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July's Book
Ahab's Wife
by Sena Jeter Naslund

Bill:
So. Let me begin by saying thank you very much for being here with us this afternoon and sometimes when we talk with writers we like to discuss and hear about the process of writing and process of the research and the endeavor that you go through to get to the final product. So let's talk a little bit about that in a very simple question. How did you begin? How did you start this effort.

Sena:
The idea of Ahab's Wife came to me as a vision and a voice completely out of the blue and totally unexpected. I was driving a rented car in Boston. I had gone to Boston because my novel Sherlock in Love had just come out and there were parties and things to go to but as I was driving this car in an unfamiliar city I saw a woman standing on a roof walk or a widow's walk as its sometimes called. This is a platform on top of a house by the sea. It was night, she was looking out to sea hoping to see her husband's whale ship coming home. But as she looked she realized he was not coming home, not that night--not any night, and with that her gaze changed and she began to contemplate the starry sky instead of the dark ocean. And to ask herself in relationship to all this vast glory. So this was the beginning of this woman's spiritual adventure or quest and at that same time when I saw the woman on the roof walk I heard a voice and the voice said, "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last," which in fact is the first sentence of my novel.

Bill:
You have described it as an independent work would you also call it a historical novel?

Sena:
Well certainly it is set in a historical time and there are even historical characters who make an appearance as you might say fictive characters at least in the world of the novel. For example there is the great woman of letters, Margaret Fuller, who was a friend of Emerson's and feminist. I use a quotation from her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century right at the beginning of Ahab's Wife. What Margaret Fuller said of women in the nineteenth century was "Let them be sea captains if they will." I also have historical figure Moria Mitchell who was the first woman to discover a comet using a telescope. I wrote a little article on Moria Mitchell (by the way that's in the July issue of Victoria magazine that just came out).

Emerson puts in an appearance so does Hawthorne, so yes it's a historical novel. When I say it's an independent book what I really have in mind is that a reader can read and enjoy Ahab's Wife independently of Moby Dick. You do not have to have read Moby Dick in order to read and enjoy Ahab's Wife. On the other hand I find that many readers after they have read Ahab's Wife then want to read Moby Dick and my editor at William Morrow, Paul Bresnick, was a great fan of Moby Dick and so I am very happy to have pleased people who do love Moby Dick as I do.

Ellen:
I have a question for you.

Sena:
Yes, Ellen.

Ellen:
Is Moby Dick a favorite work of yours, how did Ahab pop into your mind? Is this something that lives with you as a favorite book?

Sena:
Yes, well there are two sort of background pieces of information about my relationship to Moby Dick. One was it was one of the first books I wrote a book report on when I was in high school and I remember this because the teacher in front of the class asked me if the ideas of the book report were my own or those of some art critic. (laughs) And I was startled by the question. But and she believed me promptly when I said, "Oh, I had said these things myself but I didn't even know there was such a thing as an art critic and I was fascinated that somebody had written something maybe I could read some day. And I didn't know the novel was considered art. I thought art was a painting only on the wall." So that was a vivid memory to me and I also remember the sentence she questioned which was something like this, "The sea is such an important presence in Moby Dick it should be counted as a character." So I did have an early interest in Moby Dick.

The second piece of background information is that in the summer of '93 I was traveling a lot with my daughter who was about eleven then and we listened to a lot of books on tape including Little Women, David Copperfield, Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick and others and clearly Flora, my daughter, loved Moby Dick the most because she just absorbed and recited whole passages from the tape in the voice of Captain Ahab. And when she did this, of course, I was happy as a literary mom that she was responsive to Melville's wonderful language but at the same time I was a little bit sad that there was no wonderful woman character in Moby Dick with whom she might identify and quote. So those were sort of the background events to the voice saying Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last. People have said well why didn't you just make it somebody else and not necessarily Ahab's wife and all I can answer is that the voice didn't say Captain Brown the voice said, "Captain Ahab (laughs) was neither my first husband or my last."

Ellen:
You mention the style hearing your daughter recite it in Melville's styling. Something we have been very interested in is your writing of the book in the style of a novel of the 1800s is this something that was enjoyable to you something that was difficult or was it hard to sustain.

Sena:
You know Ellen, it was entirely enjoyable. I loved writing this book it took me two years to get the first draft, I loved revising it that was another two years. It was tremendous fun I had no problems with the voice at all and I did not find it difficult to sustain. I think you know I did re-read Moby Dick very carefully and do some analysis of the sort of sentence structure and imagery that Melville used. I didn't want this to duplicate Melville, my narrator is Una Spencer not Ishmael. But I had grown up reading nineteenth century novels such as the ones I were I played for my daughter to listen to. I loved Jane Eyre in particular and David Copperfield which are both first person narratives set in the 1840s-1850s so that cadence is very natural to me. I mean a lot of teenagers can remember the popular songs when they were teenagers and instead I have a sort of nineteenth century song just under the surface that I can easily feel at home in.

