I first read King Lear in college. My professor was going blind and was trying to memorize the complete works of Shakespeare before he could no longer read. He liked to recite parts of the plays we were studying, and I remember him standing in front of the classroom, on the verge of tears, his voice breaking as he delivered Lear’s lines after Cordelia’s death. I’m fascinated by the way that family can cause desire and obligation to come into conflict, and maybe because I have girls myself, I wanted to write about what it would mean for a daughter to try to take on her father’s mantle.
There’s something really appealing about a using the framework of King Lear to create something wholly new and original. How true did you feel like you had to stay to Shakespeare?
In my early drafts I was probably closer to King Lear, but I wasn’t really trying to do Lear and Lobsters. I think some of the mash-ups and retellings of classic literature are great, but The Lobster Kings is more of an homage to Shakespeare than a faithful retelling. I like to think that I’ve got the grand scope of King Lear, the humor and tragedy, the sibling rivalry and action — enough that fans of King Lear will love the book — but that The Lobster Kings is a novel that stands completely on its own.
Cordelia Kings is an unforgettable narrator — she’s fierce and funny and loyal and fighting to live up to her family legacy in what is a traditionally male environment. What drew you to having such a strong female voice guide the book?
It’s funny, because as the publication of The Lobster Kings approaches I’m starting to get that question a lot, and the truth is that I hadn’t really thought about it. Cordelia is so alive to me that I can’t imagine her any other way. She’s a woman in a job that has been almost exclusively dominated by men, and she’s in line to take over from her father as the leader of this band of lobster fishermen on Loosewood Island. Cordelia doesn’t have any choice but to be strong. Her sisters are tough in their own way, but Cordelia’s voice is what drives the novel. I think she’s the kind of heroine who will really appeal to readers, men and women alike. Cordelia is complicated and human, struggling with a heavy burden: how do you bear the weight of a family’s history?
In reviewing Touch, The Washington Post wrote that you’d created “one of the more remarkable and original characters in recent fiction, a figure who suggests Paul Bunyan as imagined by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.” In The Lobster Kings, is Cordelia that same sort of mythic figure?
I think Cordelia is the kind of narrator who will stay with readers long after they finish the book, but that comes from her being real, rather than mythical. No, the mythic figures in this book are her father, Woody Kings, and the first member of the Kings’ family to settle on Loosewood Island, Brumfitt Kings, an artist and mystic. One of the things that drives the book is that Cordelia is strong and passionate but unsure if she can live up to the legacy of her family, unsure that she can live up to the mythic nature of her father and Brumfitt Kings. Fair enough: one of her first memories of her father is having him walk across the water while carrying her in his arms, and Brumfitt Kings’ wife was a gift from the ocean, washed to shore on a wave. That’s a tough legacy to have to compete with.
Can you tell us about how you approached The Lobster Kings compared to your first novel, Touch? Touch was published in a dozen countries and drew international acclaim and award nominations; did you feel pressured to live up the promise of your first novel?
I was lucky in that I started a residency literally the day after I sold Touch. There was no phone and limited Internet. I’d been itching to get going on The Lobster Kings and was able to carve out the shape of the novel before the idea of being published really took hold. It’s thrilling to know that Touch has been published in so many countries — and The Lobster Kings is going to be published in at least five countries so far — because so much of being a writer is sitting by yourself in a room and trusting that what you are doing will eventually make its way out into the world. I’m a big believer in the idea that literature teaches both what it means to be human and that as we sit alone reading, we aren’t alone, and I hope that The Lobster Kings will be that kind of book for readers. I’m incredibly proud of this book and I’m excited that early responses have been so positive. While people who loved Touch will come to The Lobster Kings eagerly, I think it’s really different book. The Lobster Kings is a huge step forward in terms of ambition and execution, and as my wife often says, I put much more pressure on myself as a writer than what comes from any outside source.
Touch is so grounded in its environment — a number of readers have tried to insist that Sawgamet is based on a real place even though it’s a fictional setting — that it must have been hard to switch to the east coast. What inspired you to create Loosewood Island, the setting of The Lobster Kings?
I think, like a lot of people, I first fell in love with the area on vacation. It’s such a rugged and beautiful area, where sheer cliffs and rock push against the water, and I was really intrigued by what it means to work the water. I have so much admiration for fisherman — for all of the people who do these dangerous jobs that aren’t always financially rewarding but put food on our tables — and I wanted to do what I did in Touch, which was to create a place that is wholly invented but feels true and vivid. Plus, it was a fantastic excuse to spend time in Maine and eastern Canada. As a writer, it was also great to work with this sort of blank slate of an island. In some ways, Loosewood Island is exactly what Cordelia believes it is, and in other ways it’s a place that is real and grounded. Readers are going to want to head to the east coast for their next vacation.
While you haven’t lost any of the literary language or imagery from Touch, The Lobster Kings is full of action and sibling rivalry and love lost and won. Was it a deliberate choice to make The Lobster Kings faster paced?
Touch was, among other things, a novel about memory and loss, and the word that I most often saw in reviews was “elegiac.” Reviews called Touch beautiful and haunting, but I wanted to write a literary novel that read with a real sense of urgency. Some of what you’re asking about, particularly the theme of sibling rivalry, was a function of the novel bouncing off King Lear, and some of it comes from having a narrator as strong as Cordelia trying to step into an impossible situation. But a lot of it was that I wanted to write a book that had the same sort of literary chops as Touch — all of the attention to language, imagery, and characters — while giving readers the kind of book that they’d finish and turn to a friend and say, “you’ve got to read this.” The kind of literary novel that you take with you on vacation and stay up until 2 a.m. to finish.