Yesterday Nick Dybek was announced as the latest Granta New Voice. He spoke to online editor Ted Hodgkinson about his forthcoming novel, When Captain Flint Was Still A Good Man, finding the ‘right’ location for the story, the writers who have most influenced him and why he has become a fanatical record collector.
TH: One of the things that fascinated me about ‘When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man’ is the slight blurring between the family’s reality on Loyalty Island and the fictions that the son (and our narrator) is captivated by, particularly Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Would you say that his fascination with ‘doomed pirates’ and their fates is his way of making sense of the violence and chaos of his young life?
ND: In children’s books the villains are usually doomed while the heroes make it to the end; in Treasure Island, for example, the reader knows Jim Hawkins will survive because he’s telling the story, but there’s no such guarantee for John Silver. It’s Silver that you need to fear for. Perhaps because of this, I was always more interested in the villains than the heroes when I was a kid.
I imagined Cal, the narrator, to be similarly fascinated by the villains of Treasure Island, by the tension they produce whenever they step on the page. As your question suggests, anxiety and apprehension are familiar feelings for Cal; his father (and all his male role models) live with constant, excruciating risk, a sword always hanging over their heads. Because of their jobs, they are imperilled – just as a book’s villains are in the mind of a child-reader. It made sense to me, therefore, that Cal would identify his father with the endangered and yet dangerous pirates; at the same time, I thought he would want to see his father as a hero. I think the Captain Flint stories resonate for him in part because they offer a means of reconciling those competing impulses.
Fatherhood here seems to be presented as an ill-fitting mask. When he returns to his family, after long intervals, the father veers between being heroic and unknowable and even, at times, sinister. His shaving stubble left in the sink is unexpectedly red to his son; a mistake gutting fish produces disappointment and when the son corrects his father’s use of the word ‘mensa’ he loses his temper. Does the son’s fascination with the also shadowy yet paternal figure of Captain Flint have to do with his wanting to understand what makes a hero (or a father figure) fall from grace?
As I wrote, I was definitely interested in exploring the ways we negotiate between our often-idealized images of the people we know or love, and those people as they truly are. This turned out to be an especially complicated negotiation for the people of Loyalty Island, a community in which a significant part of the population – and nearly all the father figures – are gone for half the year. Their collective absence makes them easy to aggrandize; their continuous absence makes the resulting romantic image slow to dissolve. It also turned out to be a complicated negotiation for Cal, whose adolescence is itself putting pressure on long-held assumptions, hopes, and illusions. It’s his age as much as anything that causes him to test his father by correcting him in conversation, or to search for clues about who he really is in the stubble left in the sink. I think this sort of detective work is something Cal is conscious of only in retrospect; at the time of the action, it is much easier for him to think about Captain Flint, to question the motives of a made-up character rather than a real one.
There’s a nightmarish scene in which the father recounts a story about Sam North, the fisherman he worked alongside who ‘suffered most’, who is caught beneath a crab pot and plunges down to the sea bed. Our narrator tells us that his face returns to him in dreams often. Do dreams and nightmares, I wonder, have as much hold over us as our waking lives?
I think dreams – waking dreams and flights of imagination anyway – probably do, especially for children and adolescents. A child has no choice but to encounter certain things in his mind first, to rely on stories and rumours to substitute for the actual experience – having a job, kissing someone, travelling – that will come later. You mentioned the blurring of reality and fiction in your first question, and I think that blur is as good a definition of childhood as anything else. Maybe it’s what draws so many writers to the adolescent perspective; during that time, imagination and experience are in a death match, one made no less compelling by the expectation that experience will get the pin.
Dreams, nightmares, and imagination absolutely have a hold on Cal, as they do on many members of his community. In fact, the role imagination might play in such a landscape is part of what drew me to it. So much of life in Loyalty Island is defined by what occurs in a place – Alaska, a harrowing, awesome, extreme place – a thousand miles away, which leaves the town’s inhabitants unusually reliant on their imaginations. The pressure this mystery might put on a community’s dream-life – how its inhabitants might shape that unknown place even as it shapes them – fascinated me.
You write poetically about Loyalty Island and its relationship to the elements, especially the sea. What part does a sense of place and intimate knowledge of local details, such as tides, play in your writing?
I did a lot of research and even moved to Seattle to be closer to what I was trying to write about, but I wouldn’t say that my knowledge of the Northwest, the sea, or any towns on the Olympic Peninsula is close to intimate. I grew up in Michigan. I can barely read a tide chart. That said, getting the sensory and cultural details of the place right, capturing the insular nature of the community as well as its dramatic landscape, was very important to me. But I guess I should back up because ‘right’ is a misleading word in this context – maybe it would be a better to say ‘convincing.’ There is no ‘right,’ because there is no Loyalty Island, WA; the town is based on a few different places, Port Angeles, Port Townsend, and Newport, OR, for example, but I wasn’t necessarily trying for verisimilitude.
