By Sena Jeter Naslund Spalding MFA Program Director
Growing up, it was the novel rather than the short story that had made me want to be a writer, but in graduate school at Iowa I had written only short stories. While I had published a short story collection, Ice Skating at the North Pole, I would need to serve an apprenticeship learning how to manage the form of the novel, from the inside-out. To learn how to handle plot, I wrote a detective novel, Sherlock in Love; to learn how to equip a story with the “hinges” that could make a story into a chapter, I converted a series of related short stories into the novel, The Animal Way to Love.
In embarking on the journey of writing Ahab’s Wife; or, the Star-Gazer (and feeling strong), I resolved to write the novel I wanted to write, no holds barred in terms of controversial subjects or ideas. I would hold back nothing from my protagonist in the way of thought or feeling.
What I wanted for my ambitious new novel was the kind of success achieved by my high school hero, Charles Dickens. I resolved to sail under his flag-of-two-stripes: a novel exciting enough to appeal to a very wide range of readers and one of lasting literary value in terms of character and style.
The encouragement and insight of three writer-readers familiar to Spalding MFA folks need to be mentioned here, who did so much to help me launch and navigate my ship of a novel.
Karen Mann not only read all four drafts of the book, she also took me to Nantucket, insisting that the direct knowledge of place would be essential to writing the tale. Ensconced there with Karen, about sixty pages into the first draft, I dreamed Una’s dreams. And I felt sure that my ship had set sail. The support I received from Robin Lippincott during the writing process caused me to name a character introduced near the end of the novel Robben, in his honor.
After reading the final draft, Julie Brickman made a suggestion for additional chapters focusing on Ahab and Una after Ahab had lost his leg to the whale; Julie was the only reader of my ten pre-submission reader-writer-friends who made this suggestion, which proved to be an addition that my wonderful New York editor Paul Bresnick would insist on, in his notes to me that arrived a few days before our first meeting. Inspiration came while I was at the airport in Cincinnati, changing planes, on my way to NY. I asked the desk clerk for paper, and he reeled off a wad from an old-style tractor feed. I wrote and revised in longhand the rest of the trip and into the night. While I read my scribble aloud, next day in NY, I dared not look at Paul. Finally, I had to. Tears stood in his eyes, and he said, “It’s even better than I ever imagined it could be.”
In the writing of those initial four drafts, I had no way of knowing if my book would ever be published (my agent, Joy Harris, was yet to come), let alone that the book tour that followed its publication would begin in September 1999 and cover over fifty cities by May 2000, from Portland, Maine, to San Diego, from Seattle to Miami. In Hollywood, I would meet sublimely talented screenwriter Helena Kriel and sign a movie option. Ahab’s Wife would take me to Canada, and to huge international book festivals in Sydney, Australian, and Hay-on-Wye, in Wales. The novel would be a finalist in its English edition for the Orange Prize. And, shortly before he died, Gregory Peck would suggest that he and I (!) do a joint reading to raise money for the Los Angeles Public Library, he from Moby-Dick and I from Ahab’s Wife.
As the tour continued, I began to meet and talk with readers who had finished the book. Often there were couples who had read the book aloud to each other and now they were engaged! How marvelous to be a part of their happiness! And then there was this, most touching encounter: “My grandmother was dying,” a young woman said. “The doctors told her she should rest, not stay up reading, but she said, ‘The one thing I want to do before I die is to finish this book.’” She did, the granddaughter told me, and that my novel had been her companion.
During my travels, with the wind in my sails, I also conceived two new novels, Four Spirits and Abundance, a Novel of Marie-Antoinette. But theirs are stories, perhaps, for another time. Finally, my sailing took me home to Louisville, with enough credibility in the Hold that when I suggested the creation of a low-residency MFA program in writing (there was no MFA in writing of any kind in Kentucky), people listened.
Sena Jeter Naslund‘s fiction includes seven novels and two collections of short stories. Her work has been published in England and in Australia, as well as the U.S., and translated into German, Spanish, Danish, Polish, Japanese, Korean, Hebrew, and Greek. Titles include the short story collection The Disobedience of Water and national best-selling novels Ahab’s Wife; Four Spirits; Abundance, a Novel of Marie Antoinette. Her most recent novel is The Fountain of St. James Court, or Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman. She has taught in graduate writing programs at the University of Montana, Indiana University, Vermont College, and the University of Louisville, where she was named Distinguished Teaching Professor and Distinguished Professor in Creative Activity. She served twice as Visiting Eminent Scholar at the University of Alabama-Huntsville and as Pascal Distinguished Guest at the University of Montebello, AL. Currently Sena is Program Director and co-founder of the Spalding low-residency MFA in Writing. Recently, she was inducted into the Alabama Writers’ Hall of Fame and she has been a recipient of the Harper Lee Prize and the Alabama Governor’s Award in the Arts; she served as Kentucky Poet Laureate, 2005-2006. Sena is working on her tenth book, an American Civil War novel.