Always More Stories to Tell: Q&A with ‘Landfalls’ Author Naomi J. Williams

Naomi J. Williams (photo by Kristyn Stroble)
Naomi J. Williams (photo by Kristyn Stroble)

Naomi J. Williams’s first novel, Landfalls (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 336 pages), follows the Lapérouse expedition, whose two ships and nearly two hundred sailors left France in 1785 on a global trek to explore and fraternize in the name of science, God, and country. Although they never made it back, vanishing in the Pacific several years later, firsthand accounts and historical scholarship of the voyage remain. From the available facts, Williams has fashioned a smart, surprisingly hilarious, unusual, and moving story less concerned with maritime adventure—although Landfalls is an exciting and enjoyable read—than with carefully imagined dynamics of petty squabbles and momentous encounters alike.

Williams’s reimagining of the expedition and its participants is deeply compassionate even as she acknowledges and incorporates the mission’s staunchly imperialist spirit, and she is careful not to let a tragic end completely overwhelm this fact, or vice-versa. Her characters are at once neurotic, courageous, stubborn, spiteful, gentle, and human. And the novel itself is a meditation on colonialism, nationalism, the frailty of ego, the durable potency of friendship, and more. We spoke via email to Williams (whose story “Sunday School” appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 82) about her approach to writing fiction and her interest in exploring the personal drama and quotidian humor that is lost in maps and historical records.

ZYZZYVA: You dedicate the novel to your grandmother, “who also loved maps.” How did your love of maps inform the strong sense of place in your writing? How many of the “landfalls” did you visit, if any, and how does visiting a place, or not visiting it, affect the way you write about it?

Naomi J. Williams: I’m so delighted you’ve mentioned my grandmother. She was Japanese, and one of my early memories is of sitting on the tatami floor in her tiny apartment in Fukuoka, a city in southern Japan, and poring over a map of the city. I remember being fascinated by the notion that you could have this logical, colorful paper representation of where you lived.

I’ve loved maps ever since, and indeed, the whole idea for Landfalls came from a misidentified antique map my husband bought for me about fifteen years ago. I tell that story in some detail in a recent blog post, but briefly, it’s a map from the Lapérouse expedition, of Lituya Bay, Alaska, the setting for two chapters in the novel.

Maps were very important in the research and writing for this book. I was able to visit only a few of the places that appear in the novel—Monterey, California; Paris; Albi in the south of France—that’s about it. So I relied heavily on maps, both paper maps and online maps. The chapter that required the most in that regard was “Dispatches,” which describes a trip across Russia. I spent hours poring over Google Maps and wandering around in Street View to get a sense of the landscape.

I think it’s always better to visit a place in real life, if you can. One of the first people to read parts of this book was Pam Houston, who was my thesis advisor at UC Davis, and she said of my Alaska chapters that the weather didn’t seem to figure as prominently in the story as it should. She knew because she’s spent time in southeast Alaska; I hadn’t. In revision I tried to rectify that.

When I couldn’t visit a place, however—and I usually couldn’t—I did a ton of research. I read guidebooks, both current and old, and several 18th- and 19th-century travel memoirs. I also spent hours poring over art, old photographs, and even weather records.

landfallsZ: What drew you to this particular expedition in the first place? What about the way the voyage’s history has been kept either irritated or intrigued you enough to make you want to tell your own version?

NW: I’m in the middle of writing something longer that specifically tries to address that question, but I think at least in part, I’m just a sucker for a really sad story. And this one’s pretty sad, you know? But I’m also drawn, it seems, to stories about people who leave home and end up someplace they don’t really belong. Almost all of my fiction, regardless of setting or overall subject, takes that on in some way.

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I found the expedition endlessly compelling. I worked on the book for ten years and never got bored. When I declared the manuscript done, I was kind of sad—there were so many other stories I could have tried to tell. The expedition went to Easter Island and Maui and the Philippines. None of those places come out in the book. Honestly, I could have spent a few more years with the project, but I’d made a pact with myself that I’d finish it before I turned fifty. I barely made it.

As for irritation—yes, that, too! One thing I found in the research was that many of the sources, even supposedly scholarly ones, were often uncritically admiring of the expedition, its leaders, and its aims. I don’t think the book comes across as a “let’s bash the white guys and their terrible voyage” type of project, because in fact I came to admire most of the Frenchmen I re-imagine in this book. But I do suggest that not all of their actions were savory, and I saw the explorers as human rather than heroic. The other thing that surprised me was how many (again, even supposedly scholarly) sources repeated, without a shred of evidence, this story about South Pacific islanders cannibalizing members of the expedition.

Irritation and intrigue: that combination can keep a person occupied for a long time, it turns out.

