in the first sentence. I just trusted the sentence 'Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last ';and thought I'd find out when I got to that part of the book. When I saw who it was, I howled with glee.

 

Q: How long did it take to write this longish book? Did you research first, then write, or did you do the research as you went along?

SJN: I got the idea in November 1993, in Boston, as I said; then I re-read Moby-Dick, and began research, which included the wonderful Laurie Robertson-Lorant biography of Melville, the Carlos Baker biography of Emerson, Nathaniel Philbrick's book on Nantucket, and many, many other books - one of my favorites was a history of the weather on Nantucket. I wrote the first page of Ahabís Wife and the opening sequence in August 1994; in the fall I was very taken up with my teaching at the University of Louisville and at Vermont College in the MFA program, and with raising money to publish my literary magazine The Louisville Review, etc., and didn't get back to writing for several months. In January and again in February 1995, I made the first of four research trips to Nantucket; I also later visited whaling museums at New Bedford and in Mystic. I finished the first draft of the novel, over 1,000 typescript pages, about two years after I wrote the first page.

It took another two years to revise it, with the help and advice from writer friends, whom I thank in the acknowledgments. In October 1998, I sent the book to Leslie Daniels and Joy Harris of the Joy Harris Literary Agency, and we worked some more on the book before Joy Harris sold it at auction, with six major houses competing for it, to William Morrow & Company in December 1998. With the help of my wonderful editor Paul Bresnick, we revised, the sixth complete revision (not counting the multiple reworkings of various parts) for me, the book again. Because of Paul's urging to go deeper, some very important scenes between Una and Ahab were added in the sixth revision.

During all this revising, I continued to do research - on lighthouse mechanisms, on whaleboats, on women who went to sea, on Kentucky pioneer life - I visited Connor Prairie, an 1830s reconstruction in Indiana. I visited Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, the Concord homes of Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts, Melville's home Arrowhead in Pittsfield; I researched the Shakers visited Shakertown at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, who befriend Susan the runaway slave, read about religious controversies and the science of the 1830s and 1840s. I re-read Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (which came out the same year as Moby-Dick, with Stowe immediately selling over 150,000 books while Moby-Dick sold only about 1,500 copies during Melville's entire life.) The research was fairly extensive; still I wish I could have done more.

 

Q: How did you manage to get the New England atmosphere you evoke so well in Ahabís Wife? Have you lived in the region?

SJN: I think doing research from so many different angles helped me to get a feel for the time and place, but at least as important was living for whatever periods of time I could afford on Nantucket not reading anything in particular, just being out on the eastern end of the Island, at 'Sconset, looking at the ocean and the sky. The first time I stayed in Nantucket ;my friend Karen Mann had rented a condo and invited me to stay there expressly for the purpose of advancing my novel it was on the other end, at Madaket, where we walked the moors I didn't know yet that Una would move from town to 'Sconset and the last night of our week's stay, I dreamed one of Una's dreams her consciousness had displaced my own at the level of dreaming. It was one of the most thrilling moments in the process of composing fiction I've ever experienced. Karen insisted also that we climb the Unitarian church tower, which figures in the book, and that on the last day, on the way to the tiny airport, we drive out to Siasconset, which we hadn't seen. As soon as we got there, I knew Una would move to 'Sconset. All the way from Portugal an incredibly spangled sea rushed to the shore to meet us plumed into the air like a fountain, clapped its hands.

Another time, staying alone, because I was at 'Sconset, I was able to write the Starry Night sequence which is the spiritual climax of the book. I wasn't ready for it, but the atmos-phere of the place made me write it. I was up most of the night. Those "gift" scenes often take a toll on the body because they're unplanned. But you have to embrace them, no matter how tired you are, or they evaporate. Taking notes is worthless for me; I have to enter the scene itself and write it as it comes.

Another day at 'Sconset I had been completely absorbed in creating a world with words, but I finally looked up and out the window, and there that same world was, in actuality. It was very affirming. In one of his poems, Keats writes that in his dream, Adam named the animals and then awoke to find it true. When I looked out the window and saw the inner world outside, it was like that.

 

Q: Nautical stories usually contain baffling details of things done with sails, and equally baffling is the way it comes so trippingly off the tongue: "He double-reefed the topsails and soon furled the jib and mainsail..." How did you learn about sailing?

