Author Janice Clark's debut novel unravels a Connecticut whaling family's mysterious demise.

By Marisa Spyker
July 29, 2013
Author Janice Clark's debut novel unravels a Connecticut whaling family's mysterious demise.
Photo: Chris Kirzeder

In this captivating debut novel, Chicago author Janice Clark transports herself to her seaside hometown of Mystic, Connecticut, a once prosperous whaling port in the 19th century, to tell the tale of Mercy Rathbone, a descendent of a notable whaling family who sets off in search of her father, lost at sea for nearly a decade. Here, Janice discusses the bygone industry that sparked the idea for The Rathbones, the late, great authors who inspire her, and her list of can't-miss spots in Mystic.

What inspired you to write your debut novel about a whaling family from your hometown?
JC: Mystic, Connecticut, was a 19th-century whaling port, and though there were no whalemen in my family there was a sailor: my father was in the navy when I was a child, and away at sea more than he was at home. My mother was always waiting for him to return; if our house had boasted a widow’s walk, she would have walked it often. I didn’t really become interested in whaling until I read a few books about the Sperm whale about 10 years ago, as an adult living in Chicago and always missing the sea near which I had grown up. I was struck by all that the whale yielded: oil used for light in lamps, to anoint kings at coronations, and to make nitroglycerin for explosives in World War I; ambergris used in perfumes and wines and love potions. The whale’s bones were used up, too, in scrimshaw: jagging wheels and corset busks and delicate portraits incised in great teeth. Whale baleen was used for corsets and hoop skirts—millions of whales died for corsets so women too could suffer pain.

How much research did you do on 18th and 19th century whaling culture for the novel?
JC: I love research, a little too much; it’s easy for me to spend another hour or two poring over an old ship’s log, or staring at an eerie 19th century portrait, rather than get to the hard work of actually writing. Most of my research was contemplative rather than in search of the kinds of specific facts that invite scrutiny for accuracy; I’m not striving for “historical fiction” that’s perfectly matchable to a time and place, but to a fictional world that, though somewhat grounded in reality, has its own rules and its own reality.

Which authors, past or present, do you admire most?  
JC: I love the vast and immersive 19th century worlds of Melville, Tolstoy, Dickens. Among living authors I’m a fan of Jeffrey Eugenides, David Mitchell, Donna Tartt, Colson Whitehead, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Jonathan Lethem, Samantha Hunt, Lauren Groff.

Did any particular novels or authors inspire The Rathbones?
JC: Moby Dick is for me the Great American Novel and an ongoing inspiration to me as a writer, not for its depictions of the world of whaling but for the deep, rich strangeness of Melville’s mind.  I love the Odyssey and it served as a rough model for The Rathbones. Benadam Gale is a troubled Odysseus; his daughter, Mercy, is a female Telemachus who goes on a quest to find her missing father. Mercy’s mother, Verity, evokes Penelope, though she carves bones rather than weaves at a loom. There are cameos by the sorceress Circe, Phineas as a blind gardener and Scylla as a seaport whore who gobbles up sailors two at a time.  The Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin novels were inspirational, not for their 19th-century naval battles but for their spirit of high adventure and sense of humor.

What was it like growing up in Mystic, Connecticut?
JC: In a town full of 18th- and 19th- century homes, many built by ships’ captains, I grew up in a mid-century modern home, and so I always romanticized about those austere white clapboard Georgian houses with black shutters perched high on hills, topped with widows’ walks that looked out on the sea. My favorite beaches are Watch Hill and Napatree Point in Westerly, Rhode Island. For shopping: the Mystic Seaport Museum Shop has a great print collection, rich, of course, in maritime subjects; AK Dasher in Stonington is a wonderful little jewelry shop. Bank Square Books in downtown Mystic is a fantastic independent bookstore. For seafood you might try the iconic Abbott’s Lobster or The Seahorse in Noank, or dine at the atmospheric Captain Daniel Packer Inne in Mystic, built in 1756 by a square-rigger captain.