TSP Talks to David Poyer
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David Poyer

David Poyer’s thirty-year sea career included service in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Arctic, Caribbean, Pacific, and the Mideast.  He’s published numerous sea novels with Macmillan/St. Martin’s and three with Simon & Schuster, as well as sailing and nautical articles for Chesapeake Bay Magazine, Southern Boating, Shipmate, and Tidewater Virginian.  His work’s been required reading in the Literature of the Sea course at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, along with that of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville.  He lives on the Eastern Shore with Lenore Hart and their daughter, with whom he explores the Bay and Atlantic coast in their sloop, Water Spirit.




Zinta for The Smoking Poet: Welcome to The Smoking Poet, David. We are honored to have you join us here and tell our readers about your newest novel, The Whiteness of the Whale. And it’s your 34th! For those who have not yet had a chance to read this book (see our review on the Zinta Reviews page), please give us a synopsis of its storyline.

David Poyer: Thanks Zinta!  THE WHITENESS OF THE WHALE – the title is from one of Melville’s chapter titles in MOBY DICK – begins with the sailing of a group of young activists from Argentina in a state-of-the-art racing sailboat.  Their goal is to stop illegal Japanese whaling in the Antarctic sanctuary. But, obviously, things don’t turn out the way they expect.

TSP: Can you talk to us about the connection between your naval service and the writing of this novel—as well as other novels you’ve written?

David: I guess the biggest influence on this book was my service in the Arctic, which took place in the early seventies. USS Bowen was ordered to go north of Iceland in the winter, find the biggest storm around, and stay in it as long as we could. (This was to test a new type of sonar gear under the most adverse conditions.) I remember Arctic seas, and fogs, and the distinctly daunting feeling of being out there all alone, hundreds of miles from any possible rescue.  My Navy novels are of course more closely based on my actual experiences, whereas WHITENESS is more of a sailing book, or perhaps an ecological meditation. But the polar experience definitely came In handy.


TSP: How has your work been received in the naval world? In an earlier interview, you’ve mentioned actual antipathy against in-service writers. Does that still hold true, and why?

David: Actually there was a bit of pushback. Historically, writers don’t pull a lot of weight in military circles. They’re perceived as lightweights, if not non-team-players, especially if they argue against any policy or party lines.  But my feeling is that the Navy is the most forgiving service in that regard; we see many cultures, so we’re more cosmopolitan, if you will. Or at least that’s been my impression.  Also, in my case, I was very careful to keep my writing and navy careers well separated.  I avoided official writing assignments, and always steered clear of the kinds of compartmented intelligence billets that would subject me to official review of any outside writing. I don’t think writing hurt me, and in some ways it may have raised my visibility. But of course, the records of promotion boards are sealed!

TSP: Talk to us about the connection between Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and The Whiteness of the Whale, David. We see a reappearance of the motivated whale in your Antarctic adventure story, a whale with a mission.

David: Motivated . . . LOL! For me, as perhaps for Melville, in a different way, the whale was a way to explore how human beings attach very different meanings to material objects or living beings (such as bats, or snakes, or whales) that the animal may or may not have any real relationship to. We see that in the different approaches the crew of Black Anemone take to the whale one of them nicknames “Cappucino.”  The cinematographer sees it as wounded, in need of help; the Iraq veteran sees it as an enemy; the Shinto priest’s son sees it as supernatural, to be placated; the actress sees it as a backdrop to herself; the environmental activist sees it as justifiably enraged by Man’s predation on its species; Dr Sara Pritchard sees it as a rogue with a possibly damaged brain. These viewpoints collide and evolve in the course of the story. At certain points, I rendered homage to MOBY DICK, and those points will be evident to the informed reader, but I think the story stands on its own as well.  On level one: an adventure story. Level two: a retelling of a classic, in modern dress. Level three: a meditation on human impact on the last unspoiled environment on earth. Level four: an epistemological investigation. And so on . . .

TSP: Have you ever experienced something like this in your own days at sea?

David: A couple of too-close encounters with sharks.  Nothing with whales!

TSP: There are some heartrending scenes in this story about the killing of whales. Is it your intent to raise awareness about the fate of whales? Perhaps also point out some failings on the part of the activists?

David Poyer and John Gardner

David:  Both, I hope. One notable difference is how the mindset has changed since Melville’s time. Then, whaling was a noble industry that gave light to the world. Now it’s an illegal slaughter, on a par with poaching gorillas or killing elephants for their ivory.  But you’re right, I don’t see the activists as stainless crusaders, either. Both the whalers and their adversaries are human. In both the good sense, and the bad. And that, in the end, is what I think drives the story.

