The Big Idea: Jane Yolen
Here’s a surprise. Take a bookish Jewish girl from New York, one who knew nothing about sailing, whaling, harpoons, but a lot about the city (Manhattan, not the boroughs) and ballet shoes and horses; growing up taking subways and poetry and could recite the “Jabberwocky” with gusto. But around 4th grade someone handed her Moby Dick. Would you be surprised if I tell you that is just what happened to me, and for the next 30 years or so, I re-read Moby Dick approximately every one to two years. I didn’t reread a lot of books, but this massive, in some ways seemingly seamless and in other ways clearly un-edited book, tolled in me like a bell.
About the time I stopped re-reading it on a regular basis, maybe dropping to once every five years, after I had published about 100 books of my own with major presses, I had a dream. In that dream a young Nantucket boy, Josiah, who lives in the mid 1800s, whose father is first mate on a whaling ship that is already a half a year overdue, whose mother is lying sick abed for quite some time, hears a knock on their cottage door in the early morning. Josiah rushes to open the door, where a weather-beaten stranger stands. It’s a small island, Nantucket, where everyone knows everyone. Josiah does not know this man.
In the dream I am leaning over Josiah’s shoulder. I am not his mother. And I don’t know the man either. “Who are you?” Josiah asks. “Call me Ishmael…” says the man. And I crash out of the dream and think about this gift that has just been given to me. I know who the man is— and I know who Josiah is: first Mate Starbuck’s son. What I don’t know is how to unfold the story.
I wrestled on and off for years with this notion, this not-formed story, which I called in my head Moby Dick v. Robinson Crusoe, for it was problematic. As the boy Josiah is the major character, the book needs to be a middle grade book, i.e., it can’t be as long or as sophisticated or as discursive on as many subjects as Moby Dick. But it was the amount of research necessary that bogged me down. I am, not a sailor, and don’t know the technical stuff….and the book needed a LOT of technical stuff to come alive. Not easy to disguise.
Readers, I put the idea of the book and the dream away.
I published two hundred more books. I ran SFWA. I had grandchildren who were fast growing up. I buried my beloved husband David who died of cancer holding my hand. I went through fifteen years of widowhood NOT thinking about the Moby Dick book. My book count rose to 400. And right as covid was putting us in our places, I re-met a man, Peter Tacy, whom I had dated in college, he at Williams, me at Smith. He was now a widower of five years. He had been in boats all his life, small boats and big boats. Peter was a teacher who taught Moby Dick every year to his Independent School students. He had been Commodore of the Stonington Ct. Yacht Club for two years around the time I was running SFWA. He is funny and brilliant and knows damned near everything, and he loves the Oxford Comma.
Readers—I married him.
And then I remembered the book idea.
I re-read Moby Dick, we went over charts that Peter found for me, that show how to sail around Nantucket. He taught me weather stuff, wind stuff, how to trim sails. He read the manuscript and made sure the way my boy sails his catboat (Peter even found me pictures of catboats of the period) was realistic. And that’s how Arch of Bone finally got written.