Conor Broughan, Fiction Editor
Many readers of Sycamore Review are also writers. So we wanted to pose a few craft questions to contributor Naomi Williams that might illuminate her process and techniques when writing “Items for Exchange” which can be read in its entirety in Issue 23.2-Summer/Fall 2011.
He always forgets how unpleasant the crossing from Calais is. He has never once made the trip that there wasn’t inclement weather, contrary winds and tides, unexplained delays, seasick fellow-travelers, surly packet captains, or dishonest boatmen waiting to extort the passengers ashore. This time it is all of the above, and by the time he reaches Dover, he has, of course, missed the stagecoach to London. He spends the night at the Ship Hotel, where he endures a hard, flea-ridden bed and a neighbor with a wracking cough.
It is not an auspicious start to the journey. But Paul Monneron is not given to superstition. The trials of the crossing and the Ship Hotel do not discourage him; they were what they were and are now past. The next day brings spring-like weather, a passable meal from the hotel kitchen, the stagecoach ready to leave on time, and an unsmiling but efficient coachmen who gives the correct change. The only other passenger inside the coach is a man Monneron recognizes from the packet; the poor man had been gray-skinned with nausea most of the way from France. “Well, I daresay we are being compensated for yesterday’s horrors,” the man says. Monneron nods politely although he doesn’t agree. For him, the universe is not given to compensating one for past miseries any more than it exacts payment for one’s successes. But he’s not immune to the pleasures of a smooth ride on a lovely day. The Kentish countryside, or such of it as he can see through the coach window, is charming. Once he points out the window at a large bird, white-breasted with black and white wings, perched atop a post. “Please—what do you call that?” he asks. “I do not know the word in English.”
The man leans over. “That would be an osprey, I think,” he says.
“Osprey.” It’s rare that he encounters a word in English he finds nicer than its counterpart in French. But osprey is undoubtedly lovelier than balbuzard.
The brief exchange leads inevitably to an inquiry about Monneron’s trip to London. Almost everything he says by way of reply is true: That he’s a naval engineer, that he’s leaving soon for the South Seas, that he’s going to London to make some purchases for the voyage, that he was tasked with the errand because he speaks English—“Not that my English is so good,” he adds, to which the man says, “Nonsense! You’ve hardly any accent at all.” But part of Monneron’s account is nottrue: That he’s in England at the behest of a Spanish merchant, Don Inigo Alvarez, with whom he’ll be sailing to the South Seas . Monneron will be sailing with neither Spaniards nor merchants. There is, in fact, no Don Inigo.
It’s a French naval expedition he represents, a voyage of exploration meant to compete with the accomplishments of the late Captain Cook, a voyage that is supposed to be secret until it departs. This excursion to London is not just a shopping trip for books and instruments. He’s supposed to find out the latest on antiscorbutics—scurvy-prevention measures—and on what items work best for trading with natives in the South Seas. For this he needs to find someone who sailed with Cook—someone both knowledgeable and willing to talk.
This is the first time he’s tried the Don Inigo story on anyone. He’s surprised by the fluency and ease with which he spouts the commingled lies and truths. He hadn’t liked the idea of traveling under false pretenses—had, in fact, challenged the need for secrecy at all, and when the Minister of the Navy dismissed his query with an impatient wave of his beruffled hand, had considered turning the mission down. Considered it, but not seriously or for very long. There was no question of jeopardizing his place on the expedition. He would have stood on his head before the court of Versailles if required. Still, when the Spanish merchant ruse was first concocted, he’d burst out laughing. “Don Inigo Alvarez?” he’d cried. “It’s like something out of a play.” But the Minister held firm: “People are inclined to believe what they hear,” he said. “Speak with assurance, and no one will question you.” So far, at least, he has proved right: Monneron’s companion nods, interested, impressed, and apparently convinced.
FIVE NIGHTS’ ADVANCE
The stagecoach arrives in London the following evening, and Monneron secures lodgings with a Mrs. Towe, recommended to him by his brother Louis, who often travels to London on business. The house smells unaccountably of stale cider, but it meets Monneron’s most basic requirements—clean bed, convenient location, quiet landlady—and a couple of unusual ones—first, the absence of other lodgers, and second, a windowless storage room to which only he and Mrs. Towe will have a key.
