Taking The Long Way Round
Sometimes, whether you like it or not, you have to take the long way round. My new novel, The North Water, emerged from a prolonged but finally unsuccessful attempt to write another, very different, kind of book. I have a Ph.D. in nineteenth-century American fiction, and some years ago, when I was searching around for a new writing project, I thought I might use my academic background to help me write a biographical novel about the great American novelist Herman Melville. What I was hoping for was something similar to (and maybe half as good as) Colm Toibin’s superb 2004 novel The Master, based on the life of Henry James.
Herman Melville seemed like a good choice because he was not only the author of Moby Dick, arguably the most famous American novel ever written, but he also led an unusually varied and dramatic life. He came from a wealthy and important family, but his father was an incompetent businessmen who died bankrupt and left his family in such difficult straits that Herman, at a young age and with no better career options, decided to go to sea. His time at sea provided the material for his first two works, Typee and Omoo, which were hugely successful, but this early commercial success was followed by the famous critical and commercial failure of Moby Dick, and the even more disastrous reception of the novels that followed. Melville abandoned fiction in middle age and died in obscurity, only to be rediscovered and raised to his current pinnacle in the twentieth-century. As a novelist, I find failure much more interesting to write about than success, and failure followed by success, followed by failure, then more (posthumous) success seemed to me even more interesting still.
So, I reread Melville’s fiction, worked my way through most of the many biographies, and made a start. I decided to focus the novel on a six-month trip Melville made to Europe and the Middle East at the point in his life when his writing career had pretty much collapsed, and to intersperse that narrative with flashbacks from significant moments in his earlier life. It seemed like a reasonable plan, and I cracked on with it, but it was hard, slow work. I knew one of the most important flashbacks would cover Melville’s experience of working on a South Seas whaling ship, so, as I wrote about his travels around Europe, I also started researching the nineteenth-century whaling industry. During the course of that research, I happened across a facsimile edition of a journal written by Arthur Conan Doyle, who, as a nineteen-year-old medical student, had spent a summer as a surgeon on a Greenland whaler. The contents of the journal were interesting enough, but the idea of Arthur Conan Doyle on a whaling ship seemed particularly suggestive. What it suggested, most obviously, was the possibility of a Sherlock Holmesian detective story transferred from foggy London to the ice floes of Baffin Bay. This initially struck me as an interesting project that another writer, who was into that kind of thing, might well make a go of. I filed it away, thinking I would mention it the next time I met someone interested in writing historical crime fiction, and pressed on with the Melville book.
But the Melville book continued to be a terrible slog, and the more I thought about the detective-on-a-whaler idea, the more interesting it became to me. I knew I didn't want to write it as a straightforward crime novel, and I definitely didn't want to offer the world yet another version of Sherlock Holmes, but I began to think that I could do other, possibly more unusual, things with it. I became less interested in the idea of the detective and more interested in the idea of the murderer. What might a murderer on a whaling ship be like, I wondered? What would motivate him? What kind of crimes would he (and it would have to be a he) commit? In trying to answer those questions I came up with the psychopathic harpooner Henry Drax. Once Henry Drax was present in my mind, the characters around him began to fall into place, and I began, quite quickly, to realise that this was the novel I really wanted to write. I put aside the Melville novel (it’s now languishing in the electronic equivalent of a bottom drawer) and started to write what, about two years later, became The North Water.
Photo: Ian McGuire (c) Wolfgang Webster