Nathaniel Philbrick has an impressive body of award-winning, historical non-fiction work. Combining methodical research with top-notch storytelling, Nathaniel has won the National Book Award, the George Washington Prize, was a finalist for the Pulitzer, and has hit the NY Times bestseller list. His book, In the Heart of the Sea, came to life on the big screen starring Chris Hemsworth. It’s my pleasure to welcome Nathaniel to Book Club Babble today.
Tabitha Lord: As a speculative fiction writer, my stories often begin with a question or issue I want to explore. (e.g. How far would humanity go to save ourselves from extinction?) As a predominantly non-fiction writer, how do you know when you’ve found the seed of an idea that will blossom into your next project?
Nathaniel Philbrick: I have to live with the idea for a couple of months and then write a proposal for my editor. I can tell at that stage if it’s going to fly or not. If I’m not feeling it while writing the proposal, there is no way it’s going to work as a book, and I try something else.
TL: The biographies and other non-fiction books that pull me in are meticulously researched but also read like fiction, complete with dramatic tension, colorful characters, and a riveting plot that just so happens to be true! It’s so impressive to me when a writer can deliver it all. From a craft standpoint, when and how do you think about the storytelling part of your book?
NP: From the very beginning, I start to think of the characters I’m going to focus on as well as the structure of the book. I usually put together an outline of chapters and then start writing the first chapter. Inevitably, there are more chapters than I originally envisioned, as I find myself focusing on an unexpectedly rich part of the plot, but the overall arc of the story is usually pretty much as I envisioned it in the beginning.
TL: The movie In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex is based off your book. How did that come about, and what was it like to see your vision for that particular moment in history on the big screen?
Almost all my books have been optioned, often with screenplays written, but In the Heart of the Sea was the only one to beat the odds and actually get made into a movie. The book had originally been optioned soon after it was published back in 2000, but languished with nothing happening for thirteen years. Then Chris Hemsworth attached himself to the script, Ron Howard came aboard as the director, and it all came together in a matter of months. Go figure!
TL: Your memoir, Second Wind, gets personal. It chronicles your return to competitive sailing. Can you talk a little about your journey with that story?
NP: Second Wind chronicles the year 1992-1993, when I started racing sailboats after a 15-year hiatus and found my voice as a writer of history. I’d been a stay-at-home dad for almost 10 years, and then everything changed when my youngest child, Ethan, began first grade, giving me until 2:30 in the afternoon to myself. I had so much pent up energy and ambition that I went a little crazy that year—sailing around Nantucket like a maniac and writing about the island’s past with a passionate intensity that I’d never felt before. It was all tremendously exciting, and it was literally the year that changed my life.
TL: In Second Wind, there’s a particular scene where you are nearly swept out to sea while your kids are on shore watching you. That moment struck me. I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro for my 40th birthday, and I didn’t think about the very real danger until I could barely breathe by 15,000 ft. As a parent, I had a moment of total guilt, and yet I really needed to do this thing. Did you experience something similar?
NP: Very much so. I loved being at home with the kids but it meant that a lot of the things that had once meant everything to me—especially sailing—were put on the back burner. It finally all caught up with me, and as I said before, I went a little nuts. Some of the sailing stunts I pulled that year were stupidly risky, but at the time I really didn’t have much control over my actions. Luckily, we all got through it and no one was hurt.
TL: On a completely different note, you went to Brown University! I am a Rhode Islander. What I don’t think people realize about this tiny state is the quality of the cuisine. We definitely rival Boston and NYC! In your time in Providence, did you have a favorite restaurant?
NP: You’ve got to remember that I went to Providence in the 1970s—I’m not sure any of the restaurants we went to back then are still around. There is a notable exception, though: Louie’s—a terrific greasy spoon of a restaurant near the Brown campus.
TL: I’ve spent many a vacation on the island of Nantucket – your home. One of my favorite places is the Shipwreck Museum. There’s a map with little light up buttons representing all the shipwrecks off the coast and it’s just incredible to think about. As a New Englander who grew up on the beach and around sailboats, Nantucket is a pretty special place for me. How did you find yourself raising your family there? What “must see” recommendations would you give to a visitor?
NP: It was my wife’s job as a lawyer that brought us to Nantucket in 1986 when the kids were 1 and 4. Neither my wife Melissa nor I had spent any time on the island before then. All we knew was that Melissa’s commute to work could not be too terrible on an island that’s only 14 miles long. Melissa fit right in immediately; it was tougher for me at home with the kids, but I eventually began to find my way, and it proved to be a wonderful place to raise small children. You’ve got to see the Whaling Museum, the Nantucket Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum, and the Nantucket Atheneum. Also, get on a bike and make your way to Altar Rock, the highest point on the island.
TL: I understand you are in the middle of researching a new project. Can you give us a sneak peek?
NP: I’ve got a third book about the Revolution, In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown, coming out on October 16, but I have already started working on yet another book. While writing three books about the Revolution, I developed a completely unexpected interest in George Washington. I also wanted to do something a little different—sort of more in the Second Wind memoir-ish mode. As it turns out, when Washington became president in 1789 he realized that the thirteen states were hardly united. So he decided he needed to personally visit every state. It was a tremendously arduous road trip that helped forge the nation, and I, along with my wife Melissa and our dog Dora, will be following in Washington’s footsteps. It’s going to be called Travels with George: In Search of Washington’s America.
TL: That sounds fascinating! Best of luck, and thank you for taking time to chat.
Nathaniel Philbrick is the New York Times bestselling author of Valiant Ambition, winner of the George Washington Prize; In the Heart of the Sea, winner of the National Book Award; Mayflower, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and more. His memoir Second Wind chronicles his return to competitive sailing. Nathaniel lives in Nantucket with his wife Melissa.