Author says 'Ahab's Wife' is an 'epic story of an American woman'
November 8, 1999
By Jamie Allen
ATLANTA (CNN) -- Sena Jeter Naslund was in 10th grade when her English teacher gave the class an assignment to rewrite a scene from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."
While most of the students in the class no doubt loathed the work, Naslund loved it. She turned in 18 pages, and when her teacher returned the paper it had a grade that exceeded Naslund's lofty expectations: A++++.
"It blew the top out of the glass ceiling I had set for myself," the author says.
Things haven't been the same for her since. Years later, Naslund sets no limits for herself as a writing teacher and author of five books.
The most recent evidence of this is her latest novel, "Ahab's Wife, or The Star-Gazer" (William Morrow). Not only has Naslund dared to pen a direct female-driven rebuttal to the salty classic "Moby-Dick," she's managed to win the equivalent of an A++++ from publishing industry.
Six major publishing companies bid for rights to "Ahab's Wife." Publisher's Weekly reported that Naslund earned $500,000 when all was said and done.
Naslund, who was on vacation in Costa Rica with her husband when she heard the news of her book selling, won't confirm or deny those reports.
"It was many times more successful than I ever dreamed a book would be," says Naslund.
Critics, meanwhile, have fallen for "Ahab's Wife" as well, some going so far as to call Naslund a wordsmith on the same level as "Moby-Dick" author and literary god Herman Melville.
To this, Naslund, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky, offers a modest, "It's pretty heady stuff."
During her interview with CNN.com, Naslund sits in a cafe overlooking the fountains of Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park. She's wearing a conservative black dress, a silver bracelet shaped like tiny fish, and a necklace of silver clams, a sort of understated sea theme that helps promote her book.
"Ahab's Wife" is true to its title, telling the story of Una Spenser, the wife of Captain Ahab, the Melville character whose obsession with a great white whale leads to his death.
But the book refuses to be a tale of a 19th century woman who merely waits on the widow's walk for her adventurous hubby to come home. That is, however, how the story got started.
"The idea came to me in November of 1993 and it came as a vision and a voice," says Naslund. "I was driving a rented car in Boston ... and then out of nowhere I saw a woman standing on a widow's walk beside the sea, looking out to sea at night hoping to see her husband's whaling ship coming home. But then I realized she knew he wasn't coming home, not then and not ever. And she stopped looking out and started looking up into the starry sky and with this began a spiritual quest of, 'Why am I here? What's my place in the universe?' instead of waiting for her husband to come home and define her as a wife.
"Along with that mental image or vision, I heard a voice say 'Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.' And that became the first sentence of the novel," Naslund says.
Ultimately, Una Spenser engages in an adventurous life of her own, punctuated by tragic loss and fulfilling marriages, as she makes a life for herself in the company of historical figures like Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
"I'm making a statement that there can be an epic story of an American woman that ends in peace and harmony with the universe," says Naslund. "This woman can be one who has lived a very full and adventuresome life and has found her own way spiritually."
Naslund, who is the Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Louisville, is a writer's writer. She channels the story, rather than tells it.
To adopt a working knowledge of this particular subject Naslund sailed into research, reading "Moby-Dick" several times, then pouring over the biographies of Melville and other figures of the time, as well as "the journals and diaries of women who had been to sea, some of them on whaling ships."
She visited New England on numerous occasions, soaking up the atmosphere, walking on a whaling boat in Mystic, Connecticut, strolling through a whaling museum in New Bedford, walking the cobblestoned streets of Nantucket -- admittedly, not the toughest work on the planet.
She says the idea of writing a novel that would be held up to Melville never gave her reason to pause.
"I am an experienced writer and you have some sense whether an idea can work or not," she says. "I wasn't sure it would work and I really thought about it for nine months before I put pen to paper. but I didn't feel intimidated by Melville's accomplishment. I felt inspired by it."
"It took me two years to do the first draft, and two more years to revise it from beginning to end, four different times," she says. "I loved every minute of working on this book, from the first draft to the last revision.
"I certainly identify a lot with the main character, Una Spenser," Naslund admits. "I also think of myself of surviving traumas and trying to go on in positive way. I think I have not lived a really conventional life; neither has she. Both she and I have loved people very much and lost them to madness or death." When asked to elaborate, Naslund declines.
"I think the way I identify with her the most is that she lives in the moment, able to enjoy her senses, what she's seeing and smelling and tasting, and relishing it in a way that has a great deal of intensity to it, and a certain wild joy in just being alive," says Naslund.
"One of the most important things I want to say about the book is, you don't have to have read 'Moby-Dick' in order to enjoy 'Ahab's Wife.' 'Ahab's Wife' is designed as an independent, stand-alone reading experience.
"On the other hand," she says, "if you love 'Moby-Dick' I've been very respectful of that book. There aren't any nasty surprises. I don't suddenly say, 'Here comes Ahab sailing back with Moby-Dick boiled down to oil. I'm consistent with what was done in 'Moby-Dick.'"
Naslund had achieved moderate success prior to "Ahab's Wife." "Sherlock In Love" -- released prior to the Miramax film "Shakespeare In Love" -- is similar to "Ahab's Wife" in that it takes an established literary figure and builds from there. It received solid reviews.
This is the first time, however, that Naslund has been delivered to bookstores by a major publisher.
True to form, she has great expectations for "Ahab's Wife." She wants it to be remembered "as ... a 20th century response to a 19th century novel, and a novel that provided one of the early models for the strong, adventuresome, intelligent, sensitive, successful woman -- successful in a very ordinary sense in that she feels fulfilled her life."
Time will tell if Naslund's expectations are once again exceeded.
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