An Interview with Alexi Zentner, Author of The Lobster Kings

Alexi Zentner Lobster King headshot for W.W. NortonBuilding on the critical success of his first novel, Touch, Alexi Zentner’s second release, The Lobster Kings, appeared last year to widespread acclaim. Set on fictional Loosewood Island near the border between Maine and Canada, The Lobster Kings follows first-person protagonist Cordelia Kings in her struggle to claim the mantle of leadership from her lobsterman father, Woody Kings. Alexi took time out recently from writing and teaching to speak with Dead Darlings about his work,  and his involvement as a reader with GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator.

Dead Darlings: The problem of succession plays a central role in Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, which you have artfully used as a jumping-off point for The Lobster Kings. Can you describe how this issue presents itself at the beginning of your novel?

Alexi Zentner: Shakespeare really focuses on what it means to be the person who gives away the kingdom, but I’m more interested in the question of what it means to be the person who is going to inherit the kingdom, particularly when, as it is in the case of Loosewood Island, the kingdom is a fragile one. I’m also influenced by being the father of two girls. I was thinking about what it means for a daughter to be stepping into a role that was supposed to be reserved for a son. So much of being a parent is saying to your child, do this, don’t do that, but at some point — usually earlier than we’d like — we sort of cast them off into the sea where they will have to make new decisions, and all we can do is hope that we’ve taught them why they should do or not do certain things. The question of succession in this book for Cordelia is just that: can she make the right decisions without her father present? Because it’s clear to her that if she doesn’t, everything that she holds dear about Loosewood Island might crumble.

DD: Building on this theme of inheriting the kingdom, one of the first big decisions Cordelia makes after her father’s health starts to decline is to go after Eddie Glouster, the drug dealer, without consulting her dad. Can you talk about that scene at Eddie’s house, and the choice you made in allowing the confrontation to escalate in that way?

AZ: Cordelia is a grown woman and a strong woman, but she’s spent almost her entire life under the shadow — and protection — of her father. One of the questions you always have to ask is, why this story and why this day? Well, part of the “why this day?” answer with The Lobster Kings is because it starts at the point where Cordelia is beginning to understand that sooner or later she’s going to have to live a life without her father there. She’s coming to grips with the idea of what it means to have an aging parent. Eddie Glouster is a trigger for her, because her first real interaction with him, one that goes poorly, was the result of one of Woody’s rare failures: it was her father who asked her to take Eddie out as a sternman.

And even though Cordelia takes care of herself, Woody takes it upon himself to make sure Eddie gets the message. So by the time Cordelia confronts Eddie outside of her house, she’s dealing with both her father’s health concerns and at the same time confronted by the realization that maybe her father doesn’t always make the right decisions. For her, this is an opportunity to prove that she is her own person and can handle problems without him looming over her shoulder. It’s also important to her that she has her peers with her. She certainly could have walked away or handled things differently, but part of her actions were to send a message to the lobstermen who are her contemporaries: she’s ready to take control. Plus, frankly, she thinks Eddie is an asshole.

DD: Meanwhile, when she isn’t mixing it up with asshole drug dealers from James Harbor, hauling lobster pots out of the ocean, or establishing her leadership role among the roughneck lobstermen of Loosewood Island, Cordelia has a feminine side. Can you tell me what may have prevented her from having a long-term relationship with a man up until now, and what she sees in Kenny Treat?

AZ: The only thing keeping Cordelia from having a successful long-term relationship until now is the same thing that holds everybody back: the right person. Of course, meeting the right person is somewhat dependent on being the right person, and earlier in her life, Cordelia wasn’t at the point where it would work. In the book, she talks about her time dating Timmy, about living with him, and about the way that they couldn’t help picking at each other. Some of that was simply who she was at the time she dated him. And later, when she has a fling with Otto, she has a sense that he was the kind of man she might have been able to have a relationship with if he lived on the island.

Part of the problem is that the island doesn’t have a large population, so her choices were limited to begin with, and part of the problem is that Cordelia is strong and feisty, and the men she is most attracted to — lobstermen, primarily — aren’t always progressive. It’s one thing to accept Cordelia as a lobsterman and a leader, it’s another thing for those men to accept that in a relationship. One of the things that appealed to her about Kenny is that he is so confident in himself and secure enough in his masculinity that he was never threatened by her. She was attracted to him from the jump.

DD: Cordelia likes to paint when she’s not captaining her boat. This artistic bent connects her to Brumfitt Kings, the first member of Cordelia’s family to settle on Loosewood Island generations ago. Brumfitt’s paintings, and Cordelia’s interpretations of them, provide a wonderful historical counterpoint to present-day action in The Lobster Kings. Can you talk about the connection between fiction and painting, and how you’ve chosen to put that connection to work?

