Can you talk about some of the books that inspired you while writing? What literary influences exerted themselves strongest? A: I was pretty haunted by the voyage of the
When did you begin writing THE GREAT OFFSHORE GROUNDS? A: The very first pages were written in
December 2012. I stopped writing the day the Sandy Hook Massacre happened and didn’t write anything for another four months. I fought my way into the first hundred pages in 2013 then spent the next year and a half on other projects. My first full draft was in 2016, and I worked on that for two more years. By then, it was only ever referred to as “that effing novel!” As in, “that effing novel took eight years of my life!”
How would describe the novel’s origin story? A: From the beginning, the experiment was
to see if I could marry the elements of story and scope from my favorite 19th century novels with freedom of language at the linelevel. I didn’t want to feel constricted. I love the sonic nature of language, beyond the flow and meaning of the words. I didn’t want to lose the hard rhythms. In everything I write, I start by finding the natural language the work. I’m not afraid of
writing different works differently and have sometimes been told pieces of mine don’t sound like they came from the same author. I think that’s true on the surface, but authorial ‘voice’ always a set of ticks and flinches; it’s a kind of curiosity. The way I need to tell a particular story may change, but the questions that keep me torqued out and up at night—these are pretty consistent. What one finds horrific or beautiful, this is also authorial voice. Finding the language of The Great Offshore Grounds was particularly hard. There is something inherently normalizing about third person, and I really struggled with feeling restricted. It’s a tricky thing. If you get too idiosyncratic at the line-level, a narrator emerges, and you have to start explaining who that person is, which shifts the story. The strength of first person is freedom of voice. The strength of third person is more clarity and wider interactions; it’s like a camera. Whereas first person is like an acid trip or a speed binge or chatty stranger on a long bus ride. There is also a way in which engaging in plot forces you to keep kickstarting the motor. Everywhere you slow down, you risk stalling.
Short story writers think, I have to keep this moment tight now, but when I write my novel, I’ll get to spend time here. Somehow the opposite seems true. You have less time in a novel because after the first twenty pages you’re answering one question: Why is this a novel? Remind me. Why this is 200 pages, 300 pages, 400 pages… and, oh dear lord! This ending better be worth it. The Great Offshore Grounds is shy of 500 pages, but there was a moment when it brushed up again 800 pages. ‘That effing novel!’ had aspirations of being a decade-eater.
Whaleship Essex, which is the non-fiction source that inspired Moby Dick. I had read Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, which is a great and well-researched book. It was made into an atrocious, charactereviscerating movie (come the revolution, Ron Howard, first up against the wall), but the book is wonderful. I couldn’t help but see the parallels to our time. Whale oil was the fuel of its day. Light and heat and lubricant. Whales hunted to the brink of extinction as they approached peak oil; the bloody trap of unfettered capitalism making the last whale alive worth more per pound than all other whales put together — the ideas of America, the cost, what we sign onto—it’s all in that story. I read that book at a time when I was also thinking pretty deeply about the formative novels of my teens and early twenties. Brothers Karamazov, Great Expectations, War and Peace—all the titles that make you boring and unsophisticated at literary events. I was trying to come to terms with plot, which is to say love, which is all plot is. That’s the dirty secret. When people say they don’t feel like the plot is going anywhere, they usually mean there’s no unsettled love story. The love can be between soldiers or
between mentors and novices, but if it’s not there, readers tend to feel disoriented, slightly alienated from the book’s meaning. And if you’re into that kind of thing, that’s fine, but if you’re not, then that assertion becomes, to an extent, the book’s project, which also shapes it. I hated the idea that plot is just love story, even though I had to admit that I wanted to see how love stories end too! I am a lot less sophisticated than I think I should be. That said, I need a novel with the disturbance of unsolvable questions at its core. Lately, I’ve been reading Talmud and Midrash, which I find endlessly fascinating. Karen Russell’s short stories are brilliant, and I’ve been loving her latest collection, Orange World. Sadly, like many people, the intensity of this American moment is so extreme that it’s hard to let go of it and get quiet. I’m better at it now than I was two years ago, but you don’t have to be a prophet to know what’s coming. It’s hard to get your bearing.
