Naomi Williams on late starts and lost calls

My debut novel, Landfalls, a fictionalied account of the 18th-century Lapérouse expedition, is just out. I’m 51 years old. I’ve spent my entire life writing. What took me so long?

Naomi Williams: I feel like I’m supposed to say that it’s all good – I’m a better writer today than I was in my twenties, the book is better for the decade I spent fussing over every word, I have no regrets, et cetera. It’s probably true that I’m a better writer now, and it’s certainly true that my painstaking care with the book improved it.  But it’s not true that I have no regrets

Naomi Williams: I feel like I’m supposed to say that it’s all good – I’m a better writer today than I was in my twenties, the book is better for the decade I spent fussing over every word, I have no regrets, et cetera. It’s probably true that I’m a better writer now, and it’s certainly true that my painstaking care with the book improved it. But it’s not true that I have no regrets

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My debut novel Landfalls, a fictionalied account of the 18th-century Lapérouse expedition, is just out. I’m 51 years old. I’ve spent my entire life writing. What took me so long?

I could trot out the usual reasons: I was busy doing others things, like making a living and raising a family. That’s not untrue, as far as it goes. But I think what really happened is this: I allowed a bad workshop experience to derail my writing for over a decade. And then when I finally committed to a new writing project, it was for an idea so demanding, it took me another decade to finish it.

Let me back up a little.

In my late 20s, I started writing a novel about a young, half-Japanese/half-white American woman who spends a year living in Tokyo. It was going to be one of those autobiographical first novels. It was also meant to respond to what seemed then (it was the early 90s) like a spate of novels about Americans in Japan – all written by white guys – that I’d found disappointingly sexist and ethnocentric.

I signed up for a novel-writing workshop, and – well, no need to recall the instructor’s discouraging words or how my lack of confidence magnified them in my mind. Afterward, I not only shelved the novel but any ambition I had about taking myself seriously as a writer. I still dabbled in writing, but it felt a bit like an unpleasant habit I couldn’t shake, like smoking or chewing my fingernails.

Ten years passed.

Then for one of my late-30s birthdays, my husband gave me an intriguing antique map. I’d always loved old maps, and this one was big and quite striking in appearance. According to the mapseller who sold it to my husband, it was an 18th-century map of San Francisco Bay.

Or was it? The more I looked at it, the more sceptical I became. We lived in San Francisco, and this was a pretty unorthodox version of our bay. In addition to being misshapen, it included features like “glaciers” and “ice grottoes”. I mean, people complain about how cold San Francisco is, but it’s not that cold. And then I read the cartouche more carefully:

PLAN

of

PORT DES FRANÇAIS

on the Northwest Coast of America

in 58.° 37’ Latitude North and 139.° 50 of Longitude West

Discoverednd July 1786, by the

Boussole & Astrolabe

1786? Hadn’t Europeans already seen and explored San Francisco Bay by then? And would the French for “San Francisco Bay” really be “Port des Français”? That didn’t seem right. Also, I wasn’t too up on my latitude and longitude, but 58° North sounded pretty northerly.

I started Googling and quickly learned that “Port des Français” was the name a group of French explorers had given to a bay – in Alaska. The Lapérouse expedition, named after its commander, Jean-François de Galaup de Lapérouse, had involved two frigates, the Boussole and Astrolabe, and they had tried to circumnavigate the globe for science and the glory of France but had never made it home. I’d never heard of the voyage before, but within minutes (as I clicked one hyperlink after another), I was drawn into its sad, compelling story.

Wouldn’t it be cool, I suddenly thought, to write a book about this expedition? Every chapter could be told from a different point of view. A twist on the more traditional novel of the sea.

Oh, sure. But how was I going to write such a book? I’d read a lot of nautical fiction, but I didn’t really know anything – not about the Age of Sail, not about 18th-century exploration, not about the French navy under the Ancien Regime. I’d never been on a ship. I didn’t know French. There was also the small matter of never having actually published anything.

A couple of years passed while I tried to ignore the idea of the book. I even tried distracting myself with other writing projects. One was a fantasy novel inspired by Harry Potter – of course – about a kid who could alter reality by drawing maps. (I really, really like maps.) Another was a murder mystery set in an oppressive evangelical church, inspired, I’m afraid, by my own upbringing. But the story of the long-lost Lapérouse expedition just wouldn’t go away. By the time I caved and started working on the project, I was in my 40s.

I’m glad I didn’t know in advance how long it would take to finish the book, or I would never have begun. I figured two years to research and write the book. Ha! This was one of those rare instances when ignorance was probably good. Every chapter, set in a different part of the world, required brand-new research. In the end, I spent nine years completing a draft of the novel, then another year-plus on revisions after the book found a publisher.

And that is how one comes to be a 51-year-old debut novelist.

Now I feel like I’m supposed to say that it’s all good – I’m a better writer today than I was in my twenties, the book is better for the decade I spent fussing over every word, I have no regrets, et cetera. It’s probably true that I’m a better writer now, and it’s certainly true that my painstaking care with the book improved it.

But it’s not true that I have no regrets.

I wish like crazy I could have that lost decade back. Years after I abandoned my autobiographical Japan novel, I sat down one day and read through everything I’d written for it. It was incomplete and messy. But it was also good. Unfortunately, the story was irretrievably gone. I was too far from it – too far from the Japan of the 1980s, too far from my own memories, too far from my younger self. The story had lost its urgency. It had once called out to me, insisting on itself, but I had ignored the call too long, and it had gone silent.

I’m grateful that another compelling story presented itself to me eventually and that I had the health, financial stability, and family support to heed its call. I’m listening hard now to the next stories whispering urgently in my ear. It turns out they don’t hang around forever waiting to be written.

Landfalls is published by Little Brown on October 22nd

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