The Library will be closed on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, in observance of Juneteenth.

Interview With an Author: Douglas Westerbek

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Douglas Westerbeke and his latest book, A Short Walk Through a Wide World
Photo: Roan Westerbeke

Douglas Westerbeke is a librarian who lives in Ohio and works at one of the largest libraries in the US. He has spent the last decade on the local panel of the International Dublin Literary Award, which inspired him to write his own book, A Short Walk Through a Wide World, and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for A Short Walk Through a Wide World?

It began as a short story idea I had about an old lady who comes down with some minor ailment. Her doctor tells her to travel somewhere warm and dry (this was the 1800s, and that’s what they did back then), but all she hears is "travel." So that’s what she does, taking her doctor’s advice way too seriously, sailing across the Mediterranean and around the world. It was a comedy of sorts, the cure being worse than the disease, but the more I thought about it, the more ideas I had. The whole thing snowballed until I realized the story was too big to be contained in the last years of a little old lady’s life. So the old lady became a little girl with a very serious, very mysterious disease, and now I had a whole lifetime of adventure to work with.

Are Aubry or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

I was once asked, who were the most difficult characters to write? And the answer was the many side characters. Uzair, for example, was a pretty complex character—arrogant, lonely, desperate. I had to portray all of that, plus an illicit love affair, his attempts to cure her, plus their journey across North Africa, all in a span of 50 pages or so. Aubry, on the other hand—I had a whole lifetime to explore her character. She begins as a little spoiled brat—I was a bit of a brat, too, when I was that age. Then she’s a sullen teen—I wouldn’t call myself a sullen teen, but I had my moments. Then she’s a fun-loving woman in her middle age—and I could remember my Mom being much the same. Then she’s a bit of a recluse in her old age—and I could remember my grandmother being like that, too. None of this I was aware of as I wrote, but later, when I read it over for the millionth time, I began to recognize all these resemblances.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

It was an unusually difficult story to get right. First, the structure had to be simplified. The original outlines were crazy, with stories within stories within stories until you lost track of who she was talking to in the first place, which was fun to write, but it’s a lot more elegant and easy to follow now.

In addition to being an epic adventure, a travelogue, and a character study, it’s also a very spiritual novel, and it was difficult landing the ending just right. There's too much explanation, and there’s no mystery at the end, something that strikes me as crucial to a spiritual tale. Without that mystery, you’d just have an author on his soapbox preaching to a crowd, and nobody wants that. I decided to drop a ton of hints in the dialog, in the parallel stories, all throughout the novel so that they might make their way into the reader’s head, the theory being even if the reader wasn’t able to quite connect all the dots, they would still find themselves moved, perhaps for reasons they couldn’t quite explain. The mechanics of the story are all there—go to page 229 if you’d like it all spelled out—but I really wanted to create a poetic ending full of mystery more than a tidy ending that felt formulaic.

Was there anything lost in the process? No, in fact, I’d say it was the opposite. There was a whole lot gained. But I’m an inexhaustible tinkerer. I could rewrite it till I die. If it weren’t for a strict publishing deadline, I’d still be messing with it today.

How did you plan Aubry’s journey? How did you select the places she visited? Was there a place you wanted Aubry to visit but were unable to include?

Mostly, I wanted to be democratic about it. I wanted her to see every corner of the world—deserts, mountains, oceans, jungles, as many people and cultures as I could fit in. Some of the places I’d been to myself, but most of them were places I’d dreamed of going to. The Himalayas, for example, are high on my list of places to see before I die, not to mention South America, the Middle East, and others.

Did you have to do a bit of research about the places and people Aubry encounters? How did you pursue that?

Since I was working at a library at the time (The Cleveland Public Library), research was made very handy. In a case of amazing serendipity, a book of photographs taken by a court photographer in the days of colonial India crossed my desk while I was working on the sequence in colonial India. Such a great book! It was exactly what I needed and it fell into my lap just at just the right time.

The thing about research is that it’s a rabbit hole. It’s so much fun, but it’s hard to stop. I read an entire 400-page book about the Gold Rush just for a ten-page scene in the book, but it was so interesting I couldn’t put it down. The amount of research that made it into the book was minuscule compared to the amount of research I actually did.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

My favorite tidbit happened while reading an article written by an anthropologist about the traditional yak-herders of Tibet. In that part of the world, there are hardly any trees, so everything came from the yak—tents and clothes made from their wool, the food from their milk and meat. The yak would roam the hills eating wild garlic, so when they burned their shit at night to keep warm, the whole tent would be filled with the scent of garlic. Such a great detail. Of all the research I did about the Himalayas, that was what made it into the book!

Does Aubry’s illness have a basis in a real medical condition? How did you determine the "rules" for how it would affect her throughout the novel?

I didn’t base it consciously on any specific disease, though now that you mention it, it does have some similarities to ebola. But really, I just made it up. I thought of the most visceral, most frightening thing that could happen to a person. A mere tummy ache she could ignore. A terrible fever didn’t have a visual impact. Even plague-like symptoms weren’t dramatic enough. I went with lots of blood.

Have you had the chance to visit any of the places Aubry visits on her travels?

Southeast Asia, China and Japan, Russia, and lots of Europe, and I spent a lot of my childhood sailing the Atlantic coast. But I have yet to get to South America, India, North Africa, or the Tibetan Plateau. Really, the book was just as much an adventure for me to write as it is for the reader to read.

Is there a place Aubry travels that you would like to visit yourself?

Sure is! More than a few! See question number four above.

Have you ever owned a puzzle-ball? If so, when? Were you able to solve/open it?

