Creation Myths: The Millions Interviews Lindsay Hatton

July 19, 2016 | 11 books mentioned 8 9 min read


I met Lindsay Hatton at a party. There’s a lesson there: even a misanthrope should go to a party once in a while — you might meet someone remarkable. Hatton’s first novel, Monterey Bay, is just so beautiful that if we hadn’t met and hit it off, I would hate her. Her book is full of sentences I wish I had written, and it’s such a bold act of imagination, unfolding across decades, mixing history and fiction with a confidence that’s awe-inspiring.

All novels suffer from pithy summary. Monterey Bay is about a young woman and some old men who end up creating an aquarium on the titular body of water. But really, it’s a book about ambition, art, sex, obsession, and the devastation wrought on this planet by people — and the unsettling fact that no matter what we do to it, the planet will outlast us. Hatton kindly let me subject her to a few silly questions about her novel, John Steinbeck, and the weird exercise that is historical fiction. Here we go. 

Rumaan Alam: Any summary of your book must, it seems, mention John Steinbeck. He’s a character in the novel, though I would take exception to the suggestion that Monterey Bay is “about” Steinbeck. Is Steinbeck important to you as a writer generally and in this novel specifically?

covercoverLindsay Hatton: To be honest, I knew basically nothing about Steinbeck’s work before writing this novel. I mean, I had been assigned the requisite titles in grade school (The Red Pony, The Pearl, etc.) but for some reason they didn’t make a huge impression. As a kid growing up in Monterey, I didn’t experience him as a writer so much as a tourist attraction. I think there was a part of me that resented the implication that because I lived in “Steinbeck Country” I had to be a superfan. So maybe my avoidance of his work was my first — but certainly not my last — act of pointless literary contrarianism.

covercoverIt was only once I realized that he’d be a character in my book that I really dug in. And I’m so glad I did. Some of his work I adore (The Log from the Sea of Cortez, The Grapes of Wrath) and some of it I don’t (I know I might be alone here, but I find Of Mice and Men borderline unreadable). Either way, I have great respect for him. He wasn’t afraid of sentiment, which I think is very brave. He had strong ethical convictions that he always stuck to, often at great personal expense. His geographical descriptions are breathtaking. As a writer, I definitely hope to emulate these things.

As a character in my novel, Steinbeck is important but minor. He is my protagonist’s nemesis/role model and the catalyst for one of the book’s odder moments and the source of some occasional comic relief, but other than that he remains pretty much in the background.

coverRA: Steinbeck isn’t the focus; that honor belongs to Margot Fiske, a wise (but refreshingly adolescent) teenager who arrives in California with her dad, and takes up with Ed Ricketts, who was also a real person. Steinbeck himself fictionalized Ricketts in Cannery Row and I finished the book unsure whether Fiske and her dad were real people too. It minimizes the book to say it’s about the creation of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, though it is that. But is this creation story or creation myth? Until reading your book, it had never occurred to me that “historical fiction” is in fact a very postmodern exercise.

covercoverLH: My relationship to historical fiction is probably as complicated as my relationship to Steinbeck. As a reader, I really admire straight-up historical fiction but, as a writer, it plagues me. If I stay too faithful to the facts, my prose goes kind of stale. Like when you leave a glass of water out for a couple days and accidentally take a sip and taste the dust. I hate tasting that dust! I prefer it when I can see, or at least intuit, the act of fabrication and the freshness it brings. I love David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet and Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America for precisely these reasons. They’ve done their research, but they take immense pleasure in wild speculation. I think that’s exciting.

I also think history itself is exciting. I like how stories and themes and symbols arise naturally by sheer virtue of time and distance and the cognitive pressure they exert. And then I like messing around with those things for my own devious purposes. So from the very first drafts of the novel, this interweaving of fact and fiction was crucial to me. The question was how to manage it, and the answer I arrived at was to stay almost completely true to certain realms of fact (the wheres/whats/whens/whos of Steinbeck and Ricketts, the marine biological detail, certain technicalities and logistics surrounding the aquarium’s creation) and to go almost completely off the rails as far as Margot was concerned. It is, as you put it, definitely a creation myth as opposed to a creation story. I mean, there’s also the question of whether or not there’s a material difference between those two things. But that’s a debate for another time.

