Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Q&A with Naomi J. Williams

Naomi J. Williams, photo by Kristyn Stroble
Naomi J. Williams is the author of the new novel Landfalls, which tells a fictionalized version of an actual expedition in the 1780s. Her work has appeared in a variety of journals, including A Public Space and One Story, and she lives in Davis, California.

Q: How did you learn about the Lapérouse expedition, and how did you research this book?

A: I learned about the Lapérouse expedition from an old map that my husband bought for me as a birthday present some years ago. He'd bought it thinking it was a map of San Francisco Bay, but it turned out to come from the atlas published with the 1798 English-language edition of Lapérouse's journals, and actually depicts Lituya Bay in Alaska, which eventually became the setting for two chapters in the novel.

I tell the story of the mistaken-identity map and how I came up with the idea for the book in some detail in a recent blog post here.

As for the research, I couldn't have done it without the Internet, and I couldn't have done it without libraries.

I found some amazing things online. For example, there's a chapter near the end of the book that concerns a royal decree that gave Lapérouse's relatives permission to use his name. I found the actual wording of the decree at some French archives that were available online.

I also relied pretty heavily on Google Earth and Street View to give me a sense of the geography of places I've never been. 

But the most important sources came from libraries. I'm very fortunate to live a 15-minute bike ride from a world-class university research library at UC Davis. I've read everything there that has anything to do with the Lapérouse expedition, and also benefited from inter-library loan to procure sources they didn't have.

I'm currently working on a new blog post about my love affair with the library and a few of my favorite library finds.

Q: What did you see as the right blend of history and fiction as you were writing Landfalls?

A: I tried to hew as closely to known "facts" as I could for this project. Not because I think that's how you're "supposed" to do historical fiction or because I owe it to readers or even to the memory of the Lapérouse expedition.

It was just a challenge I set for myself, a set of constraints around which to work, like the challenge of writing a Shakespearean sonnet, with its particular rules and conventions. I didn't, for instance, make up or conflate any members of the expedition. And I never knowingly altered the timeline of events. 

But around those general outlines, I fabricated a lot. I imagined personalities and motivations and emotional baggage, of course.

Many of the women in the book are largely or entirely my creations. I was determined to include the voices of women in my seafaring yarn, but -- not surprisingly -- the historical record isn't very helpful in this regard.

I had some salient details about Lapérouse's sister, who narrates a chapter near the end of the novel, but a native girl narrates an earlier chapter, and although I tried to make her as authentic as possible through extensive research of her culture, she herself is entirely fictional.

Q: How did you come up with the book's structure, which includes a variety of characters and settings?

A: I am not prone to flashes of insight or genius. I'm a plodder in the worst way. The book is the result of nearly a decade of incredibly slow, painstaking research and writing and revising.

But the basic conceit of the book -- the story of the expedition told by different narrators in every chapter -- did come to me in a flash, very early on.

Also the idea to see the project almost like a set of etudes on approaches to story-telling, playing with point of view, tense, structure, time, etc. -- that also came to me quite early in the process.

I've got an epistolary chapter, and another that's in first-person plural, and another that's told through a series of named sections. I wanted to try all this on while basically teaching myself how to write a book.

Q: Which authors have influenced you?

A: I can't possibly do justice to all of the writers who've influenced and inspired me over the years, but here's a sampling: The first travel narrative I fell in love with was an abridged, kid-friendly version of The Pilgrim's Progress. I grew up in an evangelical Christian family, so this was on our bookshelf. I loved that book -- more for the adventure aspects than for its heavy-handed allegory.

And I've always adored novels of the sea -- Robinson Crusoe, Moby-Dick, the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian, C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower books. I have no first-hand knowledge of ships or the sea. Whatever sounds authentic in that regard I picked up from reading all those books.

And I know this is a cliche, but I worship Jane Austen -- there's a chapter in the novel that I quite deliberately set out to write as a kind of homage to her genius for devastating social criticism played out in genteel-seeming conversations in genteel drawing rooms.

More contemporary influences would include writers of literary fiction who also take on historical subjects -- especially Jim Shepard and Andrea Barrett.

My undergraduate and graduate training was in Japanese literature, so although this book wouldn't seem to have any direct relation to that, it's there. I've got a chapter near the end of Landfalls that's actually a retelling of Akutagawa's story, "In a Grove," more well-known today as the basis for the famous Kurosawa film, Rashomon.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Well, I'm actually going back to my roots, both personally and academically. I'm half-Japanese and was partly raised in Japan, and, as I alluded to above, got my undergraduate degree in East Asian Studies, focusing on Japan.

I'm now working on a second novel, also historical, about an early 20th-century Japanese poet and feminist. Her name was Yosano Akiko (that's in Japanese order, with her last name first), and she's quite famous in Japan but not that well known in the West. I wrote my senior thesis about her in college and have wanted to get back to her ever since.

