Monterey Bay, Lindsay Hatton’s debut novel, is the story of Margot Fiske, a fifteen-year-old living with her busy entrepreneur father. While her father is occupied with his mysterious schemes, Margot falls under the spell of Ed Ricketts, the charismatic marine biologist whose lab is a gathering place for many local characters, including John Steinbeck.

Part coming-of-age tale, part romance, part history, and part study of the sea, Monterey Bay is above all beautifully written, rendering people, sea creatures and even wisdom with an astute and artistic eye. Critics have praised the “intelligent, painterly prose” as “exceptional.”

Kelly Sarabyn: Thank you for joining us, Lindsay. Margot, the heroine of the novel, was not a light character. She was prodigiously talented, perceptive and passionate, but ultimately what was most striking to me was how she seemed coiled inward, keeping others at a distance. Her father is her only family, and he seemed to view her more as a failed business protégé than as a daughter, leaving her, at fifteen, to come and go as she pleased. Traditionally, some critics and readers have spurned female protagonists that are not “likable” enough. Did you receive any criticism for having a darker, more complicated female protagonist? Do you think Margot’s deep appreciation for the sea and its creatures was cultivated not only as a tribute to her father and her lover, but also, in part, as a refuge from people?

Lindsay Hatton: Margot has definitely provoked some strong reactions in readers, that’s for sure! There have indeed been accusations of unlikability, which honestly kind of confused me at first because I like her a lot. As I was writing her, I enjoyed every second I spent in her presence. I loved creating someone with a complex personality and complex passions and a big intellect. I loved setting her loose in the world to enact destruction and, eventually, creation. Readers, however, are free to dislike her, even if that dislike strikes me as a bit limited and unjust. Sometimes, when I do readings, I talk about some of the real-life women—Carol Steinbeck, John’s first wife, and Julia Platt, a former mayor of Pacific Grove—who inspired my creation of Margot and it’s fascinating to see people start to soften toward Margot as a result. The women behind Margot are amazing personalities but also extraordinarily difficult ones. I think that understanding Margot’s underpinnings allows the readers who dislike her on principle to reevaluate her more humanely. Her darkness isn’t a literary device: it’s a representation of how people actually are.

I love how you picked up on her misanthropy. She’s a loner by circumstance but also by innate temperament, which seems to me to be the perfect sort of person to end up building an aquarium. But not just any aquarium! You’re right about it being a tribute and a refuge, but it’s also a gesture at connection, which is something that Margot tragically lacks as a young person. The aquarium is, among other things, her literal and genuine—and necessarily flawed—attempt to finally create a community in which she belongs.

KS: John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, two characters in your book, were both based on real people. How true to life did you intend their characters to be? Were you able to use any primary sources in your research of their lives? After Margot reads John Steinbeck’s fictionalization of Ed Ricketts in Cannery Row, she declares the portrayal “a hybrid,” part-Steinbeck and part-Ricketts. How do you think your portrayal of Ricketts would compare for accuracy?

LH: I’m very confident in the accuracy of my portrayals of both Ricketts and Steinbeck. If I had to release an annotated version of the book that links everything they do and say and think back to primary sources like letters, journals and essays, I could do it in a heartbeat. That being said, any attempt to confine a three-dimensional human to a two-dimensional page is bound to be incomplete. This goes for both fiction and non-fiction. And when you add in an invented character like Margot, the prospect of achieving literal accuracy becomes even more difficult, if not impossible. To address this concern, I erected some strict chronological limitations on my portrayals of Ricketts and Steinbeck. That is to say, I portrayed them specifically as they existed in 1940 and, in Ricketts’s case, in 1948. This self-imposed limitation was very useful to me as a writer because it allowed me to really hone them as characters. Steinbeck’s short temper and paranoia, Ricketts’s vacillation between optimism and despair: these were the traits that, according to their own words, really defined them in the months during which the main action of the book takes place. So that’s how they are presented in Monterey Bay.

KS: The relationship between the Steinbeck and Ricketts in your book was interesting. Margot described Cannery Row as “[reducing Ricketts’ vitality] to stasis, to an invisible cage that allowed Steinbeck to own him and watch him forever.” (261) Indeed, in your book, Steinbeck seemed to want this: to keep control over Ricketts. He was jealous of Ricketts’ relationships with women, and insecure that Ricketts’ friendship with him was contingent on him providing money for Ricketts’ lab. Why was so Steinbeck so territorial over Ricketts? Was their relationship so asymmetrical in real life?

