Author Nicole Galland was tucked up in bed when it came to her all at once: she would write the new Moby Dick.
Well, not exactly the new Moby Dick, but a parallel story, using the basic premise of that maritime classic, only this one set in contemporary Martha’s Vineyard. In Ms. Galland’s serialized novel, titled Moby Rich, which begins today and continues weekly for the coming year in the Gazette, the narrator has signed on board a small enterprise with a monomoniacal, eccentric, patriarchal figure who is completely convinced that some larger than life entity is out to get not only him, but the people who live and work with him, and everyone like them — and he decides to take it down. “And the narrator sort of doesn’t have much of a choice but to go along for the ride,” adds the author, an Islander and award-winning screenwriter who has written three successful novels set in the Middle Ages, The Fool’s Tale, Revenge of the Rose and Crossed.
Ms. Galland explains how she came, in the middle of the night, to the idea for a book so unlike her previous work. “I was thinking about a situation in my personal life that reminded me of a situation in — I can’t remember if it was Bridget Jones’s Diary or Pride and Prejudice, but they are mirror stories; Bridget Jones is a takeoff on Pride and Prejudice. So I started thinking about the relationship between Bridget Jones’s Diary and Pride and Prejudice, not in terms of the literary thing, just that particular issue — someone being deliberately given the wrong information about someone else and the effect that has, because that had happened to me. And then the writer in me kicked in and thought, you know, she did that as a newspaper column originally — that would be a really fun way to write a book. I wish I knew a newspaper. Oh, I do! I wonder if the Gazette would be interested. Hmmm, what would it be about? It would have to be, just like she borrowed from . . . It was literally that fast.”
Was Moby Dick the first novel she considered? “Yes!” she laughs, a tall, dimpled smile lighting up her face, her tan skin rosy after a bike ride from West Tisbury to Edgartown to talk about Moby Rich. “Partly because I tend to go for extremes, but also because . . . there’s a Wampanoag in Moby Dick, so the Vineyard always feels a slightly proprietary relationship [with the book].”
They can now become personally proprietary with Moby Rich. As part of the novel, which will incorporate real events as they happen on the Vineyard, any person or business who donates $250 or more to Martha’s Vineyard Community Services can get a mention in the book. Think of it as product placement for the public good. The Net Result was the first to sign on to the fund-raising program that Ms. Galland conceived, which community services is calling Your Name Here. How did they know?
“I figured out what would be easy things to put into the first chapter,” says Ms. Galland, “because there is one paragraph where the narrator says so much has changed on the Island and she rattles off those things she notices, coming back after having lived in a cosmopolitan area for 20 years. So [community services] went to those businesses I thought might work in that way. The first one we got was Net Result — because now you can get sushi on Martha’s Vineyard, which would have been unthinkable when I graduated from high school.”
The mentions will stay, should the book be published at the end of its year in the Gazette. “You could remove all the references and the story still has absolute, total integrity, so it’s win-win-win,” Ms. Galland says.
While busy with casting for the Vineyard Playhouse annual outdoor Shakespeare piece, As You Like It, which she is directing, Ms. Galland is writing away, undaunted by the shadow of Moby Dick. “Well, maybe not undaunted. But I also chose it because it’s an iconic piece of writing, so it’s kind of easy to lampoon. Unfortunately for Melville.”
Not that she is going for a lampoon. “I want it to be playful,” she says. “And obviously my ultimate verbiage is much smaller than Moby Dick’s.” Both those aspects of the project appeal to her. “I’m used to writing these massive books, so this will be an exercise for me in pithiness.
“And especially after working on Crossed [her most recent book] — I’m so grateful the reviews have pointed out there is humor in it, but it’s a very intense book and it has great tragedy.”
The picture Ms. Galland paints of mapping out Moby Rich is almost comic. First she bought a fresh copy of Moby Dick. “And I look at it for about three hours, from the outside mostly.
“And then I go online and I order the Cliffs Notes version. Now, I have read it before. I would not pretend to undertake this if I didn’t feel like I knew my material, but when you want a quick reference to something, the Cliffs Notes are really useful.
“Once I had an outline, I shifted it, to turn it into 53 instead of 138 or however many [chapters] he has, and thought out where would the digressions go and where would the storylines go.