SJN: Mostly from reading. Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast was helpful, as was the Owen Chase account of the shipwreck of the Essex, which Melville also read. Wonderful contemporary books by Joan Durett, She Was a Sister Sailor, for example, quote observations from dairies and books of the nineteenth-century. I have been on short, small sailboat cruises, and very much wanted to do more, on larger craft, but couldn't manage it. I hope the details are accurate. I wanted to sleep on a sailboat, but never did.

 

Q: You touch frequently on Romanticism and various aspects of religion. Of course, at the time of which you write, ideas of literature, God and man's place in the universe were in a state of flux in New England as well as in Europe. Speak about your research into these ideas, and in particular, how you saw them affecting your characters.

SJN: At the University of Iowa, where I wrote a creative dissertation for the Ph.D., I also did a lot of course work in literature and criticism - my main Ph.D. examination area was British Literature 1800-1945; another was landmark European novels in translation. I also took five literature courses with lectures and readings in French or German. So that information was just a part of my own educational background. Margaret Fuller was certainly much more versed in Romanticism than I was, so it was easy to plug into her conversation what I knew she knew. With Una, I tried to stick to poets I felt it likely she would know: Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats, whose brother George moved to Louisville and is buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville. I also read about the childhood reading of Una's contemporary Charles Dickens, who did not come from an especially educated family; I thought Una could be familiar with some of the books he liked.

 

Q: There's a subject in this book that is infrequently dealt with in much detail elsewhere too grim, probably: Cannibalism. One can conjecture that it happened more frequently than one would care to admit, and taboo as the subject is even now, in the mid-nineteenth century it would've been unthinkable as polite after dinner conversation. What were your thoughts when writing this episode?

SJN: Sometimes ideas come to me for scenes that are in advance of the chronology I'm in. That is, a scene that I shouldn't get to for another hundred pages will present itself early. I always grab pencil and paper, or go to the computer, and take those sequences as gifts; they're impatient to come into the world. This particularly happens if I've wondered consciously what I was going to do when I got to that section, but I haven't tried to write it, since I haven't needed it yet. But it's kind of looming out there. This was the way the cannibalism sequence came to me. It simply began; I was in a transport. I experienced it intensely as I wrote. Of course I revised it later, but it was not an effort of will to write the first draft, though living it was excruciating.

I call these premature scenes "grappling hooks": I throw the scene ahead of me, write the scene, then use it to pull me to that place, to close the gap between where I was and the "gift" scene. I had been interested in the Donner party, probably since high school or earlier, so the cannibalism scene in Ahabís Wife really had a very long incubation period, but on the unconscious level.

The Starry Sky sequence was also a "grappling hook" scene; the image had been hovering in my mind, though not the language, since the moment of conception, when I was feeling happy and driving the rented car, but the scene seized me at 'Sconset before I was ready for it.

 

Q: How do you manage to edit a work this large?

SJN: Well, I've had a lot of help as I mention in my acknowledgments. The support has come from people who have listened to me talk about the ideas and encouraged me, from writing friends who carefully read this text, from my ultimate editor Paul Bresnick. I find that I learn something from every response; however, I rarely can use all of what any one person has to tell me. I'm truly grateful for the help I've gotten.

Plus, I love the revision process. My hands fall in love with the work: I want to touch it again, to polish it, to know it better. Now I have Something instead of Nothing. I feel relaxed; I know I can make it better, or savor and learn from what is already pleasing. Sometimes in my casual reading I'll run across a word and think, "Oh, I used that word. Now let's look back in the text and see just how I used it." The word draws me back to a sentence, and the sentence to the sentences around it and on to other parts of the book. Before I know it three hours have passed. I've had absolutely no idea that time existed. Sometimes I've missed luncheons, appointments and parties because of this. I want to revise; I want to make my writing into a work of art. I'm totally absorbed by revision.

My oldest friend, Nancy Brooks Moore, whom I've known since I was three, recently said to me, "I could never understand when it was your birthday why you'd ask for a book that I knew you'd already read from the library." She added, "It made no sense then - you knew how it turned out; why read it again? Of course that makes sense now." I think my early tendency to read books over and over trained me to be patient with revision, and to enjoy it. I'm still learning things about Ahabís Wife and will continue to, long after it's published (and probably wish I could revise again).

