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by Laura I. Miller
When I think of adventure novels, The Hobbit and Treasure Island immediately spring to mind. I hadn’t considered the interior tumult that characters face in many of today’s literary novels and short stories. Until Nick Arvin set me straight, that is! All novels recount some kind of adventure, whether it’s traveling to a foreign land or confronting the monsters in our own backyard. For this reason, we have a lot to learn from the ways in which masters of the craft unfold their woeful tales.
There’s no better person to guide you on your adventure-novel quest than Nick Arvin. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and author of two novels and a collection of short stories, his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal, and has been honored with awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Library Association, the Isherwood Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
To read some of his fiction, visit The New Yorker or Five Chapters. To meet him in the flesh—and embark on a new adventure—sign up for his 4-Week: Reading as a Writer—Adventure Novels workshop, which starts on Monday, March 30.
Do you think you have to go on an adventure to write about one?
My first thought is, surely it can’t hurt. But then I remember what Flaubert said: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” It probably depends on the needs of your particular muse.
I wonder, is it possible to live without having adventures? Even if you spend your entire life in the same house in the same town, every childhood is still a process of encountering new things and meeting new obstacles and learning to overcome them. And an adult who never leaves home may still have a certain amount of adventure come to him. One of my teachers used to say that there are two kinds of stories: (1) a person goes on a journey and (2) a stranger comes to town. And these are only sides of a coin.
I’m working on a novel set during the War of 1812, and I think of it as an adventure novel. If the only way to write such a story were to directly adventure in early nineteenth century America, I’d be screwed. But I believe everyone instinctively knows the emotional experience of adventure. From there it is a matter of extrapolating to the particulars of the story you want to tell.
One of the reasons I love teaching this class is because it gives me an opportunity to pick a wonderful book that might be slipping out of the cultural awareness and put it into the hands of some new readers. The King Must Die, by Mary Renault, is one such book that we will be discussing. It’s a historical novel set in ancient Greece that imagines the real person behind the myth of Theseus. It’s a wonderful adventure, rich with history, politics, religion, and, of course, a minotaur and a ball of string in a labyrinth.
Can you recommend some great adventure novels written by women?
See above: The King Must Die, by Mary Renault! Our class will also discuss True Grit, which is by a dude, but has one of the toughest, truest female protagonists you’ll ever find.
I also like The Voyage of the Narwhal, by Andrea Barrett, and The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti. If you look at science fiction and fantasy, there are a lot of great options, like The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin and The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell.
It’s a problem, though. I asked several widely read people for their suggestions for great adventure novels by women, particularly of the literary variety, and they struggled to come up with more than a couple of titles. (If you have some suggestions, please do mention them in the comments below.) On the other hand, a list of great adventure novels by men could go on for pages. As a historical matter this is understandable, since the traditional role for women is to stay home while their men go out and have adventures. But gender roles are shifting. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild could be described as an adventure memoir. And novels like Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner have begun to explore this territory. I hope there will be many more.
Why do you think it’s important for people to read adventure novels right now?
If you’re like me, much of your experience now is intermediated by glowing screens, and you go to and from work everyday in a metal box with a few glass window. I have found it to be a tremendous relief and a kind of solace to open a book and enter the story of a plucky character leaving the familiar to venture into the strange, actual world, to encounter its experiences openly, viscerally. I think of Huck Finn floating the broad waters of the Mississippi on a wooden raft, day after day, with nothing but his wits and his friend, the slave Jim. It’s hard not to envy Huck a little. Certainly it is a privilege to share his adventure.
Nick will be teaching the 4-Week: Reading as a Writer—Adventure Novels starting March 30. Stayed tuned here for more lightning interviews with new instructors joining us in the spring!
Laura I. Miller is Lighthouse’s Program Assistant. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona where she served as co-editor-in-chief of Sonora Review and managing editor of Fairy Tale Review. She also teaches occasional workshops at Denver Writes and contributes to the Books section of Bustle.