Z: Five of the chapters were first published in literary journals—did Landfalls grow in scope and size from what you had initially visualized, or did you always know it was to be a novel?

NW: I always knew it would be a book, but I saw it as a collection of linked short stories rather than a novel. Pam Houston was the first person to tell me—it was at my thesis defense—that I should stop calling it a collection of short stories and just call it a novel. But I felt sheepish about doing that and sent it to my agent as a collection as well. And the first thing she did was to instruct me to take the word “Stories” off the title page.

The thing that’s great about short stories is that each piece was a discrete project that felt somewhat manageable, whereas the project as a whole never felt manageable. But I could say, O.K., I’ll write this one story about a misunderstanding that leads to a violent fracas between some explorers and some islanders. That feels doable. And when I finish that, all right, how about a piece about what happened in Alaska? I just inched along that way for almost a decade.

But seeing it initially as a collection of stories meant that once I was done with one story, I didn’t feel much responsibility for that story when I moved on to the next. So although the finished book still feels episodic, the original manuscript was definitely choppier and didn’t have as many through-lines. I’d introduce a guy as the narrator in an early chapter, and not only would he never narrate another chapter—he’d never even appear again. My editor, Eric Chinski, asked me to revise the book with a view to weaving the pieces together into a more coherent whole. I guess readers can judge whether I succeeded or not.

Z: Each of your chapters is told from a different point of view, and you play with the reader’s expectations and knowledge of things to come to both dramatic and comedic effect. I was particularly struck by the chapters told in the first-person, which are unusual in that they each offer an outsider perspective on the voyage. (Even the chapter told from the crewmember Vaujuas is distancing in the way it evinces confusion and discomfort in the role foisted upon him after the expedition’s second calamity). What went into the decision to how to style each chapter?

NW: Right from the start I knew I wanted to play with point of view. Not only by giving each chapter a different focus character or set of characters, but by using different kinds of telling: first-person, third-person, rotating perspectives, letters, testimonies, et cetera.

For some of the chapters it was obvious how I would proceed. Vaujuas’s chapter, for instance, was never not in first-person and never not from his point of view. For other chapters it was much harder to settle that question. I had dozens of false starts for the first chapter, which is set in London. I toyed with first– and third-person, with telling the story as diary entries, as letters, in present tense or past tense. I even imagined the story from a different character’s point of view. I messed with it for two years before settling on a close third-person account told in short, named vignettes.

I did become aware at some point of a natural impulse to use first-person if the narrator was female and third-person if not, and I tried to resist that. Part of the reason I wrote an epistolary chapter and then, near the end, a story told by way of a series of eyewitness accounts, was to include more male first-person voices.

Z: I love how fleshed-out and un-cartoonish the characters are, even as you take advantage of their perspectives and personalities for purposes of plot and tone. What determined whether and when a character should be comic or tragic, a buffoon or a hero?

NW: Aren’t we all, at different points in our lives, or even over the course of a single day, and depending on whom you ask, comic and tragic, buffoons and heroes? A lot of this sort of thing actually came from the historical record itself. I found the accounts of the tetchy relationship between Lapérouse and his scientists (especially Lamanon, the lead naturalist) to be quite funny. But also, given how things turn out for both men, pretty sad.

This summer, my younger son, who’s sixteen, and I have been binge-watching “M*A*S*H” on Netflix. My father was very conservative and did not approve of its irreverent take on the U.S. military, so I never saw it growing up. It’s an amazing show, really—very few of its 200-plus episodes are duds. And its brilliance lies is in its ability to simultaneously mine tragedy and comedy out of the same cast of characters and even concurrent events. Hawkeye is usually a buffoon. But he’s also capable of heroism. And he’s pretty damaged, too. That’s true of most of the main characters. At the end of most episodes, I think, Damn, if I could write like that!

I guess I’m trying to say that I like stories that acknowledge the whole range of human emotion and response. I tire pretty quickly of fiction that seems to occupy just one emotional register, whether it’s gloom or hilarity, no matter how beautifully or cleverly written.

Z: How did you decide when to hew closely to the accounts you had read, and when to veer away from them? What is the responsibility of the novelist, if any, when dealing with historical material?

NW: I’m not sure I have any “responsibility” per se to hew to the historical record, but I prefer to when possible. I always think of that wonderful quote from Flannery O’Connor: “You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.” Isn’t that the truth?

For me, the interest—the fun—was in trying to fashion my narrative around known “facts.” Most of the big events in the novel have some correspondence to the historical record. When they arrived in Concepción, Chile, for example, it really did seem like their destination had disappeared. Most of the parties and dinners in that chapter actually occurred. The naturalist who wants to leave the expedition was real, as was the trip to the ruins of the old city. The deserters. The dinner on the beach. The “spectacle” that concludes that chapter. All of that actually took place. Most of the Chilean colonists in that chapter also correspond to real people.

