On Zombies, Commercials, and Cruises: An Interview with Author Gillian Best

“The sea,” author Gillian Best tells me, “is just like zombies. It’s everywhere, and it’ll kill you if you don’t pay attention.”

But I’ll get to that in a moment.

First, let me back up here and confess something: I write this article for BrazosBookstore.com with absolutely zero pretense toward anything resembling journalistic objectivity. I met Best in January, at the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute in Memphis, Tennessee—imagine summer camp, but for booksellers in the winter and with a lot more drinking—when I had dinner with her and her publisher, House of Anansi Press, a venerable Canadian publishing house with a connection to pretty much every major author from that country you can think of (including, yes, giants like Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje). Also, in the interest of full disclosure: House of Anansi had paid my way to the conference as part of a generous scholarship.

I know it works like this: publishers want to attend these things, bring authors with them, introduce these authors to booksellers in the hopes that said booksellers will like these authors and remember them. This was the context in which I met Best. But the thing was, I didn’t have to fake it: I genuinely liked her, in part because, over our wine-fueled dinner, we hardly spoke about her novel, The Last Wave, at all. She was nursing what she called a “death flu” and was still high from the one piece of Memphis tourism she’d managed to take in: a visit to the famous Peabody Hotel Ducks.

Except she seemed barely to care about the ducks themselves. Instead, she took a particular shine to the elderly man who presides over them—the “duck master” (whether this is his official title or just what she took to calling him, I have no idea). This duck master fascinated her, and we spent a long time imagining various facets of his life away from the ducks—so long, in fact, that I began to worry I was taking too much of her time, and felt bad that she wasn’t talking to the other dinner guests about her forthcoming novel—you know, the thing she was in Memphis specifically to talk about.

It took me a little while to start that novel (her first), The Last Wave, in part because I was afraid I wouldn’t like it. (It can be dangerous, after all, when you find yourself liking a writer personally before you read his/her work.) In the first chapter of The Last Wave, an old man named John awakens to find his wife gone, but he knows where she is: she has gone swimming, the great love of her life. As he shuffles his way toward the beach, as he narrates this trip, we begin to realize something is awry: how long has his wife been gone for, exactly? why is he still wearing his slippers? Eventually, Best arrives at this lovely paragraph:

“There are moments when why no longer matters. Why do we fall in love? Why do we live and why do we die? There comes a moment when we know the point is simply that we are: in love, alive, or even dead. The young are gifted the luxury of why, the old the wisdom to realize why doesn’t matter in the end.”

My fears that I wouldn’t like the book had vanished entirely.

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Talking to Best—as I do one morning, over Skype, which I have never used before and confess some fear over doing (“Are you feeling okay?” she asks with a laugh when we start our conversation)—no standard question/answer follows a straight line. When I ask her to please not spoil the ending of The Last Wave for me (I haven’t quite finished it), she jokes about zombies suddenly appearing in the last chapter (I told you we’d get back to zombies), which leads to a conversation about how funny it would be if more works of art did crazy shit like that. When I briefly mention TV commercials in another question, she gets animated about how much she loves them and we discuss not her book but the surrealist tableau of leaving advertisements on with the television muted (“I forget what show I’m even watching,” she says, happily).

This discursive style seems central to her writing. The Last Wave is a novel that feels unsettled and uncontained in the best possible way. From that opening scene with the elderly John, we head backward (six decades) in time to learn about Martha, the book’s central character, who is, at that time, a young woman who falls accidentally, and dangerously, in love with the sea. Although she spends much of her life swimming, it’s not so much the activity itself she’s in love with: it’s the water itself. The novel charts the expanse of her marriage, her family, of love and illness and death, but at the center of it all is the sea. Because of this, it becomes one of the best novels about isolation I’ve ever encountered. (“Isolation is a funny word,” Best tells me. “It sounds so awful: ‘so and so was so isolated, that’s why they became the Unabomber.’ But I’m not sure it is.”)

