Small Island: An Interview with Nathaniel Philbrick
July 24, 2013 | by Ben Shattuck
Nathaniel Philbrick has written six books on United States history, most of which take place on or by the sea. In 2000, his In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex—about the sunken whaleship that inspired a young Herman Melville—won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. He then wrote Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842, followed by Mayflower: A Story of Community, Courage, and War, which was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in History. Because of In the Heart of the Sea and his articles on the whaling industry, Philbrick and Melville have become something of a pair. Philbrick recently wrote the thin and ruminative Why Read Moby-Dick? and the introduction to the last Penguin Edition of Moby-Dick.
I had read In the Heart of the Sea and Mayflower years ago, but it wasn’t until this past spring when a local bookseller handed me Philbrick’s first book, Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, that I decided to write him a letter. There’s a thrifty, poetic quality to the makeup of that book, a clear joy in the research alone. It’s rawer, not so carved by what reviewers have noted as Philbrick’s masterful use of narrative and perspective in his other books, and so shows his research instincts clearer. He includes a description of the spring day when early Nantucketers set a pit of snakes on fire, and the time in 1795 when robbers bent pewter spoons into keys to steal $20,000 in gold coins from Nantucket Bank. Farmers on the island used to fertilize fields by scaring sheep at night with burning coals, and whalers traded their pant cuffs for sex in the South Pacific Islands. I put my e-mail on the bottom of the letter and dropped it in the mail. He wrote back in June, offering lunch and a “ramble” around the island.
We met for chowder and beer down at Nantucket’s South Wharf, near the old ships chandlery. Centuries ago, scallop shanties were on the South Wharf, where “openers” shucked for hours under lantern light and pipe smoke. Philbrick had arrived on his bike and exactly on time, wearing wayfarer sunglasses. It was a sunny day; while transcribing the interview, I listened to wind and gulls behind his voice. He speaks energetically, smiles constantly and in a way that evokes Steve Carell, and, mostly, is humble. Later that evening, walking through his house with him and his beloved golden retriever Stella, I saw just one sign of his success: a tiny framed clipping of the July 9, 2000, New York Times best-seller list, in which Harry Potter is on the fiction side, and In the Heart of the Sea is on the other, at number two. He’s proud of his family and talks about them often. He showed me the marks on the wooden floor where his son had practiced cello, and the room full of his grandmother’s paintings, one of which might be of her good friend, Claude Monet’s daughter.
After lunch, we walked through downtown to visit the Nantucket Historical Association’s Research Library. On the way, he pointed in the direction of where Herman Melville visited and dined with Nathaniel Hawthorne the summer after the disastrous publication of Moby-Dick. As in his books, Philbrick resurrects the past with unexpected precision: “Hawthorne,” he said, “was handsome and shy.” When we arrived at the Research Library, an archivist greeted him by holding up a review of his newest book, Bunker Hill. “Did you see this?” she asked, pointing to a caricature of Philbrick dressed like a colonial. “Oh, jeez,” he said, and turned away bashfully.
Weeks later, sitting in his patio, Stella panting behind us, I asked him why he keeps retelling stories that people already know. The Mayflower story. Bunker Hill. Custer’s Last Stand. “Yeah, sure,” he said, smiling. “Everybody knows about the Little Bighorn. But what do they really know about the Little Bighorn? I knew nothing. What I knew was three sentences that had nothing to do with what happened.” He continued, “In each book, I don’t know what I’m getting into. And if I did know what I was getting into, the book would be stale. There would be no crackle. For me, it’s the act of discovery gives the prose life. Otherwise, it would be dead.”
Why did you move to Nantucket?
We came to Nantucket in 1986. It was my wife’s job that brought us here. She’s an attorney. She grew up on Cape Cod. I’m from Pittsburgh. I love to sail, but I’m not from a maritime area. I had grandparents in West Falmouth—that’s how Melissa and I ended up meeting. We were living in a suburb of Boston before we moved out. She was the breadwinner. I was at home, writing, taking care of the kids. We had kids, one and four.
You were a young dad.
We had Jenny when we were twenty-five. We had made sort of a pact. I said, You’re going to make a lot more money than I will—I was a journalist for what’s now Sailing World, out of Newport.
