Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Author Interview and Book Giveaway: Allan Wolf, author of The Watch that Ends the Night

Author Allan Wolf

Thanks so much to author Allan Wolf for agreeing to be interviewed here at the Fourth Musketeer.  His new book, The Watch that Ends the Night, tells the story of the Titanic through free verse poetry.  With its official release date on October 11, the novel has already received starred reviews from Horn Book, Kirkus, and Booklist.  Congratulations, Allan!

Q:   2012 is the centennial of the Titanic's first--and last--voyage.  Why do you think that after 100 years, this story continues to fascinate the public?

A:  It is nearly impossible NOT to see the Titanic disaster as a metaphor for humankind’s over confidence in technology.   Once a week or so, I have what I call a “little Titanic moment.”  My cell phone falls into the toilet, for example, taking with it months’ worth of contact numbers.  And I realize I’m unable to recall any actual numbers in order to dial them the “old fashioned way,” from memory.  I’m helpless. 

On a personal level, the Titanic disaster story appeals to our individual insecurities about death.   Here are a couple thousand travelers, of which most were neither heroic nor famous nor historically significant, and the majority were dead within three hours.  We cannot fail to find some person aboard with whom we can relate.  

Then of course you have various historians and artists keeping the story alive.  Books about the Titanic started coming out a couple months after it sank.  Then Walter Lord’s book, A Night To Remember, came out in the 50’s, followed by the book’s movie version.  A combined French and American effort successfully discovered the wreck site.  Then came the Cameron movie.  

Q:   I'm sure my readers would be interested in learning more about your research process for this book.  For example, can you tell us how you selected the individual passengers and crew whose stories you weave together in the narrative?

A:  I wanted to set up The Watch That Ends the Night as an allegory.  Each character plays a specific role.  And each character is clearly labeled.  They are The Captain, or The Baker, or The Millionaire, or The Immigrant.  No need to remember their names.  On a mundane level, these labels make it much easier to keep track of so many characters.  On an allegorical level, each specific character acts simultaneously as a generalized idea.

It took me over a year to sift through all the 2,207 people on the Titanic in order to find the proper characters for my book.  It was something like a massive casting call to find actors for a movie (except that all of the people I auditioned were dead).  I knew the book would be in an ensemble of different first-person voices, so I needed a good cross-section.  Some from each class.  Some from various parts of the ship.  Some who survived.  Some who died.  And of course the whole time I was looking through the facts for anything that would add realism or depth to my fiction.

Q:   What was the most surprising thing you learned about the Titanic or its passengers and crew during your research?

I’m happy to have your wonderful Historical Fiction forum to say what I’m about to say, Margo.  And what I’m about to say may offend many Titanic enthusiasts, at least initially.  So hear me out.   What surprised me most about the passengers and crew was how historically insignificant the majority of them were.  That may sound harsh at first, but think about it:  the only reason we are talking about the passengers now is that they happened to be on a ship that sank.  And contrary to what some would have us believe, the sinking of the Titanic did not bring about World War I, or the rise of the middle class, or the introduction of income tax, or any other historically significant shift that would not have happened on its own.  At first this annoyed me and made it difficult for me to engage with any of my characters.   But gradually each character began to show me more subtle types of heroism:  The heroic parents who set out for America and a new life, while simultaneously mourning the death of their son;  The society man who dared to marry for love;  The sailor, raised in orphanages, who now sees the world from atop an ocean liner’s crow’s nest;  Even the four-year-old boy, kidnapped by his own father, who must make take a long journey without the comfort of a mother.   We are all making history, in our own individual ways, simply by facing the mundane challenges of life.

Q:   Do you plan to participate in any of the centennial commemorations?

As of now, no one has asked me.  I operate on the fringes of the Titanic community, if there really IS a Titanic community.  So I’m not really “in the club.”  Also, the breadth of my knowledge can be contained within a thimble compared to the large buckets toted by most died-in-the-wool Titanic experts.  The presentations I’ll be doing around the centennial will be of a more literary bent, for example, “How I transformed the facts into historical fiction.”

Q:  What do you think about the cruises this coming spring that will recreate the Titanic's voyage (minus the iceberg, I assume!)

