INTERVIEW: John Benditt, author of The Boatmaker
That a book whose central character spends much of his time crafting things should serve as a case study in deliberate pacing should come as no surprise. John Benditt’s novel The Boatmaker takes its time reaching its destination, but the effect is a deeply rewarding one. As the novel opens, the title character lives in relative isolation on a small island (known as Small Island)–though whether that life will last much longer is left somewhat in doubt. Consumed by a fever, he’s overtaken by visions; when he awakes, he feels compelled to assemble a boat and embark on a journey.
Out of those two impulses–the mystical and the physical–emerge many of the scenes that follow. The boatmaker’s craft leads him certain places; his own impulses towards violence and self-destruction lead him elsewhere. And he’s far from the only character for whom visions and a sense of something beyond this world compel to action: sometimes benevolently, and sometimes horrifically. Occasionally, the novel slips outside of the title character’s head, showing how he’s seen by others: a source of, at various points, mystery, fear, and admiration. It’s a long journey, but a rewarding one.
Over the course of several weeks, Benditt and I conducted this interview via email, touching on subjects as varied as geography, narrative specificity, and cults, fictional and otherwise.
Tobias Carroll: The way you tell The Boatmaker moves from the very stark and general to the specific, from the locations to the names of characters. How did you first arrive on this approach as the right way to tell this particular story?
John Benditt: Well, first of all, I should probably say that The Boatmaker really wasn’t the result of a lot of conscious planning. In fact, I didn’t even know that I was writing a novel. I thought I was writing a collection of short stories. Then I wrote one about a man who builds a boat and sails away from the little island where he was born. I thought I was done with him — or he was done with me. But apparently not. A second story appeared, about what happened to the same man once he reached Big Island. After that I thought I was surely done with him. But he wasn’t done with me. More bits and pieces kept coming in. I wrote them down. When I read them over, I realized we were talking about a novel here. I suppose I’m a slow learner. Once I’d gotten the message, I sat down to write a first draft.
All that said by way of preamble, I’m not sure I agree completely that the story moves from the stark and general to the specific. Small Island is a specific place. People there have names. The town has a name. And even at the very end, when he’s in the biggest city in the land, many things and people are identified mostly by their titles or descriptions rather than their names. But I do think that there is an evolution in the book, and perhaps that’s what’s coming through. I think the evolution is in the protagonist. He comes from a pretty brutal place, a very small place, and he winds up in the most cosmopolitan place in his country and he definitely changes along the way, as the result of his experiences and the new environments he encounters. And the tone of the book probably reflects that to some extent.
TC: In terms of the specificity and generality, I thought about it more in terms of how the characters are referred to; the main character has a name, but the reader doesn’t learn it until very late in the book. But there are also things that run throughout, like the fact that Europe isn’t really mentioned on the islands, but is often referred to when the book moves to the city. Was that more a result of the cosmopolitan experience you described?
JB: Yes. It’s a result of the difference between the world of Small Island and the world of the Mainland. Small Island is a tiny, remote community. For the people who live there, Big Island is pretty far away; only the “sophisticated” people on the island have been even that far. We don’t know of anybody who’s actually been to the Mainland, let alone the capital. Europe might as well be on the moon. In the capital city, of course, things are quite different. The Mainland is still a fairly insular, backward country, a fact that the king is highly cognizant of and is committed to changing. But there are plenty of people in the capital who know about Europe, who have traveled and even lived there. So I think the difference you mention is a difference between two worlds of experience.
TC: When, in your mind, did the the protagonist go from “the man” to “the boatmaker”?
JB: As I said, the genesis of The Boatmaker was in two short stories that I thought I was writing as part of a collection of short stories. I think it was in the second story, after he’s arrived on Big Island, that he was first referred to as the boatmaker. That makes a certain amount of sense, because the section set on Small Island is mostly about his aspiration to build the boat and sail away from where he was born. I think it’s only after he’s done that and actually reached his initial destination, the one he has in mind when he wakes from the dream, that he becomes the boatmaker. Of course, one could think of other points of transition, other ways in which he might become the boatmaker in a deeper sense. Even at the end of the book, there seems to be some ambiguity around this status. I should also point out that even after he begins to be called the boatmaker, he never ceases to be the man of Small Island.
