Interview with Lee Huttner on "The Wrecking Ground"
Updated: Jun 25, 2018
"The Wrecking Ground" is an essay told in parts by Lee Huttner. We will be publishing a new part each week on our blog. Here, our Managing/Fiction Editor, Belle Machado, talks to Huttner about the piece and about his process.
1. What inspired you to create this piece?
“The Wrecking Ground” was inspired by Henry Thoreau’s 1850 journey to Fire Island, at the bequest of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in an attempt to recover the body of Margaret Fuller, who died in a shipwreck off the island’s shore. It’s an event not many people know about, and such a serendipitous triangulation of well-known American writers—Emerson sending Thoreau down to find Fuller—one of those truly “stranger than fiction” moments in history. The image of Thoreau standing at the shore, looking out onto the Atlantic, waiting for a body to wash up, stuck in my mind since I first learned about the event years ago. Digging deeper into it all, I found myself increasingly fascinated by this side of Thoreau we’re rarely exposed to—the private journals, letters, rarely read essays. He’s such an American literary giant that we don’t give him enough credit for being truly weird. I was deeply moved by this more vulnerable, trembling, sometimes hallucinatory writing, and wanted to explore all of these overlapping and intersecting streams of story.
2. Why did you choose to name the piece The Wrecking Ground?
The phrase comes from Emerson’s letter to Horace Greeley, transcribed in the essay. But it’s also symbolic, this liminal littoral space onto which the wreckage of the world is cast up by the waves. It’s troubling that Emerson wants Thoreau to recover “fragments of manuscript or other property”—he doesn’t make mention of Fuller’s body, but rather the book manuscript he knew she was carrying (and which has never been recovered). What did Waldo value more, Margaret’s body or her book? So there’s another layer to the title, the wrecking ground of the page, words as flotsam and jetsam, Prospero’s drowned book. And the beam of light that sweeps round and round, leading ostensibly to safe harbor, but in the case of the Elizabeth, causing the wreck itself, just as the wreckers who originally inhabited the island did.
3. If you had the chance to go back and do something different with this piece, would you? And if so, what would you do?
I wouldn’t do anything differently, but if I could expand it—and I do see this work stretching out—I’d want to bring more of Fuller in, and explore that problem I mentioned in my response to the previous question. She was a spectacular human being (I highly recommend Megan Marshall’s outstanding biography), a deeply engaging writer, and a fierce advocate for women’s rights. I want to dive into that dynamic between physical body and body of work—who gets to write and who gets written about—the agency of a woman writer and the ways in which women’s bodies are written upon or transcribed.
4. This piece is Creative Non-fiction, and this can be seen with the inclusion of some real, very well-known writers in the piece. How did you mesh the facts of their lives, however, with the fiction and vivid scenes of your piece?
I have a very loose definition of what creative nonfiction is as a genre, and a very fluid definition of “genre” itself. This piece stays true to historical fact, but the work of characterization is entirely my own. I as a presence, if not a character, am in there as well. And there are instances of pure fantasy and fabrication in the essay. I don’t know what Thoreau actually saw, felt, thought. I view this essay as speculative nonfiction. There are many echoes in the essay of some very specific journal entries and other writings—in many ways, I tried to write those journal entries he never wrote about his trip to Fire Island. So I don’t distinguish much between “fact” and “fiction,” and work to hybridize and render these concepts as unstable in my writing as they are in life.
5. In your piece The Wrecking Ground water acts as an alluring entity that captures, takes, and doesn’t give back. What inspired you to portray water in such a way?
I have long been fascinated with the relationship between humans and water, and the ways that this relationship is both erotic and deadly. There is a long literary tradition of water being an element of intimacy—especially queer intimacy—as well as mortality. It’s also a space of transformation and metamorphosis. Look at Classical myth: Narcissus turning into a flower, Hermaphroditus becoming androgyne, Icarus, Hylas—all of these deaths and transformations occurring in or beside water. Marlowe’s sixteenth-century retelling of the Hero and Leander story has Neptune sexually assaulting Leander in the Hellespont before he drowns. Ariel’s “Full fathom five” song in The Tempestis a song of unbecoming and rebecoming on the seabed. Death in Venice. At Swim, Two Boys. The list goes on. Water begs to be interrogated as a space where boundaries (corporeal, libidinal, affectual) are effaced.
6. Why did you decide to place each journal entry or quote on an entirely separate page?
Each of the sections in this essay are on separate pages. Again, this goes back to the idea of wreckage, the wrecking ground—fragments washing up, journal pages, letters, lost manuscripts shuffled and deposited by the waves. In both form and content, this is an essay that accretes rather than progresses. The history on which it is based is very much a narrative that has to be reconstructed, it’s not just there for the taking. The white space reminds us of that, the lacunae in the archives.
7. Throughout your piece, you include small inserts of dialogue between Echo and Narcissus to illustrate that gradual pull towards the water and the destruction of the allured individual that follows. Why did you keep the scenes between Echo and Narcissus as small snippets of dialogue scattered among the rest of the narrative?
“Reflection” and “echo” are deeply related ideas, and that’s why Echo and Narcissus are part of the same myth. It’s a myth of unrequited love—Narcissus for his reflection and Echo for Narcissus—and interminable waiting. It’s also a myth of silence and frustration. Narcissus cannot speak without his reflection effectively interrupting him, and Echo is only able to repeat Narcissus’s words. I don’t think I can answer why these scenes appear as they do in the essay. Much of my writing operates by intuition. But I do think the Echo and Narcissus story is a primal myth, about gender, desire, and self-destruction, and in many ways it underscores this whole essay, like a faint pulse. Thoreau’s waiting, watching. The silence of the sea.
8. Part of what is so intriguing about your piece is the seeming unrelated stories that are all tied together by the mysterious and dangerous entity that is a body of water. What made you decide to include each of the separate narratives that you did, and which narrative was the hardest to get onto paper?
Funnily enough, the sections that stick more closely to the “facts” were the most difficult parts to write. So writing about the Elizabeth, Captain Bangs, Fire Island, Fuller in Italy were tough because the language is deliberately more straightforward. I wanted to present the information clearly but also make it engaging. It’s so much easier, I think, to imagine history than it is to write it. Especially for a piece like this, it’s crucial that the writer establish trust with the reader. You have to let them know that there’s truth here, there’s facts, so that they can follow along with the more fantastical elements. I know that, as a reader, I am always taking a leap of faith into a text. Some readers are more comfortable with that leap, some are more skeptical, careful. Show them that the water’s warm first. Then you can raise a hurricane.