Allan Wolf sets sail with a sinking ship

Before The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic was even published, local author Allan Wolf’s latest novel had already garnered three starred reviews from The Horn Book Magazine, ALA Booklist and Kirkus Reviews. After reading the novel and testing several of the poems on listeners from hillbillies to suits, who ranged in age from 7 to 70 years old, it seems evident that Wolf has rediscovered a lost treasure (and finally polished up a new piece of historical fiction). Five years in the making, the novel and audio book are released Oct. 11 by Candlewick Press, with a local celebration on Saturday, Oct. 15. We caught up with Allan one morning at Waking Life Espresso, where he did much of the writing, to discuss the process.

Xpress: Where did you get the idea to write a novel about the Titanic for the centennial of its sinking?
Wolf:
I think the idea came from Bob Falls, where a lot of my ideas come from.

How did you pick these 25 voices to tell the story?
I knew I wanted multiple characters. I like to explore multiple characters looking at one situation, but seeing 10 different situations, even though they’re looking at the same thing. I needed a cross-section of people from all over the ship, the different classes. Also, some iconic figures that all people who know Titanic would expect. It has certain stories that are really important. I had to make sure that there was someone alive at every stage who could tell the story. Someone had to survive certain parts of the sinking to further the story as the main narrator. Also, these characters had to somehow intertwine; if not knowing each other, they had to be in the same place at the same time at some point, so that the characters’ stories interlaced. I had to figure that out, and that took a year. There’s a whole story from the rat’s point of view.

Is there a whole other book then?
150 pages.

You had 150 pages’ worth of rats?
Yeah. It’s the whole Titanic story through the eyes of the rats.

But they got axed by the editor?
Yes, Elizabeth Bicknell, who’s ruthlessly accurate. I could find nothing to relate to with any of these characters, and I was dead in the water, so to speak. I was not having fun, so these rats were a way for me to use my imagination. I told the human story in the guise of these rats, but it’s like I was smacking you over the head with it the whole time.

You seem to use different forms compared to what you used in New Found Land.
I wanted to continue what I was doing with New Found Land. A lot of sounds of what they’re doing, like the postman’s slotting and sorting that becomes repetitive, and as you read it, you don’t necessarily read every slot-sort-sort after a bazillion of them. That continues in the background of your mind as you read the actual text of what’s spoken. I like experimenting with having sound effects like a comic book, but in a novel.

The concrete poems when the text is moving, and there’s this mass of people cluttered around the gutter with the little stanzas all around, is supposed to be representative of the different lifeboats that are laying on their oars all around the perimeter of this circle of people that are in the water. The Titanic went down and there were all these people floating in this mass and then there’s the lifeboats afraid to row into the mass, and they’ve got to just sit on their oars and listen to this. That’s a very startling image to me. The form of it fits the meaning.

That the rat can scuttle around the pages I thought was really cool. Although I spent a lot of time on each individual word that the rat says, you don’t have to linger over every scuttle and say “Oh what’s the deep meaning?” He’s scuttling.

We don’t have to analyze every scuttle?
No, but there’s a lot of stuff there. I’m an English major trained in looking for allusions, tie-ins, metaphors and repeated images that connect different parts of a longer work. As I read later drafts of my own work, I can then go back and put foreshadowing moments in after the fact. I started experimenting with New Found Land, but with this one I really wanted to make part of it very poetic so that some of these pieces could stand on their own.

A lot of novels in verse are in free verse. I wanted to do the Iceberg in iambic pentameter partly because of that, but it made sense to his character. The Undertaker too, his is a cycle of poems that are very specific for the different watches within this. His narrative line had to be continual and pick up one poem to the next.

You’ve got 25 characters and they’ve all got to tell a different story, but they have to tell it in the same chronological order that’s happening historically in the book. One piece will end while another will have a phrase that begins from the phrase that ended the one before, but they might be characters that have nothing to do with each other. It was like a big jigsaw puzzle.

— Wendi Loomis can be reached at wendi@jazzandpoetry.com.

who: Allan Wolf
what: Book release for The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic
where: Malaprop’s Bookstore and Café
when: Saturday, Oct. 15 (7 p.m. malaprops.com)

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