I’ve just got back from a weekend at Perth Writer’s Festival held at the beautiful University of Western Australia, a venue that lent the whole affair a sense of grand elegance – as well as welcome shade against the hot Perth sun!
There were many highlights but a definite stand out for me was British writer Ian McGuire, whose novel The North Water was long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and a semifinalist in Goodreads’s Best Historical Fiction category 2016 (see what I did there?). Set on a 19th century Yorkshire whaling ship bound for the Arctic hunting grounds, the novel merges history with thriller – for there is a murderer among the crew.
McGuire, who teaches creative writing at the University of Manchester, was a fascinating panel member. Here is a little of what he had to say…
McGuire hailed American classics, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and the diary Sir Arthur Conan Doyle kept while working as a surgeon aboard a whaling vessel in the southern whaling grounds as his main influences. McGuire was also inspired by Cormac McCarthy – particularly Blood Meridien – who he believes is ‘unequaled’ when it comes to writing landscape, and in writing with ‘beautiful language with a viciousness attached.’ The North Water has also been likened to Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece Heart of Darkness.
McGuire was fascinated by Melville’s life. His time at sea, the failure of his work and its rediscovery during the modernist period. He was also fascinated by the diary of a young medical student named Arthur Conan Doyle. It raised the question: what would happen if you put a murderer on a whaling ship?
On writing historical fiction:
McGuire relied on written records and old photographs from the 1880s to get a visual sense of the Arctic landscape. There was no point in travelling to the Arctic, as the landscape has changed since the early 19th century. There is now no ice where, back then, ice abounded. (But global warming is a myth, people.)
‘We’re novelists, not historians – we’re looking for things that historians can’t tell us. Novelists step in and fill the blanks left by history. That’s what makes it interesting.’
McGuire crafted Drax with an animalistic nature, relying on his sense of smell. Like an animal, Drax lives in the present moment. He has no concerns with the future, the past or consequences.
‘Living in the present is supposed to be good for you – but not when you happen to be a psychopath.’ – Ian McGuire
The North Water is often described as ‘not for the squeamish’, and questions from the panel facilitator and audience alike focussed on violence. McGuire admitted that the novel is intrinsically violent, but hoped that it is a novel about violence as well, as it explores different kinds: that of the whaling industry (‘a casualness towards killing goes with the territory’), colonialism and imperialism. He was also interested in the way we are horrified by certain kinds of violence, but turn a blind eye to others: ‘How do we make these distinctions? How firm are the lines between one and the other?’
On bad things happening to characters in The North Water:
McGuire calmly explained that interesting stuff happens when you put your characters in difficult situations: ‘It’s nice if things go well in real life – but not for characters in a work of fiction.’ Peril, difficulty and difficult decisions are what’s needed to make a story move, and the location and the circumstances of The North Water have lots of opportunities for things to go wrong.
No doubt about it, The North Water is a stinky book. Scents, odours and stenches abound. When asked why, McGuire spoke of the animal nature of Drax, as well as the importance of using the senses in writing. He is always telling his students that using them will make their writing ‘rich and compelling.’ He admitted, too, that there is ‘something uniquely powerful about a smell.’ And of course, he’s right. A smell can evoke a time long past, a place visited long ago, or a distant memory.
So, there you have it. I’m reading The North Water at the moment and, honestly, I think it’s the smelliest book I’ve ever read (and beautiful, in a really disgusting kind of way.)
What about you? What’s the stinkiest book you’ve ever read?