An Interview with Alexi Zentner, Author of The Lobster Kings

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?

Alexi Zentner  Author Photo (c) Laurie Willick

Alexi Zentner
Author Photo (c) Laurie Willick

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?

AZThe 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?

photo (5)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


Recommended Reading: The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner

photo (5)Cordelia Kings was born into royalty — lobstering royalty, that is. Her father, Woody, is the most respected lobsterman on Loosewood Island, a small community on land claimed by both Canada and the United States. The Kings trace their family history all the way back to Brumfitt Kings, a painter who was the island’s first settler, and it’s a history in which the sea’s bounty goes hand-in-hand with a curse: the death of the first-born son in each generation.

Unlike her two sisters, Cordelia loves lobstering from the moment she sets foot on a boat, and considers herself her father’s rightful heir, in more ways than one. But as Cordelia grows up, Loosewood Island changes too. Threats both within and outside the community surface: people on the island are selling meth, and fisherman from a nearby town are making a power play for Loosewood’s waters.  Cordelia has her own problems, too: a married sternman she can’t help falling for, sisters whose proximity makes tensions rise, and a father she adores who isn’t getting any younger.

As you might have guessed, Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings* was inspired by King Lear, but is not a retelling in the vein of, say, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. Like Lear, however, The Lobster Kings is a family drama with repercussions outside the family unit, and as you can imagine, since Loosewood Island is off the coast of northern Maine, you’re in for a hell of a storm.

Woody Kings may be a patriarch with three daughters, but he’s a cautious man (generally), and a loving father to all his children; his concern for his daughters’ welfare and theirs for him makes The Lobster Kings one of my new favorite father-daughter books. If Woody’s ever mad, it’s with the kind of madness that could overtake any of us in the throes of grief.  He’s feared by his enemies, and very well respected by his fellow lobstermen:

He was the king of the harbor, and his grandfather before, and there would come a day, probably, when I’d take over. We made decisions as a group–to shorten the season, to fish less traps, to stop letting cruise ships dock in the harbor–but anytime we made a decision, big or small, there was always a moment when every man would look to Daddy to see if he agreed. (111)

Cordelia’s love for her father is built on a foundation of respect. Lobstering is immensely difficult work, and after reading this novel, you’ll never look at your lobster roll the same way. Take ropes: “Warp scatters everywhere. Good lobstermen will keep their warps organized, lines coiled and out of the way, where they need to be, and so will the bad lobsterman. Highliners and dubs alike, they keep the ropes neat. The only lobstermen who don’t keep their ropes neat are dead ones” (47).

This kind of realism and awareness of danger permeates The Lobster Kings, even as Cordelia relates present events to analogues in the island’s semi-mythic past. Her narration is interspersed with accounts of Brumfitt Kings’s paintings and the stories behind them. In Cordelia’s view, “Brumfitt was just trying to capture the sea and its power and how little control we have over it. He was just trying to capture the darkness” (161). With lovely, evocative language, Mr. Zentner brings these paintings to brilliant life; you can almost see them hanging in the MFA. Here’s one of my favorite descriptions:

My favorite picture of Brumfitt’s wife is probably Marriage Bed. It’s dated from the first year of their marriage. Brumfitt’s wife’s hair is splayed down her naked back, the sheets billowing and creased around her lower body, leaving an amorphous shape below her waist that Daddy thinks looks like a mermaid’s tail. I’m not sure that I agree with Daddy, but there is something else in the picture that makes me think of the selkie myth instead; pushed partially under the table is a stool, and on the stool is what appears to be a coat made of sealskin. Maybe Brumfitt stole her skin, but loved her enough to offer it back. And maybe she loved him enough that she didn’t take it up, loved him enough that she refused the gift of her skin returned, loved him enough that she let him keep her skin, let him keep her bound to Loosewood Island, to Brumfitt Kings. (217)

It’s this kind of painting — in the nebulous space between the feel-good seascapes that grace dentists’ walls and threatening pieces beloved by art critics (Loosewood Island’s second major industry is tourism) — that draws in both Cordelia and her father. This blending of the real and the perhaps-real, the mythic, in swirls of artful description, is what will draw readers into The Lobster Kings.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday: An interview with Alexi Zentner, author of The Lobster Kings.