It was definitely important to me, however, to write about a setting that fuelled my imagination – maybe because place lends itself to physical and sensory description, and such description is the portal to so much else in fiction. A lot of writers find this spark in a setting they do know intimately from childhood or later experience, but, for whatever reason, that hasn’t happened for me. When I had the initial idea for this novel, I had to really look for a setting that I could draw from, one that would inspire invention. It was kind of interesting how it worked out; I was trying to imagine a place, Loyalty Island, and in doing so was living in parallel to the narrator, who is trying to imagine life in Alaska.
Objects such as the son’s toys and the father’s knife seem to play a vital role here, with lives of their own that seem to continue without their owners. As a prose writer are you drawn to write the lives of these inanimate things as you might be to one of your characters?
These objects are important, but mostly as they relate to and illuminate character. As I was writing When Captain Flint . . . I was interested in the way the characters’ relationships to objects might articulate their more inchoate feelings; Cal’s attachment to his Lego ships, for example, might say something about his anxious view of his place in the culture that he can’t say directly. I’m excited that you noted the role of objects in this excerpt because the characters continue to use objects to express, or even to define, themselves later on. For example, Cal’s mother is a serious record collector; she even has a room in their home devoted to her collection. That room and the music within it take up a fair amount of space not only on later pages, but in the minds and emotional lives of the characters who occupy them.
It’s an interesting time to be thinking about the role of objects (in fiction and in life), given that the necessity for books, records, movies, and even the sort of board games Cal and his father play is diminishing with digitization. I’ve always been a big music fan, and since the rise of mp3s and digital downloads I’ve become nearly as obsessive a record collector as Cal’s mother. Once CDs went obsolete I tried iTunes, but missed the feeling of going to the record store, of flipping through the stacks, of inspecting the shine on the vinyl. Even though the physical properties of records have very little to do with the music they play, their tactility gets me closer to something that I care about – something that has always been a big part of how I think about myself. I think the characters in this novel pay special attention to objects of significance to them for similar reasons; those objects help them realize and express the identities they’ve invented for themselves.
The son poses a question about the ‘larger destiny’ of the men his father works with as if it might be something external, as opposed to coming from character itself. Is this one of the questions that the son is trying to figure out?
Certainly Cal is trying to figure out his own ‘larger destiny’ and the role of his father’s work in it. I think it becomes quickly clear to him that his character doesn’t suit the place and time into which he was born. At the same time, the extreme sacrifices members of this community make for their livelihood drive them to romanticise their work. Even though Cal doubts his own suitability for fishing, he is as susceptible to this pressure to aggrandize it as anyone else (his fondness for adventure stories might even make him more susceptible). This tradition of describing daily life in romantic terms such as ‘destiny’ continues to influence and afflict Cal, even once he’s old enough to reject it.
Robert Louis Stevenson is clearly a writer who means a lot to you. Which other writers have been important touchstones for you?
For this project I went back to a couple of classic memoirs about adolescence, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff and Stop-Time by Frank Conroy. The influence of those books on the sensibility and the prose is probably apparent. I’m also a big Graham Greene fan: I love his control of tone, his economical but beautiful prose, his unexpected black humour. I also love that his adventure stories make use of all the expected conventions – romantic settings, betrayal, and intrigue – and yet his grasp of psychology is so acute that the most compelling adventure occurs inside the characters.
Your father, Stuart Dybek, is one of the most celebrated American voices of his generation, particularly known as one of the quintessential Chicagoan writers. To me your voice is entirely distinctive and yet it is striking that you write about patrimony with such insight here. As a father has he been encouraging of your writing and what has your journey been with negotiating his influence (if you have considered it to be one)?
The first or second day I was in Iowa City, a friend shoved a copy of The Anxiety of Influence into my hands. I appreciated his concern, but I haven’t gotten around to reading the book. Certainly I learned to love reading from both of my parents, though I probably came to creative writing a little later than I would have otherwise had my dad not been a writer. It didn’t seem like much of a rebellion. Did he encourage me once I began writing seriously? He’s always happy to offer help when I’ve asked, whether in the form of criticism, advice, or a pep talk. On the other hand, I got married a few months ago, and my dad gave a toast at the wedding in which he admitted to whispering words like ‘astronomer,’ ‘physicist,’ and ‘marine biologist’ to me in my crib.
Can you tell me what you are working on right now?
Struggling through the opening of a novel about the aftermath of World War I. So far it has involved lot of research; there are more great books about the subject than I could ever read. They’re all a little depressing, though.
You can read the full extract from When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man, here.
Photograph courtesy of Nick Dybek