"The scent I associate with my childhood is the scent of a skunk"

Interview with Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea

/ by Noah Charney

On December 26, Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea roars into cinemas. The true story of a Nantucket whaling ship, the Essex, which was rammed by a Moby Dick-inspiring pale sperm whale and sank, setting survivors adrift on the ocean before a handful were miraculously saved, the film is adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s best-selling book of the same title. As whales of tales go, it doesn’t get much better than this. What is the research and writing process like for an award-winning, best-selling American historian? We spoke to Philbrick from his home on the island of Nantucket, which is preparing itself for a film-inspired surge of tourists.


Describe your morning routine on a day that you would be writing, from when you wake up, what you have for breakfast, through when you get to work.


My wife and I up get up in the morning, about six o'clock, I'll work out in some form, and walk the dog, and by nine o’clock, I’m at my desk, after having gotten some coffee at the pharmacy downtown. I work in my basement office, typically till one or two o’clock. Then I break for lunch, which means walking into town, getting a sandwich at the pharmacy and then coming back, and work for another couple of hours, walk the dog, that’s usually around four o’clock. I’m out there for about an hour, and then work till my wife comes home, which could be between six or seven o’clock at night.


What’s a favorite place of yours on Nantucket that maybe is a local hangout as opposed to a tourist spot that your readers might like to know about?


The Nantucket pharmacy. It’s on Main Street, and it’s an old style, you know, with stools, you’re served by someone behind the desk there. I typically get a ham and pickle sandwich, and it’s the cheapest sandwich in town.


The Philbrick ham and pickle. Sounds good. Tell me about the process, before you actually start writing, but when you’re researching.


It’s a two step process. It takes me about two years for each book, and the first year, I’m sort of throwing out the net, trying to get a sense of the arc, of what I want to tell, widely, and taking notes. I have a Moleskine notebook, a series of them that I start scribbling in. When I’m starting a topic, I really don’t know where I’m going, educating myself, so I’m scribbling down the things that surprise me, interest me, and I go through this for about a year, and I end up with about a dozen of these notebooks. But by then, I know roughly what the chapters are going to be. And then I start working on these chapters, and that’s about a three-week process of reading, note-taking. Before I start that, I transcribe all those notebooks, because I find often that it’s the impressions I get early on that are the ones that will be most evocative to the reader. And once I know too much about a topic, I sort of get desensitized to what’s intrinsically interesting, so those notebooks provide me with a pathway to what is intrinsically interesting before I get too much knowledge. And then I work on each chapter, with those notes in the background, but then I’m reading specifically for the events I’m going be telling in that chapter, and that’s usually about three weeks of note-taking, I can end up with between fifty and one hundred pages of notes. I then try to organize those, take notes on the notes, and then sit down and begin to write. And that usually goes pretty quickly: it’s about a week of writing, and then I move on.


When you’re dealing with a topic, or really choosing a new topic for a book, I’m interested what about a subject has to speak to you, in order for you to decide that it’s worth writing a whole book about. Some of them seem obvious, like your book about the whaleship Essex, which is such a great story. That seems more obvious, but I’m curious, what about something like The Last Stand, when there have been quite a few books about Custer and Sitting Bull? What about a subject like that makes you inspired to write a book about it, when it isn’t necessarily a brand new story you’re telling from scratch?


Every book I do has been told before, even though what stands out is kind of a personal challenge. All my books are about America, and are known, generally, as books about the sea, but I’m always driven by a sense of what makes America different, through the sense of wilderness. We think of it as the West, but a lot of my books are about the wilderness that preceded that, the sea, and with The Last Stand, I just finished Mayflower, which ends with this terrible Native-English war, King Phillip’s war, and I thought, well, things sort of began that way, where does this lead? Well, in an iconic kind of way, it leads to the battle of Little Big Horn, and I really wanted to go there, because I wanted to explore the West, and I never really had. I grew up a coastal person, primarily, so I spent an extra year out there.


