Sunday, July 29, 2018

How can you not adore a person who disapproves of cruises and yet writes an extraordinary novel about one? Kate Christensen is here! Plus bonus question from Angus her dog!

Kate Christensen is one of those writers you just want wonderful things to happen to. And they have. And they do. First off, she's the author of The Great Man, which won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction; two food-centric memoirs, Blue Plate Special and How to Cook a Moose, which won the 2016 Maine Literary Award for Memoir. She lives in Portland, Maine and the White Mountains of New Hampshire with my husband and dog.

THE LAST CRUISE is about final voyages..or maybe not for the passengers of the cruise ship Queen Isabella. But the times and the people change in ways you never seen coming. And I'm thrilled to share some of the raves for the book:

Excellent… Above deck are wealthy vacationers dining on caviar and Lobster Thermidor. But below, conditions are hardly different from a Third World factory. Christensen gamely traverses both worlds in this waterborne upstairs-downstairs drama.
The Wall Street Journal

Christensen is a master at drawing us into the interior lives of her characters, toeing the line between satire and sympathy… comedy and humiliation… Having gathered these disparate people together, Christensen gently rolls and pitches the stage, dislodging stones of sadness that had been safely stuck in the crevices of their everyday lives. That discombobulation is the key to the story’s appeal, its unstable mix of romantic comedy, class oppression and spiritual angst — as though Cynthia Ozick wrote an episode of “The Love Boat.” Christensen also deconstructs the aura of the cruise ship… Mysterious and existential… She’s interested in the most intimate and profound changes we’re willing to make only when tossed by the tempest of life. Ron Charles
The Washington Post

Thank you so much, Kate, for being here. And please thank Angus with a paw-shake, for being such a good, good boy and answering a question, too.

I always am curious why this novel, why this moment. What were you thinking about that propelled or haunted you into writing this?

“The Last Cruise” came out of a generalized, ongoing sense of alarm and despair, along with nostalgia for the postwar glow of the 20th century, its elegance and decadence and culture—I wasn’t born yet, so this is of course a wholly romantic and naïve nostalgia, but I feel it nonetheless.  The notion of a Last Cruise feels like a metaphor for America’s 73 years of peace and economic prosperity, now coming to an abrupt and apparent end.

I love that you set your novel on a cruise, which always terrifies me. All those people and you cannot escape! But maybe the deeper question is how you can ever escape yourself. Can you talk about this please?

“Wherever you go, there you are”? Ha! Yes. People on a cruise bring their own personal histories, unfulfilled desires, and deepest fears on board. I populated my nostalgia cruise with three protagonists. Two of them are employed to work on the cruise, as galley crew and entertainment. Christine, the lone passenger of the trio, a farmer from Maine, tries to enjoy the passive luxury, but when things go “pear-shaped” halfway through, she is perversely glad, awakened, galvanized. This comes out of my own need to have a role, something to do. When I’m not engaged in work of some kind, I don’t quite know who I am. So vacations can be disorienting. All three of my protagonists are like me in this way: their work ethic defines them, gives them their identities. When the shit hits the fan, they ask, What can I do? not, Who will save me?

And yes: I’ve never been on a cruise, because I, like you, have a near-phobia of them. The idea of being on a huge floating pleasure dome crowded with strangers indulging in “leisure activities” and wanton gluttony in the terrifying middle of the ocean—none of that sounds remotely fun to me. To me, that’s just asking for trouble, as so many news stories have borne out, dire tales of norovirus outbreaks, engine room fires, people falling overboard, crimes on the high seas, not to mention shipwrecks.

Also, this will no doubt enrage many happy cruise-goers, but I disapprove of cruises. A modern cruise ship is first and foremost a corporate moneymaking machine, a polluting, crowded, floating mega-resort whose luxuries are predicated on the labor of the exploited workers below decks. So the Queen Isabella strikes me as a perfect vessel, pun half-intended, to carry certain burdens—existential, emotional, and actual.

 There’s a line in the book, where one character looks at another, whose face is astonished, and full of anticipation.  That stopped me because I often feel we’ve lost the capacity to wonder about ourselves and our futures. It feels to me from what I know about you that that’s the way you live your life.  Am I right?

Um. Yes. This has been true since I was born, and I have never outgrown it or learned to temper or repress this tendency in myself. Apparently, I “feel things (too) deeply.” And I know this to be true. But being prey to the more difficult emotions—anxiety, sadness, despair, grief, rage, turmoil—allows me to feel the beautiful ones too—joy, exaltation, awe, wonder, passion, deep love. At various times in my life, I’ve been strongly advised to go on antidepressants or SSRI’s. I’ve been told I’m “overly sensitive,” “too intense.” But for me, these responses and reactions tell me what matters, what is right and wrong. Deep passion can be a call to action and an ethical guide, if you use it that way, if you’re not self-indulgent or narcissistic, but rather concerned with a greater good.  

 What’s obsessing you now and why?

Oh God—the same thing we’re all obsessed with, or sadly, only 54% of us, according to the latest polls. How the hell are we going to deal with this unholy, terrifying mess we’re in? As a country, a culture, a planet? How will we rise to this? How will we go on in the face of what’s coming? How many of us will do what’s right? Primarily, I’m obsessed with the fact that we are all interdependent and interconnected, all living things on earth, from redwoods and whales down to bacteria and microbes, and this is becoming more and more crucial and apparent.

 What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I think I’ve gone on long enough…. Thank you, Caroline.

AND BONUS QUESTION: What does Angus want everyone to know?

The best things in life are swimming in a lake, chasing squirrels through the woods, licking someone’s face, lying in the shade on a front porch watching the birds, and chewing a squeaky chicken. Everyone should do those things all day long, and nothing else.

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