A:  I think they are really expensive.  Ha.  Seriously, if someone offered me (and my wife and three kids) a free ticket, I’d go and get all goose-bumpy with the other Titaniacs.  But otherwise I will likely be at the local library doing a Titanic power-point presentation or something.

Q:  Can you share with us any details about your upcoming projects?

A:  I am presently working on two books, both for Candlewick Press.  The one up next is what I can best describe as a verse-novella about Sacagawea and her son, Jean Baptiste.    The book is a “spin-off” from my earlier novel, New Found Land, about the Lewis and Clark expedition.  The new book will braid together two inverse narratives:  The Sacagawea narrative will begin with her death and end with the birth of her son.  Jean Baptiste’s narrative will begin with his birth and end with his own death.  While Sacagawea died at the early age of 25, her son lived a long and adventurous life that involved fur trapping, guiding the Mormon Battalion, living in a German royal court,  surviving a sinking  steamboat, working as a lawman, and mining for California gold.  Once that book is done I’ll be turning to a more autobiographical historical fiction book centering around the murder of a high school friend of mine back in 1979 in Blacksburg, Virginia. 

Q:   What draws you to writing historical fiction for youth?  Were you a fan of the genre as a kid?

A:  I didn’t read that much as a kid.  And mostly when I wrote, I wrote on my bedroom walls.  That’s a whole story I was able to bring to life in my novel, Zane’s Trace.  Back in the 80s I was a college instructor at Virginia Tech writing poetry for “grown ups” when I took a job with Poetry Alive! as an actor performing poetry for kids.  It didn’t take me long to discover that I could make more money writing poetry for kids than for adults.   I discovered next that it is easier to sell a kids’ poetry book if the poems have a unifying subject or theme or narrative.  It was a natural step to then toy with poem cycles that tell a story.  And where better to find a good story than history itself.  And although I don’t consider myself a “Historian” per se,  I do LOVE history.  I like history because it gives me a comforting context for my own life and times.  It helps me to feel as if I am connected to some greater whole.  I am just one of many parts of  a cosmic Rube Goldberg machine.

Q:  What are your three favorite historical novels (for kids or adults)?

A:  Favorites might be The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson.   Bull Run by Paul Fleiscman. Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.  True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi.    I recently read Samurai Shortstop, set in 1890s Japan, by Alan Gratz and The Vanishing Point, a novel, by Louise Hawes, about the16th century painter, Lavinia Fontana.

Allan with all his published books!
Because of my huge load of research reading, I tend to read less historical fiction and more history and non-fiction. I will read any book by Erik Larson.  I’m already WAY over my 3-book limit, and I’m just getting a head of steam.  I’d better stop there.  If you asked me tomorrow, I’d give you eight different answers.  But that’s history for you; history changes from moment to moment.  It is that dynamic nature that makes history such great fiction.

Thanks so much, Allan! 

Please leave a comment below if you'd like to enter to win a copy of Allan's new book, donated by Candlewick!  Include an e-mail where you can be reached.  U.S. residents only.  A winner will be selected on October 15, 2011 by random number generator.


Heidi Grange said...

I am looking forward to reading this book. What a great interview.

hg195 at yahoo dot com

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Yes, I DO want to enter this contest. Really enjoyed reading about this.

I'm curious, Alan if (in your Titanic research) you ran across a story about Annie Funk who (as the story goes) gave up her seat on a life boat so that a mother with a young child could be saved.

And I also want to know how you learned to fly. (cool photo!)

Alan Gratz said...

Great interview, Allan! And thanks for the name drop. :-) Looking forward to The Watch That Ends the Night!

Louise Hawes said...

What thoughtful responses to great questions. Can't wait to read this!

kayla said...

I would love to enter this contest!

library lass said...

This looks like such an interesting approach to Titanic. Would love to be entered in the drawing!

Sustainable Mama said...

Ummm... What a great interview. I "grew up" with Allan (quotes intentional) as he is my brother, and you've encouraged answers from him that compelled me to continue reading, and wishing that I had asked those questions... Nicely done.

Anonymous said...

Alan, great book! I am a teacher at a high school and it was on our Summer reading list. I had to moderate a discussion on the book and the students overwhelmingly loved the book and engaged in lively discussion about it. Great mix of poetry and history! Mike

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