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Creation Myths: The Millions Interviews Lindsay Hatton

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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?

Lindsay 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.

It 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.

RA: 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.

LH: 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.

RA: 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.

As 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.

RA: 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.

Post-40 Bloomers: Ellen Meloy and Understanding Everything

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Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a monthly feature at The Millions.

The members of my family who are not Cherokee did not come to the United States aboard the Mayflower, pass through Ellis or Angel Island, or cross either the Mexican or Canadian borders. What I know of one adventurous ancestor is that the ship he boarded in Scotland landed on the shores of Galveston, Texas — a lesser-known but also historical point of immigration — and made his way to Los Angeles. Early in the 20th century, when an entire nation was moving west, his son felt the tug of these roots and moved east — all the way to Roswell, N.M., where my mother was born.

Like the writer and naturalist Ellen Meloy (1946-2004), a fifth-generation Californian who lived most of her adult life in Utah and Montana, I am a Westerner who lacks the romanticized, Manifest Destiny-informed view that Thoreau expressed in his 1862 essay “Walking”: “We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure.”

What Meloy does share with Thoreau is a need for wilderness. As a naturalist and memoirist, she guides her readers toward a conscious relationship with the natural world, urging them to bear witness — to choose something to care about — because, as she writes in her final book, Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild, “When you truly understand one thing, a hawk, a juniper tree, a rock, you will begin to understand everything.”

Meloy spent much of her childhood in California, but her family moved frequently as her father’s work with the Federal Aviation Association required. She graduated from high school in London, studied art in France and Italy, and then returned to the U.S., where she earned a degree in art from Goucher College. In the 1970s, she received a Master’s in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana. She married Mark Meloy, a river ranger for the Bureau of Land Management, in 1985. For a decade beginning in 1994, when she published her first book, and ending in 2004, when she died suddenly from a heart attack, Ellen Meloy wrote four books, each devoted to some aspect of the Colorado Plateau, the Chihuahuan Desert, or the Great Basin — the rugged geography she knew best.

Her first book, Raven’s Exile: A Season on the Green River, was published when Meloy was 48 and won the Spur Award for contemporary nonfiction from the Western Writers of America. Between the publication of Raven’s Exile and her second book, The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest (1999), Meloy received a Whiting Award (1997). Eating Stone, published posthumously in 2005, was nominated in nonfiction for the National Book Critics Circle Award and also received a Banff Mountain Book Award for Adventure Travel.

More personal than her other books, The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky — a 2003 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, winner of the Utah Book Award, and a Banff Mountain Book Award — provides a window into Meloy’s creative life. In the opening essay, she writes that for many years, she “made a living in technical illustration, churning out laboriously stippled pen-and-ink drawings of bones, feathers, fish, and wolves.” While she is never explicit about why she turned to writing, it is easy to to imagine after reading even one of her books that the depth of her imagination and breadth of her knowledge would need an additional outlet. Luckily for her readers, Meloy employs both talents in each of her books, illustrating them with maps, petroglyphs, plants, and animals.

In the closing essay of Anthropology, Meloy reflected on the challenge modern nature writers face:
A great deal of nature writing sounds like a cross between a chloroform stupor and a high mass, in Latin, on a hot day, surrounded by bleeding plaster icons. Words penned to the “wild” chronicle a failing purity, where no land or seascape is untouched and all that is truly wild is lost…I write a book about a river and cannot tell if it is a love story or an obituary or both…As I bury my face in the voluptuous innards of cliffrose petals on a remote mesa, a low-flying, kelp-colored military jet passes over with a roar so thunderous it nearly makes my ears bleed. Today is my birthday, and during its twenty-four hours nineteen species will become extinct.
She evidently questioned the power of her art to effect change; and yet she continued to write, up until her untimely death.

Capturing her expansive spirit in an appreciation column for The New York Times Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote,
Knowing her, I find it easy to imagine that on the night she died, Ellen came to a waterfall in her dreams — a stream pouring over the edge of the slick rock — and jumped and simply kept falling…Like any good naturalist, Ellen…also recorded many true things about herself, things that her sudden death make even truer somehow. [About herself] as a girl, she wrote, “I thought I would never survive my imagination.” She survived it just long enough for friends and readers to see how powerful it really was.
I discovered Meloy’s writing shortly after her death, and as I read, it was impossible not to mourn the loss of her voice, her intellect, and the considerable energy with which she advocated for the protection of desert landscapes — landscapes that, time and again, have been deemed sites for damming, bombing, and dumping hazardous waste. To support writers who investigate such landscapes the The Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers was established at the time of her death; the Desert Writers Award has been given annually since then to a writer of nonfiction.

