Between worlds: Dominic Smith on Bright and Distant Shores

 

Allen & Unwin, 9781742374161, 2011
(Aus paperback, ebook + US/Kindle)

Bright and Distant Shores is hugely imaginative historical fiction. It’s set just before the dawn of the 20th century in Chicago and the South Pacific. Owen Graves is sent by Hale Gray, the president of Chicago First Equitable, to collect some ‘special items’ to display on top of the tallest building in the city. Graves is dubious about the morals of the expedition but wants the money so he can finally marry his girlfriend, Adelaide. In Melanesia, a mission houseboy called Argus loses his master, but not his faith. He seeks out his sister and they are soon promised new prospects by the man on a ship from Chicago… This book travelled with me around the globe recently. Back at home I got in touch with its Australian-American author, Dominic Smith.

AM: I was swept up in every element of this vast story – the tensions at sea, Owen and Adelaide’s relationship, Argus caught between worlds, the skyscraper sliding into the ground – and I wondered, was it difficult having so many balls in the air while writing? You draw them all together seamlessly and somehow keep the pace steady throughout.

DS: I’m so glad to hear that you were pulled along! Writing this novel was sometimes akin to running between spinning plates, giving them each another nudge as I darted by. I was conscious from the beginning of the scope of the novel and thought about ways to handle all the moving pieces. Some of my favourite literature includes sprawling narratives and plots with many moving parts. I think of Dickens and George Eliot especially… I feel like one of the things I tried to do was to keep the plates spinning. So that meant even when we are at sea it’s worth taking a dramatic pause in the nautical action to check back in with the Chicago characters. It builds more tension - in both the Chicago and Pacific narratives – and allows the narrative to skip through passages of time. It increases the pace. I also tried to create some friction between the interweaving narratives, so that the ideas and predicaments of one storyline might echo with the storyline that is juxtaposed next to it.

It’s set in a fascinating time-period, when all the islands had already been somewhat ‘infected’ by ships of explorers, collectors, naturalists and missionaries and would never be the same again. What was it about this era that drew you in?

The 1890s was a fascinating period for both Chicago and the Pacific. When I was doing research for the novel I was shocked to discover the widespread fear among collectors of the late-19th century that ‘the bathtub had already been drained.’ There was a feeling that it was easier to get good curios in London or New York than in the Pacific islands. That surprised me. So you saw a huge collecting impetus by many museums and private collectors as the new century dawned. They were trying to get the last of the loot. So by 1900 the Pacific was already awash with European white culture; islanders were more likely to want Winchesters, ammunition, and cigarettes, than beads, glass, and ironwork. This is also a time of missionary zeal, when the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Catholics are divvying up the Pacific, sometimes along tribal boundaries. Meanwhile, in Chicago, you have a dozen or so business tycoons who make millions from meatpacking and railways and insurance. They pour much of it into building cultural institutions - libraries, symphonies, museums. Marshall Field, of department store fame, donated $1 million to set up a museum in his name. There was a widespread interest in the exotic and ethnographic after the World’s Fair of 1893. So I was fascinated by how the tribal Pacific and commercial America could intersect in ways that were both strange and compelling. The 1890s, for me, is a crazy mash-up of conflicted ideas and visions.

You capture that mash-up very well! Some of the characters are ‘in between’ the two worlds (the West and the Pacific life), none more so really than Argus. He’s also caught, in a way, between loyalty to Malini, his sister, and to Owen; and between his past and his faith. His character is representative of some of the strongest themes running through the novel, but he’s very empathetic, three dimensional. Could you talk a bit about creating him?

I struggled with Argus and with my own misgivings about trying to represent someone with a tribal background. In the end, I gave myself license to explore his psychology. One of the things that made that easier was to make him a character who is caught between two worlds, between the Euro-Christian way of seeing things and the Melanesian tribal way of seeing things. He – like the writer – feels pulled between these opposite poles. So in some ways I gave Argus my own misgivings; he has to chart those waters on the writer’s behalf. Characters who have inner conflict are dramatically interesting, I think. Argus has a kind of visceral connection to faith; it’s in his blood. He’s also ambitious and wants to explore the world he’s read about at the mission.  So those forces of curiosity, doubt, faith, and ambition ground his character. They pull him into the future but not without uncertainty. That is perhaps one source of empathy for him as a character.

