About The Author
Ian McGuire grew up near Hull and studied at the University of Manchester and the University of Virginia, USA. He is the founder and co-director of the University of Manchester's Centre for New Writing. His stories have been published in the Chicago Review, Paris Review and elsewhere, and his first novel was Incredible Bodies. The North Water is his second novel.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, we talked to Ian about inventing a plausible, lively and interesting version of 19th-century whaler-speak, the similarity between his invented villain, Drax, and the whale in Moby Dick, and why writing is for him quite an amoral activity.
Questions & Answers
North Water takes place on the fringes of humanity, in places of extremes and in areas outside of most people's realm of experience. How did you go about getting a sense of those places?
The summer landscape in Baffin Bay, where the novel is mainly set, has changed considerably since 1859 — there is a lot less sea ice now — so instead of travelling there, I relied mainly on written accounts from the period and on photographs. I read the journals kept by Arctic explorers and by the surgeons on whaling ships — who were educated men, and generally had enough time on their hands to record their experience. The classic account of the Greenland whaling industry is William Scoresby’s two volume Account of the Arctic Regions first published in 1820, and that proved invaluable. Although the novel is set mainly in the Arctic, I also read and learned a lot from books about Antarctic exploration. The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a fantastically harrowing account of Robert Scott’s final polar expedition, was particularly useful.
The book reads almost like a thriller, what kind of genres and authors do you like to read?
I think the thrillerish quality of The North Water comes most directly from Cormac McCarthy who was very much on my mind which I was writing it. (McCarthy aficionados will notice that the opening line of The North Water is a direct allusion to the opening line of Blood Meridian.) One of the things I most admire about McCarthy is the way he manages to combine plot, style and theme in a way which does justice to all three elements. I read mainly literary fiction, but I don’t subscribe to the idea that to be literary a novel needs to be more interested in character or ideas than in plot or story. It’s definitely not either-or, and McCarthy’s work is a great example of that.
Because of its fast-paced nature and treacherous landscapes, in some ways North Water reminded me of adventure stories I read as a child. Do you think books you read as a youngster have an influence on the way you write today?
I like to think of The North Water as a revisionist novel in the sense that it echoes and draws on earlier literary depictions of sea-faring, whale hunting, Arctic survival and so on, but it also at the same time revises and pushes back against them. So, there may well be a strong hint of adventure stories like Treasure Island or Call of the Wild in there (and there is much more than a strong hint of Moby Dick) but The North Water tries to strip away the heroic or romantic elements of those previous stories and put something much more crude and troubling there instead.
How did you go about discovering the voice of nineteenth century whalers?
It’s as much a question of invention as discovery, I would say. Good fictional dialogue is always stylised to a degree, and no one really knows how 19th-century whalers talked, so what I tried to do was to imagine a plausible and (just as importantly) lively and interesting version of 19th-century whaler-speak. They’re clearly not speaking contemporary English but they’re not speaking a more usual Dickensian version of Victorian English either. I wanted it to be somewhere in between those alternatives – to feel old, but old in an unfamiliar kind of way. There is also a lot of enthusiastic and inventive swearing in The North Water, but they’re working-class men squeezed together for several months in a dangerous and hostile environment so it made sense to me that they would swear almost constantly.
There are certainly some grizzly bits to North water, were these parts that you relished writing or was one hand covering your eyes waiting for it to be over?
Writing, for me, is quite an amoral activity. When I’m working, my interest is primarily focussed on producing something which is interesting and that works as a piece of fiction, and I’m much less concerned, and probably much less aware, of the moral implications of whatever is happening on the page. It’s only afterwards when someone points out how gruesome or disturbing a particular scene or moment is that I really see it from that perspective. When I’m writing I’m interested in violence and perversity, for example, primarily from a technical perspective – as forces which can be dramatically very powerful if used at the right time and in the right way. It may seem an unhealthy, cold-blooded, way of looking at things, but I suspect that is how many writers think.
You have an excellent villain in the character of Drax. Who are your favourite literary bad guys?
Most of the great literary villains (I’m thinking of Lady Macbeth, for example, or Uriah Heep or Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley) are motivated by personal ambition — their evil actions are an attempt to get something that they want but which is being withheld from them. In some cases, this ambition has grown so large that it becomes quasi-metaphysical, a revolt against the human condition itself — the Professor in Conrad’s Secret Agent, Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, the Judge in Blood Meridian. The peculiarity of Drax as a villain is that he’s not really ambitious in those ways — he acts instinctually and without much forethought or planning. You could say, in that sense, that he’s as much a monster as a villain — a good comparison might be to Mr Hyde in Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde or even to the whale in Moby Dick.