When I was in the third grade, my neighbor, Mrs. Cris — a 60-year-old woman with grown children — invited me and two other girls to form a weekly reading club. On Wednesdays, Mrs. Cris would serve us buttery Danish cookies, and juice in fancy punch glasses. We would sit on the floor while Mrs. Cris settled into the high-backed chair in front of the fireplace, and she would read out loud to us.
We would lie about it to other kids, what we did on Wednesdays. It wasn’t because I was ashamed, it never occurred to me that a reading club might be considered uncool. I lied because I didn’t want my other friends to be envious, and because I didn’t want anyone else to be added to the club. It was our secret, my favorite day of the week.
Over the next few years, we read The Hobbit, Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Secret Garden. At home, I read books almost exclusively about horses or dogs — Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague, Lad a Dog, The Red Pony, Shiloh. There’s no shortage of great books about horses and dogs, but Wednesday reading club was first a lesson that books didn’t have to be about a topic you liked to be enjoyable.
My mother had spent many years reading aloud to me, but this club was not bedtime reading, it was not something designed to wind us down, put us to sleep. It was a weekly afternoon party, with a certain level of formality that I enjoyed: Mrs. Cris was the only adult in the neighborhood who went by Mrs., we were expected to always sit quietly, and the snacks she served were not advertised on Nickelodeon, instead it was always the Royal Dansk cookies in the round blue tin. It also never felt like we were being babysat. I was keenly aware that Mrs. Cris was not being paid, and I felt she was not doing this as a favor for our parents (although, of course, I know my mother appreciated the time off), instead I was sure that Mrs. Cris was doing it because she wanted to spend time with us. She was not a teacher, not a relative; she was my first adult friend.
Reading club fell apart somewhere in middle school, when soccer practice and clarinet lessons and trips to the mall took up all our after school time. But I still liked to be read to, and I liked to read aloud, even during the awkward, moody teenage years to come. I loved when we read plays in English class, because we’d do a read through of the whole thing. I was too shy to audition for the high school play, but I thought I was a very memorable Martha when our senior English class read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
When I got to college, my roommate, Jessica, was my only friend for a good chunk of the year. We had the kind of friendship where it felt like you didn’t need anyone else in the world but each other, so we didn’t go looking for other friends until the first year was almost up. Often, before bed, I would read Jess poems from my Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Of course, it seems a little pretentious to me now, except that I wasn’t doing it as any kind of performance. It was just something I’d learned that friends do for one another, something that brings you closer.
Years after college, I visited Jessica at her studio apartment in Virginia, both of us adrift in our mid-20s. After a few glasses of wine, I read her and her new boyfriend a story I loved — “Sea Oak” by George Saunders.
“I didn’t really like your friend until she read us the story,” Jess’s boyfriend would tell her later, and she’d pass that on to me.
“I wasn’t sure if I liked him either,” I teased.
But I have a theory on why her boyfriend liked me by the end of “Sea Oak:” in order to understand a story that is read aloud, you must listen intently. Your mind cannot wander, you must concentrate on the words. Listening to someone read out loud is like that experiment where you stare into another person’s eyes for four minutes and by the end, you’re in love with that person. It’s too intimate an experience to share with someone you dislike.
During those adrift 20s, I worked in a small bookstore for two years, and listened to upwards of 50 readings. There were authors I was extremely intimidated by (Mary Gaitskill) and authors who were easy to talk to (Laura van den Berg liked my glasses and told me about her dog; Rachel Kushner complained about missing her husband while on tour, Jim Shepard hugged me). There were some great performances, some droning voices, and a few authors with overinflated egos, but I never tired of listening. Even books that I didn’t like on the page came alive during a reading. I think that’s a common experience, many of us are much more generous listeners than we are readers. There were only two times my co-booksellers and I ever liked the author less after a reading: an extremely racist travel memoir, and a local author whose crowd trashed the store.
Most times, when authors left the store after a reading, I felt like they were a new friend, even if I’d barely spoken to them. Every time I hand-sold one of their books afterwards, I felt a sense of personal pride, as if my distant cousin had written the book I’d recommended, as if I was keeping the royalty checks in the family.
More recently, my husband and I went through a rough patch — our beloved dog had died. I was growing more and more depressed, the election results didn’t help — and we’d been coping by zoning out in front of Netflix with a bottle of wine. Then, I spent one night reading aloud to him, just on a whim. I plucked Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris from the shelf, since I knew I could count on Sedaris for humor. My husband lay on the floor underneath the loveseat where I perched (someday, when we’re rich, I always say, we’ll buy a full-sized couch that fits both of us) and he listened as I read. He didn’t play around on his phone. When we went to bed that night, I felt like we’d solved something. I didn’t feel so sad, and somehow life didn’t feel as meaningless. It was a way to connect that I’d forgotten about. It launched something healing for me, like a heaping serving of a comfort food. It was a bonding tool I’d been taught when I was young, back when it didn’t matter what size couch you had, because we always sat on the floor anyways, legs criss-cross applesauce.
When Mrs. Cris turned 80 a few years ago, our neighborhood threw a lobster bake. We blocked off the dead-end street my parents live on, we rented folding tables and set up the party on the street. We all wore ridiculous hats that night, at someone’s specific request. During the time for speeches, I stood up in my wide-brimmed Kentucky Derby hat, and talked a little bit about the reading group that Mrs. Cris started 20 years before, and what a profound effect it had on me as a reader and as a writer, and what’s more — as a person. The Reading Club taught me the importance of careful, concentrated listening, and taught me that I could find friends outside my immediate peer group. It taught me reading a story aloud is a way to take care of someone, a kind of care-taking that isn’t overbearing or smothering, and doesn’t feel like babysitting. As adults, reading aloud to one another is something we think we might have grown out of, but that’s only because we’ve forgotten how intimate and cozy it is to be read to, or to read aloud to someone who listens. It’s a simple, low-maintenance way to connect. And if you can tell a good story, I now believe, you can win anyone over, even the most skeptical of listeners. Especially if you serve cookies.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
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.
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.