Neither one of us had spent any time here. It sounded like a good concept—no commuting, everyone would be close. We arrived in September—probably the first people to move to Nantucket without ever having spent a summer here. It took me a while to connect with the community, because I was at home with the kids. But then I got interested in the history of the island, and began to hang out at the archives. Away Off Shore is a product of learning history on my own, of going alone to look around the archives.
Have you always been interested in history, going to the archives? I can’t figure out if you’re a historian or a writer first.
I was an English major at Brown. I never enjoyed history classes. I had a great AP U.S. History teacher in Pittsburgh. We still exchange Christmas cards. She was the first teacher who said I was a good writer—and I’d never heard that before. And so I remember that, and I remember that level of loving the material and really loving writing about it.
When I was at Brown, I wanted to write the great American novel, but I was too scared to take a creative course. I signed up for one, got in, and just didn’t have the courage to go. I was a tremendously shy person, almost pathologically shy. The thought of peers critiquing my work—oh, God.
After Brown, I went to Duke, to a Ph.D. program in American literature. My dad’s an English professor. After a year there, I was like, Jesus. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be in the library. So I pulled the ripcord and that was it. I read half a dozen books, took the orals, and was done. I never engaged in the process. When I left the program I started writing for Yacht Racing and Cruising, which then became Sailing World, and did that for four years. That’s where I learned to write. We were a young staff, all about the same age. Three people reading each article, being brutal. That was really good for me—I actually socialized in a very constructive way. And that’s where I started looking at writing as a profession. I was also writing poems—got a handful of poems in Manhattan Poetry Review.
So you’re out on Nantucket, at home with the kids—and why did you start researching the island?
When we first moved here, I was a little at sea—literally. I was even thinking of going back to grad school, which would have been the biggest mistake of my life. I began to think about what this place was like. I was interested in how this island became this island. I was coming at the past, in the past. From a sense of place. Melville was a big part of it, and I screwed around with writing academic articles about Melville.
The kids were getting older. And, you know, if you’re at home with children, you lose twenty-five IQ points. But Ethan finally gets to the point where he’s in first grade, so I have from the time I get up until two-thirty in the afternoon, on my own, for the first time. I immediately started hanging out at the archives. I had done a couple academic articles for New England Quarterly, so I had done some research. I got a contract with the local publisher to write Away Off Shore. It was a year I’ll never forget.
I should mention that it was while writing Away Off Shore that I discovered the mode I have been using ever since. It’s really a journalistic approach to the past—trying to figure out who these people were, and telling a story. As you know, each chapter in that book is about a specific character but takes the history of the island forward. A light bulb went off with that book—I realized it’s those details, those little anecdotes.
Can you talk more about your research? Mayflower has around fifty pages of notes and thirty pages of bibliography.
The challenge of writing any history, any nonfiction, is that there’s just so much you have to know. Seventy-five percent of my time is reading and taking notes. The note-taking is everything for me. When I’m first going through letters, or the archive, I find little details, anecdotes, that I think are cool. I have a little notebook where I write all this stuff down.
What type of notebook?
Moleskine. It’s almost a reading journal. Day by day. Early on I’m getting a sense of the book. I find that when I’m new to a topic, that’s when I’m catching the best details. It’s all new to me—it’s what the reader will respond to. Because you can so easily over-know a topic, and you lose the magic. It becomes interesting to you, but you’ve lost the connection to the reader. You’re too far down the rabbit hole. So for me, having a record of those initial reactions to the material is really important. It’s the road map I go back to. You forgot how interesting the material was when you first learned it, after you’ve learned a lot about a topic. It’s all very random. But now that I’ve written quite a few books, I can see that so much of where the book will go is based on initial reactions to material before I even know how I’m going to structure it.