LH: The real-life relationship between Steinbeck and Ricketts wasn’t the average male friendship by any means. Ricketts was Steinbeck’s muse and there was plenty of love to go around, but there was also a great deal of tension, especially during the time period that is presented in the book. Their trip to the Sea of Cortez was, in part, a last ditch attempt to save a friendship that was already in the process of unraveling. Steinbeck’s territorial behavior is, I think, a fear-based response to that. It’s a nostalgia-fueled attempt to return to the “good ol’ days” of their friendship: an attempt that Steinbeck knows to be futile, which makes things even worse.

I’m not sure if their relationship, over its entire course, was as asymmetrical as I present it in the book. Again, I was looking specifically at how they would have interacted in 1940. The sense I got from my research was that Ricketts possessed certain qualities that Steinbeck strove, and often failed, to cultivate in himself. He wrote about Ricketts, both as a fictional character and a real person, in consistently glowing terms. Was Ricketts similarly enraptured with Steinbeck? I don’t know. Ricketts wasn’t a writer, at least not in the way Steinbeck was, and very little of their personal correspondence with each other still exists. So it’s hard to say. All I know is that the relationship was long and intense and very complicated. More like a marriage, in some ways, than a friendship.

KS: Margot is fifteen when she has a sexual relationship with Ricketts, who is decades older than her. Margot’s father and Ricketts initially express displeasure about the fact that Margot is a child having sex with a man, but after that, this age discrepancy is essentially ignored. Was there any indication Ricketts, the real man, had sex with girls? Was this less taboo in 1940 than it would be today? Since the book was told from Margot’s perspective, it was clear why she was drawn to Ricketts, and, as she saw it, there wasn’t anything indecent about his romantic interest. But why do you think Ricketts, who had no shortage of women fawning over him, was interested in having sex with a fifteen-year-old?

LH: How about if I let Steinbeck answer this question for you? Here are some quotes from his eulogy of Ricketts:

“When I first met [Ricketts] he was engaged in a scholarly and persistent way in the process of deflowering a young girl.”

“Sex…was by far [Ricketts’s] greatest drive. His life was saturated with sex and he was to a very great extent preoccupied with it…As far as women were concerned, he was completely without what is generally called honor.”

“Ed did not like his sex uncomplicated. If a girl were unattached and without problems as well as willing, his interest was not large. But if she had a husband or seven children or a difficulty with the law or some whimsical neuroticism in the field of love, Ed was charmed and instantly active.”

So, at least according to Steinbeck’s understanding of Ricketts’s sex life, a relationship with someone like Margot would definitely have been a possibility.

As far as the manner in which the age discrepancy isn’t consistently front and center throughout the course of the book, I think that’s absolutely a function of the era. But it’s also a function of the specific characters involved. Anders is Margot’s father, but he has almost nothing in the way of protective fatherly instincts. His interest in her virginity is abstract and impersonal, which is actually something I respect about him. For better or worse, Margot is in charge of her body in this book. She is in charge of her desire and the manner in which she attempts to fulfill it. And Ricketts is more than happy to take advantage of her precocity and independence in this regard.

KS: Your prose was vivid and descriptive, making the bay and all its creatures come alive. My mother-in-law observed that the rhythm of your words seemed to reflect the movement of the ocean waves. Do you have a background or interest in poetry? Do you have a personal fascination with water and water creatures?

LH: I really appreciate your mother-in-law’s observation! I’m not a poet, but I think I have a poet’s obsession with language. As a writer, I get my biggest thrills on the word- and sentence-level. As a reader, prose style is the biggest thing that can turn me on or off about a book. The characters can be interesting, the plot can be compelling, but if the language isn’t original and beautiful, I’m out!

Water and water creatures will always inspire and plague me. My time working behind-the-scenes at the Monterey Bay Aquarium confirmed all my best and worst suspicions about the ocean and the things that live in it. I have dreams about waves almost every night.

KS: I loved Margot’s description of Ricketts’ charisma: “And that, she told herself, was the cruelty of charisma: how it’s never satisfied with the capture of an individual. How it requires an ensnarement of the masses to thrive.” (141) Ricketts does seem to capture all those around him. Margot, on the other hand, seems intensely particular and often aloof. Did you see Margot and Ricketts as almost asymmetrical personalities? Is that partly what drew them together and kept them, always, somewhat apart?

LH: You nailed it. It’s the Catch-22 of their relationship. It’s also the biggest tension-creating trick in the novelist’s playbook: the union of opposites and the fireworks that result. It was a lot of fun to write their scenes together. Their banter appeared very quickly and easily on the page.

