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Interview with Allan Wolf, author of The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic

2012 April 13
by Sarah Wethern
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With the one hundredth anniversary of the doomed Titanic just days away, The Hub is very excited to bring you an interview with author Allan Wolf. His most recent book, The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic is a thoughtful portrayal of the human side of the Titanic. After all, it is not really a ship that continues to fascinate people the world over; rather, it is the human lives lost in the Titanic that capture our hearts. If you haven’t had the chance to read Mr. Wolf’s new book, hopefully this will entice you to do so!

The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic is a distinctly different way of looking at the Titanic experience. Why did you choose to use poetry to bring the characters to life?

I used poetry in The Watch That Ends the Night because I am a poet. That’s the quick answer. All my books are poetry. So when I have a longer narrative project I just do it the way that comes most naturally. I began experimenting with multiple narrators in my verse novel about Lewis and Clark, New Found Land. I also started including sound effects and stage directions within the text. My background as a performance poet may have motivated me to let the words play on the page as much as I was able to play with them on stage. Poetry lends itself to this type of visual and textual experimentation–more so than prose.

The research invested in this book is thorough and fascinating. What was your favorite part of the research process?

I love the process of research. I read far more adult non-fiction history books than young adult fiction. The research is where The Watch That Ends the Night was born. I spent an entire year just figuring out who, from among the over 2000 people on board, would be my characters. I knew nothing of the Titanic when I started, so my learning curve was … well … titanic! I’m not afraid to launch into a subject I know nothing about, because sometimes it can be an advantage NOT to be an expert with all the answers. The most brilliant ideas can result from answering the most stupid questions.

Did you have a character you were particularly partial to when writing the book?

I liked the Ship Rat quite a lot. In the early drafts of the book there were actually thirteen rats that sang opera, went on quests, and fell in love. It was like “Red Wall meets Titanic.” As fun as this was to write, luckily NONE of it ended up in the final book! My books always have a touch of magical realism, but my thirteen talking rats had taken it a bit too far. I also liked writing John Snow: The Undertaker. The challenge of writing poems about death, decay, and embalming was delightful. And the voice of The Iceberg allowed me to flex a little poetic muscle. The Iceberg was a wonderful villain, and to write its voice entirely in iambic-pentameter added to the deliciousness.

With the one hundredth anniversary of the Titanic sinking so near, did you learn anything startling about the event that you were able to incorporate into the book?

My book doesn’t contain any bombshells. More importantly, I hope it helps set the record straight about many misconceptions. For example, I’ve tried to portray Bruce Ismay in a more forgiving light. He may have been flawed, but he certainly wasn’t the shallow, money-grubbing coward we see in many movies and books. John Jacob Astor was also a lot more intelligent and interesting than he is typically given credit for. I chose to leave out certain iconic images because they are historically questionable: the murder/suicide of First Officer Murdoch, and the 3rd Class Passengers locked behind Bostwick gates, for example. Hopefully by omitting them I can at least keep them from being perpetuated.

This book has great cross-over appeal. Titanic aficionados of all ages will surely find something new and interesting to learn about this voyage. What would you like people to take away from this reading experience that is different from most of the nonfiction being published about the Titanic?

I hope my book offers readers a complete sense of immersion into the human side of the Titanic story. I want them to feel it in their hearts. I want them to understand that we are all on board the Titanic. We are all part of a community thrown together by fate. And if the ship goes down we are apt to find a sudden shortage of lifeboats. I want my readers to feel changed after they put the book down. Maybe they’ll appreciate life a little more. Maybe they’ll hug their kids, or stop holding some stupid grudge, or finally say hi to that cute boy or girl they’ve been watching for the past year.

How did the idea of writing a book about the Titanic take shape? Is it something you’ve always been fascinated by?

I was looking for a historical event that included multiple characters and that would find itself in the news. I wrote New Found Land for the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. I wrote Watch for the centennial of the Titanic sinking. I did not otherwise have a fascination with the Titanic. I DID, however, have a fascination with embalming, so the opportunity to incorporate the character of John Snow was exciting for me.

Why do you think the Titanic continues to be a fascinating historical moment for people?

With your permission I will quote myself from the book’s author note. “My aim in writing The Watch That Ends the Night was not to present history. My aim was to present humanity. The people represented in this book lived and breathed and loved. They were as real as you or me. They could have been any one of us. And that is why, after a century, the Titanic still fascinates.””

How did you dig into the mind of the iceberg?

I read a lot about icebergs and how they are formed. It occurred to me that a character so elemental and ancient would be something like a god. And it seems the gods are always being challenged by us puny humans. You cannot separate the Iceberg’s “mind” from its voice. The meter and form are an important clue to who the Iceberg is. The iambic-pentameter lends a formal voice and a monolithic form. The heart-beat rhythm of the “iamb” is appropriate to the Iceberg’s preoccupation with the human heart. And of course the play on words (iamb vs. I am) creates the perfect mantra for any 10,000-year-old, holier-than-thou, existentialist 100,000-ton chunk of ice.

Many thanks to Allan Wolf for helping readers explore this important historical event with intelligence and emotion.

– Sarah Wethern

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