In 1912, Akiko traveled by herself to France. She'd sent her husband, a fellow-poet, on ahead of her, and followed him six months later, taking a ferry from western Japan to Vladivostok, then riding the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow and from there making her way to Paris, where she was reunited with her husband and spent several months traveling with him, meeting lots of artists and intellectuals.

As you can perhaps imagine, this was quite unheard of at the time. Japanese women rarely left the country, much less alone. Also, she left behind seven children, all under age 10. (They were cared for by relatives during her absence.) Even today it seems transgressive for a woman to leave her children for six months to pursue love and art.

So -- that's the subject of the new book. It requires lots of research in Japanese, which has required many hours of intense review of a language I've barely used in years. I'm also translating a bunch of her poems into English. I have a 2017 deadline for the manuscript, but honestly, it feels like another decade-long project.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 28

July 28, 1866: Beatrix Potter born.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Q&A with Herbert Murray

Herbert Murray is the author of the new memoir Standing Tall in Times Square, which tells the story of how he was convicted of a murder he did not commit and spent 29 years in prison before being released. He lives in the Bronx, and works for the Times Square Alliance in New York City.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about your experiences?

A: After coming out [of prison], I was trying to find my way. I was not exonerated from the crime, [which affected] everything. Thank goodness the Times Square Alliance gave me a job.

The problem was, I was trying to get a residence, and was denied because of being prior incarcerated. Many people recognized my innocence, but I’m still on the books as a convicted murderer. People are saying, You’re still not exonerated?

Q: So as of right now, you still have not been exonerated?

A: I’m trying to work on it. There are a lot of people attaching themselves to my cause. A retired detective has signed on to the cause and is trying [to help], and maybe can get access to information the lawyers can’t.

Q: Has the book had an impact yet in your efforts?

A: Yes. People have given me a lot of positive feedback. The primary purpose is to get me exonerated.

Q: You write about some very difficult experiences in this book. How difficult was it to revisit them?

A: When I was doing my writing, I tried to write with my spirit. I didn’t want to force it. I wanted to be as truthful and authentic as possible; when I don’t feel it, I back off. I don’t want the book to have negative connotations but spiritual connotations.

I forgot a lot of the things I wrote about. It’s difficult when you reflect back; there are a lot of things you put in your subconscious and these things start coming back…it brought back all these memories. It was difficult. It was painful, but when the pain came I backed off; I wanted to be spiritual.

Q: What impact did religion have on you during your time in prison?

A: Religion was my lifeline; it helped me become focused. [I was] adapting to the Christian faith. Prior to that I was Muslim. They…helped me stand on my two feet. I was just going through the motions of praying. I attached myself to them [the Muslims] because of unity. You have to attach yourself to a group so you won’t be attacked.

Any time there was [controversy] between the [prison] officers and the Muslims, it was a problem, and I did not want to be part of that. More time would attach [to my sentence]…after I became more aware, I realized I don’t want to die in prison or have additional time.

I started getting my education, my GED. I was uneducated. [Someone] invited me to a [Christian] service because a gospel group was coming to the facility…something was stirring in my soul..I started attaching to the Christian faith.

Q: Since you’ve been out of prison, has religion been important to you?

A: Absolutely. The music on my phone is gospel music. That’s my lifeline; Jesus Christ is my savior.

Q: Throughout the book, you include quotes from Nelson Mandela. How much were you inspired by him while in prison?

A: Absolutely, because I kept reading about apartheid in South Africa…It’s a different country, and different circumstances, but being falsely accused of something you didn’t do…he never exhibited any negativity. He continued doing what he needed to get out of prison. He became my hero….

Q: You discuss how difficult it was to adjust to life outside prison after so many years inside. How are things going now?

A: Beautiful as far as the job is concerned. I can’t praise them more. They hired me two months after coming out after doing 29 years…I’m trying to get exonerated, but other than that I’m in good spirits. I feel like I’m winning now!...

Q: Are you thinking of writing another book?

A: Absolutely. I want to continue because it’s not conclusive. I will hopefully be exonerated and that’s the end, or I could get a movie from the book. I write monthly articles for my job, and that helps keep my writing up.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My family—when I went in, I was 21, and my daughter was 13 months. I came out when she was 30, a grown woman. I didn’t know her, her personality. We are in the process of developing a relationship. She’s firm in her personality; she’s 36 now.

It’s difficult. She knew I’m her father, but to have a father-daughter relationship, we don’t have [that]; we’re like friends. She doesn’t even know what to call me, Herb, or Dad—she’s not used to my being around…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 27

July 27, 1908: Joseph Mitchell born.