Epic in scope and intimate in theme with “a blue-green, underwater feel, a timeless forgetfulness,” (Los Angeles Times), Michael Parker’s The Watery Part of the World weaves an entirely unique tapestry of a story from minor scraps of history.
by Michael Parker
The Watery Part of the World is a novel born from two facts: (1) Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of infamous vice president Aaron Burr, disappeared in 1813 during a schooner trip between South Carolina and New York; and (2) in 1970, two elderly white women and one black man were the last townspeople to leave a small barrier island off the coast of North Carolina. From there, Michael Parker creates a conversation between two unexpectedly tethered generations and a love letter to a tiny island on the North Carolina outer banks, overrun with mosquitoes, battered by storms, easily flooded, and as difficult to get to as it is to leave. This tempestuous part of the sea gives birth to a hundred-year-long story of love and devotion, treason and treasures, and the sometimes painful bonds of community, family and history.
Below, Michael Parker answers a few questions about The Watery Part of the World and provides some insight into his creative process.
An Interview with Michael Parker
The setting and backstory of The Watery Part of the World seem a long way in time from when your stories and novels usually occur, which is most often present day, or at least in the later twentieth century. Why did you make such a big leap, or rather, what compelled you to dive into a story about Theodosia Burr and pirates?
I came across the Theodosia story while reading to my daughter from a book about myths and legends of North Carolina, where we live. This was years ago, when she was in grade school—she’s about to graduate from college now—so it’s hard for me to remember why Theodosia’s story stuck with me. But it did. Maybe because I lived near the Outer Banks for a couple of years, just across the sound in a house with a widow’s walk and hallways the size of thoroughfares, and could smell the Albemarle Sound from my front porch. Or maybe because I’ve always been interested in Aaron Burr, who was as compelling a figure as you’ll find in Colonial America, to my mind. I never thought about the fact that I was writing about a woman who lived in a time about which I knew next to nothing. Something about her life—her brilliant but, as we say today, imbalanced father, her supreme education, her marriage, and, of course, her disappearance and the cult that sprung up around her disappearance—kept needling me. I really hoped it might go away. I’ve never written a historical novel before, unless you count a novel set in the 1950s. My notion of research, prior to this novel, has been to depend on the copy editor to tell me if indeed there was chloride in the water in the mid-sixties in some hamlet or the other. So all this was new to me, and trying, and also thrilling—a challenge. It made me uncomfortable. The pirates, at first, sounded like Cap’n Crunch or Al Pacino. Writing about a different time, though, proves to be like writing about anything else: The trick is in the rhythm of the sentences, in the pitch of the prose. At least that is what makes historical fiction of interest to me. So I did my research, but I did not depend only upon that sort of veracity to convince the reader I knew what I was talking about. I wanted the reader to believe in Theodosia’s soul more than her diet or her garments.
Part of this novel grew out of a wonderful story of yours, “Off Island,” which went on to win a Pushcart Prize. But how and why did you think to weave these two disparate stories together?
Failure is my prime motivator. I tried to write a novel about Theodosia and got halfway through and pushed it away. Then I tried to expand “Off Island” into a novella, for I felt that the story, formally, did not quite cohere. That didn’t work out either. I had written a novel set in Mexico and North Carolina, about the owner of furniture factory and the Mexican workers he employs, and that, too, fizzled. So I went for a run. For a month or so, I mean. A lot of long runs, which is what I do when I get terrifically stuck. And on one of these runs I realized I had two half-finished things that were set in the same place—the Outer Banks. When I got home I fished them out of drawers and went to work putting them together.
This is the case for me so often: one idea falters, and then another, and at some point, out of frustration usually, I put them together, and combustion occurs. If it’s true that we’re always writing the same story, or a similar one, if we’re writing out of the same old wounds or desires, then it makes sense to collect the shreds on the cutting-room floor and try to splice them into something new and renewed.
The island functions here not just as setting, but also as metaphor for the ways in which change is (or is not) possible. And all of the characters speak to the notion of whether a person can or truly ever does change to the core. But the image of the island suggests that though the borders and shoreline might shift, and though the shape of the island may be altered by wind and waves, it will always be fundamentally what it is. Or were you seeing the island more as an image of the fundamental aloneness of every person, no matter who might be near or with them?