Your bio says you have been, at various times, a teenage runaway, a sex worker, a union organizer, an independent record label owner, a train hopper, a waitress, and a mother. What prepared you most to be a writer? A: Work, indigence, and moral failure.
In what ways has your own background informed the characters and sense of place in this novel? A: I have trouble finding a home in things,
circles of people, jobs or ideas. But wherever I am, I feel an urgency to get to the core of things, and that urgency is always there no matter what it is I’m doing. All my experiences have been driven by money and the need to get by though. I’m forever trying to find the thing that can support me that I can stand to do. Sometimes you have no choice and have to do whatever. I didn’t jump trains for the experience. I did it because I had no money and had to go somewhere. I didn’t work in strip joints to explore my sexual power or write a master’s thesis for a degree in Gender Studies. I did it because I was underage and no one would hire me. I didn’t drive night cab for material, I did it because restaurant work dried up in the recession and I desperately needed work. As a result of all these things though, I came to know people in a different way, and the people I know the best, I rarely found in novels. When I did, they were often foils or props or scenery. I frequently feel the people I am most familiar with don’t appear in books, or if they do, they’re props or scenery. My characters are like me, like my friends, like people I meet in various jobs or on the street. They’re
trying to get to the core of things too. Usually people with some kind financial or social grift on the world. I believe that every American is a philosopher at heart. It’s something unique about our nation. Talk to anyone on the street, in any dive bar, or DMV line, talk to any schlub or immigrant behind a convenience store counter, and within two minutes they’ll tell you how they see the world. They’ll hold forth on their philosophy of life at the drop of a hat—It’s like this…The way I see it is… What you have to understand is that…Most people say that, but if you want to know the truth… Opinionated, philosophical rendering is the basic American operating system. We’re all the progeny of bad ideas, childish and vainglorious, dangerous ideas, and grand plans. We all have a take on the game. So do my characters. I used to get told my dialogue sounded too weighty to be real, that nobody talks like that. Yes! They sure as hell do! Stop by your bodega or talk to your cab driver. Set your watch and just see how long it takes before they layout a summarizing theory on life. Then see how long it takes you to start debating it. That’s us. Arrogant, obsessed with our individualism, vocal and aspirational.
What, if any, research did you do for the book? A: The only intentional research I did for
The Great Offshore Grounds (other than
going down the rabbit hole that is the Uniform Code of Military Justice) was to spend a month working on an 1813 tall ship recreation of U.S. Brig Niagara. During that time, I was, unintentionally, crew for a massive reenacted sea battle, the Battle of Lake Erie, which established the North American border with Canada. As a result, I know how to fire a carronade. I have heard the sound of musket fire. I have slept, feverish, in a canvas hammock with my legs swollen and full of chiggers. I have been pitched side to side at night in a storm and slipped on a deck covered in vomit. And I have been rocked by a freak wave-train 115 ft. aloft and had to clutch the rigging on for my life. I am a terrible and untalented sailor. Yet I saw into a world that was not mine. Without that month aboard U.S. Brig Niagara, I could not have written some of the scenes in the novel. I could never have learned what I needed to learn on land. I have always talked to strangers, antisocial or sketchy, people with a sabotaging lack of self-pity. It’s how I listen to the world. But I never think of that as research or people as material. Still, the things they say stick with me. Phrases, a line that captures way of thinking. I apply them to my life to see if they work. I repeat them as cautionary tales. For instance, I know this guy who works at the corner store near my house. He makes minimum wage and stays above the store. He has a liver the size of a baby and no
