The Pearl

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Creation Myths: The Millions Interviews Lindsay Hatton

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.

The Fictional Lives of High School Teachers

In a recent Bookforum essay, Natasha Vargas-Cooper argues that we should stop teaching novels to teenagers because she hated reading novels as a teenager. Her first example is The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. It took her a decade to understand Jake Barnes’s condition because she, “like most high school sophomores, had no frame of reference to tap into the heady though subtle emotions that course through Hemingway’s novels.” She found Jake and company boring. She was a “hungry” teenager “starving for stimuli,” so “trout fishing in Spain did not cut it.” Hemingway wasn’t the only snore. Add F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with the “damnable Brontë sisters [who] were shoved down my throat.” She traded Bless Me, Ultima for mediums that were more “vital and urgent,” like “movies, musicals, and plays.” Those visual narratives “gave me large and instant rewards for spending time with them.”

The real villains were not stodgy novels, but her public school teachers. “Brutally inept teaching of The Pearl” almost soured her on Steinbeck. Most of her teachers “were as inspiring and provocative as the Great Expectations Word Search they handout out the first day we started Dickens.” Those teachers were “largely well-intentioned adults who don’t have the resources, or sometimes even the intellectual vigor, to make emotional landscapes of the western front, nineteenth-century London, or Pamplona very real to sixteen-year-olds.” In the hands of these insipid instructors, novels weren’t “the best device for transmitting ideas, grand themes, to hormonal, boisterous, easily distracted, immature teenagers.” Her proposed solution: students should read non-fiction.

Her potential reading list includes memoirs, creative non-fiction essays, meditations on language, and journalism. It’s a good list, but the problem is that Vargas-Cooper thinks she’s discovered the groundbreaking secret “to spark a love of reading, engage a young mind, and maybe even teach them how to write in a coherent manner.” Non-educators who write about education often make breathless suggestions that have already been used in the classroom for decades. Many of the writers and works who appear on Vargas-Cooper’s list are commonly taught in high school classrooms, and are suggested as independent reading selections for summer work: David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, George Orwell, Jon Krakauer, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and others. Here’s a small sample of non-fiction from my own classroom: Wallace’s “Shipping Out,” “The Essay Vanishes” by Ander Monson, “Listening for Silence” by Mark Slouka, “How to Make Collard Greens” by Megan Mayhew Bergman, excerpts from The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, and essays from Brevity.

Like many sweeping proclamations about high school education by those who have never done the actual work of guiding and caring for a classroom of students, Vargas-Cooper’s essay doesn’t pass scrutiny at the line-level. She wants the same supposedly banal educators she attacks earlier in the essay to now teach Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” and Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion. She then follows with a confounding sentence tandem: “Maybe the classroom is not the best setting for children to have profound literary experiences. Give the kids something they can relate to, immerse themselves in, and even copy!” I assume this means that teachers should give students non-fiction, but this transfer and experience must not happen within a classroom. Even parodic prose needs clarity.

Although I remain befuddled by her unawareness of high school reading lists, I am not surprised that Vargas-Cooper chose to begin her complaint with Hemingway, a writer often reduced to his myths. The Sun Also Rises is particularly well suited to misreading because of its unreliable, love-drunk narrator, Jake Barnes. Many of my own students have enjoyed Hemingway’s novel. I don’t say all, because no one other than a first-day teacher — or writers of thin commentaries on education — expects all students to enjoy every assignment, or even to read every book. But if Vargas-Cooper is looking for a “thought-provoking excursion into themes of empathy, human responsibility, and folly,” Hemingway delivers. I’m fairly certain that a novel about a man in love with a woman who would rather just be friends might connect with a teenage audience.

Students also enjoy The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, a literary thriller suffused with theological complexities. An unnamed “whiskey priest” is on the run in 1930s Mexico after a regime based on the real-life governance of Tomás Garrido Canabal has outlawed Catholicism. Priests can either forsake their religion, or die. The whiskey priest chooses faith, but that faith is tempered by pride. He is no exemplary priest; in fact, he is a terrible man. He has abandoned the daughter he fathered out of wedlock. Anyone in his presence is in danger of arrest or execution. Another unnamed character, the lieutenant, considers the whiskey priest a symbol of all that is evil within the Church: gluttony and hypocrisy. The lieutenant wants to eradicate all vestiges of Catholicism, and he will use all means necessary.

I teach at a public school, not a parochial school. Most of my students have a vague cultural knowledge of Catholicism, but they are a world away from the Mexican province of Tabasco. Some students miss the double meaning of “father.” Others don’t understand why the villagers would risk death to receive the sacrament of confession. And others still will not read the book at all, either because of disinterest, or because they are overwhelmed with other classes and commitments. But I do not want to live or teach in a country that asks students to only engage experiences similar to their own. I look to create comfortable dissonance in the classroom. I want my students to recognize that they are geographically and culturally different than the characters in Greene’s novel, and then to consider their shared humanity with these fictional characters. I ask them to do the same with the Bundrens in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or with Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. They spend a season with the brilliant, maniacal football team at Logos College in Don DeLillo’s End Zone. And I pray that they will never know pain equal to the men and women in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but they benefit from seeing the world through such scarred eyes.

We should continue to teach novels in the high school classroom. Fiction has a home there. But we should stop writing fiction about high school teachers within essays about education. Vargas-Cooper’s ribbing is playful compared to the stereotypes cast by politicians who hope to siphon funding from education. Teachers don’t enter this profession to relax. Teachers are women and men who work themselves exhausted.

