A Conversation with Joseph Monninger, Author of Eternal on the Water
1. This novel is infused with an appreciation for nature. Do you find it easy to use nature to tell a story? Do nature metaphors and settings come, well, naturally?
I hope so. I live in a beautiful part of the world—western New Hampshire along the Baker River—and my family and I spend a lot of time outdoors. A brook runs past our bedroom and our house opens onto a meadow. We have grown accustomed to seeing the seasons change and we mark time by the way light moves across the field and into our house. We ran sled dogs for many years and raised chickens. It would be nearly impossible at this point in my life to write a “city” novel. Nature is all mixed up in my day to day life. So, yes, nature metaphors come naturally, no pun intended.
2. Although Cobb and Mary are central, there are scenes that involve a dozen or more characters, and we feel as though we know all of them personally. Do you find it easy to make so many characters come alive with their own personalities and speech patterns, or is that a challenge?
Well, it’s always a challenge, of course. Someone once said plot is character. If you think about it, we like seeing characters in interesting situations. Simple plot is boring, although it serves as a motor for narrative. It provides us with and then, and then what happened, and then, and then, and then. If plot were enough, then the Freddy Krueger movies would be worth rewatching (or watching once!) but the series of startling events becomes silly because we don’t care about the characters. I try to make sure I know who my characters are before I let them get swept away by potential plots.
3. Cobb and Mary both seem to want to live life simply, following in the footsteps of Thoreau. Is that quality a reflection of you as an author? What effect did you hope this thematic choice would have on readers?
I actually believe in simplicity as a way of life. My wife and I are considering moving into a yurt! I know it sounds a little crazy, but the world, as Wordsworth warned, can be too much with us. How much time do we spend doing things we care nothing about? Living simply, wanting less, asking for little. . . . It is a way to free ourselves, I think.
4. Bears often pop up in the scenes of this book even when they’re not really there. Is this bit of folklore (that bears can turn into people to steal dances and charm humans) something invented by you, or is it something you discovered?
It’s partially invented and partially a long standing bit of folklore. Bears are extremely human, even down to their footprints. But I am also a fly fisherman, so I have fished beside brown bears in Alaska and was once charged by a black bear. I love bears. In our town in New Hampshire, there is a story about a girl who was supposedly sheltered by a bear for a day or two. Many cultures have similar stories. Plus, bears have a comical side. How can you fail to like a creature with a wide bottom who loves more and more honey?
5. In your writing, you display an intimate knowledge of kayaking, camping, and other outdoor activities and sights—all part of what makes Cobb and Mary’s experiences so believable. Do you try to go out and experience the things you know you’ll be writing about? Or do experiences you’ve already had in your life help feed your writing?
Well, as I mentioned, I spend a good deal of time outside. I kayaked the Allagash River by myself some years ago. It’s a spectacular experience. It runs ninety miles northward through a pristine part of Maine. My wife and I have kayaked the St. Croix River in Maine and, of course, we live on a river. When our son was ten we bought him his first kayak. I’ve been a New Hampshire fishing guide and I’ve travelled around quite a bit in the west fishing and hiking. And I love Yellowstone. When I travelled to Indonesia and visited those islands, I was interested in seeing green turtles. It was only afterward that I invented Freddy and a turtle nursery. I am aware of the need to keep trying new things. As a writer, you never know how the piece will fit into the puzzle, but you do know you need to keep pawing through the pieces.
6. It’s obvious through this book, and others you have written, that nature influences your writing. When you set out to write a book, do you go out into nature and visit the places you will write about? How does nature inspire you?
That’s a tough question to answer, but maybe it will help to know I don’t take pictures. I’ve never liked the moment of seeing something beautiful—a sunset, a moose, an elephant—and then raising a camera and trying to capture it for some future moment. That’s always struck me as strange. Experience the moment now, I say. If the moment is important enough, you’ll have an internal album of pictures from which to draw. That’s what I hope inspires my work.
7. Although nature is prominent in the novel, you also make steady reference to new technologies, such as MySpace, Facebook, cell phones, even a scene of these two “oldfashioned” nature-lovers watching a classic film on a laptop in bed. Was it important for you to show how nature and technology can coexist?
A good life these days seems to require a blend. I like movies and I like computers and I also like getting away from them. I don’t own a cell phone, for instance. I’m probably the last human alive not to own one. I do it deliberately. I have phones . . . I just don’t want to be on call at all times. Sometimes it’s inconvenient not to have one, but I often hear friends grouse about having to answer their phones all the time. Long ago I visited Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s a great museum, by the way. But he insisted that the new technology in the house—a telephone—be tucked away in a wooden booth. Just because technology is available does not mean we need to employ it.
