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July 18, 2018

Musician Nathaniel Bellows Interviews Author Kate Christensen

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Nathaniel Bellows’ new album, Swan and Wolf—ten songs accompanied by ten illustrations—was released in April. He is the author of two novels—On This Day (HarperCollins) and Nan (Harmon Blunt)—and a collection of poetry, Why Speak? (W.W. Norton).

Kate Christensen’s seventh novel, The Last Cruise, will be released by Random House/Doubleday on July 10th. Her fourth novel, The Great Man, won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Her most recent book, How to Cook A Moose, won the 2016 Maine Literary Award for Memoir.

Musician Nathaniel Bellows interviews author Kate Christensen:

NB: Full disclosure: Kate and I met almost a decade ago at a dinner party in NYC, and since then we have maintained an endless stream of online Scrabble games, amassing chat box discourse on topics ranging from (but not limited to): writing, reading, publishing, art, music, food, dogs, family dynamics, politics, weather (a lot of weather), landscape, light humor, dark humor, life in New England, life in NYC, noise pollution, walking…all augmented with a growing lexicon of custom-made keyboard emojis. A few years ago, Kate interviewed me about my album, The Old Illusions, for Largehearted Boy’s “Cross-Media Cultural Exchange” series, so it’s a real joy to switch sides and talk to her about her excellent, engaging, and gripping new novel, The Last Cruise.

All of your books—fiction and nonfiction—have a keen, grounded sense of place: The Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint in The Astral; the Hudson River mansion in The Epicure’s Lament; the Arizona terrain of your childhood in Blue Plate Special; and the New England landscape of your current life, which you write about so beautifully in How to Cook A Moose. Your new novel, The Last Cruise, takes place on an aging cruise ship—the Queen Isabella—making its final voyage from Southern California to Hawaii. Why did you choose to set this story on a boat? How does this setting—one that is both confined and expansive, in motion and (eventually) inert—effect how the narrative unfolds? Did your approach as a storyteller change knowing that your characters wouldn’t have the security of being on dry land?

KC: An enclosed, ordered human system traveling through wilderness is a classic and promising premise for a saga or story, for example, Star Trek, Murder on the Orient Express, and Das Boot, not to mention The Odyssey. A cruise ship is, simultaneously, a floating pleasure palace, a workplace where underpaid people are overworked with no escape, and a seagoing vessel with fragile operating systems and numerous safety corners cut for profit. I was initially inspired by various news stories about ill-fated cruises that kept popping up: noroviruses, engine room fires, stranded ships floating off the coast of Mexico for five days without power while they waited for the tugboats. I thought, aha, a microcosm. This will be fun.

NB: And it is! (For a while, at least…) One thing that struck me was the way you described the ship—first as a party vehicle, with its lounges and bars and pools and activities, and then as a kind of disintegrating behemoth, rotting in real time, all around the passengers. Have you ever been on a cruise? What kind of research did you do to achieve such descriptive mastery of the physical space?

KC: I have never been on a cruise. So I did a lot of research, varied and obsessive. I read every book I could find about cruises, both fiction and nonfiction, including a memoir by one of the only Americans ever to work below decks for a cruise line. I watched every movie from Ship of Fools to The Poseidon Adventure to The Lady Eve. I binge-watched YouTube videos of cruise ships in bad weather, read all the cruisers’ blogs and websites I could find. I toured the Queen Mary in Long Beach, pored over diagrams of mid-20th century cruise ships, interviewed naval historians and maritime experts, and talked to a couple of former cruise ship employees. It was the most fun I’ve ever had doing research. But the more I learned, the less I wanted to go on a cruise.

NB: I can see that. But I still think you could pitch the book to the cruise ship industry for possible marketing materials. Well, maybe just the first half! The other element of research that feels seamlessly incorporated into the book are themes of global ecology and the environment. There’s a particularly vivid—and grim—scene of a vast expanse of garbage, floating, untethered, out in the middle of the ocean. In your food memoirs you’ve often written about sustainability, conservation, and civic responsibility; what was it like to write about these “real world” issues in a fictional context? Christine, one of the book’s central characters, is on holiday from her life as a farmer in Maine. Through her observations, she seems to be the person most concerned about these issues, but it also feels like the natural world itself is as much a character as any of the passengers we meet onboard the Queen Isabella.

KC: As I was collecting stories about cruise ships in various kinds of crisis, my email In box was being inundated by urgent bulletins from environmental groups, asking me to donate money to save endangered wildlife, to sign a petition to stop Tar Sands Oil, to make a phone call to keep Monsanto from killing all the bees, to write a letter in support of policies that might help stem the flow of plastic into the oceans—an endless flood, every day. I took almost every requested action and nonetheless felt a constant, powerless, heartsick despair, which I think many of us feel to varying degrees. The reports of plastic and trash choking the oceans hit me maybe hardest of all—this found its way into the book as a matter of course, since it’s set on the Pacific Ocean. And Christine, a farmer who lives according to the cycles of the seasons and climate, is the character who feels it most of all, the one who’s most aware of it.

NB: So much of the book feels told from Christine’s point of view, and through her we meet the many other characters onboard: Valerie, Christine’s blithely opportunistic journalist friend from New York City, who’s come on the trip to write an exposé of the working conditions of the workers below decks; the four members of the Sabra Quartet, an elderly string ensemble from Israel, led by the sharp-minded, heartsick Miriam, who have been invited to perform an unwieldy and unbeautiful piece of music—“The Six-Day War”—commissioned by the wife of the man who owns the Queen Isabella; Mick, the heads-down, no-nonsense executive sous chef, responsible for the many themed hors d'oeuvres and onboard meals, and for quelling the growing unrest among the kitchen staff. To name only a few! With so many characters and stories, I’m curious if you employ any kind of system—diagrams or outlines or rubrics—for developing, managing, and overlapping various plotlines. Did you have a sense from the beginning as to how this constellation of characters would operate in this increasingly treacherous situation?