Before going to sleep, he calculates his expenses since landing in Dover: a night’s stay and meals at the Ship Hotel, then 16s 8d for the stagecoach, plus the fee for his baggage and a tip for the driver, not to mention a half-crown for every meal and one night’s lodging en route, and now, five nights’ paid in advance to Mrs. Towe. He’s spent almost all of the English currency the Minister gave him before he left. His first task the next day will be to go to the bank. So far he’s had few choices about his expenditures, but now that he’s in London, he’ll be faced with myriad decisions, most of which will involve money. He can’t spend too much. But it might be worse to spend too little. He doesn’t wish to squander the Ministry’s faith in him, of course. Above all, he doesn’t wish to disappoint M. de la Pérouse, the real Don Inigo.
Jean-François de Galaup de la Pérouse is the naval captain who will command the French expedition when it leaves this summer. Monneron served under him during the American War, and now La Pérouse has appointed Monneron chief engineer on this voyage. He also recommended him for this mission to London. It wouldn’t do for M. de la Pérouse to regret these choices. Staring up at Mrs. Towe’s water-stained ceiling, Monneron reflects that there’s still time to appoint another engineer—and plenty of ambitious young men of good family eager to take his place.
Sycamore Review: “Items for Exchange” is part of a linked collection of stories based on the La Perouse expedition. I read one of the other stories in the collection, the amazing “Snow Men” (Issue #131 One Story), and was surprised by how different both the content and style were between these two stories that will eventually share space in the same book. Can you speak a little bit about the larger project of the collection and what you hope to accomplish by presenting this expedition from varied perspectives? Did you ever consider writing a novel from multiple perspectives or did you always know they’d be linked stories?
Naomi Williams: The basic idea for the book – a bunch of stories about the voyage, each told from a unique perspective –popped into my head almost as soon as I first learned about the expedition nearly ten years ago. I think the episodic nature of an ocean voyage, where you go from point A to B to C and so on, lends itself to this treatment. And from a craft perspective, the format’s allowed me to play with different tenses, structures, points of view, voices, ways of rendering dialogue, etc., without worrying too much about maintaining a consistent tone or air-tight throughline across the manuscript. But more than anything, I wanted complete freedom to reimagine the voyage, not as one story that a group of people might help tell, but as a series of individual stories that can stand alone even as they might overlap, illuminate, or contradict each other.
Some people have suggested I call this “a novel in stories.” That’s fine with me, but in my head it’s a series of stories—it’s more an apartment building full of different-sized units occupied by different people with different tastes than it is a big house with lots of rooms for one big family.
Early on I submitted a synopsis and a story from the collection for one of those one-on-one manuscript reviews at a writer’s conference, and the guy who read it said, “You know, you should just be a good host, pick a narrator, and write the story.” Maybe it was arrogance, but I just shrugged off his advice and kept on doing what I was doing. I have no objection to reading such books – or even to writing one in the future – but it’s never interested me to take that approach with this project. That sort of seafaring story has been done many times over.
Sycamore Review: I am having a difficult time thinking of a precedent for a collection depicting a historical event like the expedition through a variety of narrators and perspectives. Andrea Barrett and Jim Shepard come to mind as masters of retelling/revising historical events and who often write against the grain of our “official” histories. Do you have any models for your collection or books that have inspired this project?
Naomi Williams: I’m really flattered to have both Andrea Barrett and Jim Shepard mentioned in a discussion of my work! They have both inspired me tremendously, especially Jim Shepard, with whom I’ve done a writing workshop. But I didn’t know their work till after I’d begun this project. When I started, I hadn’t read much literary historical fiction, nor was I all that familiar with the concept of linked short stories. I think Dubliners was the only such collection I’d read before.