Even though its characters are mostly polite—until, of course, pushed another direction (Best is terrific at creating a seemingly peaceful surface that makes the most minor disruptions seem shocking)—the structure cycles restlessly through several different first person points of view across nearly seventy years, and not chronologically. It’s a circular structure that reminded me of a novel like Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things—or, hell, even a movie like Pulp Fiction: even though the novel sprawls, non-chronologically, the scenes need to come in the order they do. In short, the linearity here isn’t temporal: it’s emotional.

Best tells me that this is mostly the way the book came together on the first draft, written over a period of four months. Writing this way came naturally to her. “When I think about how I tell stories at the pub,” she says, “I skip around all the time, I forget stuff, I backtrack—‘oh yeah, and these people were there too’—and so on. I like the idea of different points of view, different people in the same situation seeing things in totally different ways. I like the way you can have a multitude of voices to create a true version of what happened.”

Of course, the water itself anchors this book so that, no matter where Best goes as a writer, the novel is always concerned with the same thing: the ocean, the sea. But this is not a “scenic” book, per se—no ocean cruise, with beautiful waves. The first time Martha encounters the sea, she’s plunged accidentally into it: “It was everywhere and I was terrified and what was worse was that I didn’t know which way was up because it was so black.” The ocean becomes many things throughout this book—comforting, isolating, mournful, etc.—but it’s never wholly benign. “The sea is not the pool,” Best says. “It can turn on you in a second.”

I ask Best one of those stupid sounding questions—something about the sea vs. the novel, and which is more terrifying to confront. I mean the question half as a joke, but half seriously, and Best (a trained swimmer, p.s.) keys into this: “A novel is definitely more terrifying,” she laughs. “With the sea, you can pay attention and figure it out. You can kind of get above and see where the waves are coming in, where it’s peaceful, where the sharks are. It’s harder to know the shape of a novel.”

One digression that permeates our conversation: Best always seems as excited to talk about her next novel, the one she’s working on right now, as she is to talk about The Last Wave. “I keep thinking it’s supposed to be exactly the same as the last one. I had no plot line, just a picture I’d seen that Richard did.” (She mentions “Richard” a few times throughout our conversation, but never really explains who he is; it’s details like this that make her sound like somebody not giving polished answers to interview questions but letting the margins of her life sneak in.) But back to the picture: “In this picture, there’s a man with a three-legged dog, and he’s looking out to sea—it’s not figurative in any way. I asked Richard about it”—she adds that she’d had a few glasses of wine—“and he said, ‘Okay, Best, maybe it’s time to go home.’”

But this next novel? She tells me the premise—I wouldn’t dare repeat it, but it’s an odd one—and she catches me mid-sip of my coffee. I don’t answer right away. “I can just imagine your face,” she says.

“What do you think is on my face?” I ask once my coffee has made its way down.

“A mix of confusion and horror and concern—and also some curiosity.”

“Why does that premise appeal to you?” Meaning, in some way: if novel number two isn’t flowing as well as novel number one, what’s the animating principle, the thing in that premise that keeps her engaged?

“It’s a puzzle,” she says, “and I have to figure it out.”

“Most writers don’t want to talk about what they’re working on at the moment,” I say, “so you’re uncharacteristic in this way.”

“It’s part of my life,” she says. “Like talking about your day at work or something your friends did.”

Also on her mind at the moment: The Last Wave has recently been optioned by Awesome Media as a potential film or TV show. She seems delighted by this, in part because it’s a process completely out of her hands: “They call me and give me updates, and I ask, ‘Do you need me to do anything?’ and they say, ‘No,’ and I say, ‘Great!’”

“If it becomes a TV show,” I ask, “what kind of commercials do you hope they put in?”

“I’d love to see what the target demographic is! Let’s get the old people. [Commercials for] ocean cruises, adult Depends, exclusive retirement communities.”

Anything that can drive people—whoever they are—toward Best’s remarkable The Last Wave is okay with me.

The Last Wave Cover Image
$16.95
ISBN: 9781487002930
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: House of Anansi Press - March 6th, 2018

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