An argument can be made that many of the greatest works of American fiction were forged on the hot end of a harpoon, the weapon that made possible the once nation-shaping, but now extinct, whaling industry on New England’s formidable coast. In Sophronia L. (Folded Word), a newly released novel by Tim Bridwell, a harpoon rises again, carried upward by a fierce whale, igniting an epic story about love, vengeance and freedom during the American Civil War, a past darker than the ocean’s abyss.
Bridwell, raised in Martha’s Vineyard Island where Sophronia L. takes place, answered my questions about the novel and the writing life for KGB readers.
Sophronia L., started out as an award-winning screenplay. Given your background as a filmmaker, why did you step out, so to speak, of your comfort level to transform the script into a novel? Also, what were some of the challenges you faced and overcame in this process?
I think I had a novelist in me the whole time (don’t they all say that?). For me screenwriting had become increasing frustrating, not only because I wasn’t selling million dollar scripts, but particularly due to the limitations inherent in the format. To be able to write action in only two senses—vision and audition—can make one feel a bit “hobbled” artistically. Of course, to fully express the six senses in two, that is the true art of the screenwriter; there are some masterful works out there that really pull it off without having to resort to unmotivated, expository dialogue or excessive voiceover narration. With that said, I did use a fair amount of voiceover in the screenplay version of Sophronia L.. Perhaps you can get away with it more in a period film; the device itself always seems to signify “reminiscence” for me. Cinema is a visual art, though, and voiceover narration is literature. I don’t think most screenwriters sit down with the intention of writing loads of voiceover; its presence in a film often betrays a “quick fix,” though sometimes it’s the only way to condense the narrative.
I felt Sophronia L. had so much more to tell as a story; not only the tale told— but how it was to be told. This is where various points of view and their nuances come into play. I was undoubtedly reacting to a newly discovered sense of freedom when I allowed Sophronia L. to tell itself from whichever point of view it saw fit: third person subjective, third person omniscient, several chapters in the protagonist’s first person, and a somewhat cetacean second person POV framing the novel’s first and last chapters. For example, I would sometimes write an entire chapter, discovering only at the end that I had been writing in the 1st person, a voice I rarely use. It might sound trite, but I was really taken over by the voice. I said sometimes, for I did my fair share of banging my head against the wall. When it flows, point of view is my shaman friend, opening channels of insight.
One challenge in the adaptation process is that a screenplay really has much less narrative content when compared to a full novel. It is much more common that a successful novel must be whittled down into a screenplay—a reductive synthesis. Of course, in building-on there is a huge opportunity, as a screenplay is a solid skeleton on which to construct a novel; its story and character arcs well developed, the dynamo of conflict is already set to drive the story on. From there the characters can be further developed and the music of the prose can evolve. Vestiges of Sophronia L.’s origins remain in the novel, though, most notably in its 64 short chapters, directly evolved from their original screenplay scenes and sequences. That classic Aristotelian three-act paradigm—so integral to the screenplay—remains, as does the visual detail.
The novel is written in the present tense. Is that common for a historical fiction novel?
When I first received the bound galleys for Sophronia L. some months ago, I was surprised to find that it had been written in the present tense. My first reaction was to feel like an idiot for not remembering something so significant as this, then I quickly rationalized it away, convincing myself that I had been blindfolded by my muse—not allowed to see the path they had led me on. The truth is, I just forgot. While it is true that most historical fiction is written in the past tense, I stand by my use of the present tense, which has the effect of creating immediacy, an intimacy with an unfamiliar period and dialect. Feel the blubber between your toes.
The novel is set in the 19th Century whaling town of Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, is beautifully researched, with an authenticity of detail and language. What is it about this industry and the people who made their living from the harvest of whales, which so intrigued you, and how did you take this interest and weave it into a larger story?
I like writing about strangers in strange lands, yet, time and time again, I’ve been told I should write about places and characters familiar to me. The place I am “from” is Martha’s Vineyard Island. Raised year-round on the Vineyard, it never seemed like a place I would want to write about, there were always more interesting places for me… off-island. That’s island fever for you. Some years away from the States, I began thinking of what makes the Vineyard unique. The first thing that stood out for me was the island’s 19th century deaf community, far larger than anywhere on the mainland. There seemed to be no stigma attached to the condition, with rates of intermarriage between deaf and hearing partners equal to the norm. Their homegrown sign language was widely used by all islanders. Martha’s Vineyard was also highly involved in the whaling industry, from Edgartown, its whaling port to the east, to Gay Head (Aquinnah) on the far western side, home to the Wampanoag tribe with their renowned harpoon skills.
From today’s perspective, it seems unlikely that what was basically a hunting culture could come to dominate American commerce, lighting the world’s lamps and greasing the cogs of an Industrial Revolution. The fact is that whaling was, and to this day remains, a barbaric practice. Send these profit-making barbarians from their isolationist country out to the far corners of the globe—like some ill-suited ambassadors—and you have a most absurd set of circumstances. Consolidating these elements, I chose the years 1864-1865, when the Vineyard was touched by—yet still largely buffered from—the American Civil War. Petroleum, discovered five years previously in Pennsylvania, had already begun to replace whale oil in the world’s lamps, contributing to the decline of the once great whaling industry, thus imparting a bit more pathos to the novel’s unfolding voyage.
For many years now you have resided mostly in Paris, keeping, as your website states, “a toe in the United States…” That said, Sophronia L. is a uniquely American book, providing depth and meaning to an important time in our nation’s history. Has living abroad given you a helpful distance to observe and write about America, or has it made it more difficult?
Only after living in Paris for the last 15 years, have I come to understand America, the land I still consider my country. That Puritan ethic, the aggressive discourse, the fear mongering, and the inherent violence: I am a product of all of that. On the brighter side, there is a refreshing optimism, a spirit of versatility Americans embody, the conviction that there just might be a better way and it’s worth a try, which I respect and sorely miss here in France. All of that is in my novel. Keeping my head in the 19th century maritime dialect of the book wasn’t as difficult as expected; I did find myself adopting some French words for the book, though. They seemed to fit into the archaic English well, though perhaps I just enjoyed the sound. Music sometimes supersedes meaning in my writing.
I’m writing a literary fiction novel set aboard a dilapidated container ship sinking in the Straits of Gibraltar. The novel takes place in the span of one hour, as the ship sinks. I have an obsession with drowning.
Tim Bridwell graduated Summa Cum Laude from Emerson College with a degree in film. He wrote and directed the feature film Rendezvous in Samarkand and short HAZE, both shot in Morocco. His screenplay of Sophronia L. won the “Golden Lion Award” at the George Lindsey/UNA Film Festival. He lives in Paris with his wife and two children. http://timbridwell.com
Sophronia L. is available from: http://foldedword.bigcartel.com/product/sophronia-l