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Q&A with Tara Karr Roberts - Wild and Distant Seas

By Ashleigh Cameron

We are thrilled to welcome Tara Karr Roberts to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release, The Weekend Retreat, released on the 9th February 2024.

Evangeline Hussey’s husband is dead―lost at sea―and she has only managed to hold on to his Nantucket inn by employing a curious gift to glimpse and re-form the recent memories of those around her. One night, an idealistic sailor appears on her doorstep asking her to call him Ishmael, and her careful illusion begins to fracture. He soon sails away with Ahab to hunt an infamous white whale, and Evangeline is left to forge a life from the pieces that remain.

Her choices ripple through generations, across continents, and into the depths of the sea, in a narrative that follows Evangeline and her descendants from mid-nineteenth century Nantucket to Boston, Brazil, Florence, and Idaho. Moving, beautifully written, and elegantly conceived, Wild and Distant Seas takes Moby-Dick as its starting point, but Tara Karr Roberts brings four remarkable women to life in a spellbinding epic all her own.

Congratulations Tara on your debut novel!  How has the path to being published been for you?

Thank you so much! It’s been a wild ride — Wild and Distant Seas really wouldn’t exist without so many people who have encouraged me and been willing to take a chance on my work (especially my agent, Chris Kepner, and my editor, Helen Thomaides). The novel started as a short story I wrote for a literature class in 2018, while I was working full-time, my kids were little, and I was trying to finish a master’s degree. If I could go back in time and tell myself that this weird little story I was writing so I wouldn’t have to write a research essay was going to be my debut novel, I think past-me would just laugh.

Wild and Distant Seas uses the classic novel Moby Dick as a starting point.  Could you talk us through this initial idea and what drew you to build a world stemming from the classic tale?

I’d never read Moby-Dick before I had to read it for that literature class, and I was so surprised by how strange and wonderful and frustrating it is. I was drawn immediately to the character of Mrs. Hussey, who became Evangeline in my novel. She’s the only woman in Moby-Dick with any sort of extensive speaking part, and she’s this goofy, slapstick character. But there were hints that she had more to her story, and I decided to figure out what that story was.

The locations in the novel are so rich and immersive - how did you go about researching and building the settings? Has your own experience of Idaho been laced into the story?

I’ve lived in northern Idaho my whole life, so when I started writing a story set in Nantucket — and later a novel set all over the world — I kept asking myself what on earth I was doing. But I love research and I was determined to capture these places well, so I dove into books, digitized newspapers, YouTube videos, Google Maps, any scrap of information I could find to help me understand the cultures and ecosystems and feel of these places. I’m thankful for the many librarians and historians who connected me with sources and answered questions!

I received an Idaho Commission on the Arts grant to go to Boston and Nantucket in April 2020, but that obviously didn’t happen. While I was waiting for it to be safe to make the trip, I interviewed some amazing people who shared their love of the island. When I finally made it to Nantucket in 2021, I spent a huge amount of time just wandering and observing the environment. And when I started writing the section set in Idaho, I tried to approach this landscape that I know so well in the same way — like someone who had never been here before and was trying to take it all in.

Your narrative intricately weaves together the journeys of four generations of women, all united in their search for a semblance of home under the guise of pursuing Ishmael.  Despite their shared connection to Ishmael and their connected magical abilities, each woman charts a distinct path in this quest.  Can you elaborate on your approach to crafting this inter-generational saga and mapping out the unique trajectories of each character?

When I decided to make my story a novel, I knew I wanted to make it inter-generational. I grew up very close to my grandmothers, including my great-grandmother and my great-great grandmother. I’ve always been curious how family stories shape people’s lives, and how secrets, misunderstandings and retellings affect those stories.

