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Mislabeled Map Leads to Remarkable Novel

By Jeffrey Day on September 10, 2015 in Society, Arts & Culture

When Naomi Williams entered UC Davis’ Masters in Creative Writing Program in 2005, she had already started a novel based on an 18th century French voyage of discovery.

UC Davis Book TalkIt was an unlikely topic.

“There’s nothing in my background to lead anyone to think I’d write a book about 18th century French explorers,” the UC Davis alumna says.

She didn’t read French, didn’t know anything about sailing and doesn’t even like to travel. All that slowed but didn’t stop her from making the 10-year journey it took to write Landfalls, published in August to widespread attention and praise.

A mislabeled antique map

It all started with an antique map, purportedly of the San Francisco Bay, that was a birthday present from her husband.

“We figured out it was not San Francisco; it wasn’t California at all,” she says. “It got under my skin the way things do.”

Turns out her gift was a map of a bay in Alaska. And, the map was part of the documentation of a voyage around the tip of South America; up the Pacific coast; and then onward to Australia, China, Russia and Japan before the ships were lost near the Solomon Islands.

Obsessed with expedition

‘I was looking for three things from the program, and I got all of them: unfettered access to the library for the historical research I wanted to do, sustained and professional feedback on my writing, and connections with fellow students that would continue after I finished the program.’

— Naomi Williams

Williams became somewhat obsessed with the expedition, and it hit her one day — wouldn’t it be great to write several stories, each told by a different person at a different place on the voyage?

“I’m not a person given to epiphanies or inspiration, but how to shape it came to me in a flash,” said Williams, who moved with her husband and two sons to Davis in 2002 from San Francisco.

Support from creative writing program

For several years, Williams thought the task was beyond her capabilities. Finally she wrote the first story in 2004 and was accepted into the creative writing program the next year.

“I was looking for three things from the program, and I got all of them: unfettered access to the library for the historical research I wanted to do, sustained and professional feedback on my writing, and connections with fellow students that would continue after I finished the program.”

A shorter, rougher version of the novel, titled The King’s Voyage and Other Stories served as her master’s thesis.

Publishing, winning awards

While working on her degree and after, she had several short stories published and won a Pushcart Prize. In 2008, Williams’ story “The Report,” a chapter of the novel, was published in American Short Fiction where it came to the attention of literary agent Nicole Aragi. Williams told her the book needed another six months of work.

Six months came and went, again and again. Writing the book about the voyage was taking longer than the voyage itself.

In the end, three things pushed her forward: the deadline for the Maurice Award, a $5,000 prize for a first novel by a UC Davis creative writing graduate, and her 50th birthday in 2014. She met the deadline, won the prize and finished before her birthday.

Landing publication deal

She got back in touch with Aragi — who it turns out represents Jonathan Safran Foer, Nathan Englander and several MacArthur Award winners — not sure the agent would even remember her.

In a few days, Aragi responded. Within a month, three publishers were vying for the rights. It has been reviewed by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Kirkus Reviews and other literary review journals. Several European editions are in the works.

“For so long it was essentially a private endeavor,” Williams says. “This attention is both unnerving and really thrilling.”

An excerpt from the book, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, will be read at Stories on Stage Davis, at 7:30 Saturday, Sept. 12, at the Pence Gallery.

Hear Williams read her Pushcart Prize-nominated story “Sunday School,” published in ZYZZYVA, on KQED’s The Writer’s Block.

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