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Going Off the Rails: A Conversation with Lindsay Hatton

One of Chicago Tribune’s “30 Books to Read This Summer,” Lindsay Hatton’s debut novel, Monterey Bay, released tomorrow, follows precocious Margot Fiske, a fifteen-year-old relocated to Monterey Bay by her father, as she navigates a relationship with an older biologist. Representing Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck alongside fictional characters, Hatton blends historical fiction with a compelling coming-of-age narrative set in a beautifully rendered marine landscape, described by Kirkus Reviews as “sensuously precise.” In advance of Hatton's reading at the Harvard Book Store tomorrow, I sat down with her to talk about her hometown, representing John Steinbeck, and what happens behind the scenes at aquariums.

 

Margot’s story alternates between her past as a fifteen-year-old in 1940, and as a woman in 1998. What was it like melding the Monterey Bay that many readers will recognize from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row with the Monterey Bay where you grew up—or are they the same?

They’re very, very different. And it’s interesting: the Cannery Row that I write about in my book—even though it is during Steinbeck’s lifetime, and his era—is a different one than he portrays in his book, Cannery Row. I’m taking the point in time in which the sardine canning and fishing industry in Monterey was reaching its peak, before it took a huge nosedive; Steinbeck wrote Cannery Row from the perspective of maybe a decade before that. In that intervening time there was a lot of change happening. So readers will recognize it, I think, but it’ll be very different from what they might expect, and the same definitely holds true for the Monterey of 1998. That was around the time that my youth in Monterey took place. Growing up there, it was a slower, sleepier, less touristy place than it is today. The aquarium was a smaller institution, too. It hadn’t quite grown into the huge international marine biology juggernaut that it is today. So again, people will recognize the place, but probably some of the details and the perspective will come as a surprise.

Although your protagonist, Margot, is fictional, John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts were important historical figures in the time period that you write about. How did you balance representing real people authentically while creating fictional characters and narrative to surround them?

That was one of the central concerns of the book while I was writing it. I took my portrayals of Steinbeck and Ricketts very seriously. The responsibility of writing about real people is a pretty heavy one, so I definitely did my research. There is no shortage of material on John Steinbeck, in particular. I read the biographies, I did extensive research of his life and times, but what was most valuable for me were all the primary sources: his diary entries and journals and letters. They gave me a great idea of what his true opinions and preoccupations were at that time. Ricketts left behind a lot of essays and journals and letters, too. Between those, I felt like I was really able to get a picture of those men and what their lives, specifically in 1940 in Monterey, might have entailed.

There are some more controversial moves my book makes. The central relationship in it is between Margot, a fifteen-year-old girl, and Ricketts who, at that time, is almost three times Margot’s age. Based on my research, this sort of romance is not at all an impossibility. In Steinbeck’s eulogy of Ricketts, he mentions that, when he first met Ricketts—and I hope I’m quoting this correctly—he was in the “very scholarly and persistent process of deflowering a young girl.” Steinbeck had a beat on Ricketts’ sexual tastes that might have been a bit overblown—because Steinbeck, like me, is a writer and loves to do that—but everything that Steinbeck and Ricketts do and say in the book has grounding in their own writing.

As far as Margot is concerned, I just went completely off the rails. She is an invention. The real-life founder of the aquarium is a woman named Julie Packard who, from my experience with her, bears absolutely no resemblance, temperamentally or in any other way, to Margot Fiske. And I think anyone who knows the real founding story of the aquarium would definitely spot that right away.

There have been a lot of questions along those lines, and it’s been interesting trying to field them. I think it just boils down to your personal taste as a reader. I love Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, and some of Peter Carey’s work, and David Mitchell—you know, it’s clear they’ve done their homework, but they let their imaginations go nuts, and for me that’s very, very exciting as a reader, and as a writer, too. I love that combination. I love that approach to historical fiction.

You write that “human blood contains the exact same liquid-to-salt ratio as the ocean.” The novel hums with gorgeous prose about marine life and its connection to humanity, and it’s clear that you share in some of that connection. Have you studied marine life in the past?

I have. I worked at the Monterey Bay Aquarium when I was younger, and that was my introduction to the field of marine biology. For a while there, that was the career I was thinking of pursuing, but I think it got derailed because I get horribly seasick. I would go out on collecting trips and everyone else was very excited about everything and I’m like, “I’m going to throw up on you! This is not cool.” So a career in marine biology probably wasn’t in the cards. I’m still an amateur enthusiast, though.

You’ll be speaking at Harvard Book Store on July 19th in your new hometown of Cambridge, MA. How does living in the Boston area compare to Monterey Bay?

It’s different in pretty much every way. I love it, though. Especially Cambridge. I feel like I’m really lucky to be here. It’s such a hotbed of such smart, fun people. I guess the similarity to Monterey is that I’m close to the water, and the maritime influence is pretty remarkable in both places. And heading out to somewhere like Gloucester, or certain parts of the Cape, there’s the influence of the fishing industry, even though that’s dwindled in past years. There’s a built-in nostalgia related to it that I find extremely familiar. 

What do you think of the New England Aquarium here in Boston?

It’s great! It was amazing to follow the logistics involved in the refurbishment of that big central tank. I’ve been behind the scenes there and it’s really cool. Something the aquarists I’ve met in aquariums throughout the world have in common is that they all take great pleasure in MacGyver-ing things. At the New England Aquarium, for example, they feed the fish in one tank with an improvised device consisting of a rope, an oscillating fan, and a plastic toy monkey. I love that about aquarists. In addition to being experts on fish and their environments, they’re all inventors.

What are you reading?

I am reading Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn. I just finished Rich and Pretty by Ruman Alaam, and I also read Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon. I highly recommend all three! 

 

Lindsay Hatton is a graduate of Williams College. She holds an MFA from the Creative Writing Program at New York University. She currently resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, but was born and raised in Monterey, California, where she spent many summers working behind the scenes at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. She will be reading at the Harvard Book Store on July 19th at 7:00pm.

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About the Author

Lauren Smith is a recent graduate of Northeastern University, where she studied English with a minor in writing. She has been writing since she knew how to read, and her first great work of fiction synthesized Big Bird, a pretty princess, and the Backstreet Boys. Since then, her work has appeared in Spectrum Literary Arts Magazine, 308 Press, and the Fenway News. In her free time, you can find her curled up reading, practicing martial arts or running around the streets of Boston--if you're fast enough to catch her.

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