TSP: You’ve said that you knew from very early on in life that you wanted to be a writer. How did that come to be?

David:  I got the “call” around age four or five, when my mother told me, while reading to me on the back porch, where books came from. “Writers write them,” she said. At that moment, I “remembered” what I was here for. But I had to build up some life experience first. Hence the Naval Academy, the Navy, and then at last, in my late twenties, setting out to write.

TSP: Do you think it’s important for a literary work to also carry within it social commentary? Is that a necessity for you?

David: One of my early mentors was John Gardner, of NICKEL MOUNTAIN and GRENDEL fame. In fact, we both wrote books from the same bar conversation in Danville – he, MIKKELSONS GHOSTS, and I, WINTER IN THE HEART.  He was my ideal of a socially engaged, morally centered writer. And yes, many of my works have taken positions. Especially the Hemlock County books, but others, too.  DOWN TO A SUNLESS SEA, about water rights.  THUNDER ON THE MOUNTAIN, about the labor struggles of the 1930’s. GHOSTING, about the consequences of willful ignorance. The Navy books treat subjects like females and gays in military service, the enlisted vs. officer dichotomy, and the ever-present choice between the “right” act and the “expected” act. I don’t pretend to have definitive answers, and I certainly don’t think every literary work has to treat a serious subject.  Far from it!  STEPFATHER BANK is just a mad romp, with no theme or moral I’ve ever been able to locate. But if novelists don’t raise these questions, at least now and then, who will?

TSP: Not many writers take on the challenge of writing from the perspective of the opposite gender (and even fewer do so successfully), but you did so in this novel with your protagonist, Dr. Sara Pollard. What challenges did that present and why did you choose to write cross-gender?

David: Why, thank you! But I don’t really think of women as an opposite gender.  Less of certain tendencies and a bit more of others . . . but not “opposite.”  I’ve often written from the point of view of women, but this was my first book where the central omniscience, if you will, was female.  I try to do something different with each project, just to keep things interesting, and it was time to try a female central character.  The effect was unexpected; after about a hundred pages, I found myself thinking and perceiving the world differently.  As a woman does?  Hard to be sure; but I gradually saw through her eyes a world of webbed relationships, rather than the universe of objects and actions I customarily perceive. But at the same time, as a scientist, she was hard-nosed and analytical when it came to her specialty – animal behavior.  All in all, it was a revealing experience.

Nantucket in 2013

TSP: There’s a fascinating crew aboard your ship. We’d love to hear something about how you came up with this crew of characters.

David: Well, Sara is the descendant of the real-life Nantucket whaling captain after whom Ahab was modeled. And Edwige Auer is my very twisted take on Queequeg.  Tehiyah Doree (literal translation of her name: “gilded desert”) is the kind of woman everyone loves to hate. Dru Perrault is me, with a Quebecois accent. My daughter Naia helped me with Hy Kimura. And “Captain Crunch” is modeled, and even named, after the Japanese destroyer commodore in Ned Beach’s RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP. (Beach was another friend and model.) The others reported for duty as needed!

By the way, the video trailer – viewable at WHALE video trailer – is pretty impressive. It was put together by a student group led by Laurie Powers. I can’t believe she filmed it in Louisiana!

TSP: Can you tell our readers something about your writing process? You are obviously extremely prolific. How do you not lose steam? Who is your “first eyes” on the first draft?

David:  I teach writing at the Wilkes University Creative Writing program, and there, I’m considered the “structure” guy . . . in that I believe in thorough planning before putting fingers to keyboard.  I myself call it the architectural approach. You don’t send a building crew to put up a skyscraper before you have a solid, checked, .very detailed plan. At the same time, writers have to be open to those “gifts” we get from our unconscious. Knowing where I “think” the story is going forces me to be even more alert to those inspirations. It’s a step by step process, from character sketches, to character matrices, to scene outline, to detailed outline, to first draft.  And no one but me gets to see the first draft!  Only at the second draft stage does Lenore Hart, significant other and fellow novelist – ORDINARY SPRINGS, BECKY, THE RAVEN’S BRIDE -- get to see it. She’s my first reader, and a very good editor and sounding board, too.

TSP: Thank you so much for the insights you’ve given our readers into The Whiteness of the Whale, David. It is truly a thriller, and one that haunts one even after the reading with thoughts about these incredible mammals, whales. Perhaps we are not so very much the superior life form …

David: Thank you, Zinta!  Superior life form? The longer I spend on this planet, the less certain I am of that. Certainly, if only to preserve ourselves, we have to pay far more attention to the other species who share it with us. Glad you liked it . . . and I’ll try to do even better next time. Watch for THE CRUISER next year!

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