I first encountered Naomi Williams’ work when I ran across her essay “Routine? What Routine?” on the blog of her publisher, FSG. In that essay, she copped to a writing schedule that struck me as thrillingly refreshing – she has none.
The prevailing wisdom is that one must write every day. Of course, if one can manage it, that would be a rather enviable routine. But not everyone is wired to follow such dictates (though I *do* look forward to weekly writing dates through my new venture WIP).
I found her admission of a haphazard process – “Every morning I wake up and make it up as if I’ve never done it before” – strangely reassuring. Yes. My. How I relate.
I soon started reading her blog, which proved just as delightful and fresh, dotted with humorous anecdotes and sparkling with breezy smarts. Then I discovered her debut novel came out in early August; I knew I had to get my hands on it.
“Here’s a fair question,” she opens in a post explaining the book’s origins, “How does a middle-aged American woman with no experience at sea come to write a novel about 18th-century French mariners?”
Indeed. How does that happen? And what’s this about a French connection? A perfect excuse to reach out and ask if I could feature her on the blog. Happily she agreed!
Landfalls takes the Lapérouse expedition – a real voyage that left Brest in 1785 with high hopes of circumnavigating the globe before vanishing – and brings the story to vivid fictional life. It is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a very long time.
Warm, witty, humane, moving, it is a remarkable novel – one that had me chuckling in some places, crying in others, and all the while shaking my head and marveling at the author’s deft, delicate touch. I sailed through its pages – the prose so elegant! so skilled! – and immediately returned to the beginning of the book with a desire to reread it as soon as I had finished. I can’t remember the last time I did that.
Naomi J. Williams was born in Japan and spoke no English until she was six years old. Her short fiction has appeared in journals such as A Public Space, One Story, The Southern Review, and The Gettysburg Review. In 2009, she received a Pushcart Prize and a Best American Honorable Mention. Naomi has an MA in Creative Writing from UC Davis. Landfalls is her first novel.
I’m thrilled Naomi is here on the blog today. I’m also thrilled to have a free copy of Landfalls to send to one lucky reader. Giveaway details are at the end of the post.
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I love the backstory of how you came to write Landfalls – a mislabeled vintage map gifted to you for your birthday led to your discovery of the Lapérouse expedition. That in turn sparked your idea to tell a bunch of stories each from a different place along the route and about a different crew member. What an ambitious plan! How does one go about approaching such a daunting task in the beginning – and staying with it?
I think a good dose of ignorant bravado might have been at work here. When I first came up with the idea, I thought it would take maybe two years to write. Ha! Then when I actually started it, I thought, okay, maybe it’s more like a five-year project. Wrong again. But in a way this project felt more doable than a “regular” novel with one setting, one narrative perspective, and one through-line. That seemed — still seems — quite daunting to me. I approached each chapter like a short story. Writing one short story didn’t seem impossible. Then after I’d finish one, I’d just start on the next. And I proceeded in that piecemeal fashion for the better part of a decade.
And about the map that started it all: It’s a map of Lituya Bay in Alaska, and it’s from an English-language atlas of the Lapérouse expedition, and yes, it’s a really weird map that suggests, more than anything else, the female reproductive system. If you want to read more about how I ended up with it and all of that, I tell that story in some detail at my blog.
Your exploration of each character’s inner landscape was as impressive and profound a world-building as the vast scope of the physical geography you covered. The richest portraits emerge – everyone from the ship’s captain to a Russian translator to an indigenous woman on the Solomon Islands and numerous others. Could you talk about the process of inhabiting so many different perspectives and places? Did you focus on one character at a time? Outline the links between the chapters?
I didn’t really outline links between chapters — not on paper or in any visible way, at least. With the result that most of the work of revising with my editor consisted of trying to make those links more visible, making the whole thing more novelistic and less like a collection of discrete stories that didn’t always talk to each other.
But about the characterization — usually in the research a sort of personality would emerge about the historical figures I was reimagining. There would be a letter or report or anecdote reported in a journal or something that suggested traits — fussiness, pretension, anxiety, optimism, etc. — that I’d then expand on.
I also ended up pouring a lot of myself into the characters. The uptight, meticulous scientist in the chapter set in Macao, a guy who feels put-upon and ill-served by life and everyone around him: there’s unfortunately quite a lot of me in that character. The more anxious the character, the easier I found him or her to inhabit. The commander, Lapérouse, was challenging, as he was by all accounts a really genial, even-keeled (no pun intended!) individual. Unflappability is not a quality I understand.
The real historical facts and the scenes you put on your fiction writer’s cap to create melded so seamlessly together. How did your extensive research incite/inform/intermingle with your imagination in bringing these stories alive?