When I try to think of what might have influenced the genesis of this project, I end up with a motley list that betrays my weird, anachronistic upbringing as a bookish, classical-music-loving, half-Japanese movie buff in an evangelical Christian household. I’ve always loved travel stories—from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to Robinson Crusoe to the seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian. I’m also interested in texts that offer multiple takes on a set of events, like the four gospels in the New Testament or Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Then there are revisions of historical events or existing texts—Tale of Two Cities,West Side Story, Anita Diamant’s Red Tent. And art that strings together related but independent pieces, like Canterbury Tales, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, or Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth. I think my project must somehow have emerged out of that odd stew.
Sycamore Review: Quick follow up: “Items for Exchange” is at heart a bildungsroman about the young, naïve protagonist, Moneron, desperate to accomplish his mission and be in good standing with company before the expedition begins. But the details and the world built around them was what really hooked me as a reader from the first paragraph. Historical fiction can be difficult in short stories because the writer must build the world of the story while also telling a story. How much primary and secondary research did you do to get all the details of 18th Century London right? The townhouses, streets, carriages, and nautical materials were pitch perfect—not to mention that Alaskan myths and geographical details of Lituya Bay in “Snow Men.” How do you know when enough is enough and you need to stop researching and start to write?
Naomi Williams: It took me two years to write this story, and much of that time was spent researching: reading everything I could find about the artist John Webber; staring at his paintings online; reading about Joseph Banks; skimming through some of the thousands of letters he wrote; and poring over books and websites about 18th-century English fashion and currency and transportation. One of the most helpful texts I read was the journal of German writer Sophie von La Roche, who visited London in 1786, the year after Monneron did. I got some wonderful details from her about when and what people ate, what the weather was like, how people traveled, etc.
As for knowing when enough is enough: I don’t. I love doing research and sometimes joke that the collection is just an excuse to keep going to the library. I actually asked Jim Shepard this exact question five years ago at the Tin House Writers Workshop, and he said that at some point you just need to put on your floatie and jump in the deep end. I loved that answer, and I’ve always remembered it. Sometimes when I know I’m just avoiding the hard work of writing by doing yet another Google search on South Seas canoes or 18th-century coinage, I remember that and think, “Okay, Naomi, it’s time to jump in the pool.”
Sycamore Review: The subject headings that begin each scene are unique formatting and style decision for this story. What do you hope the illuminate for the reader, or are they a formal decision that recreates serialized stories of this era? Were they a part of the first draft of the story or were they added later?
Naomi Williams: I had to go back through my files to answer this question. There are more than 20 versions of this story, in various stages of completion, dating back to February 2009. The story began as a first-person account with no section breaks, then morphed into a series of diary entries, then into the current third-person, present-tense story with the subject headings. The headings appear in the original third-person version, so there was something about switching the point of view that seems to have inspired this format.
I do know that at this point in the drafting of the story, I’d come to understand that “items for exchange” didn’t refer just to the objects Monneron was collecting to trade with South Seas islanders, but to a series of exchanges that he himself was involved with – some monetary, some intellectual, some more psychological or moral. Each header represents something that can be, or is, exchanged in that scene.
Sycamore Review: If a young writer were to tell you they had a great idea for a linked collection of short stories and she was about to draft out the first paragraph, what advice would you give her? And no,“Don’t bother” is not an acceptable answer!
Naomi Williams: Yeah, don’t you hate those author interviews where someone’s asked for advice about writing, and the answer is something like “Take up welding” or some other form of “Don’t do it”? I’ve always thought there was something disingenuous and weirdly elitist about such responses. Anyway, I don’t know that I’m in any position to be giving other writers advice – I’m still very much in advice-receiving mode. But I’d always encourage a writer with an idea to pursue it. If an idea for linked short stories is really more conducive to treatment as a straight-up novel, I think the process of writing reveals that. I will say, however, that if I’d known at the outset how long it would take to complete a series of stories in which every piece takes place in a different part of the world and requires entirely new research, I might have tackled something else for my first book. But it’s been seven years, and I’m still fascinated by the La Pérouse story. My husband has occasionally said, “Can’t you just write one of those autobiographical novels like everyone else?” Maybe for the second book.