Compass

Interview

Q. Which aspect of your research did you enjoy the most? Which did you find the most disturbing?

A. I greatly enjoyed learning about all of the different places the expedition traveled to­—from Tahiti to Antarctica to the Columbia River. But researching the culture and history of the American Navy was also fascinating, along with the history of science in the United States. The most disturbing part of the research involved the troubled history of Native-Western interaction in the Pacific. The violence that broke out in Fiji was preceded and followed by plenty of other horrific clashes.

Q. You wrote a version of In the Heart of the Sea for young readers from the viewpoint of Thomas Nickerson, the 14-year-old cabin boy. From whose viewpoint would you choose to retell the events of Sea of Glory and why?

A. I think Charlie Erskine would be the best character to focus on for a children’s book. He was just sixteen years old when he first met Wilkes, and would learn how to read and write during the expedition. That he also thought about murdering his commander makes him an especially interesting, and—given Wilkes’s tyrannical personality—sympathetic, character.

Q. Sea of Glory is at once scholarly and yet as gripping as the best narrative fiction. How did you manage to balance these two (often contradictory) approaches?

A. The challenge with this book was the vast scope of the expedition: It lasted for four years, had a cast of hundreds, and there were scene changes every few months. I put a lot of thought into identifying the characters I wanted to focus on; my hope was that their very human story would drive the narrative and provided a needed element of coherence as we followed the expedition around the globe.

Q. As a very experienced sailor, which of the expedition’s (many) sailing mistakes made you cringe the most?

A. The attempt to sail the Vincennes out of the harbor at Pago Pago in Samoa was particularly excruciating. Wilkes’s incompetence was almost unbelievable and nearly resulted in the loss of the expedition’s flagship—in less than ten knots of wind.

Q. How has your family’s prestigious maritime literary past influenced the way you’ve approached your own writing?

A. My father, Thomas Philbrick, is a retired English professor, and in many ways he’s been the dissertation adviser I never had. His knowledge of America’s maritime history is unparalleled, and he’s provided me with critical advice and guidance since I was in high school. My uncle, Charles Philbrick, was a poet with a huge interest in American whaling and exploration, and I’ve always been extremely aware of following in both of their considerable wakes.

Q. In the Heart of the Sea and Sea of Glory both focus on leadership gone wrong. Is this a particular interest of yours?

A. Yes, as a competitive sailboat racer in college and then as a sailing journalist, I was always intrigued by what kinds of personalities were successful on the race course. It wasn’t just sailing fast and calling the windshifts; it had a lot to do with how a skipper interacted with his crew. Instead of racing sloops, I’ve now moved on to whaleships and naval frigates.

Q. Your writing covers not just the events that inspired him but also many of the same concerns and themes as Melville’s fiction. What is your favorite amongst his books, and why?

A. Moby-Dick is my favorite, but during the research for Sea of Glory I gained a new respect for White-Jacket, the book he wrote prior to his whaling masterpiece. It’s based on Melville’s brief time serving on a naval vessel. In many ways it’s a warm-up for Moby-Dick, but it’s fascinating to see him anatomize and poeticize the US Navy.