I’ve been known to say, only partly in jest, that I write historical fiction because I don’t really have much of an imagination. That’s hyperbole, of course, but I do like adopting a set of constraints — in this case, the known facts about an 18th-century expedition — and then asking questions about it.
Here’s a naturalist who begged to leave the expedition pretty early on — an expedition other scientists had been vying with each other to join: why? And then he wasn’t allowed to leave even though he wasn’t that valuable as a scientist and no one really liked him: again, why? Or here, tucked in a footnote in the introduction to an English-language translation of Lapérouse’s journal, is the story of how his surviving sisters petitioned for the use of his name, and then when it finally came through, the name was misspelled, and they had to petition to get it fixed, which also took years. What would that have felt like to the sisters? Every chapter began in that way: a set of known facts, or at least reported events, and then a question.
Before reading your book, I might not have thought an historical nautical novel would have been quite my bag – and yet I was enchanted and immersed immediately! What so compelled you to dive into this material?
You know, I don’t really have a good answer to this question. I read a lot, I find the world and its denizens endlessly fascinating, I’m constantly encountering snippets and stories that I think would make wonderful fictions. So why this one for my first book? Sometimes I think the Universe just hands you something to do. This was my assignment. I’m not a very religious person anymore, but the project did sometimes feel like a calling, and that sense probably helped propel me forward over the years.
I’ve been saying that my own upbringing, which involved starting life in one country (Japan) then switching to life in another (the U.S.) and feeling out of place everywhere since, has something to do with my attraction to stories about people who cross borders and end up where they don’t belong. I’m no psychologist, but that does seem sort of plausible as a psychological explanation for the compulsion.
The book took you 10 years to complete. How does it feel to let the book finally sail into the world after a decade of working on it? Your book will stay with me for a long time. I wonder how it is for you to move onto another project after such deep devotion to one project.
I’m definitely ready to move on, but I have to say I never tired of the project. When I submitted it for publication, it was because I sensed that the manuscript was long enough to be a real book and had enough depth or shape to be a real book — not because I’d run out of ideas for ways to fictionalize this voyage. I have a few regrets about Lapérouse stories I left unexplored.
And of course after my publisher bought the manuscript, there was another year-plus of revising, so it was really, really good that I wasn’t sick of the book or its topic. I often hear writers say they’re sick of a project they’re shopping around, they’re so done with it, they just want to get it published already, etc. — and I don’t know how good that is for either the manuscript in question or the writer — or the shopping-around process. Of course it’s probably hard to control a feeling like that. I happen to have a very high tolerance for tedium. I’m almost never bored.
Having said that, I’m already hard at work on my next book, which is quite a different topic although it also involves travel and also involves France. I don’t feel as engrossed by it as I did with Landfalls, but that’s probably because I’m still in the early stages of the project, and you know, there’s this whole book-promoting thing I need to attend to with this first book! I have a lot of faith that the project will suck me in and engross me as much as Landfalls eventually did.
I hear you’re working on another ambitious historical novel. Anything you can tell us about it – and about how you have the fortitude to embark on another enormous undertaking so soon?
Briefly, the working title is Akiko in Paris, and it’s about Yosano Akiko, an important early 20th-century Japanese poet and feminist. In 1912, she entrusted her seven children, all under age ten, to the care of relatives, and traveled to France by herself. I’m just fascinated by her, by this transgressive trip that entailed putting art above family, by the time period right before the Great War, by the intellectual questions Akiko and her contemporaries wrestled with, by the clothes — all of it. As part of the project, I’m translating a bunch of poems she wrote about the trip — and yeah, that’s quite a task right there, as my knowledge of poetic Japanese is, well, rusty.
I don’t know that I have much fortitude, honestly. I’m 51 years old and am saddled with various chronic ailments. The project will probably require some research travel, and I’m a terrible traveler. But just as I have a high threshold for tedium, I’m also willing to take on a fair bit of discomfort for the sake of something I really want to do. And I really want to do this. I’m not stoical at all — don’t get me wrong. I complain a lot. A LOT. But it turns out you can accomplish a fair bit while grousing your way through life.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
Nothing terribly profound: Read more. Lay aside your ego. Befriend and support other writers. Patronize your local independent bookstore. Don’t be an asshole. And “but it really happened that way” is not a pass for writing that doesn’t work.
Thank you, Naomi! I’m inspired!
**To enter to win a free copy of Landfalls, leave a comment by Thursday, September 10, 3 pm EST.**
Update: Congratulations to Glenn Burney on winning a free copy of Landfalls!