Taking a journey down any part of the 730-mile trip through Desolation Canyon along the Green River, the setting of Raven’s Exile, requires one to either “run the river with a licensed commercial outfitter or obtain a permit from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).” Meloy thus makes the trip with her husband, who works for the BLM. She also takes a side trip with Ken Sleight, the river runner used as a model for the eco-guerilla Seldom Seen Smith in Edward Abbey’s influential 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. While Abbey’s brand of activism is not hers, the book is, in many ways, a tribute to Abbey: Sleight recalls for her what Glen Canyon looked like before it was dammed and filled with water by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1963 to create Lake Powell, which he calls Blue Death. While there with him, she jokes about making a run to Las Vegas to purchase dynamite and committing a little “monkey-wrenching,” but then adds,
I try hard to fill my coward’s heart with the hope of Sleight, Abbey, and others for whom Glen Canyon was a tragedy but also a force around which to rally and say, No more wasting of places like Glen Canyon, no more oversized, outstripped, ultrazealous, transcendence of the West’s own limits, no more trying to make Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and the rest of the desert look like upstate New York.
While Meloy often writes about loss, she also celebrates what exists, reminding us that there is still plenty to care about. On the Green River, she works with her husband and a fisheries team investigating the habitat of the chub, a species of fish that
adapted over millions of years [coping] with salinity shifting streambeds and waters that ranged from the cold torrents of spring to the tepid shallows of summer. They survived the rivers of lava that poured from nearby volcanoes into the Grand Canyon’s nascent chasm every few thousand years, damming the Colorado River near Lava Falls until the lava dam succumbed to the river’s power.
In The Last Cheater’s Waltz, Meloy creates what she calls her “Map of the Known Universe,” as she treks through the atomic and nuclear geography of the Chihuahuan Desert of the Southwest, marrying it with places like “Australia’s Maralinga, the African Sahara, China’s Lop Nur west of the Gobi Desert, the Rajasthan in northwest India” — all regions that provided “the geographic equivalent of a ‘neutral laboratory’’’ for weapons testing by those operating on the assumption that the populations of these areas were “invisible, expendable, or relocatable.”

Juxtaposing the behavior of a species native to the desert with that of the men conducting the atomic bomb test at Trinity, Meloy describes the Jornada del Muerto toad colony, whose mating ritual is triggered by rainstorms. As the sky cleared and Oppenheimer made the decision to go forward with the test, the toads began to croak, rose to the surface of the sand and “straddle[d] one another like refueling bombers.” Having planted that image in our heads, Meloy turns our attention to the homo sapiens.
Lying in their trenches, their heads turned away from ground zero and eyes shaded against the coming bright flash, they filled their lungs with the aroma of wet creosote and their ears with sweet unearthly notes of The Nutcracker Suite, which floated into the ether of ground zero when a distant radio station crossed wavelengths with the Trinity frequency. Yet so intent did they seem on the imminent mining of their long-awaited white light, the immediate world around them offered only counterpoint. The soundtrack for the ultimate evolutionary moment of this century, to which nothing on Earth would be immune, could not have been stranger: a Tchaikovsky waltz and small pockets of air pushed through hundreds of ballooning throats.
The subject matter makes this Meloy’s darkest book, but it is also the one in which she initially writes of “San Andreas Ewe 067,” who she first encounters in the Trinity site environment. Her interest in this hardy, lone ewe would inspire Eating Stone.

Meloy chooses the endangered bighorn sheep to help her “understand everything” and logs thousands of miles to learn as much as possible about the species. In Eating Stone, her quest begins at her home in Utah where she observes local bighorns, and takes her to Arizona, Southern California, and as far as Mexico’s Baja peninsula (near the setting of John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez). When she returns to the protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico, she discovers that San Andreas Ewe 067 has died.

Much of Eating Stone celebrates the heroic persistence of bighorn sheep, particularly those in Utah and Southern California. But at the end of the book, Meloy becomes somewhat melancholy:
Sometimes I picture this moment in history, a moment with which my own lifetime chances to coincide, as a gate that we have been closing for some time. On the other side of the gate, deep landscape falls farther and farther away, always at the point of loss. The spellbound threshold between humanity and the rest of nature is very nearly pulled shut to the latching point. Soon we shall turn our backs and walk away entirely, place-blind and terribly lonely.
Even so, Meloy has given us eyes with which to see the many things she cares about and complex, multiple ways to think about them.

Meloy investigates different modes of advocacy for the preservation of wilderness, but she is not prescriptive, nor does she attach herself to a particular movement, such as the Sierra Club or Earth First. But in the essay “Tilano’s Jeans,” from The Anthropology of Turquoise, Meloy is explicit about our responsibility to the planet.
Treating nature as a pet or a therapist ends up little better than treating it as a slave. Kinship demands reciprocity. Every nature girl and boy should be prepared to defend the places they love. Otherwise we have not earned them. When we march in from the starry nights and dazzling rivers, we must argue on their behalf, pressure politicians and other moronic invertebrates to wean themselves from their unsightly addiction to corporate blubber and for once act in favor of things that matter, like air to breathe, water to drink, and space to roam. We must exalt the biocentric paradigm, speak for the creatures that have no voice, staunch the lunatic hemorrhage of wild lands from the face of the planet.
Choose something to care about.

I choose Eucalyptus globulus, the blue gum eucalyptus, 22,000 of which are scheduled for removal from a Berkeley hillside because they threaten the growth of native species. The language we use to talk about non-native species raises questions that interest me: given the change we have affected on the planet, can the status of a non-native species ever be considered native? Which non-native species get to survive and where? Who decides?

I doubt I’ll “begin to understand everything.” But I’ll begin to understand something.

Choose something.

Image Credit: Flickr/patrick wilken

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