Let me be clear: we public school teachers are not martyrs. We get paid for what we do. Whether that pay is acceptable or not is for another discussion. In America, teachers are either seen as angelic or caustic, saviors or sycophants. These stereotypes enable politicians to convince the public to support the latest education fad or slash needed budgets. The reality is we teach because we love to help kids, and we think literature is a way to examine and understand our complex lives. We do our best to help students inhabit the world of novels. The worlds of those texts might be imagined, but the emotions are palpable and authentic. We do real work in public schools. That, I can assure you, is not fiction.

Image via Thomas Favre-Bulle/Flickr

The Rules: A Brief Instruction Manual for Writing Classes

The creative writing class is a beautiful thing. The longest journeys begin with a single step, and (I’m sure) just like countless colleges and writers’ centers throughout the world, the classes I attended at The Irish Writers’ Centre were safe, exciting places to put one figurative foot in front of the other. Though clearly my metaphors need a little work…

The established rules are pretty clear to anyone who’s attended school: do your assignments, listen to the other students, respect your teacher. But of course, society is also filled with unwritten rules, observed by most and flouted by others. Don’t sip your drink too loudly at the movies; don’t answer your phone during a gig; and, if you’re attending a writing class, don’t do any of the things described below.

1. “I didn’t know we could do that!”
Lesson number one begins with a writing exercise that I love. Students are asked to turn to their nearest classmate and ask three questions about their life, then take 10 minutes writing the opening paragraph of a story using some of these details. For example, if someone mentions that they travel a lot, tan easily, and like the ocean, you could (if you’re a genius) use it as the opening to a story like John Steinbeck’s The Pearl.

It’s a great warm up if there’s a big enough group, and a chance for people to express themselves to a new class in a safe way. That is until people show resentment for classmate’s use of imagination.

To illustrate: One student was told of a classmate’s insomnia, love for travelling, and fondness of Latin America. This gave birth to a Latin variation on The Hulk (or Jekyll and Hyde, if you’re feeling even more generous). It was a lively, pulpy little piece and the closing line “when he slept, he became Rodrigo, and Rodrigo was not a nice person to know” evoked gasps and a few knowing chuckles: This young man had taken some bare facts and built the foundations of a fun — if slightly derivative short story. There were backslaps all round, at first.

“I didn’t know you could do that!” one student spluttered, so outraged she could barely get the words out fast enough. “He…he used supernatural elements. That’s not allowed! Is it?”

What was the real issue? That he didn’t follow her imagined parameters of the assignment? Or that her story was a literal shopping list of what she’d just been told? She had broken the first unwritten rule of creative writing classes: Don’t get sore if someone else has a better idea.

2. “Oh, I haven’t read it.”
Early in one beginner’s class, we were assigned to bring in a book we wished we’d written. I resisted the urge to bring in something classy like Ulysses, or indeed Slash’s autobiography, and instead opted for High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. Another classmate brought in A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe. She praised it eloquently, saying how the fall of a tycoon was relevant, how Wolfe writes with the authority of a gifted investigative journalist, and how it echoes Wolfe’s idol, Charles Dickens. “What do you like most about it?” asked the teacher.

“Oh I haven’t read it,” she breezed, without a hint of embarrassment or contrition. She later went on to correct other people’s assertions and interpretation of Wolfe’s opus, utterly oblivious to the inconvenient fact that they had read it and she had not.

You would think it doesn’t need clarification, but apparently it does: When told to talk about a book you admire, it’s best to choose one you’ve already at least opened.

3. “I thought it was sentimental.”
Outside of medicine and pharmaceuticals, which profession do you imagine is most affected by the existence of incurable diseases? I imagine it’s creative writing teachers. In the first class I attended, the writing-about-terminal-illness cases were approaching 50 percent. Terminal illness is obviously a serious subject, but even the most powerful subject’s impact can be dulled with repetition, or when it’s used as a narrative short cut.

You’ll be surprised how callous you become when numerous consecutive students read aloud their story about the elderly neighbor (kindly or cranky), known only for one hobby (gardening or withholding children’s Frisbees) who succumbs to a disease that reveals their true colors (humor and/or courage). Making someone cry is as hard as making someone laugh, and, in both comedy and tragedy, it’s painful to endure a piece of fiction that tries and fails.

This brings us to a student we’ll call “Anna” and rule number 3: Appreciate it when classmates are being polite. Her short story was about a precocious and grating young child who didn’t like her aunt. The twist is (you’re way ahead of me) that it turns out the aunt is fighting a serious disease. It was a mawkish, deadly serious piece of work, and the 4the illness-themed piece in one class. After she read it aloud, everyone gave polite, vague, and very gentle criticisms. Many tongues seemed to be held and bitten.

Then it came time to read my debut opus, in which a boy realizes he’s getting too old for stunts on his BMX. It was a little rough around the edges, but not the bike-crash I thought it was before Anna piped up. “I thought it was sentimental,” she snipped, oblivious to the fact that she had just read out a piece that Nicholas Sparks would have deleted and re-drafted. “Yeah, it was mawkish,” she continued, louder this time, “I didn’t get it”.

“Hey listen, lady!” I didn’t say. “The only reason you’re taking such liberties is because you wrongly think your story is nuanced and insightful.”

“And if we weren’t so polite during this fragile and important learning phase, you’d know how leaden and syrupy your misery mope fest really was,” I didn’t continue.

“Thanks, Anna, that’s really helpful,” I actually said, meekly and sadly combing over my every word to look for manipulative or sentimental passages I could re-write.

Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes

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