One thing in particular that might seem invented but was actually supported by my research was the possibility of Ricketts being attracted to someone Margot’s age. As Steinbeck said in his eulogy of Ricketts: “When I first met [Ricketts] he was engaged in a scholarly and persistent way in the process of deflowering a young girl.” ‘Nuff said, I think.

coverRA: Because of the connection to Steinbeck, I expected Monterey Bay to be in the vein of Colm Tóibín’s wonderful novel about Henry James, The Master. I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t love James enjoying Toibin’s book, but I have no particular feeling about Steinbeck and was swept into your book. That’s testament to your storytelling, but I think it’s also about the way you evoke Northern California. Does writing about geography entail a different set of responsibilities than writing about real people?

LH: When writing, I was hugely aware of place. Northern California is not only gorgeous; it’s also emotionally provocative. Whether they’re occasional visitors or lifelong residents, people feel very strongly about that landscape, often in quite proprietary ways.

So while the well-known, real-life location of the book is a selling point, it’s also kind of a minefield. I knew I’d be in for some criticism if my experience of the place didn’t match the readers’. My representation of the aquarium, in particular, was risky in this way. But that’s not really something I can worry about, you know? I can only be true to what I’ve seen and how I feel. I love my hometown and I acknowledge its spectacular beauty. But I also acknowledge its darkness. My adolescence was, like so many people’s, full of pain and drama and desire and a sense of not belonging. Monterey is where that all took place, so it stands to figure that my filter might be a little…gothic.

coverAs for my responsibility in representing the town, I’m of two minds on that. The chapters that take place in 1998 depict the town as I knew it, so it was a question of accessing memories that are still very vivid and close to the surface. I trusted my own recollections and didn’t do much supporting research. As for showing what it was like in the 1940s, this is where I did my homework. I took this as seriously research-wise as I took my representation of Steinbeck and Ricketts. With very few exceptions, names and dates and locations are accurate. This was difficult. As any writer of historical fiction will tell you, there are times when the facts refuse to fit with your invented narrative; the book becomes a puzzle and not the fun kind. For a while, when things got really rough in that regard, I considered doing what Lauren Groff did so beautifully with Cooperstown in The Monsters of Templeton: presenting a bizarro, renamed version of the real thing. But at the end of the day, Monterey is just too famous and specific a place, and fictionalizing it in that way would have added a layer of metatext that probably would have distracted from the novel’s main goals.

RA: Sex is a not-insignificant aspect of your book. The action begins in the 1940s, but you have the liberty of writing about sex as someone who lives in the 21st century. As the book concludes, Margot is an elderly woman, there’s still something, well, sexual about her. I’m curious to hear what it meant to write about this character as a young girl and an old woman, and how consciously you wanted to explore the question of sex in the book.

LH: Oh yeah! Now we’re getting down to business! It was absolutely vital for me not to present Margot as a victim of anything. Sure, she’s the recipient of some nasty circumstances (a dead mom, a rigid and neglectful father, a nomadic lifestyle, an age-inappropriate romantic relationship that is, no matter how you slice it, very uncool), but I didn’t want to give the reader the easy out of pitying her. When you pity someone, you weaken them. You declaw them and rob them of agency. This is especially true in terms of sex stuff. Why is a show like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit such a huge success? Because sexual victimhood, especially as it relates to young women, is less threatening to us as a society than sexual empowerment. Young women with sex drives worry us: in our entertainment, we’d rather see them raped and killed than complicit in the fulfillment of their own desires. I wanted to Margot to break this mold. I wanted her to transcend the living hell of simultaneous fetishization and underestimation that most female teenagers experience. She is as bold, sexually and otherwise, as the men in her life and remains so despite the consequences.

The trick was making this believable in the 1940s, when sexual mores were different (theoretically, at least) than they are today. Margot had to be largely ignorant of these mores, thus the very unusual parameters of her upbringing.

As for older Margot, her vitality was also very much a conscious choice. Our culture doesn’t like thinking about adolescent sexuality, but we REALLY don’t like thinking about geriatric sexuality. When old people have sex in movies or books or TV shows, it’s usually in service of a punch line. And making something into a joke is often very much like pity: it neuters (ha!) its subject. Margot didn’t deserve that, so I didn’t inflict it on her.