AZ: A friend of mine who is not a writer complained to me a few years ago about how many times in books or stories the main character was a writer. It makes sense that we’d do that, since writers, like most people, are primarily preoccupied with themselves, but I thought about my friend’s complaint. Fair enough. But there are some times when I want to talk at least a little bit about the way in which we tell stories. Or maybe I want to talk about it a lot. Both my first novel, Touch, and The Lobster Kings are preoccupied with the idea of how an event becomes a story becomes a myth, both on the national level and on the level of character and family. And having Brumfitt be a painter and then Cordelia interpreting those paintings — and being an artist, if a less accomplished one, in her own right — is another chance to think about stories and legends.

One of the beautiful things about art, when it is done properly, is that it has a reservoir of meaning and emotion that can be dipped into over and over again by the reader (or viewer or listener….). I often tell students that the best stories have layer after layer and can be read over and over again and still have new things to find. The terrific cheat of having Brumfitt be a painter is that, because it’s a novel and I don’t have to serve up the actual paintings, I can simply give Cordelia’s interpretations. The interpretations are real, in that the painting Cordelia is responding to is a real painting that she knows, but they also open up questions for the reader. On a much simpler level, having Brumfitt be a painter was simply a way to show the island as it was and to give Cordelia (and Woody) the opening to figure out how much of the way Brumfitt saw the island was the truth and still is. I also think that one of my interests in Brumfitt — and Kenny and Cordelia and many others — as a painter is the interest that most artists have with art in general.

41YZBTa+p6LDD: Just as Brumfitt’s paintings portray the beauty and violence of life on the Maine Coast, so does your novel. I was struck by the precise power of your violent scenes. What have you learned along the way about how best to render physical and emotional conflict?

AZ: I think a lot of beginning writers get tripped up in the choreography of writing action. They spend too much time imagining how a fight or violence will look and not enough time picturing it. Punches are thrown and shots are fired and it all happens in some theoretical space. When writing action, it’s critical to have a real sense of the room or the place where your characters are sitting. How big is the desk that he’s lunging across? What kind of a knife is she holding? Does the rock that she hits her head on already exist as part of the scene, or is it only there for her to hit her head on? That’s all stuff that just takes a little diligence, however, while allowing your characters to cause or be part of violence is another matter. I’ve had to tell a number of younger writers that they needed to remember that just because they are nice people, that didn’t mean their characters had to be.

A certain amount of fiction is allowing characters to act as if nobody is watching them, letting the part of them that they think is hidden come to the front. It means focusing on the day that your character actually punches the guy in line ahead of him instead of on the day when he just wants to. All of that being said, none of it matters if you don’t have the conflict that is consistent with the character you’ve created. For Cordelia, so much of who she is comes from who her father wants her to be, and her idea of who she thinks her father is, and there is a real streak of stubbornness in both of them. That’s part of what makes them successful on the water. A captain needs to be in charge. But they also both know how to run a crew, and are interested in first seeing if they can work things out. I like to say that, for Cordelia, violence isn’t her first option, but it’s not her last option either.

DD: Staying in the realm of craft, I was struck by how well-rounded your first-person narration seemed. Even though Cordelia has a strong, distinctive voice, her telling of the story never feels  claustrophobic, in part because her descriptions of other characters, and the settings they inhabit, are so vivid. Can you talk about your use of first-person voice in this novel?

AZ:  Cordelia’s voice was the key to unlocking the novel for me. I’d been sitting on the book for a while, but when I had the first sentence it helped me figure out how she thought of herself. I think the trick to writing first person is to always remember that you are writing from the point of view of a singular person. I’m not writing a woman, I’m writing this woman. Actually, that’s probably the trick of writing all characters at all times: write them as the complicated, individual characters that you desire. Otherwise, you get caricatures instead of characters. For this particular novel, however, I wanted to have a narrator who was more internal than she thinks she is; I doubt Cordelia would think of herself as introspective. Part of who she is, however, forces her into being somebody who looks closely and thinks deeply about what is around her.

Because of the family history and the importance of Brumfitt Kings and art, she’s conscious of the visual world, and because of the place of the Kings in terms of being the protectors of Loosewood Island, she has to be aware about who is around her and how they are interacting. I also think it’s important to note that she’s coming from a family that valued education. While Cordelia never wanted to be anything other than a lobsterman, her father and she and both of her sisters went to good colleges.

Sometimes writers make the mistake of thinking that uneducated characters are unintelligent, but more often, writers make uneducated characters speak with the language of the academy. I wanted Cordelia to have access to the language of introspection that comes with a certain amount of time spent at a good liberal arts college (I don’t think I specify where she went, but I think of a place like Bowdoin). The funny thing, having said all of that, is that I never planned to write The Lobster Kings in the first person. My first novel, Touch, was in first person, and I was pretty sick of it. I’ve done a lot of messing around with third in short fiction, and there is so much you can do with it.

