- A Conversation with Nathaniel Philbrick
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Jack London wrote about it. Herman Melville wrote about it. Rachel Carson won a National Book Award for her description of it. For Ernest Hemingway, it was a Nobel Prize.
Inspiring thousands of years of painting, writing, and myth-making, not to mention empire-building, yet still as inscrutable as the farthest galaxy, the sea captures the human imagination like nothing else on earth. With such a legacy, could anyone say anything new about it?
Nathaniel Philbrick could.
Philbrick's 1999 book In the Heart of the Sea was a best seller, won the National Book Award, and became a Ron Howard–helmed movie starring Chris Hemsworth. Sea of Glory (2001) won the Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Naval History Prize and the Albion-Monroe Award from the National Maritime Historical Society. Mayflower (2001) was a finalist for both the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in History and the Los Angeles Times Book Award and winner of the Massachusetts Book Award for nonfiction. Along with numerous books of history for adults and children, he has written about the joys of reading Moby-Dick and about his early career as a championship sailor.
I talked to Nathaniel in Raleigh, North Carolina; he was in town to do a reading. We discussed narrative nonfiction, academic vs. popular history, the place of classics in popular culture, voting in America, and why he will never be an actor. [End Page 69]
Welcome to North Carolina! Or I should say, welcome back, because you have a history here, right?
Yeah, I was at Duke University for a year. I was a James B. Duke fellow, which is a three-year fellowship, but after a year, I began to realize that my father, who was an English professor—it was his life I was leading, not necessarily what I wanted to do. So I was able to leave after getting a master's and then went to work at what's now Sailing World magazine, which was then in Connecticut.
So you decided that an academic life was not for you.
PHILBRICK: I needed to just get out and live in the world for a while. I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do as a writer. I dabbled in fiction and poetry, but I just wasn't sure. I had been a competitive sailor in college and knew someone who was already on the magazine staff, and they said a job was available. So I applied and got it. Looking back, it was the best thing I could have done because there's a difference between dabbling and being a professional. I was now a journalist on a young staff, writing about sailing but getting critiqued, every piece I would write, and then reading others. I had a very hands-on editor-in-chief who gave me some excellent pointers. I was there for four years, and it was the right thing at the right time.
In an earlier interview, you said that good narrative nonfiction, instead of being comprehensive, is selective.
I think it's an underappreciated thing. A narrative historian does a lot more research than is ever noticeable on the page. It's the old Hemingway quote about how a story is like an iceberg, with most of it below the surface, and to a certain extent it's true with narrative history. What you're focused on is character- and plot-driven, but that doesn't mean you're scrimping on the history. In my case, it's very important to go to the primary sources because that's where the good stuff is, although academic histories are helpful, particularly when it comes to raiding their bibliographies and seeing how others have tackled the topic.
What's your selection process? [End Page 70]
The process is to figure out what my take on the subject is. I start a book not because I'm an expert in the field but because I have questions about it and...