When it comes to actually writing a chapter, I go through that notebook and on my computer type out notes from it, so I’m relearning the material. So much of the process is learning the material. It has to be in your head. Just writing it down doesn’t do it for me—I have to read, type, and learn it. So that’s the first stage. And then I start researching a chapter. Starting a chapter, I read over all the material again, and take voluminous notes. And then finding out I need to know more. I’m basically memorizing it in a weird way—it’s just getting it in your head. No one can keep an entire book in their head at one time. I work chapter by chapter. Now I zero on what I want to say in the chapter. My routine is a chapter a month. My first three weeks are reading all my stuff—and realizing what I need to know. I’m typing notes frantically. I’ll typically end up with a hundred pages of notes per chapter. It’s important to type it out—because I haven’t learned it unless I type it out. If I just go to a book and underline it, I haven’t learned it.
So there I have hundred pages of notes, organized into letters, people, all that. So I’ve spent three weeks doing that. Now I spend three or four days reading the notes. Now it’s a yellow pad. Taking notes on the notes. That’s where I’m organizing. A, B, C, ordering happens. It’s a process of just, again, getting it in my head. I spend three days going over those notes. It’s ten hours a day, seven days a week at that point, as my wife can attest, in my office.
Where’s your office?
In my basement. I call it the bunker. My notes are all over the place. Maps all over the place. Books everywhere. It’s a mess, a total mess.
I guess I just imagined a renovated widow’s walk. A view out to the sea.
There is a window, but no view. It faces a wall. I don’t look out to the ocean. There’s no romance to this. This is pure information getting into my head. In fact, I wish I didn’t have a window. Okay, so now it’s time to write.
Are you a fast writer?
I’ll type out an eight-thousand-word chapter in five to seven days. It’s already in my head—it’s just a matter getting it down. Writing can’t be too calculated. My best writing is when I set it aside, move on. It’s not when I’m crafting a sentence, thinking about what word should follow another. Phoom! It comes out, and then I go back and find what’s good. I really need to get into the flow. That’s when I really need to know where everything is in the notes, so I’m not spending time trying to find a piece of information. I need to be very organized. It’s kinetic. It’s got to all be happening. It’s mesmeric. It’s like Melville talking about writing Moby-Dick—you can just see his eyes glazing over. I don’t quit until Melissa arrives. She works longer hours than I do—she usually comes home around eight. We have dinner. Then I watch stupid TV until I go to bed. I don’t sleep well when I’m working on a book. Sentences will be in my head, and I’ll wake up and scribble something down. Usually it’s not helpful. I just have to get the book done, or else I’d have a breakdown.
What do you watch on TV?
The Voice. I’m really into The Voice. I like Wheel of Fortune, Access Hollywood, Hawaii Five-O. Stupid stuff. The last thing I need is something challenging. And I hate to say it, but it’s a great pleasure for me to experience the culture out there. It keeps me away. I can get away from what I’m doing.
So, after I finish a draft, I hit print. I used to do a lot more revising on the page. I used to print at the end of every day, and then the next morning revise. I’ve since gotten to the point where I just do the revising on the screen. I print out the whole chapter, edit it, spend a day looking it over, then reprint it, and take upstairs and read it aloud to my wife after dinner.
That is the most critical point. She has a notepad where she’s writing comments. It’s so funny—you can look at things on the screen, and it looks great. Then you read it, and you go, Oh my God. The rhythm of the prose is something I’m really trying to work on. So when I’m reading it aloud, I’ll hear the prose and go, That sucks. Like all of us, I’m always searching for a word. It’s a lot of the sounds I’m going for—not that I’m creating anything anyone notices.
In many ways poetry is my first love—that level of engagement with words. Robert Frost is so sneaky. He’s like Hemingway—he saw the darkness and then created this stylistic veneer that keeps it down, but you’re fed it unconsciously.
So, then Melissa has comments, very pointed comments. And using that input, I will spend another day reworking it. Then I will send it to my mother and father.
The English professor.
Yes, and my mother is a retired kindergarten teacher. My dad’s a really good copy editor. We talk on the phone about the draft, and then I put it away, and start the next chapter. Melissa always yells at me, Have you done your notes? In the stuff I do, I do discursive notes at the back of the book. If you save the notes until the end of the book, you forget too much. I hate doing it, but before I move on to the next chapter I’ll write a rough draft of where everything came from. Page numbers.
So you don’t do footnotes while you’re writing?