 

Q: The sea is very much a character in this book. Speak about this, and whether, as in the case of many a writer - some of whom have never been to sea- it had any unimagined influence on you and your writing.

SJN: When I was in the ninth grade at Phillips High School, in Birmingham, Alabama, I wrote a book report on Moby-Dick, in which I said that I considered the sea to be a character in that book. It pleases me very much that you would make the same observation about my book. My teacher asked if this were my own opinion or that of some "art critic." Well, I didn't know what an art critic was, but I was fascinated by the idea and hoped that some day I would read something by an art critic, who, after all, apparently thought as I did. The very nice teacher readily believed me when I said that it was just my own idea. I'd never seen the sea, but my mother, who was a great reader as well as a fine musician, told me that when Edna St. Vincent Millay had first seen the sea, she burst into tears. I was impressed with both her and the ocean, though I didn't see it till I was twenty or so. As I was growing up, we did have terrific thunderstorms in Birmingham, and I often tried to find words to describe that grandeur and my own excitement.

Being actually by the sea, always helped me in the writing of Ahabís Wife. When I couldn't manage Nantucket, a dear writer friend, Daly Walker, lent me his condo on Gasparilla Island, near Fort Meyers. Another dear friend, Lucinda Sullivan, who was also one of my best writer-critics, also invited me to stay with her in Gasparilla; my friend and critic, Jody Lisberger, invited me to Cushing Island, off the coast of Maine. In Louisville, sometimes I'd go for a few days to work on the novel to Otter Creek Lodge, on the bluffs above the Ohio River - at least it was moving water. The research trips to the ocean made me fall in love with it; even though I've finished my ocean novel, I long to be seaside.

 

Q: Do you have a sense of the past being constantly present as you write?

SJN: Absolutely, my own past, the pasts of my ancestors and friends, everything I've read in the past. I want to write both out of the tradition and against the tradition. One of the things I love about Virginia Woolf is her sense of the presence of the past. Mrs. Dalloway is not separated from the young woman kissed in the garden; that girl is still a part of Mrs. Dalloway preparing for her party at age fifty.

The best moments transcend any sense of the categories of past, present, future. Revision is one of the best moments - when everything is present at once.

 

Q: Do you view writing as a vocation, something you have to do? A compulsion?

SJN: I think I was born to write. As a very young child I made up stories, which my friend Nancy and I acted out; I told myself stories in bed at night when I couldn't sleep; I wrote a cowboy newspaper; I wrote a pioneer novel at age nine; I was told stories, particularly by my invalid Aunt Pet (Bertha Sena Jeter Petry) over and over about mad dogs and haints in South Alabama (where the real South was, not in the city); my parents both read to me a great deal; I read books with my great friends Janice and Juanita Lewis and we made tape recordings, with sound effects, of our favorite parts. My wonderful teachers at Norwood Elementary School, Phillips High School, and Birmingham-Southern College encouraged me to enjoy reading and writing. Writing is part of my identity. I wouldn't call it a compulsion. I love doing it, just as I love reading. They seem very similar activities to me.

Often university teaching and required committee work have crowded out writing, and I've felt guilty and desperate to get back to it though I really could not write and also fulfill my teaching obligations. And I've loved teaching, too. But the great thing about teaching as a profession for a writer is that you get time off in the summer. One of my teachers at Iowa, Richard Yates, said to me once, "It's such a shame, Sena, that there's no way you could be taken care of so you could spend all your time writing." The idea never occurred to me: I've always felt I must provide for myself in a practical way. Maybe if I'd had more time I would have squandered it. After I build up a lot of guilt and frustration about not writing, I write like fury. And I have received grants from the National Endow-ment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council which have made it possible at times to cut down on the teaching. But now I have begun to feel the press of time: I have so many ideas for books. I wish I could teach less. In the last ten years, I've published five books. Thanks to the success of Ahabís Wife, I've taken 1999-2000 off from teaching at the University of Louisville. It was only after my third book that I was able to say to myself with confidence, "I am a writer."

 

Q: Who are some of the writers you like to read, and who are those who most influenced the writing of this book?

