The Temptation of Big Empty Spaces

Julia Copus

Filed under: Fiction

Julia Copus talks with Ian McGuire, winner of the 2017 RSL Encore Award.

Ian McGuire’s compelling second novel follows an Arctic whaling expedition in the industry’s dying days, from the night before the ship weighs anchor with its crew of ‘incompetents and savages, the filth and shite of the dockyards’. A disturbing narrative of brutality, murder and a tooth-and-nail battle for survival unfolds as the crew attempts to reassert a degree of control in the face of the north water’s icy indifference. Of the several unyielding battles that rumble at the heart of the book, most unsettling is the tension played out between the well-intentioned Sumner and the utterly amoral Drax – opposing forces who might even be two sides of the same nature. To read The North Water is to set foot in an unpredictable realm where ice creaks and yawns or rumples and tears like paper, where ‘the world we see with our eyes is not the whole truth’.

As well as being the runaway winner of the 2017 RSL Encore Award, The North Water was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and named by the New York Times one of the top ten books of 2016. Fans include Colm Tóibín, Martin Amis and Hilary Mantel.

Julia Copus: Your story opens with the contemptible and animalistic harpooner Henry Drax wreaking havoc in the streets of Hull the night before his ship sets sail. Why did you decide to start with him?

Ian McGuire: The North Water began with the idea of putting a murderer on board an Arctic whaling ship. Drax, or some version of Drax, was there from the beginning. He’s also the engine of the whole story – he makes things happen (usually fairly horrible things) – so I knew that starting with him would give the opening chapter a lot of energy and forward momentum. I remember when I sent an early draft to my agent, Judith Murray, we did have a brief discussion about whether it would be better to switch the order of the first two chapters, because it’s more conventional to start with the hero rather than the villain, but I never seriously considered doing that.

JC: The hero, as you call him (Patrick Sumner, surgeon to the crew), is by no means free of vice, but he has a back story that could explain those vices. Drax, on the other hand, is a man without a past; there are no clues in the story that might account for his brutality. Why are the two characters presented so differently?

IM: I didn’t want Drax’s behaviour to be easily explainable, and I particularly didn’t want his crimes to have their origin in some kind of early traumatic experience. Freudian or psychotherapeutic ideas run pretty deep in contemporary culture, and while I think that is generally a good and healthy thing, I’m not sure it’s so good for a novel. If all bad behaviour comes from unhappy childhoods then that flattens things out too much, and it also seems to imply the utopian idea that evil could be eventually got rid of, which I’m not sure I believe. So I wanted Drax to exist outside that kind of rationalising context. I wanted his actions to be understandable, in the sense that we know the immediate urges that motivate him, but also mysterious in the sense that we’re not entirely sure where those urges come from, or what they might mean.

JC: The whole book is fantastically immersive, right from Drax’s progression through the foul-smelling streets in the opening scenes. Colm Tóibín has remarked on your ‘extraordinary talent for picturing a moment’, but besides that richly cinematic aspect, your writing is packed with smells and sounds that seem to place us right in among the characters. Do you make a conscious effort to capture those less obvious details?

IM: I do think smell stands slightly apart from the other four senses. There is something particularly powerful, evocative and intimate about smells. I’m not 100 per cent sure why that is, but one element of it is that smelling seems to connect us directly to our bodies, to the earth and to the animal side of our nature. I don’t have a very acute or subtle sense of smell, but my wife does – she’s something of a perfume expert – and we also have a dog who is interested to the point of obsession with certain, very different, kinds of smells. So my experience of living in a world alive with scents is influenced by being close to both of them.

JC: Hull is no longer the major whaling port it once was, but your familiarity with its topography is clear, and I know you grew up there. Just as convincing, though, is your depiction of the Arctic wastes off Greenland, where the bulk of the story is set. How did you go about piecing together so convincing a picture of that setting? Did you visit?

IM: I didn’t visit Greenland or Baffin Island. I relied instead on photographs and written accounts – mostly from the nineteenth century. I did think about going there, but, because of climate change, the landscape, particularly the ice, is so different now from how it was in the 1850s that I thought it might be unhelpful or confusing. In the period I was writing about, there was a great deal of sea ice in Baffin Bay all year round, so much that the whaling ships were often delayed or crushed by it.