No. I’ve got to just let it run. That’s the thing for me. It’s getting it in my heading, getting the organization. I’ve got to just get it all down. It’s like painting a room. It’s all prep work. If you do it right, you paint the room in two hours. And then, when I finish the book, it’s just rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. I’m getting the rhythm of the book. Then I’ll send it to my editor, Wendy Wolf, who I’ve had since In Heart of the Sea. We know each other very well. She’s really tough and great.
What applied to Away Off Shore and all my books since is that, for me, it’s the preface that matters. That’s where I develop the voice, and that’s where I figure out what I’m going to say. Well into the Moleskine approach, I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to begin with. What scene will introduce what I’m trying to do. That’s really hard for me. I’ll have forty drafts of how I’m going to start the book. Forty different ways in. How about trying this way, how about that? And that’s really the hard part. I’m deconstructing myself, second guessing myself. Where am I coming from? What is this about? What’s the voice? The tone? My manila folder for the preface is always really fat.
How long has it been from when you started to the project to when you write your preface?
Around nine months. That’s when I have to figure out the preface. In writing the book, I return the preface obsessively. It’s very frustrating for me. Often an approach I try early on is the right one. The other thing is that with each book I do a proposal. I’m always amazed that after I finish the book, how much the book ended up like original proposal.
You write it for yourself or your publisher?
Both. For me I wouldn’t do a book without it. You can say, Look, you know what your topic is. But, for me, I don’t really know what it is until I write it down. That proposal, sometimes twelve pages, is essential, the process of creating a polished representation of the book. I would have night sweats if I went into a topic without having done a proposal first. Never take anything for granted.
So what’s a writing day like for you, after the research?
When the kids were young, I’d get up early and start writing before they went to school, and then Melissa would take them to school. That would give me a couple of hours. Now, I get up, walk the dog, ritualistically go the pharmacy on Nantucket to get my cup of coffee, drop my wife off at work, get home, feed the dog. She’s almost twelve. I have to be at my desk at nine. It’s all really regimented. I need these routines. Because I’m a slob. I’m not a very structured person, really, except when it comes to this. With this, I’m hyper-structured. It’s scary.
Do you like the writing part?
For me, it’s the most fun. I just love those few days. That’s what it’s all about. It’s delayed gratification. It’s foreplay. During the research, all I want to do is start writing. But I have to say to myself, No, no—you need to know more. And then just go for it.
When do you know when to stop researching and start writing?
It’s a sense that if I know any more, it will just get confusing. It’s funny. The whole thing’s regimented, but also instinctual. Something goes off, and I need to start writing. It’s based on keeping those notes. The other thing is that I’m big into scribbling in my books. I’ll sometimes realize while I’m writing, while I’m far into it, that I need something that’s not in the notes, that’s in the books. By scribbling over those books, I have another little road map. Stars and exclamation points.
So you’re buying the books that you use for research?
Yes. Years ago, I was visiting David McCullough—he and I went the same elementary school in Pittsburgh, many years apart—after In the Heart of the Sea, and he said to me, You’ve got to buy the books. You’ve just got to buy the books. It’s true.
Has he been a mentor?
David’s career is exemplary. He’s well on in years and still active and creative. But we have a real different approach to material—which I think is generational. He’s a guy who has a narrative voice like no other.
Do you have a voice in your books?
When I wrote a first draft of a preface for Away Off Shore I showed it to our local bookseller, who said, This is just too academic. I was crushed. But I thought, Yeah, I don’t want to write a book like this, I want to write a book that’s accessible, yet provocative, and does not assume previous knowledge. That’s the hardest writing to do—clear, concise, integrates information from all over, yet hopefully reads like it’s a clear stream.
So what’s the difference between the voice in Away Off Shore and the voice in In the Heart of the Sea?
One was about my home, the other was about really scary stuff, you know what I mean? With In the Heart of the Sea, I wanted that to be about ultimate issues of survival, the meaning of the universe, you know, Melville kinds of things. I just didn’t want it to be a whaling tale. I wanted someone from Illinois who’d never heard of whaling to read the first chapter and be hooked. I wanted to catch the universal essence of the experience, the very American experience.
So you think about your audience when you’re writing?