health insurance, but he won’t sign up for the ACA because he doesn’t want to get on the government’s radar just in case ‘the shit ever goes down.’ He also thinks of the ACA as charity, and I have not been able to talk him out of that. Right now, his hand is all messed up. It keeps freezing in place, and he can’t bend his fingers for days. The real surgery to fix it costs about $5,000 out of pocket. You’d have to be rich or have decent insurance to pay for it. My friend’s a real American, though, so he found a workaround. Instead of letting me help him sign up for Medicaid, he’s letting some doctor do experimental surgery on his hand for free. Not in any clinical setting, mind you, more of an afterhours sort of thing. My friend feels this is a solid move. “It’s an equal trade,” he says, “I help him get a new skill that he can make money from, he helps get my hand working.” The way this low-rent version of the procedure works is that you have to make an incision at the base of the palm and snake a hook up through the hand into the base of the finger at the top of the palm so you can get inside the cut into the sheath that’s around the tendons to make it bigger so the tendons don’t catch and then pull something (?) back through—or that’s how it was explained to me. Like catching yarn with a crochet hook. The problem with this surgery—other than everything—is that you can’t really do it if the
hand is fully anesthetized. Because once you get the hook up into the sheath, you have to have the patient move their fingers to know if you’ve snagged the correct tendon or something. Or, as the doctor told my friend right before incision, “I won’t lie to you, man. This is going to hurt. A real table gripper.” So my friend has the surgery. But it didn’t really work. His hand has gone back to freezing up. But he’s not down because he talked to the doctor again who said, “I’ve been watching some videos on YouTube and I think I know what I did wrong.” My friend thinks this is an encouraging sentence. “Now when someone tells you they know what they did wrong,” says my friend, “Then you know they really know what they’re talking about otherwise they would pretend they knew what they were doing from the beginning. But someone who tells you they didn’t know what they were doing and now they do? That’s someone you can trust. I ask the doctor if he thinks he can do the surgery the right way now, and he says, I think so and asks me if I want him to try again. So I say, yeah, doc. I’d like to see us both for the win this time.” Yeah, doc. I’d like to see us both for the win this time. I laughed for weeks. I’m laughing now. It’s beautiful! Perfect. Everything is in it. That phrase comes to mind every time I decide
to do more of what got me into trouble in the first place. It comes to mind, but it never stops me. I just feel part of the society of folly. I don’t see material in my friend. I see myself. I think about all the ‘good money after bad’ type people in the world—I’m one of them. And so are my characters. I’m never laughing at them. If I had to think of one thing that binds the characters in this book together, it would be the sabotaging lack of self-pity. Yeah, I’d like to see us both for the win this time. What my friend said is totally American. Faith in the future, fear of the government, the trades we make, what we tell ourselves about them. I also hear the devaluing of worth poor people stomach and the heroic lengths they go to find their sense of choice and locate their sense of free will. This is what I mean by a sabotaging lack of selfpity. My friend at the corner store is not in the novel. He is the novel. A piece of all of it.
The book, in many ways, deals with contemporary issues in American culture—unemployment, underemployment, the state of the U.S. healthcare system. As of writing, it’s May 6, 2020. How do you envision Cheyenne and Livy’s lives in this current moment? In what ways do you think this
book speaks to what we’re living through, or what might be on the other side of this? I think much of their lives would be the same. They are already living with uncertain futures and no money. I do know that they would all have different views on social distancing. Livy would definitely be a ‘people die all the time open the economy now’ type, but she would take mask-wearing and handwashing seriously, but mostly because she doesn’t want to feel responsible for other people. Cheyenne would be on the keep everything closed and don’t touch anything, unless she wanted to hook up with someone, then all bets are off. Essex would do what Livy did around Livy and what Cheyenne did around Cheyenne. Kirsten would be sewing masks for domestic violence shelters. Jared would be trying to borrow a rifle so he could rally at the Capitol.
What do you hope readers take away from this book? What feeling do you hope they’re left with? That the wildness of the world is not dead.