RA: The natural world also figures via the animals, mostly sea creatures, that Ricketts collects, that the aquarium is dedicated to. In these pages, sometimes animals are just animals, but sometimes they feel nearer characters. I wouldn’t say you anthropomorphize, necessarily, but you use animals in a way I found unexpected.

LH: For the most part I like animals a lot. But I see them as animals. This was a lesson I learned during my time working at the aquarium, actually. With the exception of the otters and the occasional sevengill shark, none of the animals on display had official names. Avoiding anthropomorphism was taken very seriously. I wanted that to be true of my book as well.

BUT. You just can’t help yourself sometimes, you know? Sometimes there’s an emotional connection or a symbolism that’s impossible to ignore and you kind of have to run with it. I’m okay with that. I remember that being the case at the aquarium, too. There was this one psychologically deranged, obese sea turtle. The turtle, of course, was given a secret name and extra treats because we had projected human characteristics onto it and had fallen in love with it. And that’s not a bad thing.

RA: I wrestle with the inherent sexism of this question but here we go: you have two young children, but found the time and bandwidth to write this beautiful novel. On the one hand, it’s fucked up that novelists who happen to be women and happen to be parents are asked “How did you do it?” On the flip side, I see some value in coming clean about this; like it may well inspire their compatriots, whether mothers or fathers.

LH: Yeah, I don’t get as rankled by this question as some people do. I see it as an inquiry — however tactless and sexist it can sometimes come off — into the changing role of the artist in society. And this is a thing I’m really glad we’re thinking about. There’s that myth of the solitary (usually male, usually white) creator devoting his life solely to his work. Writing all day in his Parisian garret or lakeside cottage, and then drinking all night: that kind of thing. Art doesn’t get made this way anymore, at least not by anyone I know. But the myth still persists for some reason, and I enjoy the opportunity to help debunk it whenever possible.

You mentioned Colm Toibin’s The Master. I loved that book, too, but one of my predominant reactions to it was: “Man! Henry James had so much time and so few responsibilities!” I feel the opposite way about my life. No time! Too many responsibilities! But then again, I’ve also had the extraordinary benefit of a spouse who supported me financially when I was in the deep, unpaid murk of drafting the novel. I also find endless creative fuel in the act of parenting, however distracting and time consuming it can often be. Do my lifestyle choices stymie my writing in certain ways? Has my journey toward publication probably been longer as a result? Yes and yes. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

covercoverRA: I believe I am supposed to ask you the last great book you read.

LH: I really enjoyed Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon. Her description of breastfeeding is perhaps the best I’ve ever read. Also, she is a total virtuoso when it comes to changing POV. And I’ve been obsessed with Joan Didion’s Where I Was From for a while now. Highly recommended for my fellow Californians in self-imposed exile.

's novel Rich and Pretty is now available in paperback. His novel That Kind of Mother will be published in 2018.


  1. This would be much better without the hack-feminism. First off : “Why is a show like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit such a huge success? Because sexual victimhood, especially as it relates to young women, is less threatening to us as a society than sexual empowerment” is patently false. I don’t even watch much television, but out of the last few shows I watched I can think of tons of sexually empowered women (both characters in the New Girl, the two women in How I met your mother are both sexually voracious, In the Big Bang Theory, the women are as well). I don’t watch SVU, but it’s part of a larger trend of crime thrillers.

    In addition – the first thought that comes to my mind when I think of the “myth of the solitary writer” is “A room of one’s own,” by Virginia Woolf. And, many other women come to mind.

    There are plenty of real problems in the world, there’s no need to cherry pick in order to create ones that aren’t there.

  2. Kevin: You’re not wrong to think of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, but I suggest you re-read it, because you’re clearly not remembering it very well.

  3. How so? Admittedly, it’s been a while, but from my recollection, she was suggesting that every woman needs an inheritance and a room of one’s own in order to write. In other words, perpetuating the myth of the solitary writer rather than someone who lived a relatively normal life (i.e, someone like Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams, who were both professionals).

    I assume you’re referring to the fact that she is saying rarely possible for women, but that doesn’t change the fact that she was perpetuating the idea that this was how “writers write.”

  4. (It’s late over here and I’m decompressing from a riotous day. Forgive my nonsense, but….)

    “Hack feminism”?

    Nah. Women have a genuinely long way to go in this Pornotopia. It’s bad enough when men refuse to admit this but what’s horrifying is when young women buy into it.

