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How Ian McGuire wrote his acclaimed novel of a whaling ship full of dark deeds

“It’s a much more gritty, realistic, nasty version of the whaling industry than you get in Moby-Dick”: Ian McGuire. Photo: SuppliedThink whaling in the 19th century and invariably Moby-Dick comes to mind. So if you happen to be writing a novel set on a whaling ship, then – as Ian McGuire puts it – “you kind of feel Melville peering over your shoulder”.
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He admits to taking a couple of scenes in Herman Melville’s whopping book and reworking them in The North Water, his dark novel full of foul deeds set on a vessel bound for the seas off Greenland that was longlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize. But his novel is hardly one that poor old Melville could or would have written.

“When I’m asked about the relationship between this and Moby-Dick it makes me think that The North Water is as much a way of reviving and pushing back against some of the things that happened in Moby-Dick as just in a way an emulation – in the sense that it’s a much more gritty, realistic, nasty version of the whaling industry than you get in Moby-Dick.”

But Melville did play a big part in the conception of the novel. McGuire has been an academic for more than 20 years, teaching American literature, and is now co-director of Manchester University’s Centre for New Writing – current professor, Jeanette Winterson; former professor, Martin Amis; current lecturer, M.J. Hyland.

His first novel, Incredible Bodies, is a campus satire published in 2006. He had ideas for a second but nothing seemed to work and decided to write a historical novel about Melville – professionally, he had been particularly interested in him and he had liked how Colm Toibin had written his novel The Master about another 19th-century American novelist, Henry James.

During his research McGuire came across a facsimile edition of a diary written by Arthur Conan Doyle about his time as a 19-year-old medical student working on a Dundee whaling ship.

“That gave me the seed of an idea. I thought Conan Doyle on a whaling ship, Sherlock Holmes on a whaling ship. Some kind of murder story set on a whaling ship,” he says on the phone from Manchester.

“The Melville book seemed to lose its energy and as I struggled the idea of some kind of murderer on a whaling ship became more and more interesting to me. But I knew I didn’t want to make it a conventional crime novel and I definitely knew I didn’t want to do another pastiche of Sherlock Holmes.”

What he came up with is a novel bursting with life even as it is jammed full of murder, gore and stench; a novel that brings darkness and the scarlet of blood to the white of the ice and snow.

At the heart of that darkness is Henry Drax, a brilliantly ghastly creation, a harpooner on the ship who commits murder and buggery in the first few pages. He becomes the enemy of The North Water’s main protagonist, Patrick Sumner, a young Irish surgeon fresh from the horrors of the Indian Mutiny who has signed on while he awaits the benefits of an inheritance.

McGuire says the key for him in the creation of Drax was his animality. “That’s the centre of his being – he acts through instinct and he very much lives in the present moment. He’s not aware or interested in what he’s done or the consequences of his action. He does what occurs to him at that moment; that’s what drives his behaviour.”

Sumner, on the other hand, is someone who can’t escape his past. “He’s someone for whom the past is this constant presence, dragging him down, unable to make him sort of move or act.”

There is a philosophic clash between the two men – Drax a sort of berserk existentialist, Sumner a man with a conscience.

“Obviously Drax is a psychopathic murderer in some sense, but the philosophy that drives him is this sense of ‘well, why is your opinion any better than mine, why are there laws?’. There’s a kind of extreme relativism there which I think in some forms still hovers around. Partly because of such a powerful basic logic to that. If morals aren’t rooted in human desire where do they come from? It’s very hard to answer. And in that exchange between Sumner and Drax, Sumner can’t answer him really, he doesn’t have anything to say to him – he just says you can’t be reasoned with. Which is true, you can’t really argue against that.”

Incredible Bodies, is set in a university not dissimilar to Manchester. There are echoes between the two books in terms of the scheming and plotting of their characters. I suggest that Zoe Cable, the ambitious researcher in the earlier book, is a gentler Drax character.

“When I wrote them I thought they were totally different … but I think you’re right, there are weird echoes,” he says. The real connection between the two he sees is again the sense that there is no truth, no moral right or wrong. “It’s just a matter of opinion and power and whoever is most powerful or most persuasive gets to define what’s true or not. In that sense there’s a contemporary quality to that.”

I wondered about writing a campus novel while teaching at a university. Did he use much of his own experiences in his picture of Cloketown University? “Totally. It’s wildly exaggerated and names are changed to protect the innocent, but actually …” If he had to he could identify the characters ..? “Absolutely.”

So was he nervous about his colleagues reading it?

“A little bit. The only person who was portrayed in the novel who actually said anything to me was a person who I realised was so vain the fact that he was in the novel was the most important thing. The fact that he was portrayed as monstrous in it didn’t make any difference.”

McGuire is splitting his time between Manchester and the University of North Texas where he is also teaching creative writing. When we spoke he had just returned from Denton where he had been for four months that spanned the Presidential election. Texas voted for Donald Trump.

“It’s been a Republican state for a while. Because it’s more and more Hispanic they say it’s going to turn Democrat in 20 years’ time. But it was very depressing for anyone on the Democratic side. It’s a university town so it’s a very liberal bubble within the sort of redness of Texas. But it’s still a strange feeling that you are surrounded by this Trump-supporting populace.”

His desire to write emerged as a child. At home in Hull his father would always have BBC Radio Four playing and McGuire says he was conscious of the pleasures of the language he heard. “That’s where my interest in writing and becoming a writer came from – just a relish for rhetoric and the power of a sentence. That’s always been a big part of what writing means to me.”

McGuire credits Cormac McCarthy and particularly Blood Meridian with being a big influence on The North Water. What struck him forcibly was how McCarthy shifts the language he uses.

“He’s known for this high Faulknerian biblical register but also he has this much more pared down Hemingway style for some sections. That’s definitely something that I learned from and borrowed – the way in certain action sequences the novel is pared down rhetorically but then it switches into this much richer, more descriptive rhetoric.”

The language in the action sequences may be pared down, but the violence certainly isn’t. Quite how the BBC will deal with it in a planned adaptation remains to be seen, but I wondered how he approached writing it. Quite pragmatically, it seems.

“To me writing is quite an amoral activity really. You’re thinking about the violence almost in technical terms … It’s only afterwards when people point out how gruesome it is that I realise the kind of moral meaning that readers have.”

Drax is a case in point. “When I’m creating him it’s mainly about what works, what makes a compelling character, what makes a character that’s going to work on the page and [I am] much less aware of the moral implications of what’s going on.”

Last year was a big one for McGuire. It finished with The North Water being named in the top 10 of the year by The New York Times. Was he surprised by its reception? He says because of its difference from Incredible Bodies, he had little idea how it would be received.

“You have the fantasy that everything you write’s going to be a huge success. On that level that seems about right but on a more realistic level it’s been surprising, because there are good novels that disappear and no one seems to notice them and that can always happen. It seems a little bit random and I feel I’ve been lucky in that regard.”

There’s no danger of The North Water disappearing.

The North Water is published by Scribner at $32.99. Ian McGuire is a guest of Perth and Adelaide writers festivals. He appears at Readings Carlton on March 3.

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