Bill:
One of the questions our bookclub members wanted me to ask today is Una a twentieth century personality or individual placed in this nineteenth century era that you write about?

Sena:
Well no, I don't think that she is [a twentieth century personality]. One reason I flanked her with those two historical women, Margaret Fuller and Moria Mitchell, was to suggest that there were women of tremendous intellect and courage curiosity at that time. I didn't want people to be able to say oh but women like that didn't exist back then. That is simply not true. If one really studies the history of the time and doesn't just go on our own somewhat to ourselves flattering prejudice that we are the ones who know you will find plenty of women of that kind of inquiry intellectual and personal that Una Spencer had. I did read journals and diaries of women who were not famous from that time as well. Some of them did go to sea on whaling ships in fact and these diaries and journals are just in the last decade being made known to people.

Bill:
How did you tell us a little bit about how you imagined all of the characters in the book and how they relate to Ahab? What was the process in trying to weave that throughout the entire novel?

Sena:
Well with the gift of that first sentence I knew that Una would have a husband before and after Ahab but I did not know who those people would be and I simply embarked on the adventure of her life and found out eventually. I don't want you to tell who the third husband is by the way for people who haven't read that yet, because that was the biggest surprise for me.

Sometimes the characters literally jumped out of the landscape for me. In the opening scene bounty hunters visit Una and her cabin in Kentucky and I opened the door they were out there knocking. She opened the door we looked at them there were six of them all dressed in wool and fur and holding a blazing pine knot and then to my surprise one of them grew very small in fact he was a dwarf. (laughs) And so suddenly the character the dwarf David entered into the novel in that scene and then to my surprise he came back into the novel later on.

So some of the characters that knew Ahab in Moby Dick also have been recruited for Ahab's Wife. He sees various other captains when he is at sea: the captain of the Jeraboam, the captain of the Samuel Enderby from London, the captain of the Delight, and the Rachel, and I simply used Melville's figures in fact I gave those characters much the same speech that they have in Moby Dick.

Ellen:
Some members of our bookclub also wondered about your mix of both literary figures and actual historical figures. It might be criticized that taken to a logical conclusion that Una might have met Herman Melville in the woods; maybe she may have met Hawthorne. Was it difficult for you to separate those?

Sena:
Well it entertained me to bring historical characters into the fictive world. I do think that memory which we associate with fact and imagination which we associate with fiction are actually very closely related to each other. We know that if different people report the same event it's not really the same event. So I think fact is quite slippery in our highly subjective world. So for me it's not blasphemy to mix history and imagination together and in fact, as I say, it entertains me. I did this also in the novel Sherlock in Love, the historical character who's important and is Ludwig II of Bavaria. And you know I do research, I'm careful about the historicity of the historical characters--but to me it's a sort of delight for the reader to get to make that mixture. I hope people enjoy that any way.

Bill:
Ms. Naslund you are or became Una?

Sena:
Oh well, I'm certainly not Una, (laughs) but you know when you are writing in the first person you enter into the innerworld of your characters as much as possible. In fact I was on Nantucket--I had gone there with my friend, Karen Mann, who really encouraged me in this novel. And the last night that Karen and I were there I dreamed Una's dream. I was quite shocked because here were the characters from her life--not from my life--and some characters I hadn't written about yet in the book and the ones I had she regarded them somewhat differently than I had represented it. So when I woke up from this dream I was very happy because I felt I had the kind of intimacy with my first person narrator that I needed in order for the book to seem real for readers.

Bill:
Tell us finally about the Disobedience of Water and also what you are working on now.

Sena:
The Disobedience of Water is a short story collection that also came out in '99 along with Ahab's Wife and these are contemporary short stories. The title story in some ways (although I didn't realize it at the time) is the kind of preview study of Una in Ahab's Wife. The character has some similar experiences--at least of loss. I intend for Ahab's Wife to be a triumphant book not a tragedy like Moby Dick with everybody going down to the bottom of the sea and dying. But instead when Una's life is swept away from her she builds a new life so it's a very hopeful forward-looking rather than backward-looking kind of book.

The book I am working on right now (not today because it's my birthday (laughs) and I am cleaning house as a reward instead of writing) is a civil rights novel set in Birmingham, Alabama where I grew up. That is necessarily a rather grim and tragic story, although I hope that I'm creating some characters that the reader will be glad to know too.

Bill:
When do you hope to have it on bookshelves?

Sena:
Well I'm rather in the early stages of it now. You know the most optimistic estimate would be a couple of years.

Bill:
Thank you so much for talking with us today.

Sena:
Thank you, it's been a pleasure to talk with you.

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