11 Mar 2017

A wild, dark whaling tale

From Saturday Morning, 10:06 am on 11 March 2017

Plans are underway to create a TV miniseries based on Ian McGuire’s latest novel, which centres on a murder on a whaling ship in the late 19th century.

Ian McGuire

Ian McGuire Photo: Supplied

The North Water is set just a few years after Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated attempt to traverse the last un-navigated section of the north-west passage – both ships became locked in sea ice and all 129 crew members froze or starved to death.

The novel was one of the New York Times' Best Books of 2016 and long-listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. 

McGuire told RNZ’s Kim Hill The North Water is a very different novel to his first one, Credible Bodies, which was published 10 years ago.

He tried to write several books after Credible Bodies but says he struggled to make headway so opted to try something completely different.

“After I finished it I had no idea how people would react really… it was so different from the first novel, I didn’t know whether it would make sense to anyone. It seems to have worked out quite well.”

He says one of the novels he started but didn’t finish was about Moby Dick author Herman Melville, and The North Water ended up being a homage to him.

“I think anyone writing a novel about whaling must have Melville sort of peering over their shoulder as they write.”

But he says on the whole, The North Water is quite different from Moby Dick.

“Moby Dick is really this huge encyclopaedic, philosophical investigation, whereas The North Water is a much more tightly-plotted, sort-of thrillerish kind of novel, which doesn’t digress into these big philosophical issues that Melville does.

“It’s both a homage to Melville but also a kind of revision of Moby Dick.”

McGuire grew up near Hull, England, which was a major whaling port and is where the novel begins.

“For the captains and the ship’s owners it (whaling) was a way of making a large amount of money. For crew members it was a way of surviving and feeding their families.

He says there was nothing romantic at all about whaling, but he was conscious throughout the novel about how much gruesomeness to include.

The sense of smell features strongly throughout the book, with lines such as ‘turpentine, fishmeal, mustard, black lead, the usual grave morning piss stink of just-emptied night jars’.

McGuire admits he is a little bit obsessed with smells in the novel.

“I have a dog and the dog was quite helpful when I was writing the novel, just sort of looking at him and thinking about how the world must seem through a dog’s eyes.

“It made me think, what it must be like to move through the world like an animal, for whom smell is so much more, kind of, intense and important sense than it is for us.”

He says it’s hard to know how the men on the ship would’ve spoken to each other, but in the book he’s assumed they were swearing constantly.

“These are working class men stuck in a small boat for six months.”

McGuire chose to write about the end of the whaling industry and the sense of crisis it brought to put the characters under pressure.

“I wanted that kind of atmosphere of corruption and of kind of uncertainty to infuse the novel to explain or help to explain why the people they were behaving in the way they were.”

A six-part TV series is now being planned based on the book.

“The script is being written and they’re just trying to get funding for it. If it all goes ahead they might start in a year or so but you never know with these things.”

Ian McGuire grew up near Hull, England, and studied at the University of Manchester and the University of Virginia. He is the co-founder and co-director of the University of Manchester's Centre for New Writing. He writes criticism and fiction, and his stories have been published in Chicago Review, The Paris Review, and elsewhere.