On Monday, I reviewed Mr. Zentner’s new novel, The Lobster Kings. Mr. Zentner graciously agreed to be interviewed via email.
How would you describe the inception of The Lobster Kings? What was the writing process like?
AZ: The day after I sold my first novel, Touch, in 2009, I drove out to Wyoming to spend a month at a writing residency, and that’s where I started writing The Lobster Kings. I’d been planning the novel for a while, however. I tend to brood on a story for months or years, until I’m ready to write it, but starting it in rural Wyoming was a bit odd, because so much of the inception of the novel came from the landscape down east. I was struck by the rugged beauty of the coast, and wanted to, at least partially, capture that. But a lot of the struggle of writing the book came from understanding who Cordelia was and capturing her voice, and once I had that a lot of the rest of the book followed.
The novel is inspired by King Lear, and in it myth and realism are tangled together. Did other contemporary retellings of folktales and fairy stories inform your writing? Do you have any favorite contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare?
AZ: The Lobster Kings mixes common myths, like that of the selkie, with myths that are particular to Loosewood Island, where the novel is set, and while I used King Lear as a jumping off point, the novel is very much its own thing. It’s a riff on Lear rather than a retelling; I was more interested in the question of what does it mean for Cordelia to inherit the island than the question of what it means for the father to give it away. I’m fascinated by the way that certain aspects of folktales and fairy stories get tangled up in contemporary stories, and I’m more preoccupied with how to move those stories forward than how to retell them. And there are so many contemporary versions of Shakespearean plays – we see them in the movies, television, books. The Disney movie, The Lion King, is a version of Hamlet, and the television show, House of Cards, borrows from Macbeth.
Did you conduct research for The Lobster Kings? If so, how did you go about it?
AZ: My goal as a fiction writer is to do as little research as possible. What I mean by that, is that I need to do enough research to make it feel real, without doing so much research that I end up writing some sort of a book report. I spent a fair amount of time in the area, talked to lobstermen, and did my research. But part of the reason I set it on Loosewood Island, which is fictional, is that I wasn’t trying to hold up a mirror to the life of a lobsterman. Fiction isn’t about the facts so much as it is about the truth, and I wanted to give a person, a family, an island, that felt real, and to do that, I had to base it in the truth but also imagine it fully.
The Lobster Kings is set about ten years ago; why did you choose a setting in the recent past?
AZ: I’m a big believer in the idea that it is easier to see where you were more clearly than where you are. I wanted to write a contemporary novel, one that deals with the questions we are dealing with now, but setting it just a few years ago – it’s set in 2005, and it was 2009 when I started writing it – gave me enough distance that I was able to capture some of the larger questions of the novel. I think if I’d set it right now, I would have missed some of those things. We often realize only later what was the important issue of the day.
The novel tackles weighty subjects — the pull of history (personal and otherwise), sibling rivalry, the incursion of meth into vulnerable communities, attitudes toward aging and work, just to name a few — but does so with a kick of humor. How did you find that balance?
AZ: So much of the humor comes from Cordelia herself. She’s tough and determined and can hold her own, but she’s also her father’s daughter, and her father – as traditional as he was in so many ways – was a bit of an odd duck. I think, for Cordelia, who is a woman in a job that has traditionally been a man’s, she’s had to have a slightly different way of looking at things. She’s the engine that drives the story, and though a lot of tough things happen, she’s not the kind of person for whom that can dampen things.
What kinds of projects are you working on now?
AZ: I’m working on a story collection and a pair of novels. One of the novels is probably more in the literary vein, while the other is, I think, more toward the mainstream. The mainstream one is pretty scary. But it’s fun.
My thanks again to Mr. Zentner for his time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about The Lobster Kings and Alexi Zentner’s work at alexizentner.com.