The book consists mostly of a single, breathless — and utterly compelling — sentence.
“Ducks, Newburyport” has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize; other finalists include Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie. Ellmann, whose previous (much shorter) books include the novels “Sweet Desserts” and “Mimi,” prefers not to think of the prize in competitive terms.
By email from her home in Scotland, the 62-year-old novelist offered some insights on her book — and how to read it.
Q: Your narrator is a mother of four who runs a baking business out of her home in Ohio and sometimes breaks into song but rarely stops to catch her breath. What is she trying to tell us?
A: She’s not trying to tell you anything; she’s just going about her business. “Ducks, Newburyport” doesn’t yank at a reader’s coat tails like “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” (a book I love). Its approach is oblique, and it’s up to the reader to make head or tail of it.
It’s an approximation of consciousness, two consciousnesses actually — those of an American woman and a mountain lion. It follows the woman’s turns of thought, her associations, dreams, regrets. It seems to me the most interesting thing in the world, to find out what someone — anyone — is really thinking.
Sometimes the narrator tries to steer her thoughts in directions she prefers, or recoils from certain darker avenues of thought, but she can’t keep it up for long. The bad thoughts will creep in, the mean thoughts, sad thoughts, crazy thoughts. We are all helpless amid this constant onslaught of the mind. Even when we’re asleep, we’re still thinking. Sounds, flashbacks, snatches of song, sights, smells and other sensations (cold, hunger, itches) all come into it. I wish novels had Smell-O-Vision, or even better, John Waters’s Odorama, which included a lot of useful unromantic smells.
Q: Some may think writing a one-sentence, thousand-plus-page book is gimmicky. What’s your response?
A: I would die before I used a gimmick. The thing in art is to find the correct form. The word “gimmick” belittles that effort, it belittles art.
Q: If you could have written a second sentence, what would it have been?
A: Ha. Great question. The second sentence can perhaps be written after Bernie Sanders becomes president. It would go something like this: “Let’s all get together and fix this mess.”
Q: You have lived outside the U.S. since you were a teen. And yet you chose to write in the voice of an American housewife/entrepreneur. Why — and how — did you summon that voice?
A: She’s not an “entrepreneur,” more like a beggar who’s just trying to make ends meet (the family has been crippled by health-care costs). I know something about the freelance life myself. Not baking, but writing. It’s unreliable, and isolating. (But often quite satisfying.)
The narrator is in some ways the person I might have been, had I never moved to Europe. But anyway, I never really left the U.S. in my head. Marrying an American reinforced my American affiliations, even my accent. My husband and I had both lived in Britain for years, but pairing up seemed to consolidate our Americanness. Brits born after we ourselves arrived in Britain now rush to explain the U.K. to us.
I have family in America, and dear friends. The country’s fate concerns me. It concerns the whole world! America’s always in your face. We were in France when Obama was elected and people treated us to champagne. For breakfast! Everyone hoped it would mean an end to war. Huh, fat chance.
It matters to everybody what America does. And from the outside the horrors are blatant. It is an obtuse entity, endangering the whole world. Why the hell can’t it learn to know itself?
Q: Your book offers a very complicated look at motherhood. At one point your narrator says, “I’m scared of all young women now, because when I look at them I see another potential mother-hater, the fact that I always wonder now how they treat their own moms.” What are you trying to say about how society — and women in particular — view motherhood?
A: I’m not trying to say anything, I’m saying it! I’m kind of stunned by how harshly many daughters treat their mothers these days. This is gratingly anti-feminist, a self-perpetuating cycle of self-hatred, whereby these girls in turn will be scorned by their daughters. It is a sign of disunity, just when we need unity.
The devaluing of motherhood, though, is essential to patriarchy. Our society neglects mothers (practically and emotionally) and even the notion of motherhood. Freud has been exploited as another excuse to distrust mothers. This all serves misogyny extremely well.
Not all women are mothers, luckily — what is the point of bearing children, after all, in such a world? What is the point of adding to consumption when what we need to do is pull back? But contempt for motherhood surges up from a well of disparagement of women in general, and the whole history of womanhood, a disparagement of life itself.
I don’t like overpopulation, but I have infinite respect for motherhood as a fact, an astounding fact throughout human history and the natural world. It’s hard not to believe that the perspective of mothers is more rational and more considerate than many other perspectives. I agree with Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who said only nursing mothers should have control over nuclear bombs.
