Historia talks to Ian McGuire about the pleasures and challenges of writing historical fiction and his Gold Crown shortlisted novel, The North Water.
The North Water is quite a step away from your previous novel, Incredible Bodies. Why the move to historical fiction?
After I finished Incredible Bodies, which was a comedy set in the present day, I spent quite a lot of time trying to figure out what to write next. I began another novel which was quite similar to the first one, but I wasn’t happy with it, and after that I decided, quite self-consciously, that I needed to try something different. Writing historical fiction felt very strange at first, but after a while I found it quite liberating. Because no one knows what it was actually like to work on an Arctic whaling ship, once you’ve done the research, you know as much about the facts as anyone can, and you are free to use your imagination to fill in the gaps. Writing about the present may be easier in some ways—because it’s all around you—but for me the present offers less room for manoeuvre. That’s not to say I’m going to write historical novels forever, but I think I’ll stick with it for a while at least.
How did the initial idea for The North Water come about?
After I had decided that I needed to try something different, I first began 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. 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 realised 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. So, that became the seed of The North Water.
Historical research: a pleasure or a chore?
Pleasure mainly. I really enjoy the broad background reading on period, place, etc., but chasing after the tiny historical details for the sake of accuracy can feel like a chore sometimes.
Did your research for this book turn up anything unexpected?
Lots of things. I didn’t know much about Arctic whaling, the Indian Mutiny, Inuits, or Polar Bears before I started the novel. So it was definitely an education. Just one example: Patrick Sumner, the protagonist of The North Water, is a surgeon so I did a fair amount of research into medicine in the 1850s, and I was surprised at how primitive it still was then. Before the development of the germ theory of disease, doctors were really pretty clueless. They had almost no idea about hygiene or how to control infections. I tend to think of the Victorian period as prefiguring the modern era, but in terms of medicine, in mid-century at least, they were miles away.
Antonia Senior, Chair of judges said, ‘Our shortlisted writers, although very different in subject and style, all share a talent for making the past holler to the present.’ Were you conscious of any modern day parallels when writing the book?
I think historical novels usually tell us as much about the period in which they are written as they do about the period in which they are set. Every writer is inevitably influenced by the concerns and customs of the world around them, even if that influence often comes out in ways which they are not fully conscious of. The North Water is an adventure story, but it’s also a novel about violence and power and particularly about the relationship between the human and the animal world – all issues which we think and worry about today. As I was writing it, I thought quite a bit about the ways in which human beings are similar or different to animals. Henry Drax, the murderer at the heart of the novel, is in many ways an animal. He has no conscience, doesn’t worry about the future or the past, and he operates almost entirely by instinct. But to describe him that way is also slightly unfair to animals, so I wanted to include other more appealing versions of animality in the novel as well. That’s where the polar bears come in. It’s certainly not an environmentalist novel, but it touches on some of those concerns.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing routine, if you have one?
My writing routine is pretty simple. I like to write in the morning, and I definitely can’t do anything meaningful after about 5pm. I’m a slow writer, but I’m persistent. My main problem these days is being distracted by the internet—I need it for research, but if I’m not careful I end up checking email, reading new sites etc etc. (Many other writers have the same problem these days I know).
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
Read a lot. Look carefully and think hard about how the writers you admire manage to do what they do. Don’t worry about being too influenced by what you read. Originality usually means adding something to what already exists, rather than reinventing from scratch. If you work hard and have some talent then your own voice and style will come through.
Which recent novels, historical or otherwise, would be on your personal shortlist?
Setting aside the other four terrific historical novels already on the HWA shortlist, these are some novels I’ve enjoyed in the last year or so: Colm Toibin, The House of Names; Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs; Peter Stamm, To the Back of Beyond; Beth Underdown, The Witchfinder’s Sister; Bernard MacLaverty, Midwinter Break.
In her recent Reith lectures for the BBC, Hilary Mantel has spoken brilliantly on the relationship between historical fiction and the study history. I can’t add anything helpful to what she has already said there, but I would encourage anyone who is interested in historical fiction to listen to the lectures online.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
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.
And finally, just for fun, can you describe your book in five words?
Herman Melville meets Cormac McCarthy.
Ian McGuire grew up near Hull, England, and studied at the University of Manchester and the University of Virginia. He is the cofounder and codirector of the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing. The North Water was longlisted for the Booker Prize and was one of the New York Times best books of 2016. It is shortlisted for the HWA Endeavour Ink Gold Crown.