INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR OF "REQUIEM FOR AHAB", G.J. LAU Hello George! It is so wonderful to have this opportunity to interview you. Tell us about your current novel and what it was the inspired you to write it?
Requiem for Ahab is a novella that uses Herman Melville’s novel, Moby-Dick, as a springboard for a tale about Captain Ahab’s wife and son, who are briefly mentioned in a couple of chapters. After Ahab’s death in 1843, they move to a small town named Cohasset, where she remarries and settles down to raise her son, Thomas. The story opens in 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War. Thomas joins the 2d Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment and soon finds himself in the area around Harper’s Ferry. After fighting in several battles, he is wounded at Gettysburg and loses a leg.
This gets him thinking about his birth father, and he realizes that he knows next to nothing about Ahab, except that he reportedly was driven mad by the loss of a leg during a whaling voyage. Thomas can’t help but wonder if a similar fate awaits him. He knows of only one man who can give him some answers about Captain Ahab’s life and death … the man who called himself Ishmael. The search for Ishmael leads Thomas first to New Bedford, where he finds clues that eventually take him to a small town in central Massachusetts.
Ishamel is one of the more mysterious figures in American literature. Little is known of his life before he sails on the Pequod, and the last we know of him is that he was found floating on a coffin, alone in the middle of the ocean. Since then, Ishmael has built a new life after the sinking of the Pequod, a life that has had its own share of joys and sorrows. Together, Thomas and Ishmael find common ground in setting Ahab’s ghost to rest. Tell us more about the genres you write in and why you chose this or these specific ones.
I write both fiction and non-fiction. My first effort was a novel, The Magpie’s Secret, what I call a thriller with a heart … and a message. Then I issued a couple of essay collections. One dealt with climate change; the other was personal reflections on the natural world and our place in it. I followed these up with a memoir about my year in Vietnam, called SitRep Negative. Then came my latest piece, Requiem for Ahab, which is a novella of about 30,000 words. I think this could become my favorite medium. It’s long enough to tell a story, but short enough to challenge you as a writer to make every chapter count. Tell us a little about where you grew up, your childhood and your family now.
I grew up in a small coastal town about 20 miles south of Boston, along what is known as the South Shore. Cohasset evolved from a 1700s fishing community into a sometimes uneasy blend of old New England families, immigrants, and some very rich people looking to own a piece of one of the most beautiful places in the world. I had a very small town, Italian-style childhood, which meant lots of family and food. I left there to go to Georgetown, and after a year in Vietnam, settled in the Washington, D.C. area, where my wife and I still live. I have two children and four grandchildren. Who are some of your inspirations, authors or otherwise that have helped you with your creativity?
Don’t laugh, but I have always been struck the approach taken by Mickey Spillane, who wrote a series of hard-boiled detective stories, mostly in the 1950s. He said that the first paragraph gets the reader to buy the book, and the last paragraph gets the reader to buy your next book. So I strive for a strong beginning and a strong ending. Of course, I love Herman Melville, but I also like a slew of other writers, both fiction and non-fiction. Loren Eiseley and Ross McDonald were two early influences, along with Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon. Lately I’ve been reading more non-fiction, especially in the sciences, which is not terribly helpful when it comes to writing fiction. Are there any achievements in your life you'd like to discuss or talk about that have been paramount in your decision to become a writer?
I’m not sure if I could point to any one thing. I have always liked to write, and I learned early on to appreciate the power of the written and spoken word. My first job after getting out of the Army was editing procedural manuals for a large government agency. Writing and rewriting became part of my daily routine. Later in my career, I switched to computers and eventually became a web developer. In those early days, I usually had to do content as well as design, so writing remained an important part of what I did. Then came blogging, which helped build the habit of daily writing. After dozens of false starts, I finally wrote a novel. That convinced me I could write anything I set my mind to. Do you allow friends or family to critique your writing before publication?
I am always anxious to have fresh eyes read what I have written. As my wife constantly reminds me, it is just about impossible to be your own proofreader. But sometimes it goes beyond that. My sister made some observations about an early draft of Requiem that pushed me to take a second look and add what ended up to be two of my favorite chapters. I’ll be the first to admit I have as thin a skin as anyone when it comes to criticism, but I understand and appreciate the need for an independent reader’s insights. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time when not writing?
Well, I don’t have a whole lot of spare time, sadly, since I’m working full time at my second post-retirement job. When I’m writing that pretty much chews up whatever free time I might have. That’s on top of the inevitable chores and errands to be run. I do like to play golf, and I read for pleasure every morning and evening. I cook some and watch a little television, mostly while I’m treadmilling. Tell us about one of your most embarrassing moments.
Just the other day, a friend pointed out a glaring error of fact in my Vietnam memoir, SitRep Negative, so that was pretty embarrassing. But not as much as my first self-publishing effort, The Magpie’s Secret. I submitted it to a blog reviewer and got a pretty scathing review because, quite frankly, the editorial quality wasn’t what it should have been. That review was embarrassing, but I learned from it and forced myself to focus much more on the editing and proofreading process. I feel the editorial quality of my work is vastly improved, although I will be the first to admit that my understanding of comma placement is still evolving. And then there’s those darn spell-check errors. Tell us what we can expect from you next and when we might see your next novel out.
I’m working on a memoir about growing up in the 1950s. It will partly be my reminiscences and partly the collective memories of townspeople who grew up in Cohasset during that time. Tying it all together will be an exploration of the remarkable range of inventions and innovations during that decade that sparked scientific and social changes that set the stage for everything we see around us today. From microchips to DNA to the peace symbol, it all began in the 1950s. I’m also about ready to begin writing a sequel to my novel, The Magpie’s Secret. I have all the elements of the plot in my head; now it’s just a question of moving it to paper. Do you have any advice you'd like to share with other authors, or in general that you think would be beneficial to our readers? Also we'd love you to share your links and let us know where we can find out more about you.
My advice would be once you start a writing project, work at it every day. Doesn’t matter how much you write—a word, a sentence, a paragraph or a page—just write something. If you absolutely can’t come up with something new, then rewrite what you already have written. The important thing is to acquire the habit of daily writing. Pay attention to the craft of writing: Grammar, punctuation, spelling, syntax, proper research. All of that matters a great deal. Finally, have a very thick skin. Your writing will be criticized at some point, and it will sting. Trust me on that one.
Anyone interested in learning more about my writing projects is invited to visit http://www.windroot.com,
where they will find links to my books and blogs. And thanks to the folks at Great Minds Think Aloud for giving me this opportunity. Thank you again George for this wonderful interview. We hope to do this again in the near future!