You play with issues of class through the character of Adelaide, and through her relationship with Owen. They are both strong characters: determined, charitable, hard-working. Can you tell us a bit about shaping their relationship? Of course the distance between them does also add great tension to the narrative.

In some ways Adelaide (and Malini) are the moral core to the novel. Argus and Owen are filled with ambition, but they’re also capable of a certain kind of ruthlessness. With the relationship between Owen and Adelaide I was interested in exploring class and privilege, in addition to a love story that would seem of the period and compelling for contemporary readers. Adelaide comes from money but throws herself into charity. Owen comes from poverty and on some level thinks charity is a rich person’s enterprise. So when the voyage comes up – the prospect of bringing back natives to Chicago so that Owen can receive a windfall – there is a real divide wedged into the romance. Owen struggles to reconcile the morality of the Pacific trading scheme with the pragmatic need for money. He slightly resents what he imagines Adelaide – with her blue-blooded philanthropic ways – will think of this equation. I think these are the kinds of issues people deal with in relationships every day. How does one person’s actions reflect on the other? Relationships are evolving narratives and we sometimes want our partners/spouses to add coherence to the story we’re trying to tell the world. So in addition to their obvious admiration for each other, they struggle with how to integrate their pasts. Until Adelaide, Owen has never ordered a bottle of wine in a restaurant.

Were classic adventure novels an influence? I’ve been reading Gulliver’s Travels, and thought perhaps your book has a subtle element of social commentary to it as well? Ambition and wonder are present in your novel – as you’ve mentioned – and on some scale are seen as unrewarding and even destructive. I keep thinking about the ambitious insurance firm building sliding down into the earth…

I certainly thought of Treasure Island and Moby Dick when writing this novel, but also more recent novels, like Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage and Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. These latter novels showed me it was possible to render a seafaring story in an interesting, nuanced way, while still having fun with the tropes that come with sea voyaging and lore. There is social commentary in Bright and Distant Shores, though I think I’m more interested in paradox than a set of thematic statements. Ambition and wonder abounded in the 1890s, but so did naivete and exploitation. The early insurance companies saw their enterprise as somehow noble and they were paternalistic towards their employees. They had this idea of their clerks never needing to leave the skyscraper – they could get haircuts and eat in the cafeteria and take night school all under one roof. The insurance towers eclipsed the church spire as the tallest point in the city and the tower was seen as a kind of totem, but also a beacon of hope for the populace, with its clock tower a suggestion of life ticking away. This is obviously capitalism on a grand scale, with the delusion of benevolence for an under-insured populace. Corporations often think they have enlightened interests when in fact it’s really about selling insurance or widgets.

Not only is Bright and Distant Shores a ‘ripping’ tale, the writing is delightful. I found myself gasping at certain turns of phrase. And yet it never obstructs the story, it is not showy – just beautiful. Some of the descriptions: ‘spandrels of moonlight’, ‘a crapulous German clipper captain’, and the ‘fusty nooks and fetid warrens below deck’. It makes it such a pleasure to read. How much time do you spend with the book on a sentence level? Does that all come in final drafts, or do you craft the language carefully as you go?

Thanks for those nice comments. I do think a lot about language – it’s what draws me to reading fiction in the first place. I used to write skeletal drafts of things with very little attention to language, and then I would go back and polish things. Now I seem to write very slow and deliberate first drafts. It’s a gamble, because you may end up throwing out much of what you write in a first draft. But I seem to like feeling that a sentence does its job, that it’s more than a place holder, before I move on. I really try to work at the sentence level as I go.

You grew up in Australia but live in the US and have published over there. This is your first novel published through and Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin. How does it feel? Can you tell us a bit about your other works?

It has been very gratifying to publish a novel in Australia and I’m thrilled to have had it shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year and the Vance Palmer Prize. That means a lot to me; it’s a kind of sweet homecoming present. Allen & Unwin have been incredibly attentive. I was back in Australia for a month in June with my family and it was such a treat to share places and memories with them. My first novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, was a historical novel that re-imagined the life of Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype who supposedly suffered from mercury poisoning. The second novel, The Beautiful Miscellaneous, was a contemporary story and focused on the average son of a genius. It’s a story about a boy who is 15% above average in everything he does. His father, a renowned physicist, is convinced that the son harbors some greatness and desperately tries to uncover it.

Thank you so much, Dominic.

More details about Dominic Smith’s books can be found on his website.