Your interpretation of the island and what it represents— especially the notion that it shifts but remains essentially the same land mass, in a slightly different place but still on the map—is a part of what I intended. It’s hard to write about an island without coming up against a certain John Donne quote, though. I did not want this novel to be either an illustration of that quote or a repudiation of it. It is hugely important that the setting is an island, that it is cut off, that it is hard to get to and people have left and they have mostly stopped coming, but the loneliness of the characters is not solely dependent on their being island dwellers. If you tie your identity too deeply to a place, any place, you’re liable to be left behind in some ways. I suppose I have always written about places and the way people identify, or don’t, with the land beneath their feet, but place, to me, seems so inextricably a part of character—no matter where the story is set, even if it is set in an elevator or cyberspace or a shopping mall—that separating it is like separating the way a character moves through a novel from the syntax the writer chooses as its vehicle.
I don’t think I could write novels if I did not believe that people, however imperceptibly, are capable of change. But characters who change are no less alone. We’re alone, and we aren’t alone. It’s one thing we can have both ways, because we have no choice.
Among my favorite parts of this novel are the occasional appearances of the Tape Recorders, whom Woodrow resists: he “wouldn’t answer the questions like they wanted him to because it seemed to Woodrow they had the answers already, that the questions were swole up with the answer, like a snake had swallowed a frog.” I can’t help but think about the parallels between the Tape Recorders and the perception of Southerners by those outside the region, not only in relation to their accents but in race relations, and, for that matter, how Southerners are expected to write about the South and their history.
Woodrow is smart enough to know when he’s being patronized. Some people love an audience, and might appear to be imparting useful and authentic information about folkways, but in fact they just love to talk about themselves, a distinction the Tape Recorders might not be able to make. Woodrow loves to be on his skiff on a day when the blues are running. He’d as soon not be asked the sort of questions the anthropologists ask.
As to the region and misconceptions about it, I love it when reviewers from outside the South use terms like dialect and local color to describe what writers everywhere worth their salt attempt to do, which is to make poetry from the colloquial. There is a difference between idiom and Uncle Remus. Since the South has largely disappeared into a strip mall of nail salons and Paneras and Mattress Worlds, you’d think the received ideas might have trailed off a bit. But in terms of race relations, even though there is no denying our tragic and shameful past, we’re still guilty until proven guilty.
But it’s not only people from outside the region who are keeping alive misconceptions about the South. There are plenty of Southerners who cherish the mythic South and either outright refuse or are slow to acknowledge the changes—for instance, the rise of the Hispanic south, the influx of other races and cultures. I suspect this is true everywhere. I imagine there are more than a few natives of certain parts of Brooklyn who would rather not ac- knowledge the neighborhood as the hipster enclave it has become.
It’s not easy or even all that advisable for a white man to write about a black man on an island who is subservient to two white sisters, one of whom refuses to believe that this black man has an inner life. It’s a lot easier for white people to write about white people and black people to write about black people and dear Lord leave the Texans to the native Texans. The only way I could write Woodrow was to make him flawed. To make him ideal, to make him without fault or mistake or vanity, would be dishonorable if not outright racist.
Everyone I’ve talked to about this novel has a different favorite character. Do you have a favorite, or is there perhaps one with whom you sympathize the most? (I confess that by the end, although I fully expected to continue to dislike Miss Whaley, her final section broke my heart.)
I sympathized with them all, and they all, at one point or another, broke my heart. Sometimes, though, the characters lurking in the shadows—in this case, Theodosia’s lover, Whaley, and Woodrow’s wife, Sarah, neither of whom are given points of view in the novel— are the ones that haunt. Their stories were told through the filtered consciousnesses of the other characters. What the reader gets of Sarah is not Sarah but Woodrow’s Sarah, Maggie’s Sarah, Whaley’s Sarah. Had I included her point of view, she would be far less mysterious, of course. But that doesn’t mean she’s not important, as she’s crucial to the more contemporary side of the story.
It’s not a good idea for me to play favorites. Sometimes, though, the characters who are hardest to get on the page are the ones who loom, because so much has been invested in their verisimilitude. I sweated most over Theodosia, for all the obvious reasons discussed above—her time and place—but it was Maggie’s section that I think I rewrote the most. From what I have heard at book clubs and from readers generous enough to share their opinions with me, people either dismiss Maggie as an immature drunken loser or they are devoted to her despite her obvious failings. Who you love and who you dislike in a novel depends more upon the matters of your heart than it does mine.
For our friends in South Florida, Michael Parker will be appearing at Books & Books in Coral Gables at 8 tonight.