As a popular historian, I have a very democratic approach to my audience. Maybe that’s why I like watching The Voice. I really don’t want to lordy-lordy lit-crit stuff. I really think that the meaningful elements of writing are so powerful and overwhelming that you should be able to communicate them to anyone. You shouldn’t have to have read Thomas Mann and Rilke. You should be able to watch Wheel of Fortune, pick up the book, and in the first paragraph go, Whoa.
I had to be weaned from my own worst tendencies of trying to sound smart. The hardest thing to do is to leave that kind of pretension away. Just get to the essence. Hemingway is an author that everybody beats up on now, but, man, he takes profound experience and makes it accessible, and yet you may not fully grasp it when you first read it. You can read the page and not be intimidated. You don’t need to intimidate people.
I’m just trying to draw people in. Provocative and scary are not the way you’d want it to be. Like with Bunker Hill. I get so impatient with the “our great nation” stuff. The darkness is so interesting and essential to the human experience in the past and in the present.
Can you talk about tragedy, the darkness? You treat a lot of terrifying material—starvation, cannibalism–with facts and details to maybe distance the horror of it. I’m thinking of Sebastian Junger, who describes all the ways of drowning when he gets to the point in Perfect Storm where the men drown. You do the same in In the Heart of the Sea with starvation.
Sebastian Junger was a powerful influence on In the Heart of the Sea. It was the summer of ’97, the summer of The Perfect Storm, Into Thin Air, and Angela’s Ashes. I was sailing with my family up in Maine, and those were the three books I brought with me. And I’m reading The Perfect Storm and going, Holy shit, this is really cool—that’s the Essex story. It’s a survival story, just like this. I thought, What if I make this a story that has the universal appeal, that gets out of the New England whaling armchair maritime stuff—what if I make it something that’s raw and direct and about human behavior? And so that’s when I realized that all this Nantucket research that I’d been doing could, maybe, appeal to somebody in Peoria.
Will you write about nonfiction that isn’t historical?
At some point I’d like to get back to the sailing. But, no, I don’t see myself writing about an oil spill or that kind of reportage. For me, it’s about trying to commune with those past events and personalities and trying to give them some living force. For example, in In the Heart of the Sea, I felt this kinship with Thomas Nickerson. It’s these dead voices that are alive—that’s the source of, for whatever reason, what I’m following.
As anyone who’s working with historical figures knows, you’re telling as best as you possibly can, given what you’ve read and thought about. But in the end, it’s your best guess—it’s not necessarily what happened. It’s funny, there’s always a sense of skepticism underlying the writing. But when I’m in the middle of it, when I’m writing a chapter, I suspend belief. I don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s a sense of being in whatever moment I’m describing. That moment—I couldn’t tell you where it’s going to go. I’m always trying to get to that state. It’s exhausting. This is very cathartic. Thank you.
After writing Moby-Dick, Melville wrote to Hawthorne that all he could do was plant the fields.
I can so relate to that. I don’t get out much. I am just in my house, alone. The challenge I have is not going crazy, is getting out to socialize. The other structure besides the work I’m doing is social interactions—I need to see people. For lunch I go back to the pharmacy, usually at two o’clock, sit there, and eat my ham and pickle sandwich. There are people around me—I don’t necessarily talk to them. It’s hard having lunch with a friend. If I’m in the writing phase, I just have a hard time talking. If I’m in the research phase, I’m fine. When I get back from lunch, I have another hour or two before it starts to get cobwebby. So, Stella, it’s time to walk. Walk for an hour. I come back, get a new angle on the writing, and go until Melissa comes back. But going out to that pharmacy is so important. But, life happens. Someone dies and you have to go the funeral. You’ve got to go to birthdays. All that’s really good to get you out of there.
So you don’t really travel.
We structure vacations around my research. My wife is really patient. I went to Little Bighorn seven times. And for In the Heart of the Sea, I wanted to know what it’s like to be in a whaleboat, attached by harpoon and line to a whale, being dragged twenty miles an hour. My family and I were in Miami, my daughter was racing boats. So my son Ethan and I rented a jet-ski.
What else do you do outside the archives for research?
