Move Over, Herman Melville: UVA Alum’s Whaling Novel Going to TV

British author Ian McGuire studied American literature and published his first short story while a Ph.D. student at UVA.

Casting about for the subject of his second novel, Ian McGuire followed his interest in American literature, and specifically the work of Herman Melville.

McGuire, a University of Virginia alumnus who earned his Ph.D. in English, eventually wrote “The North Water,” published to acclaim in spring 2016. The New York Times named it one of the 10 best novels of that year, and it was longlisted for England’s prestigious Man Booker Prize.

Among other glowing reviews, “Wolf Hall” author Hilary Mantel called the novel “a tour de force of narrative tension and a masterful reconstruction of a lost world that seems to exist at the limits of the human imagination.” Another British novelist, Martin Amis, wrote: “This is a novel that takes us to the limits of flesh and blood. Utterly convincing and compelling, remorselessly vivid, and insidiously witty, ‘The North Water’ is a startling achievement.”

Unlike Melville’s classic, “Moby Dick,” which takes place in the South Pacific, McGuire’s story takes readers to the frigid North Atlantic and icy edge of Greenland. The ship’s surgeon, Patrick Sumner, must contend with an evil character onboard rather than that behemoth, the great white whale. The novel includes meticulous details about life aboard a 19th-century whaling ship and survival in the Arctic.

“The North Water” will be made into a BBC mini-series, going into production this summer. Screenwriter and director Andrew Haigh has taken on the five-episode project. He was assistant editor on Hollywood blockbusters “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down,” and has written and directed his own films – most recently “45 Years” and “Lean on Pete.”

McGuire, who has taught at the University of Manchester since 1996 and founded the university’s Centre for New Writing in 2007, also has taught at the University of North Texas. From across the Atlantic, he wrote to UVA Today about the UVA professors that made an impression on him and the unexpected turns that led him to write this thriller about an ill-fated whaling trip.

Q. What led you to write this novel?

A. The novel had some unusual beginnings. After finishing my first novel, “Incredible Bodies,” I was looking around for a new subject. I had plenty of ideas, but I wasn’t sure any of them were really good. I finally decided to write a biographical novel about Herman Melville. I’ve always admired Melville’s work, and I thought his life was unusual enough to make a good novel.

I also very much admired Colm Toibin’s biographical novel about Henry James, “The Master,” and I thought I could possibly write something along those lines. So I began reading and researching and also writing. I made reasonable progress, but after about a year I felt things weren’t quite coming together as I hoped they would.

At the time, I was reading books about whaling in order to write about Melville’s years at sea, and I came across a facsimile edition of the diary written by Arthur Conan Doyle when, as an 18-year-old Edinburgh medical student, he spent a summer as a surgeon on an Arctic whaling ship. The diary itself, although interesting, doesn’t contain anything terribly unusual, but the fact that it was written by the creator of Sherlock Holmes made me think that, if a person was so inclined, they could write a murder mystery set aboard a whaling vessel.

Q. What made you want to portray these characters, this setting?

A. I didn’t at first think that was a book I myself wanted to write, but the more I thought about it, the more appealing it seemed. I realized it wouldn’t need to be an orthodox whodunit, and in fact that if we knew from the beginning who the killer was, that might make it more powerful. That became the seed of “The North Water.”

Most of the historical details in “The North Water” come from firsthand accounts written at the time, particularly journals kept by ship’s surgeons, who, because they were educated and had time on their hands, were more likely to record their experiences than other crew members. I also went back to Hull [England] where I grew up and where the novel opens, and, using old maps, I visited the places where in the 19th century the Greenland whaling ships would dock and where the blubber and whalebone would be processed.

Q. How did the BBC TV series come about? Will you have any involvement with that?

A. The novel was optioned by See Saw Productions quite soon after it was published. They thought it would work well as a five- or six-episode TV series, and they managed to persuade Andrew Haigh, who is a fantastic young English writer/director, to take on the project. Then they worked their magic and got the BBC on board also.

I believe they will shoot it this summer, but I don’t know yet when it will actually be shown.

My involvement is pretty limited. I met Andrew, and he’s sent me the drafts of some episodes, which all looked great, but I’m not going to have much direct input, and I’m happy about that. I’m a novelist, not a screenwriter, and, having seen and admired Andrew’s previous work, I’m sure he knows exactly what he’s doing and he’s going to do a great job with it.

Q. You got your Ph.D. in English. What made you choose UVA?

A. I was at UVA between 1990 and 1996. I came to UVA because I knew I wanted to study American literature, and UVA had a very strong reputation in that area.

I had a great time in Charlottesville. I’d never lived in America before, so everything felt new and interesting to me.

Q. What was your thesis about? Which professors did you work with?

A. The English department was intellectually very lively and stimulating, and I made lots of good friends there. I ended up writing my dissertation on the economic and political contexts of late 19th-century American fiction (including a chapter on Herman Melville). My dissertation supervisor was Eric Lott [who taught for more than 20 years at UVA], and I also took memorable classes with Chip Tucker, Deborah McDowell and Arthur Kirsch [professor emeritus].

Although I wasn’t officially part of the Creative Writing Program, I was also lucky enough to get the chance to sit in on a fiction workshop with Deborah Eisenberg [who taught at UVA from 1994 until 2011], which was a great treat. Deborah was wise and encouraging, and when you are just beginning to write, that makes a big difference.

I published my first short story while I was living in Charlottesville, and I also met my wife Abigail Christenson (who was a graduate student in art history). It was certainly a formative period of my life, and I look back on it now with a good deal of nostalgia.

Q. You teach at the University of Manchester. Did you always want to be a writer? A professor?

A. At some point in my early 20s, when I was still an undergraduate in England, it occurred to me that teaching in an English department would be a really good job for a writer, because you would get paid for reading and talking about literature, plus you would have time to write your own stuff. And so that’s been more or less the path I’ve followed.

There have been plenty of ups and downs, but overall I would say that my early, slightly naïve assessment was pretty accurate. It is a good job for a writer: you get to spend time with interesting colleagues, you get to meet younger people who love writing and books, and, best of all, you get to read and reread the classics. My own fiction is definitely rooted in the work of earlier, greater writers who I’ve been fortunate enough to study and teach over the years.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. I’m writing a novel set in Manchester in 1867. It starts with the public hanging of three members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (a precursor of the IRA) for the murder of a Manchester policeman. The hangings are a matter of historical fact, but the novel then goes on to imagine possible consequences involving revenge attacks, spies, murders, betrayals and so on. The history of Irish Republican activity in Victorian England is fascinating and not very widely known about, so it struck me as a good basis for a novel. 

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Anne E. Bromley

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