Nowadays, very sadly, those waters are pretty much ice free in the summer months.

JC: You manage the period setting with the lightest of touches – so light, in fact, that the story’s historical setting seems almost incidental. There are no extraneous details about what the characters eat or how they’re dressed; no set pieces on the political or social scene. So why the past, and why this past? Do you have a particular interest in the Victorian age?

IM: Writing about the past is very freeing – that’s something I discovered while I was working on The North Water. You have to be faithful to whatever historical evidence there is, of course, but after that you’re on your own. We know, for example, that Arctic whaling was a big, important industry in Britain in the nineteenth century, but we know very little, almost nothing, about what it felt like to work on an Arctic whaling ship. Hilary Mantel talked about this in her recent Reith Lectures, and she made the point (quoting an historian I think) that 90 per cent of the historical evidence is always missing – and that’s when you’re dealing with kings and queens. Those big, empty spaces are very tempting and exciting for a writer.

I am particularly drawn to the Victorian period, yes. In the north of England, where I grew up and have lived most of my adult life, that period of history feels much more present than any other. I live in a Victorian house in Manchester, which is essentially a Victorian city, so that particular era feels close enough to touch and smell sometimes, and I do think that helps when I’m writing about it.

JC: In spite of the book’s uniqueness, during judges’ meetings we found ourselves discussing literary influences. We talked about echoes of Cormac McCarthy, Melville (of course!), Poe and others. For me, the book has an affinity with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It’s impossible to identify a single dominant influence, but your familiarity with the classics is clear, and it suffuses and enriches the novel. How important do you think it is for writers also to be good readers?

IM: For me it feels essential. In one of his very rare interviews, Cormac McCarthy says ‘books come from other books’, and I think that’s largely true. I taught introductory classes in American literature for many years at the University of Manchester and one of the great privileges of that job is that you get to read and re-read the classics (and get paid for doing it). I think that kind of immersion has helped me quite a lot as a writer. I don’t tend to think about the work of other writers consciously while I’m writing, but I feel like I’ve lived with some of the works you mention so long that their rhythms and concerns have sunk into my unconscious, and I can draw on them sometimes without even knowing that I’m doing so.

JC: It’s rare to come across a book that is both formally complex and a great page turner, but The North Water has the feel of a thriller and makes for a very satisfying read. Do you have an audience in mind when you write?

IM: I’m quite wary of boring the reader – life is short, after all, and there are an awful lot of other novels available in Waterstones – so I do think plot is pretty important, but it’s certainly not the only thing. As a reader I often enjoy novels or stories which don’t have a great deal of plot, that rely more on tone or voice or feeling, but I’ve found that if I try to write like that it all gets very vague and mushy, so I need a strong plot to help me keep things tight. But to answer the actual question – yes, I do think about the reader occasionally. I ask myself whether someone who doesn’t know me personally and has no particular reason to pick my novel rather than another one is likely to find what I’m doing interesting. I think that can be a helpful question to ask, so long as you don’t get too preoccupied with pleasing these imaginary people. Ultimately you have to write what you think works and hope that other people agree with you.

JC: Your first novel was a comical campus satire. Will your next be as different from The North Water as this was from Incredible Bodies?

im: I’m sticking with historical fiction for the next book, but it’s land-based this time. I’m currently writing a novel set in Manchester in 1867. It starts with the hanging of three members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (a precursor of the IRA) for the murder of a policeman. The hangings are a matter of historical fact, but the novel then goes on to imagine possible consequences involving revenge attacks, spies, murders, betrayals etc.

JC: Intriguing! As you know, the RSL Encore Award is specifically for second novels. They have a reputation for being tricky to write, and yet people forget how many famous books fall into this category. Do you have a favourite second novel of your own?

IM: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Sometimes you admire most the kind of novel you know you could never write yourself, and that’s true in this case. Gilead is a novel based on voice rather than plot, and the voice of John Ames is really an extraordinary, breathtaking achievement I think.

Julia Copus is a poet and children’s writer.