If it had been up to mothers, though, bombs would never have been created.
Q: How do you feel being compared toVirginia Woolf?
A: Honored, if undeserving. I haven’t read enough of Woolf’s fiction yet. I’ve concentrated more on her essays. I’m particularly keen on Three Guineas. People have mentioned “Mrs. Dalloway” a lot lately in connection with my novel, but it was not a conscious influence, as I haven’t read it yet. I’m looking forward to it.
Q: David Foster Wallace?
A: Never read him, so I can’t tell what that means.
Q: James Joyce?
A: Thrilled. But again, to me the connection seems remote. Many reviews have mentioned that my father was a Joyce scholar. Actually, my sister’s one too. But . . . I’m not! My father did talk a lot about Joyce when I was growing up, when my mother didn’t put her foot down. But mostly, I tuned it out. I regret that now — especially when people come to me with their Joyce questions!
Still, I think it’s weird for reviewers to bring up what my father did for a living. How often is the parentage of male novelists in their 60s mentioned?
Q: Your book repeats the phrasing “the fact that . . . ,” as it spins out a litany of facts including “the fact that there’s maybe too much emphasis on facts these days, or maybe there are just too many facts.” Is this a critique of the Web? Or a backhanded critique of Trump (who also appears in your book)?
A: In my book “the fact that” is a plaintive refrain, and a technique meant to generate suspense. “Ducks” is not a conglomeration of facts — this “litany” is a way of diving beneath the dead zone of facts to a more personal realm.
Q: I’ve read that you are “committed to peacefully circumventing all governments in order to create a worldwide matriarchy in which women, art and animals will be honored, instead of bombs, steak, cigars, man caves, computers, gangster movies and garter belts.” Which thing will go first and how?
A: We can do this the easy way or the hard way. My plan is that men should admit culpability in ruining the world, and in reparation hand over all their money and property to women. Whatever women do with the money, it’s got to be better than what men spent it on. Once all wealth is in female hands, women can start sorting out the criminal catastrophe men have perpetrated.
Advances in metallurgy sparked the demise of matriarchy in the first place, 5,000 years ago, leading to a growth of weaponry and war. You can still see the link between weapons and misogyny today, in the number of American women shot by gun-toting men. So maybe we’ll start by banning metal. Also porn. But men can still have beer.
Q: Since we are having this conversation in writing, I don’t know if you are loquacious or succinct. Do you talk as much as your narrator thinks?
Q: Did your book editor try to shorten the book?
A: Far from it. Galley Beggar Press and Biblioasis were both wholly supportive of this book from the beginning. In the final stages, I worked most directly on it with my British publishers, Galley Beggar (who brought the book out first, a few months ahead of Biblioasis’s edition for the U.S. and Canada). During one revision I added 30,000 words. Not intentionally, it just happened! There wasn’t a murmur from Sam Jordison and Elly Millar at Galley Beggar. Maybe they’d fainted.
Q: As of this writing, you have one comment on Amazon that says “How the hell is one supposed to read this? My eyes would fall out of my head.” What advice would you offer?
A: Don’t read it — that sounds pretty awkward. But what’s the big deal, you know, if you’re a real reader? How many books do people read in a year? “Ducks” is equivalent in length to four moderately sized novels. So it takes four weeks, not one. Many people have read it in a week, I hear. For me, it takes a month and a half — but I’m a slow reader.
Q: How many people do you expect will begin your book?
A: As many as want to.
Q: Finish it?
A: All of them. One English reviewer claimed only 2 percent of people (besides himself) would understand the book. My own estimation is that everyone can understand it, give or take a few babies.
Q: Are we dwelling too much on your book’s length and heft?
A: Yes. The length is a necessary adjunct to what I wanted to get across, and the way I wanted to do that. Conventional narrative techniques and dutiful compression would not have suited this project. It had to be long. I’d prefer to talk about content.
Can I say that I also suspect it would not be such an issue if I were not female? Men can take liberties; a woman writing a long book is considered audacious, if not outrageous. Our novels, like us, are supposed to be petite. So many male reviewers have complained about this book’s size that I fear male upper body strength may not be all it’s cracked up to be. But come on, guys, it’s just a novel, not 7,000 volumes of Wikipedia.
Nora Krug is an editor and writer at Book World.
Q&A: 'Ducks, Newburyport'