The air feels more wet and more cold than even five minutes ago, a thicker texture of gray. You are in the high tide of afternoon fog.
“How Long Will You Tarry?”
Strange things happen in John Vanderslice’s Island Fog, sometimes under the mysterious cover of fog and sometimes out in the open. The eleven linked stories in Island Fog all take place on Nantucket, a small island (49 square miles) 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. The haunting, often surreal stories are tied together by the island’s unique history and geography. The collection begins with a story set in 1795, “Guilty Look”, and ends with “Island Fog”, a story that takes place in 2005. In both stories, the protagonist is nightmarishly trapped in a situation that doesn’t seem to offer any hope of escape. A respected wigmaker and bank board member is determined guilty of theft on the basis of a “guilty look”, despite the fact he has located one of the actual criminals, and a college student becomes ensnared in an unbreakable “employment contract” with a diabolical employer. The sinister undertones in these stories, and in several others, reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s dark and ominous short fiction, set in seemingly peaceful New England towns.
I was surprised to learn that Vanderslice actually wrote the six contemporary stories first. In an interview in the website Practicing Writer, Vanderslice explains how the book evolved:
So on one trip, early in the “aughts,” I began a series of stories set on the island. Contemporary stories. Writing a book was the furthest thing on my mind. I just wanted to write some stories. And I did. Six in all, and I eventually published half of them. I thought I was done.
Many years later, on a 2011 trip, I realized that Nantucket, with its rich and abiding history, is the perfect locus for historical fiction. So I started a series of historical stories. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I could combine those stories with the earlier ones and make a complete Nantucket book.
Each story stands on its own, but together they form a fascinating portrait of a place and its people. Vanderslice deftly shapes a thematically unified start collection, involving characters ranging from the original Wampanoag inhabitants to English settlers of all religious persuasions, from African-American teachers and railroad workers to Jamaican immigrant shopkeepers, from wealthy vacationers to college students. And of course, Vanderslice writes about whalers and whaling widows. “Taste”, which I thought was the most powerful story, is about Gideon Mitchell, a whaler who survives after a shipwreck by resorting to cannibalism. It’s inspired by the true story of the sinking of the whaleship Essex, which is the subject of Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent book, In the Heart of the Sea. Gideon, now employed as a night watchman, has never emotionally recovered from his ordeal: “He steps outside and lets the weather strike him as it may. He is as happy to be hit by a sour dog of a fog as he is by summer sunshine or a brisk autumn wind. Anything to wake himself. ”
After I read Island Fog — and It’s so compelling that I read it in just two sittings, first the historical stories and then the contemporary stories — I was full of questions for the author. I found a lot of information on his website; in particular, I was interested in his thoughts on historical fiction. Vanderslice is a professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas, and in one of his blog posts, he recounts a discussion in class on the ways that James McBride altered history in his novel, The Good Lord Bird.
. . . I am trying to suggest (once again) the difference between writing history and writing historical fiction. The latter uses history–as faithfully as possible–but finally the historical fiction must be committed to story and character above all else. If it wants to succeed in the eyes of a reader, that is; if it wants to earn a reader’s love and admiration. Even if that means winking at the historical record and giving that record a conscious, cagey twist.
Here are the questions I asked John Vanderslice, along with his thoughtful answers.
You say in your blog that we are living in a “golden age of literary historical fiction”. I totally agree — if you were asked to list four or five of your favorite recently published historical novels, what would they be?
Good question. Of course, I don’t only read historical fiction, but it’s one of my favorite genres. I hate to mimic what so many others say, but I recently finished All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and I must say that book deserves every bit of praise it received. It’s a phenomenally beautiful novel, and one that delves into a curious little corner of World War Two history; mixed of course with much that is purely imagined. Again, not to sound too clichéd, but I used James McBride’s (National Book Award winning) The Good Lord Bird last semester in an Historical Fiction Workshop class I taught, and both I and the students loved it. The narrator’s voice just takes hold of you and doesn’t let you go. And what a way to bring crazy John Brown alive for an audience. I don’t think I can ever think of John Brown the same way after reading McBride’s book.
A third historical title I enjoyed recently was Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose. Another good World War Two novel, and another that investigates a tiny little corner of that war: a woman race car driver who became famous in France before the war and then, even though she was lesbian, fully cooperated with the Nazis after they invaded. It’s based on a real life case, and is vigorously brought to life by Prose.
I guess I also should mention that right now I am reading Lucky Us by Amy Bloom. I’ve read and admired Amy Bloom’s work for years, but this is the first piece of historical fiction I’ve ever read by her. In much of her fiction, Bloom focuses on gay, lesbian, and transgender characters; also characters that feel like complete outsiders in their respective communities. Even though Lucky Us is an historical novel, Bloom brings that same approach, those same writerly concerns to bear. And I appreciate that. I’m really enjoying the book so far, with its very unique perspective on old Hollywood
It’s easy to understand why you chose Nantucket as the setting for the collection, and you discuss this in another interview. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts about Nantucket. What makes it different from other island communities? Have you visited since the book was published, or do you have plans to visit? Do you have any sense of how the book has been received there?