SJN: Of course Ahabís Wife begins with Melville's Moby-Dick. My taste in general is fairly orthodox, and I read many of the classics as a young teen - Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot. I read some of them again in high school, college, and graduate school, and again as I teach them. Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Katharine Anne Porter, Flannery O'Connor are the main influences on my sensibility. Also, Flaubert, James, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. Among contemporary writers I've learned a lot from Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Ernest Gaines, Bobbie Ann Mason, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Walker, Bret Lott, Maura Stanton, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and many others.

As a child, my reading of Laura Ingalls Wilder was critical, and also of Little Women and the Anne of Green Gables series.

Reading drama - Shakespeare especially - -and poetry have also influenced my fiction writing a great deal. At Phillips High School, my splendid tenth-grade English teacher Leslie Moss Ainsworth made Julius Caesar come alive for me, and gave us the assignment of writing a scene that is referred to but not rendered in the text. I chose the suicide of Brutus's wife Portia, who was said to have "swallowed fire." For my eighteen-page scene, Miss Moss gave me an A with four pluses trailing after it, like the tail of a little comet. I think that assignment and my teacher's response to it instilled in me the courage to try to match my writing with the greatest I knew. And, even then, I chose to do the neglected story of the wife of an important man.

As a senior in high school, I began to read and understand the British romantic poets and especially admired, as does my character Una, the jeweled lines of Keats. At Birmingham-Southern College I learned how language creates art by analyzing Tennyson's short poem "The Eagle." Other poets whom I have loved and learned from are Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Theodore Rothke and among contemporary poets, the work of Richard Hugo, Denise Levertov, Lucille Clifton, Yusef Koumanyaka, Maura Stanton, Richard Cecil, Maureen Morehead (whom I quote in the epigraph to Ahabís Wife, Roger Weingarten, Greg Pape, Alan Naslund, Richard Jackson.

 

Q: Do you have a work in progress?

SJN: I've barely begun a civil rights novel set in Birmingham, where I grew up. I also have ideas for another historical novel or two, and another Sherlock Holmes adventure; I'd like to have another short story collection to follow The Disobedience of Water, which came out in the spring of 1999.

 

Q: Finally, a question about Melville. Albert Camus thought of Moby-Dick as "one of the most disturbing myths ever invented concerning man's fight against evil and the terrible logic which ends by first setting the just man against creation and the creator, then setting him against himself and his fellow men." Briefly, what is your analysis of the book?

SJN: I've been fascinated by the book since I was thirteen, and I wouldn't want to attempt a definitive analysis of it. The last time I read it I was struck by the digressiveness of Melville's mind, and yet the unity of it, also by his wit - ;he made me laugh out loud on many pages- and by the sheer lyricism of the language, as fresh and evocative as any romantic poet in his nature descriptions. Moby-Dick changes as I change. It's as changeable as the sea.

Most recently, Melville's novel seemed unified to me by a Shakespearean concept of a great man greatly flawed; certainly Ahab thinks of himself in his monomania as being a kind of Lear, with Pip as his Fool. And Starbuck considers murdering Ahab just as Hamlet considers murdering the murderous King Claudius. Melville wants us to see the Shakespearean tragic element of the book; he wants to rise to the challenge - to write a truly great work of art. Having such a lofty ambition - partly inspired by his love of Hawthorne, whom Melville compared favorably to Shakespeare - Melville finally transcends or transforms Shakespeare's vision, I think, by being so thoroughly democratic - American. He's interested in the movement of the mind of an individual - Ishmael, as well as in the agony of Ahab. Shakespeare's stage cannot contain Moby-Dick; it's epic and narrative, not just dramatic, in its scope; and as private as prayer.

I don't know that I agree with Camus in his statement that Moby-Dick sets man against the creator and then against himself and his fellow man. Certainly, Ahab is not set against his wife and child. In the chapter "The Symphony," just before the climactic chase chapters, Ahab says to his first mate Starbuck, "Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God. By the green land, by the bright hearth-stone! this is the magic glass, man; I see my wife and my child in thine eye."

The ship of my book, Ahabís Wife, sails under that flag.


This interview is reprinted with permission from FSB Associates.

Read the review of Ahab's Wife at MostlyFiction.com



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