KC: I conceived of three main characters with different roles on the cruise—passenger, entertainment, and crew—which gave me narrative access to the social strata that exist on a cruise ship. Basically, I knew who the main characters were and what was going to happen. I threw them all onto the ship and let it all play out and wrote their reactions as everything happened. I knew they were good people who would all try to do the “right” thing, whatever that meant for each of them. I knew their paths would intersect at various points, but I didn’t try to force it. I allowed each of them to operate in his or her own sphere.

NB: Yes, it feels very natural, and it’s so satisfying when the three strata you mentioned—passenger, entertainment, and crew—crisscross and interact. (In the first pages of the novel, Christine, (passenger), has a chance—not all together pleasant—encounter with Mick, (crew), and the reader gets the sense that, though their onboard status is designed to keep them separate, they are fated to continue these meetings. And as necessity—and survival—eventually demand, they do join forces, and their growing affinity—and respect—for each other, becomes one of the most engaging aspects of the book.) But, to explore the notion of “entertainment”: Two themes that run through all your work is the role of food and music in life. In The Last Cruise, we are immersed in the rehearsals and musical history of the Sabra Quartet, and with Mick and the army of kitchen staff, endlessly conceiving of and preparing countless courses of food in the galley. In each of these settings—music and food—you convey a rigorous sense of discipline, intuition, interpretation, taste, raw elbow grease, and personal expression. In a way, the Sabra Quartet and Mick could be seen as hybrid embodiments of both “entertainment” and “crew,” given their dual roles: refined, aesthetic expression combined with pure, unglamorous labor. Do you find writing about art and food comes from a similar place?

KC: Music and food are two of the greatest passions and obsessions of my life—playing and listening to music, cooking and eating food, thinking and talking and writing and reading about music and food… Cooking and music are, to me, two of the most beautiful, exciting things our species has ever come up with, as well as maybe the most powerful sources of nostalgia and memory, both personal and cultural. Both can be high or low, solitary or vast, religious or secular, uninhibited and visceral or restrained and ascetic—highly technical and artistically elevated or as humble and instinctive as a kid making up a song about the clouds while she serves mud pies to her stuffed animals. And I’ve been thinking a lot in recent years about the inevitable disintegration of civilization when any kind of shit hits the fan. So what happens to eating and singing when the world goes to shit? Historically, they keep people together, united in communal pleasure. As long as we can sing the songs we all know together, as long as we can sit down to some kind of meal together, even if it’s cold canned beans, things aren’t so bad, there’s still hope, at least in that moment of raising our voices or breaking bread.

NB: I totally agree. And speaking of the world going to shit. Or, more specifically, the world of this book going to shit—about halfway through the novel, it becomes very clear that the idyllic, fancy-free vacation cruise all the passengers had envisioned was, in fact, not the reality of the situation. At this point, the book takes on a mysterious, almost thriller-like tension. Did you find it required different literary muscles to extract the drama and intensity you often explore in characters’ internal lives and manifest it outwardly, onto the physical space that surrounds them?

KC: I love a good thriller and/or mystery, and I’ve read many, many of them, but that wasn’t exactly what I set out to write here. I was going for an existential political novel, a disrupted social system with an underlying allegory. That said, yes, it did require different and new literary muscles to manifest the personal drama outwardly (nicely put), and it was hard for me to do, as it always is to try something new and different. This is my first novel in 7 years, and I feel like in the intervening time since I wrote The Astral, during which I published two memoirs, left New York for Maine, remarried, and established an entirely new life in an entirely new place, something has been shifting for me in terms of novelistic aims. I’m excited to start the next one now. I’ve got nothing but a premise, a working title, and an opening line—but that’s enough to send me down the rabbit hole again.

NB: This novel definitely feels like you’ve done something new. Given the years between this book and The Astral, and the vast number of books I know you regularly read (in the bathtub), I’m curious what books influenced or inspired The Last Cruise? And I’m very happy to hear you’re already at work on the next book. As we bring this chat to a close, can you give readers any clue as to what the new novel might be about? (I hope that a lively, fox-like rescue dog from Florida plays a prominent role.)

It’s been great talking with you, Kate C. Thank you for your time, thoughtful answers, and excellent writing. I think I speak for many people in saying I can’t wait to read what comes next!

KC: [HAHAHAHA on the image link to ANGUS] Thank you! It’s too soon to talk about the next book (I’m superstitious; if I talk too much about it, it will lose some of the energy needed to generate it)—but I can definitely talk about some of the books that inspired this one. Waugh’s classic A Handful of Dust was my touchstone—a picture of a seemingly civilized society that’s actually barbarous and vulnerable to disintegration. I was inspired, obliquely but profoundly, by the first two books of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, in particular her narrator’s affectless quietude in the wake of having the (illusory) order and safety of her prior life shattered. I also read a number of exciting (mis)adventures-at-sea memoirs, among them Peter Nichols’s Sea Change, David Vann’s A Mile Down, and Steven Callahan’s Adrift. In all these books, the ocean’s indifferent and vast power is paramount, and the narrator’s little craft is revealed to be flimsy and temporary… clearly, I’ve been thinking a lot about seemingly sturdy things coming apart. (Did I mention I wrote The Last Cruise during the lead-up to the 2016 Presidential election?)

Thanks for a fun conversation—and for such thoughtful, generous questions.

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)