Nope, nothing I can remember, and if I had one, I’m sure I’d be helpless. Unless there’s a gold nugget inside, I’d have no patience for it! The puzzle ball came up because I needed something for Aubry to sacrifice to the well. It was only a bit part, but people liked it so much I expanded its role. Now everybody’s talking to me about the puzzle ball!

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

Get feedback wherever you can. You don’t always have to follow every bit of advice given to you, but you really ought to consider it all at least. I was very lucky to have a smart editor with high standards who made me work for my paycheck. There were times when I was burned out and thought I couldn’t write another word, but she would push me, and, in the end, I managed vastly better ways to tell a scene or a sequence. I often think of the great collaborations out there—the Beatles, Erza Pound and T.S. Elliott, Brahms and Schumann, and I think, that’s the best way to do it.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Simone Gorrindo’s The Wives, because half my family is military. After that, I’m thinking of re-reading The Regional Office is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales, because it’s great, of course, but also because I’m writing a book chock-full of action sequences and could use a little inspiration.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Nothing I love more than to talk about my favorite authors! Somerset Maugham always leaps to mind, particularly the Moon and Sixpence and The Razor’s Edge. My first draft of A Short Walk was actually in the style of Maugham, but then I was advised to tone it down for modern audiences. Also, Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Dostoyevsky, particularly The Brother’s Karamozov. 100 Years of Solitude. White Fang by Jack London. The Wall by Marlen Haushofer. The Master and Margarita, which blended philosophy, spiritualism, wild imagination, and some pretty stunning set pieces in a way I very much try to emulate in my writing. More recently, I’m a fan of Haruki Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Emily St. John Mandel. Sorry. I just realized I’m way over my limit of five. And I was just getting warmed up…

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I started off well, reading Marguerite Henry’s books about horses that my Mom would buy for me (King of the Wind was my favorite), then Lloyd Alexander and C.S. Lewis. But after that, I was reading comic books and movie novelizations for the most part. In self-defense, when I was older, I eventually began studying Shakespeare just for the fun of it. But other than the Shakespeare, I don’t think I became a serious reader again until I read Life of Piwhich changed everything, another hugely influential book. After that, I couldn’t stop reading, always searching for that next ineffable sense of the sublime like the one Life of Pi gave me.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

You mean, like The Story of O? No, I don’t ever remember hiding anything from my parents, or anybody for that matter. I actually have a copy of The Story of O on my bookshelf, and I considered hiding it from my kids, then thought, Nah, they never look through my bookshelves anyway.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Hmmm… I suppose there are books that I’ve read half-heartedly that I only finished for the sake of finishing them. And, of course, in high school, I skipped a few reading assignments and had to fake my way through a quiz or two. I rarely got away with it. I once tried to read Wuthering Heights, decided I wouldn’t make it through the heavy prose, and resorted to cliff notes instead. The cliffnotes really made it sound amazing, but I don’t think I’d ever be able to read it through properly.

I’d like to give a shout-out to cliff notes, by the way, or any kind of additional analysis, because no matter how much you love that classic novel you just read, there’s something you’ve overlooked or misunderstood that cliff notes might illuminate for you. It’s not ‘cheating’ to want to learn more.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Maybe if it’s a photography book. Otherwise, that rarely happens. That’s not to say I don’t recognize a great cover when I see one—Jim Tierney’s cover for A Short Walk is brilliant—but normally I pick books based on the storyline or the reviews. Sometimes, I’ll see a great cover for a book I have no interest in reading. Because I listen to a lot of audiobooks, sometimes I never see a cover at all.

Is there a book that changed your life?

There are a lot of books that changed my life. I’ve given a few examples of novels, but there’s also a lot of non-fiction, like Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, or Art: A New History by Paul Johnson. I remember seeing Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V when I was in my twenties, which inspired a lifelong investigation into Shakespeare, even though I’d had nothing but disdain for Shakespeare when I was in high school. That, in turn, led me to the old epic poems like The Odyssey and The Divine Comedy, which, in turn, led me to study the great religious texts like the Old Testament, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, and nothing makes a bigger impact than those.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I have two kids, and one thing I never do is force a book on them. I might recommend stuff once in a while if I think they’ll like it, but I remember my dismal experience with Shakespeare in school and how I came to love Shakespeare a decade later on my own. You can’t really make someone like or even appreciate a book (or a movie, or a painting, or any work of art) if they’re not in that state of mind. All you can do is expose them to different things, plant a few thoughts in their heads, and wait for the seeds to grow.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Well, there is that feeling I had when I finished Life of Pi, or The Brothers Karamazov, or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, that feeling you can’t quite put into words. It’s rare, but I’d rather find it in a new book than read something else as if for the first time. Certainly, I’d love to re-read all those books, but only to better understand and appreciate them.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I just had an immersive experience listening to the slow movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto the other day, performed at Severance Hall by the Cleveland Orchestra (if you’re ever in Cleveland, make it a point to hear them). And I loved Past Lives, the movie by Celine Song. That was my favorite film of 2023, which was a great year for films, so that says a lot.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

Actually, as someone who only recently writes for a living, my idea of a perfect day is waking up, picking my laptop off the bedside table, and writing from the moment I wake up till the middle of the afternoon. I have to drive my kids back and forth to school and get dinner ready, too, so I don’t often get the perfect day, but I remember living in Los Angeles as a much younger guy, isolated inside a squalid apartment, and quitting my day job so I could do nothing but write all day. Those days are among my happiest memories.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked but never have been?

Why did King Kong climb the Empire State Building?

What is your answer?

To get his kite.

What are you working on now?

I’m always working on a new story, often several at once.

Book cover of A short walk through a wide world : a novel
A Short Walk Through a Wide World
Westerbeke, Douglas