8. You have written literary fiction, young adult novels, memoir, and nonfiction. Do you have a favorite genre? How do you choose which kind of story you will write next, or does the genre choice depend on the message or story you have to share?
Oh, I like stories. I like narrative. I can feel when a story starts churning around in me. I hear most of what I write unlike some people who see their stories. But as a reader I read all sorts of things. So, as a writer, I like to try different things. I love young adult books because the readers—kids—are so honest in their reactions. Also, kids read with a wonderful concentration and joy. But the writing exercise is pretty much the same in all books I attempt.
9. As a seasoned and successful author, can you briefly describe your writing process? Are you more of a “write every day” or a “write when inspiration hits” sort of author?
Long ago I read a biography of Jack London written by Irving Stone. It was called Sailor on Horseback. In the book, London claimed to write a thousand words a day. I adopted that as my practice. My son had a play fort out in the backyard and when he turned fourteen or so he lost interest in it. I’ve taken it over. It has a standing desk, a chair, and a woodstove. . . . And nothing else. It’s very quiet and it has a beautiful view. I write in the early morning and afternoon. I try to write every day. “Nulla dies sine linea.” (Not a day without a line.)
10. Can you share some of the authors, writers, or role models who have helped to shape your writing?
I love many, many writers, but I don’t dare mention them by name for fear of leaving someone out. I always have a book on hand. I love the feeling, when you close a book, that you have read something truthful and genuine. Hate what’s false; demand what’s true. I love the writers who don’t cheat. And that cheating can take place even in the most so-called serious novels. But I also have to say that I am a teacher, and teaching keeps me honest. Students have a ready-made lie detector. I’m always amazed that they sense falseness in bad novels and detect worthiness in genuine novels. Deep down, of course, it all comes back to the Hardy Boys. If I can give someone the pleasure I felt reading the Hardy boys, that’s probably accomplishment enough.
11. Eternal on the Waterdelves deep into the meaning of love, illness, and death. Was it difficult to write about the nature of Mary’s illness and death, yet still keep it a light, tender love story? What inspired you to write this novel?
Mary’s character made this novel a pleasure to write. I like her. I like Cobb, too, but I really like Mary. I happen to have a lifelong friend who is a biologist at the University of Connecticut. Biologists are different. I’ve been to parties with him and other biologists where they cook up roadkill. They simply see the world slightly different, perhaps more on a cellular level. So Mary is trapped, sort of, by her knowledge of science and her love for Cobb. But as they say, we are all mortally ill. Mary simply knows she has a shorter time on earth, which provides some of the pressure to make the story move forward. Every story about death is personal.
12. The reader knows from the opening pages what has happened to Mary and how it happened—including Cobb’s part in it. Why did you decide to start with the end?
The why of something is often more interesting than the how. Or at least it usually is. If I use a headline and say, “a local gamekeeper was swallowed by his own snake today in such and such a place,” you are going to read to find how why and how. The story itself is already over. You know the ending. So in this novel I wanted the reader to wonder what in the world happened and be curious. It’s up to other people to decide if it worked.
13. When Mary mentions late in the novel that seeing a moose is a good omen, it brings back the previous scenes—Cobb seeing a male moose chase after a female prior to his meeting Mary, and later, seeing the dead elk. Was that the sort of thing that you had planned, or was it something you went back to fold in during revisions?
That just fell in! In fact, I didn’t even think of it until I was asked this question. Thanks for pointing it out. The first moose that Cobb sees shakes him out of his nervousness about running the river. I always like the Robert Frost poem about the way a bird shook snow off a barn door “saved some part of a day he rued.” I know what he means, I think. Nature is restorative.
14. This novel spans the globe, with sections set in Maine, Indonesia, Yellowstone, and New Hampshire. Have you spent time in all of these places? What kind of research did you have to do in order to use these settings?
Yes, I have been to those places. I have been to Maine and Yellowstone many times. My son lived for a student year abroad in Indonesia and my wife and I visited him there. It’s a wonderful country. We may go back there for an extended stay next time. I’ve always been a traveler, though. I hitchhiked across country three times while I was in college and went right out of college into the Peace Corps. I spent time in West Africa and led student groups all over the world. So, yes, I love to travel. Research? It’s just living.