So the challenge was to make something interesting out of all of that. And that’s where I started making things up: Major Sabatero [who hosts the expedition’s leaders in Concepción] was a real person, but his wife is a fabrication. And though Lapérouse’s brother-in-law really was a member of the expedition, his bad behavior in Chile was likewise a fiction. And people’s motivations and personalities are, for the most part, also figments of my imagination.

Some of the chapters are more “fictionalized” than others, but sometimes people are surprised when they ask me if such-and-such “really happened,” to learn that in fact it did.

Z: Much of the novel’s humor comes from differences, big and small, in how the characters see themselves, and how their fellow shipmates and we readers understand them. It seems to me that the awkwardness and misunderstandings inherent in a voyage like this, both among the vastly different crew members and between the French and the various cultures they encounter, are particularly fruitful for your sense of humor. Did you always know you wanted the novel to be funny, or did that develop as you wrote?

NW: I certainly didn’t set out to write a comic novel. The story is, on the face of it, quite tragic, so I thought I was writing a tragedy. But I guess I just couldn’t help myself. As I mention above, I like stories with a wide emotional range, and some of the relationships and situations from the expedition seemed inherently comic. I love Jane Austen, and she’s a genius—the genius, perhaps—at the kind of humor you’re describing: the comedy of mismatch between self-perception and the perceptions of others.

Occasionally I turned a writing problem into a plot point that could be exploited for humor. For instance, it was really a pain to have two scientists with names beginning “L-A-M-A.” I wasn’t willing to change anyone’s real name. But wouldn’t it be confusing to have “Lamanon” the scientist and “Lamartinière,” a different scientist? I decided yes, that would be confusing. In fact, let’s have people confuse them. And won’t that annoy the hell out of them? Yes, it will. I had some fun with that.

Z: Your story in ZYZZYVA, “Sunday School,” reminded me of a less frantic cousin of Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter,” simultaneously frustrating and fulfilling expectations. You seem to value stylistic diversity, playful obfuscation, and the fracturing of narrative; in Landfalls these techniques are necessary tools for exploring how stories and, later, histories, are experienced and then told. Does this impulse stem from any early experience in your writing, and is it part of what drew you to a project like Landfalls, which is, perhaps by its very nature and certainly given your multi-layered approach, a way of hacking away at the wall between capital-H-History and the multiplicity of stories that go into making it?

NW: I still like that story a lot. And yes, it came out of a writing prompt in one of Lucy Corin’s classes at UC Davis: to try a piece informed by the style or techniques of someone we’d read for class. We’d read Coover’s “Babysitter” that quarter.

I’d been trying unsuccessfully for months to write a story based on a really dispiriting stint I actually had as a second-grade Sunday school teacher. But when I decided to tell it as a series of increasingly bizarre alternatives a la Coover—and gave myself permission to abandon any similarity to my “real” experience—the whole thing came together really quickly.

You’re right that I do like to mess around with ways of telling a story. Where does this come from? I can point to lots of things, no one of them sufficient to explain this tendency. I grew up in a strict evangelical family and community with very rigid narratives about the Bible, about capital-T-Truth, about how to live rightly, about my place in the world as a woman, etc. When I left that way of life and thinking, I think I permanently lost my faith in rigid narratives and interpretations.

In college, and later, through two stints in grad school, I was introduced to feminist criticism, deconstructionism, post-colonial criticism, all that. I am not very good at theory. A lot of it made no sense to me, to be perfectly frank. But I gleaned a few things—the imperative to question received truth, to uncover and make space for hidden or silenced voices, to ask who’s controlling the narrative, etc. I’m not going to make any grandiose claims for Landfalls as a great post-colonial novel. It’s probably not. But it’s certainly informed by some of those ideas. The ones that managed to get through my theory-resistant brain.

I also have a little experience with literary translation (Japanese to English), and that, too, shows you how porous narratives can be. There just is no “correct” translation of a story or poem from another language. Similarly, there’s really no definitive history.

I’m pretty aware of the fact that people who write about the past end up revealing a lot more about themselves and their own time period than they do about their subject. I’ve read some unintentionally hilarious early fictionalizations of the Lapérouse story (there were two quite popular stage plays in the early 1800s that imagined the end of the expedition). All they really accomplish is display their own (mostly racist and imperialistic) obsessions.

I hope my own retelling won’t come across one day as quite so grossly off-the-mark. But no doubt I’ve inadvertently tipped my hand in some way that might come across as characteristically early 21st century, or even characteristically and obnoxiously American, with all the unconscious biases with which, despite all my progressive introspection, I am still, inevitably, saddled.

But that keeps things interesting, right? No one ever has the last word.

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