TC: When the boatmaker first sets out on his journey, his image of a domestic life involves being drunk and abusive–just less so than he’d been before. For all that he becomes involved in larger events, how did you balance that with the fact that he had behavior of his own that needed changing?
JB: I think we should be careful not to impose our own conceptions of appropriate behavior onto the boatmaker, who after all lives in a very different time and place from our own. In the world the boatmaker comes from, on Small Island, drunkenness and violence aren’t anything special. Almost every man drinks and fights with other men. And most of them also hit their wives from time to time. This isn’t considered to be “abuse,” in the way we would think of it from our perspective. It’s just part of marriage. And, for that matter, violence in marriage isn’t limited to men. We find out that the boatmaker’s mother, in her rages, is quite capable of badly beating her husband. All that is part of where the boatmaker comes from. When the boatmaker gets to the capital, he begins to see that there are other ways to live — ways he hadn’t even imagined before. And it turns out that he is capable of changing. I think the balance you refer to came pretty naturally, because he changes in response to the dramatic larger events that he gets caught up in and manages to live through.
TC: A number of times, the book shifts from the boatmaker’s perspective to that of someone watching him, usually one of the women he encounters. Where did that particular aspect of the structure come from?
JB: I think that evolved from the boatmaker’s history. Or perhaps I should say his “pre-history,” — that is, the things that happened to him before the book opens. It seems pretty clear that the person who is largest in his feelings, explicit or not, and the person he wants most to connect to, is his mother. She matters much more than his father does, emotionally. As a result, it’s easier for women to “see” the boatmaker than it is for men. He’s pretty opaque to men, and he has difficulty making friends. So the women see him, at his best and at his worst. I think that’s where this aspect of the story comes from. It’s only as the boatmaker moves out into the wider world that he begins to make friends with men. And, as usual when you’re new at something, your initial choices aren’t necessarily the best.
TC: The fanatics that the boatmaker encounters have some fairly unorthodox ideas about the notion of the messiah. Was their behavior based on any historical cults that you’ve encountered?
JB: Not really. They are more like an extrapolation from things I’ve noticed about cults. There’s an interesting obsession with purity and purification, which generally seems to involve both a curious relationship to the body and also a goodly amount of blood flowing. I also notice that the people who are the leaders don’t usually seem to be the ones whose blood is flowing. It’s generally the followers. But Father Robert and his followers aren’t really based on any historical examples. I probably should add that I have a certain admiration for Father Robert. Obviously, I don’t agree with all of his views. But I do admire people who take big, abstract questions, which most of us just ignore or tolerate, very seriously. I admire the fact that for Father Robert, the question of Christ’s message, his incarnation, is a pressing question — right here and now — rather than a tame piece of history that’s encrusted in centuries of rules. For him, it’s a living issue. And there aren’t any rules to help him figure that urgency out. He has to make his own decisions. I admire that. But I might draw a different conclusion from that urgency.
TC: More generally: were there any geographical or political inspirations for some of the locations and situations that the boatmaker encounters?
JB: Well, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, which is a place of green islands floating on a cold northern sea, and I’m sure that some of that has seeped into The Boatmaker, the way things seep into your dreams without your ever really knowing that they’re there until much later.
TC: Since finishing The Boatmaker, have you returned to the group of short stories from which the novel emerged?
JB: Actually, after I started writing The Boatmaker I never went back to that group of stories. But I’ve been working on new, post-Boatmaker stories. And I have an idea for another novel. But that will probably take time to assemble itself out of bits and pieces on scraps of paper, just the way The Boatmaker did.
Author photograph courtesy of Whitney Lawson