About The Author
Naomi J. Williams was born in Japan and spoke no English until she was nearly six years old. Her short stories have appeared in journals such as A Public Space, One Story, American Short Stories, the Southern Review and the Gettysburg Review. In 2009, she received a Pushcart Prize. She lives in northern California with her family.
Landfalls is her first book. A reimagining of actual events, it tells of an epic voyage of scientific and geographical discovery that set sail in the spring of 1785 at the behest of the French government. As the ships move across vast distances in their journey of nearly four years, the different characters on board or connected to the crew step forward and invite us into their world. From the remote Alaskan bay where a dreadful tragedy unfolds, to the wild journey Barthelemy de Lessups undertakes from the far east of Russia to St Petersburg, the emotional, physical and mental toll exacted by such an endeavour comes into increasingly sharp relief.
Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Naomi about 'playing' with the facts, pitting oneself against nature and trading one utterly daunting research task for another in the form of her next book.
Questions & Answers
What was it about this expedition that captured your imagination?
A lot of things about this expedition fascinated me. For one thing, it was quite progressive for its time. The expedition’s primary focus was science, not the usual “God, glory, gold” business. They were charged with looking for commercial opportunities for France, and clearly some national glory was at stake. But that glory was supposed to accrue through scientific discovery, not empire-building or missionizing. There’s also the tragic-romantic appeal of the story of mostly young men sailing into the unknown.
What made you decide to tell the story from a variety of viewpoints?
I had that idea from the beginning. I quite like nautical fiction, but most such work revolves around the captain, either told from his point of view or the point of view of someone watching him. I wanted to mix that up by including the voices of other members of the expedition as well as people they encountered and people left at home. I guess I wanted to expand a bit what we mean when we talk about the novel of the sea.
Are the constraints imposed by basing your novel on real-life events liberating or restricting?
What a great question! I actually find the constraints liberating. I’ve been accused of being disingenuous when I say this, but I’m not really a very imaginative person. It’s hard for me to make things up out of whole cloth. I’d much rather be given a set of known or recorded “facts” and asked to play with them. When I was young, I used to fancy myself a poet, and I always preferred writing sonnets or villanelles or sestinas — the formal structure provided an area in which to mess about creatively. I feel the same way about writing historical fiction. Fortunately, I’m better at that than at poetry.
Is it a source of regret that the world has since shrunk to a size that makes these kind of expeditions, the absolute unknown-ness of their destinations, all but impossible?
Sure, the world has shrunk, but I’m not sure I agree that such expeditions don’t happen anymore. We now venture further and further from Earth, of course, where there’s still plenty of “absolute unknown-ness” to explore, but even here on our planet, we haven’t finished learning about the ocean depths, and even on land, it seems like nearly every month someone goes to a remote place and reports the “discovery” of a new creature or plant.
At one point Laperouse finds himself ‘impressed – and unnerved – by the power of nature to undo human endeavour’. Do you think it is this that makes such stories still so compelling today?
Perhaps. I know it’s part of what makes certain stories compelling to me. I’ve always been fascinated by stories about mountain climbers or polar explorers who voluntarily pit themselves against nature. It’s not anything I aspire to, so I don’t completely understand the urge, but it fascinates me. Of course one doesn’t need to be an intrepid explorer to find oneself at the mercy of unrelenting and indifferent natural forces. Our human endeavors are continually undone by earthquakes, floods, drought, etc. And today we know that human endeavor has altered nature itself — that’s really impressive and unnerving.
Some objects take on a talismanic significance, especially the millstone, which runs like a thread throughout the novel acquiring meaning as it goes. Were you conscious of this at the outset? Were any such objects actually found and can they still be seen today?
I wasn’t always conscious of this in the initial drafting of the manuscript. The book was originally a collection of linked short stories, so I didn’t feel that much responsibility to develop threads between stories. Some things had obvious significance across stories from the outset. Water, for instance: fresh water became something of an obsession for one of the captains, leading eventually to a disastrous decision to collect water at an unknown cove. The millstone, on the other hand, grew in weight, as it were, during the revision process. And yes, the millstone is real. The expedition donated one to the mission in Monterey, California, and then Peter Dillon discovered another in Vanikoro. If memory serves, I saw that one in the Musée de la Marine in Paris.
The research for this project must have been immense, from details of life in 18th century France, to all the paraphernalia required for a voyage of this nature, to the various stops made by the crew, including Chile, Alaska, California, Macau, Russia Tenerife and Australia. It all feels meticulously done, but did you ever feel as if you’d taken on too much?
I definitely took on too much. No question. The book took nearly a decade to complete. If I’d known that at the outset, I would never have begun. Yet I still worry that I didn’t quite do justice to the expedition or to the story. Sometimes I glance through my notes for the project and realize I never followed up on some thread of research, and I feel bad. But I’m one of those people who goes through life feeling unnecessarily bad about everything. I just have to ignore myself sometimes.
Which of the territories you describe would you most like to have visited yourself?
I’m not an adventurous person at all—something I recently wrote about at my blog (http://naomijwilliams.com/2015/10/06/oh-the-irony-i-wrote-a-book-about-intrepid-explorers-and-i-dont-even-like-to-travel/). So I have no particular hankering to go to most of the places visited by the expedition, and certainly not under 18th-century conditions. If I had to pick a place, I would choose Macau. I’m a city girl at heart and would love to have seen the old Macau of the 1780s.
Which historical novels have most captured your imagination?
Not surprisingly, I’ve read lots of historical nautical fiction. The ones that most influenced this project were Moby-Dick, Robinson Crusoe, and the juvenile novel Stowaway by the American writer Karen Hesse. I’m also a great admirer of the writers Jim Shepard and Andrea Barrett. My very favourite writer of historical fiction, however, is Pat Barker. I’ve read through her Regeneration trilogy several times and particularly love the first book, which features the World War I poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
Do you have plans for another novel and if so, can you tell us anything about it? Will it be hard to set aside all this research?
Well, speaking of novels that feature real-life poets, my next book is called Akiko in Paris, and it concerns the early 20th-century Japanese feminist and poet Yosano Akiko. She’s quite well known in Japan but not very well known elsewhere, and I can’t wait to introduce more readers to this remarkable person. I’m focusing on the year 1912, when she was in her mid-30s. She farmed out her seven children, all under age 10, to relatives and set off by herself for France. She took the Trans-Siberian railway across Russia, traveled through Western Europe for several months, met lots of intellectuals and artists, including Rodin, then sailed for home from Marseille. Her trip goes a bit more smoothly than the Lapérouse expedition did, but offers this rich opportunity to explore the mindset of a woman who seemed to put art over family. And I’ve just traded one utterly daunting research task for another, so I’m still in over my head. I seem to seek out that state of mind.