Sunday, May 12, 2024

Q&A with Tara Karr Roberts

Photo by Melissa Hartley



Tara Karr Roberts is the author of the new novel Wild and Distant Seas. Also a freelance writer and mewspaper columnist, she lives in Moscow, Idaho.


Q: What inspired you to write Wild and Distant Seas, and what do you see as the relationship between it and Moby-Dick?  


I didn't read Moby-Dick until I was in my 30s, finishing a grad program very slowly. It was the first book I had to read for the last class I took, and I had honestly been avoiding it until then.


I was surprised by how strange and funny it was, but I was drawn immediately to the character of Mrs. Hosea Hussey  —   a Nantucket innkeeper who is the only woman with any significant speaking part in the entire novel.


My book started as a short story, my final project for the class, that paralleled a few chapters of Moby-Dick, starting with the idea that Ishmael was wildly misunderstanding Mrs. Hussey's situation and she needed to tell her own story.


I was particularly interested in exploring ideas that are largely absent in Moby- Dick because of the absence of women, like the joys and horrors of parenting and the limits that society puts on women (and, in turn, women are taught to put on themselves).


When the short story became a novel-in-progress, I knew I wanted to move away from the source material and make it a narrative of its own. 


I think Moby-Dick echoes throughout Wild and Distant Seas: All of my characters respond in some way to a search for Ishmael, like the characters in Moby-Dick respond to the hunt for the white whale — though I'll note that this hunt miiiight just be misguided in both stories.


Q: Charley Burlock wrote of your book in Oprah Daily, “With language richer than the matriarch’s famed chowder and nautical descriptions so vivid you can taste the salt spray, Roberts offers a new and refreshingly feminine perspective on one of American literature’s most masculine classics.” What do you think of that description?  


A: Oh my goodness, I felt so honored the first time I read her description (and still)!


I love that she called out chowder and nautical descriptions — I'm an inlander from Idaho, so capturing Nantucket life took a great deal of research and thought, along with insight from some generous Nantucketers, and I'm so pleased when it works for readers.


I don't actually like chowder, and my first time on the open ocean was my ferry ride to the island to do research!


On a more serious note, I appreciate that she highlighted the feminine perspective, since that was very much what I set out to do. I didn't think, "I'm going to write my own Moby-Dick!" — we've got one, that's enough — but I did definitely think, "I want to explore what's missing in this story and see where I can take it."


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I did many layers of research — scouring newspaper advertisements from the time periods I was writing about for tiny details; reading books that provided big-picture background and context; interviewing experts to learn things I couldn't find on my own; wandering Nantucket and taking in the atmosphere (with enormous thanks to the Idaho Commission on the Arts for the grant that allowed me to do that); even wandering my own neighborhood and trying to imagine it during a different time for the section of the book set in Idaho. Lots more, too!


My favorite thing to learn about was sperm whale culture. It only made it into a handful of pages in the novel, but I spent hours watching videos and listening to recordings and poring over information about these incredible creatures.


The most surprising fact, which I did manage to mention, is that baby sperm whales "babble" — they start out making random series of clicks and gradually learn to make the patterns of clicks, or codas, that their families use.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The original story was called "The Chowder Woman," and I almost kept that. But when the novel spun off in a bigger direction, I started hunting for a new title, and I knew I wanted it to come from Moby-Dick. It took me a while to find it, which is funny because it's from Chapter 1.


While some of my characters do get to sail and explore the world, to me, the idea of "wild and distant seas" is more about the internal and interpersonal — a contrast to Moby-Dick. Ishmael says he is "tormented by an everlasting itch for things remote," and he has the ability to scratch that itch.


My characters, as women, have totally different constraints imposed on them, but they still have wild, fascinating, important, and meaningful lives.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My day job is writing for universities, mostly science writing, which is always fun and interesting.


But I am working on another novel! It's not related to Wild and Distant Seas, but it is historical (set in the 1960s, 1990s, and 2023) and explores some similar questions of intergenerational storytelling, parenting, and women coming to understand what they want from the world and how they can get it.


But it also includes country music, the beautiful and bizarreness of very rural North Idaho, and people who sincerely believe in aliens...


Q: Anything else we should know? 


A: I'm so grateful for the responses I've gotten from people who loved Wild and Distant Seas. I've wanted to write a novel my entire life, and I'm still stunned that it's real — and that this thing I put so much love and effort into means something to other people. Thank you.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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