Taking on Melville: a guest post by Naomi Williams

Worried about entering a genre that’s already dense with Great Writers of the past and present? Naomi Williams encountered just that challenge with her debut novel, Landfalls, a work of historical fiction. Here’s her account of how she overcame it . . . and how meeting that challenge head on enriched her work. Naomi’s bio and key links can be found at the bottom of this post.


Isn’t this an awesomely beautiful book cover? We’re envious . . .

Some years ago I signed up for a fiction workshop with a group of much younger writers. When it was my turn to be critiqued, I brought in some pages from what would eventually become my novel Landfalls, a fictionalized account of the 18th-century Lapérouse expedition.

People weren’t sure what to make of the project. One person in the class said it seemed to include too much adventure for a literary project but not enough adventure for an adventure story. Another asked me if I’d read Wells Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” and suggested I use that as a model for reimagining the nautical past, as if Tower hadn’t completely broken the mold when he wrote about Vikings the way he did. (If you haven’t read this story, you really really should.)

And then a very young, very bright guy whom I quite liked said, “So—you’re taking on the likes of Melville, Conrad, and Stevenson here, and—are you really up for that?”

The other comments I easily shrugged off, but that last one got to me. I went home and had several glasses of wine to deaden the gnawing sense of inadequacy it had awakened inside. For yes, I was well aware that I was stepping into territory that had been mined and occupied — not just by some of the greatest writers of the novel of the sea, but by some of the greatest English-language writers ever.

And no, I really wasn’t sure I was up to the task.

I wasn’t French or French-speaking, yet I was writing about French history. I wasn’t a sailor and before embarking on the project, knew very little about being at sea or the Age of Sail, and here I was writing about life aboard 18th-century frigates. And I was neither male nor white and was mostly writing about white men.

But then I started to feel angry. Would a man workshopping the same piece have been asked the same question? Would a man workshopping anything be asked if he was “up for” taking on his literary predecessors?

Wasn’t that actually part of one’s job as a serious writer?

Naomi Wiliams

Naomi Wiliams

And so what if I were taking on Melville, Conrad, et al? While I greatly admired them, surely they hadn’t written the last word on the experience of humans on the high seas. And while I didn’t—and don’t—imagine myself their equal, I was obviously responding to their work (and the work of many other writers of seafaring stories, almost all of them men) by trying to broaden the scope of the genre, giving voice to a more diverse cast of characters, bringing a 21st-century perspective to some old questions. Surely there was room in the world for my attempt.

It’s been quite a few years since that class, and I actually count that young man among my friends. I don’t think that moment was really characteristic of him. And the overall benefits to my writing from that workshop far outweighed the short-term sting of that one remark.

But I relate this story because it’s not an uncommon occurrence in writing workshops or writing groups—the critique that questions one’s right, or standing, to tell a story instead of asking whether the story is any good or suggesting how to make it better.

It’s important to learn how to bounce back from a diminishing comment like that. Wine helps. Getting pissed off helps. Best of all: churning out decent work.

I also share this story because it explains a project I’ve been working on for the last year or so in anticipation of the release of Landfalls.

Moby-Dick Blackout Poems.

The basic idea comes from Texas writer and artist Austin Kleon’s clever, visually arresting, witty, and often inspiring newspaper blackout poetry. Kleon pushes artists to borrow liberally from each other—his first book was called Steal Like an Artist—so I figured he wouldn’t mind.

I bought a Dover Thrift edition of Moby-Dick from my local independent bookseller, then started scanning the pages with a pencil in search of tiny “found” poems or stories or aphorisms. Once I’ve lightly circled the words I want, I black everything else out with a pen. I’ve experimented with different kinds of pen and different methods of blacking out. After completing fifty of them, I still haven’t settled on a way to do it. I seem to reinvent the process for every page, kind of like the way I write. But unlike writing, this project is meditative and relaxing and—well, fun.

I’m planning to cut the completed pages out and, until supplies last, give them to people who come to my early readings and buy a copy of Landfalls.

Some of the pages are more successful than others. I’m particularly pleased with a few of them, like this one:


And this one, in which I discovered some William Carlos Williams hidden in a page of Melville [scan of p. 58]:


I suppose some people might be horrified that this upstart debut novelist—a landlubber, an American, a woman, presuming to write about French explorers!—is now vandalizing and dismantling a timeless classic, even a cheap paperback edition. But I hope more people will see it as a quirky homage to a great and important novel.

When I first came up with the idea, I wasn’t consciously responding to that moment in workshop. I just thought it seemed like a cool project. But now that I’ve done a bunch of them, I see it: I’m literally taking on Melville.

I think I’m up for it.

Naomi was born in Japan and spoke no English until she was nearly six years old. Her short stories have appeared in journals such as A Public Space, One Story, American Short Stories, the Southern Review, and the Gettysburg Review. In 2009, she received a Pushcart Prize. Landfalls is her first book. Her website can be found here.

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