For Why Read Moby Dick?, I’m wondering, do you have a favorite character, someone who you identify with?


Yeah, it’s gotta be Ishmael. When I first read the book, as a senior in high school… I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I had this kind of strange, interesting raising, where I felt completely ousted, stranded inland, and I read the first chapter of Moby Dick, where Ishmael describes the damp, drizzly November of my soul, I, oh my god, that’s just the teenage angst that I experienced! And then he described the city of Manhattan, down there at the Battery, on a Sunday, after a week of being pent up in lead and plaster, looking at the harbor, the ocean beyond, searching for the ungraspable phantom of life. He was just the best friend I had met, yet, and Ishmael is for me a real source of spiritual strength and just a fascinating character.


For you, in a really good history book, what has to happen on page one, or in chapter one, to make you think yeah, this is really my sort of thing and I’m really gonna enjoy this?


It’s the level of writing, and the ability of the author to gauge you with the character, a primary character. And it has to happen on the first page, or I lose interest. I mean, I read so many history books, often many of them academic history, or my own, you know, for what I’m working on, so I end up reading relatively little non-fiction, when it comes to my reading for fun. But you know, if a book grabs me in those first paragraphs, I’m usually hooked.


Could you name a scent, taste or sound that you associate with your childhood?


Well… The scent I associate with my childhood is the scent of a skunk. My dad was an English professor. There was a summer camp my parents had in Vermont, and my brother and I used to try to trap a baby raccoon. But we usually ended up with skunk, more than one. And that smell, just… When I smell that, I think of being a kid.


Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space, or do you have any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, like do you have a magic hat you wear or anything like that?


Yeah, well, my dog is usually near me.


What kind of dog?


Golden retriever, Stella. When it comes to my basement, I work in a basement, and I worked upstairs for a while, and it was just too distracting, looking out the window and seeing stuff. I really go for sensory deprivation. Everyone says “You’re in Nantucket, it must be such an inspiring landscape,” but it really doesn’t work that way for me. I’m really just trying to zero in. What’s important for me, when I’m not writing, is to be around people, because I do spend so much time alone. The community we have on Nantucket year-round is really what buoys me, and an important part of keeping me sane.


Is there anything guaranteed to make you laugh?


I really enjoy what most people refer to as “stupid TV.”


Do you have any superstitions?


Oh I’m… Yes. Very superstitious, in all sorts of ways, you know, I pick up… if I see a penny on the ground, I’ll pick it up. I don’t know, they change, it’s almost for each book, I develop a new series of superstitions. I wear two different sweaters, and my workspace is kept pretty constant. I don’t know, there’s no real pattern to it, but yeah, I’m a little odd in all that.


Can you tell me the story behind the publication of your first major book?


That was In the Heart of the Sea, back in 2000. I had written about the story of the Essex in my first work of history, Away Off Shore, which is a history of Nantucket Island, and one of the chapters talked about the Essex disaster. And it was in ’97, the summer of survival tales: Into Thin Air, Perfect Storm. We were on a sailing vacation, our family, our kids were younger then, and I read those books, and it occurred to me that, you know, the ultimate survival tale is the Essex disaster! And I began to realize, it is not just a story about New England whaling, it was a story about the human condition. And so I sort of walked it down to that, and connected with my agent. That’s sort of what put me on the map.


Could you tell me a funny story related to a book tour or book event?


When I was in Seattle, it was event in a town hall there, and there was quite a line for signing, and then at the end there was this eight year-old, I think he was eight, maybe ten, with his father. And I said, “Can I make out the book to you” and he said “Yes, can you make it out to Nathaniel Philbrick?” And I said, “Well, that’s my name” and he said, “Yeah, that’s my name, too.”


Ok, and last one, tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.


I’m really into music. A part of me would have liked to have been a rock critic, or something like that. I feel like it’s kept me in touch with a generation different from my own.

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at www.noahcharney.com or by joining him on Facebook.