I love Nantucket because it feels so like I’m leaving the United States when I travel there. Of course it still is the United States, but when I’m there I feel an enormous burden of modern living just remove itself from my shoulders. The landscape is serene and beautiful; the weather is moderate. Best of all, Nantucket seems determined to remain itself and not be overrun my modern Americana. There are no traffic lights, no big commercial chains, save one grocery store chain. Everything else is old-fashioned Mom and Pop places. At night there is action in town, of course, but basically it’s very quiet. And it’s just not that big of a place either. You could easily bike from one end of it to the other if you wanted to. And yet it’s just big enough for there to be new, undiscovered corners to explore every time you go back, as well as the cozy, familiar haunts to re-haunt. I’ve been to plenty of other resort towns in the US, as well as other islands. But none strikes me as so purely peaceful, even idyllic, as Nantucket.
I have not gone back since the book has been published, but I do plan on visiting this summer. I am hoping to be included in the Nantucket Book Festival, actually. And if not Nantucket’s, perhaps Martha’s Vineyard’s. . . But one way or another I intend to visit the island this summer. I can’t say I know how it’s been received there. The main newspaper on the island has been slow to bring out a review, so it’s possible most island residents aren’t even aware of it yet. But I’m scheduled to be interviewed next week on WCAI radio, the NPR station that broadcasts to the Cape and the Islands, so hopefully that will get the word out. I do know the book is in both island bookstores.
Are you part of a writers’ group? How do you balance your writing life with your academic career?
I am not part of a writing group, but in some ways my creative writing classes act as writing groups for me. I frequently give my classes prompts to work from, and they work on those prompts in class. While they write, I write, using the same prompts. I’ve generated so many stories that way! And sometimes I even workshop my stories with my classes. I must say they’ve given me some great advice over the years. And they don’t seem to mind it either. It’s extra work for them, but they seem to really appreciate when a professor is willing to share his work with them. And they also appreciate my laying myself open, willing to hear suggestions and criticisms. Yes, they are a little reluctant at first to give those suggestions and criticisms, but when they see I won’t bite their heads off for doing so, they loosen up. It’s usually a great experience all around. And sometimes too I share my published work with them as models for this or that form we may be working on. That too they appreciate, curious as they always are to see what weird things their professors have written.
Balancing writing with any career—academic or not—is going to be a challenge, perhaps the biggest challenge for any literary artist. But there are no excuses, no ways around it. You simply have to make time for the writing, no matter what that means. And it’s not as hard as one might think to make that time. Even twenty minutes a day can add up to something over time. (Not that I wouldn’t prefer an hour or two myself, as would anyone.) A few years ago I challenged myself to write creatively every single day, even if it was just a little bit. I wasn’t sure I could manage it, but I was determined to try. And I did it. For an entire year I wrote creatively every single day, even if that meant scratching off some haiku for 10 or 15 minutes while I was attending an academic conference. It was the best thing I could have done for my writing. Since then I’ve been able to write almost every day of the year, certainly more consistently than I used to, although I’ve always written pretty consistently. But I must admit that I’m a terrible creature of habit. And while that makes me not the most interesting or surprising person in the world, it means I’m able to get a lot of work done, once I make that work a habit.
As I’m sure you’re discovering, a whole new phase of a writer’s job begins when the book is published. How do you feel about that? Do you enjoy promoting the book, which involves networking and public speaking? What sort of community support have you received?
You’re right that the work only begins in earnest after you’ve published the book. There isn’t anything you can do as an author but jump right in, ready or not. (And I suspect that most authors, retiring folk that we are, aren’t ready.) Otherwise, your book, even if it’s a very good one, could simply disappear. I’ve been contacting literary journals, newspapers, websites, and book bloggers since early last summer trying to line up reviews and mentions. A lot of that work has paid off, which is very gratifying. . . Once I’m all done with this great initial push of marketing, perhaps six months from now, I’m going to have to sit back and write an article or a series of blog posts about it. It’s certainly been a fascinating and eye-opening experience. As I said to my wife the other day, “I think I know now what to do the next time I publish a book.”
Community support has been fantastic. Lots of enthusiastic praise from friends and family members, lots of curious questions. I had a big, successful book launch in Conway when the book came out. I’m still high about that night. Tomorrow night my wife’s book club will discuss the book, with me present. That’s a nerve-racking prospect for any author! But I can’t complain. The reason they decided to do the book in the first place is that they knew they could address questions directly to the author, which is a pretty rare opportunity for a book club.
The marketing has been draining at times, I admit. Trying to keep up on all the emails, trying to make sure you don’t forget to contact this person or that person. And that work doesn’t necessarily go down just because you have a publicist. Sometimes the publicist gives you work to do! But, again, I can’t complain. Putting up with the business of marketing is a very small price to pay for the benefit of having a book that you really believe in finally reach the public. And if my marketing efforts allow a couple more people the chance to know about and read the book, so much the better.
As for public speaking, I don’t mind that at all. I’m a practiced reader of my own work. I’m happy to read anytime, anywhere. So far most of my reading engagements have been in and around Arkansas. But I just did a very well-received reading in New Orleans last week. And in the spring I’m set to read at a number of venues in upstate New York. I’m really looking forward to “hitting the road” with my book.
I’m glad that John Vanderslice hit the road, metaphorically, with his blog tour — if you’d like to read more reviews, click on TLC Book Tours. Also, the publisher (Lavender Ink, a small press in Louisiana) is offering a giveaway. To enter, simply comment below. The winner will be notified by email on January 22.