“I literally had this big chart, and I figured out, well, if this happens here then this happens here. I want a scene like this, but this can’t happen in winter. This is the week the Possible Dreams auction happens. It was a combing together of, the outline of Moby Dick, what I wanted in my story, the seasonal calendar of the Vineyard and the social calendar of the Vineyard,” she says.
The process is, she admits, pretty nerve-wracking. “Partly because my natural writing style is to be completely cocooned and sequestered. I’m a freak about absolute authenticity — in every one of my books, the phases of the moon are right from 800 years ago; that’s the kind of detail I go into.
“But I get to do it in my own little cave and I do it all at once, in a huge glob. I could get a draft of a novel done in two months, and then I spend the rest of the year doing rewrites of the whole thing as a unified unit.
“What’s so scary about this is that once chapter seven comes out, I can’t make any changes later on which would require me to rewrite chapter seven because chapter seven is already out there — it’s the exact inverse of the way I usually work and that’s the thing that is the most nerve-wracking, is that I have to make commitments all along the way and stick with them.”
Ms. Galland is getting used to new commitments. She has just celebrated her one-year anniversary with husband Darren Lobdell. “He is the best thing that ever happened to me, and almost as soon as we got together, all of my friends noticed a difference in me,” she smiles, talking about settling down after Harvard, an unfinished PhD at Berkeley, years in San Francisco and Los Angeles and other points, and an 8,000-mile road trip with Mr. Lobdell before they returned the Island where the two hope to have their house built “by 2017,” she jokes.
Their new life here raises another nerve-wracking prospect of Moby Rich: “Am I going to inadvertently insult somebody?” Ms. Galland wonders. “I’d like to issue a blanket apology for anyone that I accidentally insult by implication, omission or commission. I have absolutely no negative feelings toward anybody that could in any way possibly make an appearance in this story accidentally or otherwise. I’m doing it because I love the Vineyard and I think this whole thing is fun.”
She is adamant that the narrator character, Becca (read: Ishmael), also a 40-year-old woman recently returned to the Vineyard, is not Nicki Galland. “The character has a lot of opinions, and even when her opinions aren’t necessarily mine . . . people will think she is me, and so whatever she says I will be held accountable for and I’m nervous about that.”
“She’s more naive than I am. She hasn’t been here at all in years, whereas I’ve been here and I’ve been back and my family’s been involved in Island politics the whole time and I’ve heard more than an earful about it, so I actually understand the Vineyard better than she does, but her naïveté is part of what allows the story to get told I think from a broader perspective.
“I deliberately made her an orphan. She keeps referring to this huge crazy family of hers, but the only family members ever mentioned by name, the only one by blood, is Abe, her uncle — who is the Ahab stand-in — and his ex-wife, Gwen, who is part of the complex that is the Moby Dick stand-in.”
In the original story, Ishmael really remains mainly an observer. Becca gets more involved. “Not necessarily more effectually, but she tries, because in this case it’s her uncle not her boss,” says Ms. Galland. “It’s a family connection, and they’re here on the Island, they’re not out at sea, so there’s a social density that very much influences it.”
Abe runs a landscaping business called Pequot [read: Pequod]. The first mate from Moby Dick is named Starbuck. “That’s where Starbucks coffee gets it name from,” says the author, “so I named the equivalent of that character Mott.
“Queequeg becomes Quincas, who is a Brazilian landscaper . . . I was delighted to find out there is a Brazilian character, well known in Portuguese literature, who is named Quincas,” she adds.
Meanwhile she is refreshing her own base of Vineyard literature, reading Arthur Railton’s The History of Martha’s Vineyard. “In the first 25 pages of that book, there is enough material to write historical fiction for the rest of my life,” she said, declaring herself “done with the Middle Ages,” despite at least one more medieval novel on the way already. “But the history of this Island is so rich with the particular kind of drama that I tend to be drawn to — interpersonal drama. Because we’re on an Island, those relationships get very intensified. And they were even more intense when there were fewer people.”
She doesn’t know how Moby Rich will end. “That’s been true of every book I have ever written” she says. “However with those other books I didn’t have a Gazette deadline.
“But I have a trusting heart. I’m sure that over the long winter months the specifics of it will fill themselves in.”