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?