I think another thing that makes them a compelling pair is the opportunity for self-interrogation. Margot leads Ricketts, who sees himself as a very enlightened and peace-loving individual, to understand the violence of what he does for a living, and Ricketts provides an opportunity for Margot to explore the openness and uncertainty required of artistic creativity: a pursuit her father discourages. They shake up each other’s worldview, which is a simultaneously disorienting and intoxicating prospect.

KS: Margot’s mother dies during childbirth and so Margot is raised by her father. Her father treats her as an adult, grooming her to be his business heir. He offers her little in the way of physical affection or comfort. In part because of this unusual upbringing, did Margot, at the book’s start, seem, to you, like a hybrid of an adult and a child? Did you view her time in Monterey as her coming-of-age? Do you think her father was well-intended in how he raised her, or did he selfishly not wish to deal with the encumbrance of a child’s needs?

LH: Aren’t all fifteen year-olds weird child-adult hybrids, at least in their own minds? I recall being fifteen so very, very clearly. I was bold and smart, but also very dutiful, and as a result there were a lot of things I suppressed. Outside, I was a good kid. Inside, I was restless and angry and supremely irritated by the confines and expectations of girlhood. Like Margot, I wanted things girls are told they shouldn’t want: I wanted to get out there and make trouble and have sex and claim power. Unlike Margot, however, I had both internal and external dampers on these impulses. I was raised by two loving, attentive parents in a safe, beautiful community, and I feared the disruption of iconoclasm in a way Margot does not. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Margot is an unusual child because of her adultness, but she’s also a very recognizable one, at least to me.

I’m not sure if it’s a coming of age story. For one thing, I don’t think coming of age, at least in real life, is a single event. It’s a process that can occur at any point, and over any duration. For all intents and purposes, Margot is the same person immediately before and immediately after her affair with Ricketts. The real change is what happens during the decades the book doesn’t really explore: that slow, silent, fertile era when the aquarium takes shape. So maybe this book is a negative-space coming of age story? Did I just invent a genre???

Or maybe it’s the story of a town’s coming of age, not a person’s. Monterey changes in the book more than Margot does, and largely by Margot’s own devising. Is Margot Monterey’s Ricketts? Do both relationships have that same uneasy combination of love and exploitation that takes years to manifest itself in evolution?

As for Anders, I believe he is both well-intentioned and selfish, in ways he both does and does not realize. He is full of contradictions, as are we all, and I admire how Margot—who is herself a very complex person—recognizes this. She regrets the conditions of her childhood but she never lays the full blame for her pain at his feet.

KS: The bulk of the book takes place in 1940, but interspersed, there are chapters, often shorter, that occur in 1998, when Margot is 73 years old. How did you decide where to intersperse these chapters, and why did you decide on a non-linear structure? Did you write the chapters in the order they are structured in the book?

LH: Structure was perhaps my biggest challenge in writing the book. Like I said before, my focus is usually on the sentence level, so the book’s bigger picture stymied me for a long time. Suffice it to say that I did everything wrong in that regard before I did anything right. I ended up having a large chunk of 1998 material that didn’t read like a stand-alone narrative, so I didn’t make it one. Instead, I used it as a framing device and portioned it out in a way that seemed to enhance the book’s themes and overall pacing.

And I like how it turned out. I like how the occasional immersion into the near-present injects a dose of freshness into the historical fiction-y parts of the book. The interplay between the past and present is always a compelling notion, especially in a place like Monterey, and I think the book’s structure speaks to that.

KS: You earned a Masters of Fine Arts from New York University. How do you feel that experience changed your writing? Is there any tension between what the academy values and what the reading public values in literary fiction? Would you recommend an MFA to other writers?

LH: I am very glad I got my MFA. For me, it was a necessary transitional interlude that solidified my sense of myself as a writer. As for my advice to other writers, it really depends on the individual. If they are already immersed on a daily basis in writerly pursuits, maybe an MFA is not the best use of their time and money. But if, like me, they are looking to transition out of corporate hell and into writing and don’t quite know how to manage it, an MFA might be a valuable focusing experience.

I think there’s a lot of tension between what the academy values and what the reading public values. I’m a writer of literary fiction, and literary fiction is what they teach in MFA programs, and literary fiction doesn’t sell very well, so there you go! I try not to worry too much about that, though. I write what I feel I need to write, and I try to write it in a way that is true to my ambitions as an artist.

Lindsay Hatton is a graduate of Williams College. She holds an MFA from the Creative Writing Program at New York University. She currently resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but was born and raised in Monterey, California, where she spent many fascinating and formative summers working behind the scenes at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. You can buy her book here.