When I was doing In the Heart of the Sea, I had this crayfish that I inherited from a neighbor. You fed the crayfish fish. Like a little lobster. Is it crawfish? We called it a crawfish when I was younger. Because I was working on the book, for two months I forgot about the crawfish. Didn’t feed him. Nothing. And I looked at him. And I go, I haven’t fed the crawfish for two months! He’s starving. So I got all these guppies to feed him. And I gave him too many guppies, and he died. So, I think, This is starvation. It was a big metaphor for what I was going through with the Essex guys. The kids did a little drawing of the crawfish for me.
Or, for example, with Bunker Hill, we were in England, visiting friends, but also a research trip, and visited the town of Firle, which is where General Gage is from, the British officer in charge of the British Army during the occupation of Boston. His descendant is there, a viscount. Through a series of connections my wife and I had sherry with Lord Gage. That was really cool. To me, it was like, Wow, there is no equivalent to this in the United States. Basically a town owned by a family who’s been there for four hundred years.
And then I had lunch with Paul Revere Jr. at Spanky’s Clam Shack in Hyannis. He’s eighty and looks just like Paul Revere. Six, seven generations removed—still, if Paul Revere was eighty, this is him.
I don’t know what effect that had on my book, but that these countries went in very different directions. It looks like In the Heart of the Sea is going to become a movie. And they’re filming it in England. Hopefully we’ll get over there again.
Have you seen the new Moby-Dick made-for-TV movie?
No. Moby-Dick is such a challenge.
I always thought someone should write an adaptation of Typee. That would be the one screenplay I’d want to write. Melville, twenty-two years old.
Typee. Isn’t that a great book? It’s an incredible story. Melville could have been a great journalist.
Melville is so much a part of your identity—I can’t help but compare your career to his. He was bankrupt and a literary obscurity when he died. You’ve had more success.
It may seem like that now. I was thirty-seven years old. I was at home with the kids. My mother said, Nat, when are you going to grow up? In the Heart of the Sea didn’t hit until I was forty-two. I had been working at this literally decades. It took a decade to figure out what I was doing. Part of it was that I was home with the kids—and thank God I was. I didn’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t ready. I wouldn’t say I’m a late bloomer, but it takes me a while. It does not come quickly to me. Finally I started to figure out a way in. I didn’t know what I was doing.
All of Melville’s success came when he was young.
It’s funny, you know, his father dies when he’s twelve. A well-to-do family suddenly thrown into poverty. As a consequence, he’s got the education and the expectations, and then he’s thrust into life. He did a lot of living. And he delayed his education—I think that’s so important. I went to college, I went to grad school. But I feel like I didn’t learn anything until I started to do it on my own terms. I was reading stuff because I had a specific interest. It takes so much personal energy to engage. There has to be a sense of urgency to make it be real.
Are you usually reading only what’s relevant to your research? Fiction, too?
After watching The Voice, I get into bed and read, always fiction. I can’t read nonfiction at night. Right now I’m reading War and Peace. Man, Tolstoy is so good. I had never read that book. It’s profound in the way he brings internal life alive. Sometimes I just read one page before I fall asleep. I also just reread Tender is the Night. Oh my God. Way better than Gatsby. The real juice is in Tender is the Night.
Any contemporary fiction?
What’s the baseball Moby-Dick one?
The Art of Fielding.
Love that. Really good. Really fun. Melville’s all over the book. That came out the same time as Why Read Moby-Dick? came out.
Have you ever wanted to write fiction?
I told Melissa a long time ago, If I ever say I want a novel, tell me, no, don’t do it. Every time I try to do it, I hit the period where I don’t have the imaginative capacity to create an alternative universe. I think visually. I need to have a wild collection of facts and out of those create a story. If I didn’t have the reality to work with, I lapse into the worst, trite crap you could do. It’s not in my makeup.
And writing about your own life?
There’s a memoir I’d love to write at some point. My parents had a camp called Mount Mansfield, in Vermont. It was just the four of us, in summers, living in Underhill, Vermont. Both my brother, Sam, and I have these very vivid memories of that period. From when I was seven to high school. This is a period my brother and I keep going back to. The great thing about being a kid is that you don’t realize what’s going on, and yet what’s going on is pretty much determining who you’re going to be.