What are you working on now? A: Union organizing with nursing home
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The Great Offshore Grounds takes us over the country, from Washington state to Boston, North Carolina to Alaska. What feels distinctly “American” about this novel? What does it say about such a complicated and sprawling country? The idea of “The American Dream” has grown and evolved over the years, and remains a classic lens through which to examine American literature. What does The Great Offshore Grounds say about the American Dream? What is the American Dream to Cheyenne, Livy, and Essex? The Great Offshore Grounds begins with Livy and Cheyenne receiving Ann’s name from their father. What does novel say about inheritance? What does it say about family? Sir Walter Raleigh is a consistent presence in The Great Offshore Grounds. How does his character play into Cheyenne and Livy’s stories? What does he illuminate about their narratives? For a book that is largely about exploring the United States, there is an emphasis on the sea and areas beyond the mainland. What does this emphasis illuminate? In some ways, this is a book about secrets: whose mother is whose; the truth about Ann’s identity; hidden romances; hidden diagnoses. What do these secrets have in common? What do these secrets reveal about the characters? Livy and Cheyenne visit interesting—if unusual—sights over the course of The Great Offshore Grounds. What is the significance of the places and landmarks Livy and Cheyenne explore in the novel?
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What does the novel say about women who explore America? In The Great Offshore Grounds, characters are forced into difficult positions out of need: joining the military for healthcare, selling plasma for money, etc. What do these moments say about “The American Dream”? What do they reveal about America? The Great Offshore Grounds begins with a wedding, and ends with— perhaps—unexpected romantic relationships. What does the novel reveal about romantic love? What does this novel reveal about sex? Though Cheyenne and Livy are at the forefront of the novel, Essex has a remarkable journey as well. How does his narrative relate to Cheyenne and Livy’s? How is it different? For all the traveling taking place in the novel, Kirsten remains relatively stationary. What is the relationship between her narrative and her lack of travel? There are plenty of letters in The Great Offshore Grounds—from Kirstin, Essex, Justine, and in the last chapter, Livy dreams of a letter from Cheyenne. Why emphasize this form of communication? What do letters communicate that dialogue can’t?
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LIVY AND CHEYENNE’S AMERICA Cheyenne and Livy, the sisters at the heart of The Great Offshore Grounds, crisscross the United States motivated by speculation, need, and bad ideas. Penniless and sometimes rudderless, they move through America in search of their place in Late Stage Capitalism. Starting in the Pacific Northwest, the novel travels through mountains and Badlands, the Rust Belt and college towns, pine forests and deserts, the deep south and Alaska and down the shores of the west coast. History accompanies them as a tone or a shadow, something caught out of the corner of one’s eye There are colonial ghosts and tall ships and myths of founding. Never far from the echo of First Nations, waves of immigrant labor, homesteaders, sharecroppers, and the Confederacy, they navigate extreme weather and the lives of poor people. My own experiences traveling across the country came very early. When I was four, my mom left my dad and drove my brother and me from Alaska to Texas in a VW bus. We slept in rest areas and at beaches all the way down the west coast. A year later, my father and his new wife drove us from New Jersey back up to Alaska in a VW bug with a golden retriever on
our laps and everything they owned strapped to the top. We slept in campsites, bathed in ponds, camped by rivers and fled from them in the middle of the night when they flooded. These trips formed my earliest memories. I continued to move throughout my childhood, and, as a fifteen-year-old, I hitchhiked 15,000 miles crisscrossing this country. I lived in truck stops or under bridges, and occasionally scraped up enough for a night in a ratty hotel. I met all types of people, some predatory, some kind; many were grifters, people with seemingly sound plans—but all with their own ideas about America and how they were going to make it. While Livy and Cheyenne’s journeys are theirs alone, The Great Offshore Grounds has been called my “unsentimental love letter to America” (Scout Brobst) and it is. The future is uncertain. There are terrible depths to this world. And yet there is also a wildness of becoming, stamped into us, branded on, dangerous and remarkable, delusional and visionary, and I believe in that.