But actually crafting it all was an enormous challenge. It took me a long time to get the hang of writing distinct first-person narrators, which I approached mainly through asking myself what these characters were fixated on and how it would shape the way they viewed and talked about the world. I discovered that I wrote best if I had a destination to write toward but didn’t exactly know how I was going to get there. And I love revision and all the opportunities it provides to fix the things that went wrong the first time (and the second time, and the tenth time …)

At its core, your story is a tale of womanhood, exploring it through this multi-generational lens.  Was this exploration of womanhood a deliberate focus for you when building the story and characters?

Yes, absolutely. Mrs. Hussey is the lone woman’s voice in the giant sea of Moby-Dick, and I wanted her and her family’s story to be all about the vital and meaningful communities women can build and the ways that society and our own choices challenge those communities. Womanhood was also an important part of the magic I added into the book. I wanted these characters to be incredibly powerful but wrestle with how they view their powers and how they fit into the world — and how fear, love, education, friendship and so many other things affect those powers. Even women who aren’t magical know what that feels like.

The full-circle moment when Antonia meets Evangeline was such a satisfying resolution to the journeys of these four women, their shared powers ultimately guiding them back to one another. Why did you choose to conclude the story in this way?

I love books with endings that leave open a lot of possibility — maybe even bigger possibilities than they started with — instead of wrapping everything up neatly, but also have some depth and meaning to them. I knew that moment of reconnection and reconciliation was the place I wanted to end, because it opens up so much for this family and these individual women.

Given the level of detail required to craft a historical fiction novel, I imagine the writing process for Wild and Distant Seas involved extensive in-depth research.  Were there any surprising discoveries you made while delving into the historical eras and locations featured in the book?

Oh my goodness, I learned so much! The central challenge of writing historical fiction is learning how to balance accuracy with the need to tell a story, and I think writers have to find that balance for themselves. I learned early on that I had to be OK with not knowing everything, and sometimes let things go for the sake of the story. But I still loved fitting in facts that brought life and detail to these worlds. Some of my favourite ones were about my own town — Moscow, Idaho — which I thought I already knew so well. For example, I think of it as this tree-filled city surrounded by wheat fields, but in 1900 agriculture here was more about orchards, and the town was largely treeless and muddy. One of the main Moscow characters, Mrs. Aster, wears a bearskin coat that is based on an heirloom in a real-life friend’s family.

Your background encompasses such a wide array of roles in writing, editing, journalism, and academia. How has this diverse experience informed your approach to writing?

I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was a tiny kid, but I had a sense that most people aren’t just novelists (sadly!). By the time I hit college, I made it my philosophy to write anything anyone would let me. That ended up opening door after door, and I have loved finding paths that have allowed me to write so many different things. I’d thought I had to write a novel before I was 20, which turned into 25, 30, 35 … But it turns out every experience I had in writing and life was adding up to make it actually possible for me to write this novel.

My work as a journalist and science writer has indulged my curiosity and given me space to listen to other people and learn how they think and talk. I’ve taught media and professional writing classes and advised student journalists, which is a bit unconventional for a fiction writer, but my students constantly challenge me to think more deeply about how writing works, and what it means to write with other humans in mind.

Now that you’ve achieved this exciting milestone of publishing your debut novel, what valuable piece of advice have you gleaned from this experience that you would offer to aspiring writers?

Write anything anyone will let you! Follow your curiosity and don’t be afraid to ask people to answer your questions and share their perspectives — you’ll be amazed at how many people will open up just because you asked. And be patient. Art takes work and time, but it’s worth it.

And finally, where can our readers get their hands on your brand-new novel?

It should be available to buy or order anywhere books are sold in the U.K. starting Feb. 9! The audio version comes out Feb. 13. My publisher, W.W. Norton, has a lovely list of links to major booksellers on their site for the book, and I always encourage readers to check out their favourite local bookstore.

Tara Karr Roberts is a freelance writer and editor, novelist, newspaper columnist, and college journalism and English instructor who is always looking for a fresh and interesting project.

Tara is a lifelong Idahoan who grew up along the Pend Oreille River and now lives in Moscow, Idaho, with her family.


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