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Douglas Westerbeke Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Douglas Westerbeke
Photograph by Roan

Douglas Westerbeke

An interview with Douglas Westerbeke

Douglas Westerbeke discusses his debut novel, A Short Walk Through a Wide World.

How did you come up with the general concept of A Short Walk Through a Wide World? Did you have a method for keeping track of all the different plotlines?

A Short Walk Through a Wide World actually began as a short story I was thinking of one day, about an old lady who goes to her doctor for some mild ailment. Her doctor tells her to travel somewhere warm and dry (this is the 1880s when that's what people did) but all she hears is travel. So she ends up wandering the world trying to evade whatever it is she's afraid of, getting into more trouble than it's worth. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had the makings of a much bigger adventure, so the old lady became young, was struck with a really God-awful sickness, and I went about creating a lifetime of adventures for her.

The story was a broken narrative right from the start. I knew I wouldn't be able to fit in all the ideas I wanted to with a linear narrative. I knew I wanted to begin in that marketplace with a near-death scene. From there it was easy to imagine it as a story she was telling to others along the way. Even my preliminary one-page outline, which is how I always start a story, jumped around everywhere. If fact, it was even crazier, with stories within stories within stories so you lost track of who she was talking to in the first place, which was fun to write, but I had to simplify it to make it easier to follow. I like how it is now. Aubry goes somewhere, meets someone, which is a story in its own, while telling them a story of her past. Not a typical narrative, but it has an elegance to it.

Which of the characters in A Short Walk Through a Wide World did you find easiest to write? If you could return to any of the minor characters in the form of a short story or novella, who would you want to explore?

The hardest characters were the side characters, the people Aubry meets during her lifelong journey, because I had less time to flesh them out. With Uzair I had to convey a sense of haughtiness and loneliness in a short time, as well as tell the story of an illicit love affair. With the Prince, I needed a thoughtful, serene character who could convey some of the more spiritual ideas in the book. Not easy to do when they only appear for one-fifth of the story.

So the easiest character to write was Aubry, and it was a lot of fun, because I got to watch her grow up and grow old, and it seemed to me a very natural progression—from a tyrannical little kid, to a sullen teen, to a fun-loving woman making friends everywhere she goes, to a bit of a hermit in her old age. She has a lot of different personas during the course of the book, like we all do, and really, all I had to do was remember what I was like as a kid, as a teen, what my mom was like, what my grandmother was like.

If I were to do a spin-off of one of the minor characters? I might choose Vicente and write up a prequel, because he had a pretty epic journey as well, and he's a bit of a curmudgeon, and I have a soft spot for curmudgeonly characters. But Marta is also particularly suited for an adventurous story of her own. I might even choose the Holcombes because nobody would be expecting that, but an adventure story for a family of four I could totally relate to.

As you were developing and writing A Short Walk Through a Wide World, did you reach for any books or other media for inspiration?

So this the part where I'm afraid I'm going to sound a bit pretentious. I read lots of stuff while writing A Short Walk Through a Wide World, books on travel, books about other cultures, but the two works that had the most influence on the story were Dante's Paradisio and The Bhagavad Gita. Both books are epic journeys of very different kinds. Dante has an epic journey through the celestial spheres, the most fantastic place ever. Arjuna goes deep, deep inside himself with Krishna's help. Both Dante and Arjuna encounter the divine in its purest form. These moments had such an impact on me that, in one way or another, they wove themselves into Aubry's journey as well. They ultimately shaped the book.

How did you work as a librarian influence your writing?

I would never have written A Short Walk Through a Wide World if I hadn't worked at the Cleveland Public Library. First of all, you're surrounded by books. I mean, if you're the curious type, and you get books of all kinds landing on your desk all day, you spend the day itching to read a few of them at least! Plus, you're surrounded by readers who are recommending stuff to you, and then, best of all, my boss in the Literature Department, Amy Dawson, one day encouraged me to join the Dublin Literary Committee. The International Dublin Literary Award is a literature prize chosen, in large part, by librarians around the world. A group of us at the Cleveland Public Library would get together and read as many books as we could, choose our favorites (a lot of debating and defending your picks there), and send the list to Dublin. I was reading fifty to a hundred books every year for Dublin alone, never mind all the other stuff I was reading. It was a huge education. You learn to be very critical, learn what you like, what you don't, different ways to plot a story, to present a character or a theme, all that good stuff. I never thought I had the ability to write a novel before, but Dublin changed that, broke down the process and made it seem possible.

What is your own relationship to travel?

When I was a kid, I would sail up and down the New England coast with my family on a boat my dad built. We did the Marion to Bermuda Race a few times. I traveled to Minsk for my brother's wedding, to Beijing and Macau to meet my in-laws. When I left home for college, I picked schools as far away as I could because I wanted to see places. I love travel. That's not hard to say. Most people do. But I love to hang out in airports and walk past all the gates, flights going to Dubai and Delhi and Santiago, and fantasize about sneaking onboard and taking off to some random place.

At the same time, you can burn out. I spent three or four weeks traveling up and down China. By the time me and my kids got to Beijing, we were exhausted and just slept for days. No Great Wall, no Forbidden City. It's the only time that's ever happened to me, but we'd had enough. My dad used to travel all the time for his work. Today, he hates travel. My wife is the same way. So imagine you have no choice, that you can never stop. It's got to be hell on earth after a while. There's the romantic and adrenaline-fueled aspect of travel that lasts a short while, then there's the reality of a nomadic existence with nowhere to call home. A Short Walk Through a Wide World has a foot in each place.

To your mind, what is the role of spirituality in this book?

I became an avowed atheist as a kid. I'm talking six or seven years old, completely through convoluted thinking, but hey, I was a kid, and a stubborn one, and I stuck to it. As I got older, I started to notice that many of my stories were about atheistic characters, who either didn't believe or didn't particularly like God, but were beloved by Him anyway. Only then, through my writing, did I realize I wasn't nearly as atheistic as I thought I was. I'm still not quite sure what I am, but these are the stories that move me most, stories about our relationship with forces bigger than we are. That's the heart of A Short Walk Through a Wide World right there: Aubry at war with something bigger and more powerful than she can even comprehend. It is, to my mind, the most epic part of a pretty epic journey.

What do you hope readers will take away from the novel?

There are the obvious things I hope people like about my novel. It's an epic adventure, first and foremost, so I hope people find it exciting. It's also a story of a woman trying to find meaning in a life that feels cursed, so I'm hoping people find some worthwhile lessons there.

When I first finished a long, detailed outline of A Short Walk Through a Wide World, I read it out loud to my wife over the course of a few nights. It was about a hundred pages or so, with all the dialog written out. My wife is a musician, by the way, plays violin for the Cleveland Orchestra, so when I got to the ending and finally finished the book, she said, "That was like music." I'll remember that as a high-water mark for me, the best response I've ever gotten from a story of mine. I'm hoping, if all else fails, that readers sense the beauty and poetry that closes the story of Aubry's life. The theory is, if they can feel it in Aubry's life, then perhaps they can feel it in their own, too.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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