DD: Just as Cordelia straddles a boundary between working class and elite, Loosewood Island inhabits a border between Maine and Canada. You’ve mentioned in prior interviews that your editor thinks it’s no accident that the setting and characters in your new novel occupy a border zone, given your upbringing. Can you describe how this bi-cultural background influences your writing more generally?

AZ: It’s such an embarrassing story. My Canadian editor is the one who pointed out to me that the way in which Loosewood Island straddles the border of Canada and the United States is a mirror to my own background. Until he mentioned it, I hadn’t thought about it. It was just sort of a natural part of the story for me. My parents were both from Philadelphia, but they moved to Kitchener-Waterloo, which is about an hour west of Toronto, a few years before I was born. They always felt like expats — my mom more than my dad, I think — and in some ways, even though I was born and raised in Canada, I felt like a bit of an outsider there, too. And then I went to the United States for university (Grinnell College), and realized I wasn’t American either.

It’s this weird dual role of being both insider and outsider in both countries. I still say I’m going “home” when I head to Canada for a visit, but the truth is that I’ve lived in the United States my entire adult life. But there are huge gaps in my understanding of the United States. It’s actually a great position as an author, because I think that it means that I have this stealthy, oblique take on certain aspects of both countries. I can be apart and aside from, participant and spectator. Maybe that’s a thing that all writers do? Or maybe it’s a thing that all writers should do? All I know is that, for me, that vantage point has made it a little easier.

DD: Can you discuss what you’ve learned about your readership through the release of two critically-acclaimed novels, and how you approach audience-building more generally?

AZ: I’m not sure I’m at a point where I have a defined readership. With Touch, I think I had a predominately literary audience, and readers either seemed to fall in love with it and were completely evangelical about it or not, whereas The Lobster Kings seemed to be read across a wider spectrum, from pure literary to the beach read set. Again, though, I’ve benefited from some truly evangelical readers. I’ve also had a number of terrific letters from readers. My favorites are the ones where people tell me they had to set aside the book for a few minutes because they were crying; to know that I’ve been able to move somebody like that is truly gratifying. But I haven’t had the sort of large commercial success where I can easily say, “this is my type of reader.” That’s probably a good thing: I’ve only had two books published so far, and I’m still feeling out who I am as a writer.

There’s a certain freedom that it affords me. I can write whatever the hell I want since there isn’t a particular book my readership expects yet. While I think it’s important to think about how to market your book and all of that stuff, if you are writing literary fiction, those are really questions to be answered after you’ve finished with the writing. The audience I’m really writing for is my family and myself. Does my wife like it? Do I like it? If so, I’ve found that it works as a litmus test for the wider world, and probably my best bet for audience building is to put out the best books I can. That being said, I’m actually pretty good at the whole panel thing and readings and Q&A part of being an author. I like talking about writing and reading. But as far as social media goes, most of my infrequent posts are about my somewhat naughty dogs.

DD: Circling back to the beginning of this conversation, in addition to Shakespeare, which writers do you turn to, year in and year out, for inspiration?

AZ: My parents were voracious readers, but they weren’t particularly discriminating. Actually, that’s not really fair: they read both high and low. I think maybe a better way to put it is that they enjoyed everything from what we’d think of as the canon of literature to the worst kind of dashed off books, and I had my pick of all of them. There were a couple of thousand books strewn around our house, plus the seemingly infinite reach of the library (my mother yelled at a librarian once because the poor woman dared to suggest that I should restrict my lending to the children’s section. I was maybe ten). So I grew up reading widely, and I find that I go back to a couple of different sources.

On the more literary end, I’ve found that the voices of Alice Munro, Ann Patchett, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison ground me and remind me of my love of language. Also, Zadie Smith, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood. I’m forgetting a bunch, I’m sure, but those are the authors I tend to go back to. There is something in their writing that speaks to me as a writer. But I’ve also found that sometimes, when I want to write but feel stalled, the best thing I can do is return to the sort of books that made me fell in love with reading as a kid: fantasy, science fiction, action, adventure. That’s what speaks to me sometimes as a reader. I’ll read superhero comics and science fiction potboilers, detective novels and the ilk. I think when you are working in literary fiction it can be easy to forget that part of the value of books is that they are entertaining. Or, at least, they are supposed to be.

DD:  Alongside your regular teaching work, you have participated as a second reader for GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator. Can you comment on that experience?

AZ:  I’m a huge fan of the Novel Incubator structure. While I think MFA and Ph.D. programs can be great, they aren’t for everybody, and GrubStreet is incredibly valuable because they open up these kinds of opportunities for writers who might not otherwise get the mentorship they deserve. I worked with Susan Bernhard, which was a treat. Her novel had terrific heat, and while I gave her extensive comments, it was the kind of work that was a pleasure.

DD: Can you provide any clues on what direction your writing is likely to take next?

AZ: I don’t talk a lot about what I’m working on, but I can say I’ve got a story collection and a couple of novels — at least one a little more mainstream — in the works.

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