    The incessant bipolar swing between “sexual victimhood” for female characters and the new cliché of the “sexually voracious” female character (every Playboy-reader’s out-of-touch fantasy) very rarely seems to touch on the sane/ decent/ believable sweet-spot in the Humanist center-point between these nutty extremes: how about women who aren’t against Sex, enjoy it when it comes along but are reasonably picky about who they share it with? Where does this new cliché come from: that a Sexually Healthy woman is rouging her nipples every morning and licking her lips, lasciviously, on the steps of the public library every night? How about female characters for whom Sex is maybe a solid three or four on a top-ten list of general pleasures at the top of which might actually appear an activity that has nothing to do with a man or her vagina? Can a female character really, really like sailing or chess or astronomy instead? Fuck yeah.

    Just as I am tired of the lazy shorthand of the reductive literary attributes of “ethnic” characters (you know: Black women who are sassy/wise; Asian men who are repressed and enigmatic; bookish Jewish types et al), I’m tired of The Corny Old Gender Scripts.

    I support any writer who does better than that by buying their obscure and out-of-print books.

    “The trick was making this believable in the 1940s, when sexual mores were different (theoretically, at least) than they are today.”

    People did it when they could, back then (as they’ve done it for 30,000 years) but, generally, the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s ushered in the era of Serfs having the kind of richly-casual sex lives previously reserved for the aristocracy. In other words, Sex, like high-end electronics, suddenly became an affordable pastime instead of a panic-ridden splurge you’d have to pay for for years afterwards. Both of my maternal grandparents were promiscuous as hell but they littered the landscape with mislabelled progeny because they had no Pill (I remember my grandfather telling me once, for whatever reason, that having intercourse while standing was a popular form of contraception in the ’30s).

    “On the one hand, it’s fucked up that novelists who happen to be women and happen to be parents are asked “How did you do it?”

    How does anyone with a full time job, or raising children, or doing both, in America, get *anything* done? I couldn’t manage until I moved to a country with cheaper rent.

    “Like when you leave a glass of water out for a couple days and accidentally take a sip and taste the dust.”

    This is a beautifully strange problem to have.

  5. That was my point – that the majority of characters are in the sweet spot. In fact, nearly every character I can think of is neither chaste nor lascivious, but somewhere in between based on the specific character. Just like most women I know. All those I mentioned previously, any of the women on Friends (re-watching it, I never noticed how kinky Phoebe is). Pretty much every real female character in movies and television for the last 20 years has been in that spot. You can argue about porn, but that’s a separate issue.

    I.e., what’s the problem?

  6. @Kevin:

    Ooops! I thought you wrote:

    “I don’t even watch much television, but out of the last few shows I watched I can think of tons of sexually empowered women (both characters in the New Girl, the two women in How I met your mother are both sexually voracious, In the Big Bang Theory, the women are as well).”

    For me, the “sexually voracious” character is not “empowered” but a fantasy puppet of the male audience member (sic).

  7. (also: Friends-era TV doesn’t count; those types of shows… including Seinfeld and Star Trek the Next Generation… were weird satires featuring middle aged actors behaving like 10-year-olds. The gloves didn’t come off until much later, when popular shows like True Detective could aestheticize the sexual murder of women to full effect)

  8. Fair enough – sexually voracious was more of a hyperbolic response to the interviewee. My point was they all have healthy sexual appetites that are considered perfectly normal, and, just like in real life, sometimes the woman is kinkier than the guy (Alyson Hannigan in HIMYM). All I meant by sexually empowered was that they have comfortable, healthy attitudes towards sex. Sex and the City had a pretty reasonable spectrum of sexual attitudes, from relatively relationship-prone Charlotte to nsa-focused Samantha, and the other two in between. All of these are post-Friends, by the way.

    To be honest, I haven’t seen True Detective, or a ton of post-Sopranos/6-Feet Under, etc.. HBO programming. Maybe women have become more lascivious in them. I’ve seen a couple episodes of True Blood, but even that seems to have a relatively wide range of sexual attitudes.

    My point is – I honestly can’t think of a single woman in film or television who doesn’t have a relatively healthy attitude towards sex (and, secondary and tertiary characters don’t count. They’re supposed to be one-dimensional).

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