AUTHOR INTERVIEW: BEN SHATTUCK
by Suzanne Daub
“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks…”-Henry David Thoreau
At 9 am this Friday, June 17, the first author talk of the 2022 Nantucket Book Festival will feature a conversation between Ben Shattuck and Nathaniel Philbrick about walking, retracing journeys, finding a nation, and finding yourself. Both authors explored these themes in recent books: Shattuck in Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau and Philbrick in his Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy.
A graduate of Cornell and of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Ben Shattuck has written for The Paris Review Daily, The Harvard Review, Salon.com, The Common, The Morning News, and other publications. He was a Verney Fellow at the Nantucket Historical Association in 2014, and, more recently, he won Pushcart Prize for a short story and the PEN America Best Debut Short Story award.
Six Walks is Shattuck’s first book, and it follows the author’s emotional and spiritual transformation during years of life changes. A personal narrative woven with observations, character sketches, introspection, and essential quotes from his inspiration, Henry David Thoreau, the book draws you in as though you were walking alongside both Ben and Henry. Shattuck wrote his book across severalyears. Part One is expanded from his essay published in The Common in 2019 about his first three walks and his interlude at Walden. “A year or so passed, and an editor contacted me to say how she liked that essay. I thought I’d do three more walks, and, at that point, I knew I’d be writing a book,” Shattuck explained.
Why Thoreau? The months before he ventured out on his first walk had been difficult for Shattuck: he was recovering from a painful injury and haunted by a past relationship. It was a time “when I couldn’t find a way out of the doubt, fear, shame, and sadness that had arranged a constellation of grief around me,” Shattuck writes in the beginning of Part One. The previous Christmas, his father had given him Thoreau’s Cape Cod, a meditative chronicle of walks along the beach. “I opened it at random to Thoreau’s description of snow on a field, and I was captivated. Then I read his description of bubbles caught in ice… my God that’s a beautiful description… I realized the whole book was a gold brick. His journals are truly stunning.”
Ben read Thoreau’s journal entries daily “to get through each day: it was therapeutic. In the morning, I’d get up and read his journal entries from centuries before…it was like an invisible guide to my day…Thoreau is much more relatable than I had thought…[his writing] is a perfect lens for the world, to bring into focus the real beauty around us.”
The following May, with Thoreau’s writing as his guide, Ben set out to walk along Cape Cod “from the elbow to Provincetown’s fingertip, as Henry had done.” He journaled and sketched as he walked, and, a few months later, Ben took Thoreau with him again as he traced Henry’s walk up Mount Katahdin in Maine. Walden was Shattuck’s next destination, followed by another of Thoreau’s walks: a hike up Wachusett Mountain.
By the end of Part One, which covers these early walks, Shattuck has accomplished more than he could have imagined when he started: “Henry went on his walks to find the veins connecting him to nature; I went to shed my dreams. Instead of shedding, I’d added more to life. More people and more landscape and more stars. How lucky it felt, like the high tide came into my life.”
Shattuck was in a very different place emotionally when he took the walks he writes about in Part Two of Six Walks, but the discoveries are no less transformative. “In Part One – I’m walking towards… I’m escaping and trying to follow this ghost of Thoreau…on the run… The second part of the book is about returning home. At the end I’m with my fiancé back on Cape Cod, and it means something different than it did before… it’s not a frantic escape as in Part One.
“This book is for anyone who wants a soft intro to Henry David Thoreau—I cherry-pick some of his best sentiments, descriptions… Thoreau was a master of scale… his nature is on a one-foot-by-one-foot scale: bubbles in ice, a cricket, a butterfly landing on milkweed, frost on the window… So much of his nature is all around us still. In a world where the climate is changing on such a large scale, what do we do with that information? When you look back at Thoreau, you realize there is so much around us still that Henry saw and appreciated. It could ignite an awareness of all the beauty around us.”
What’s next for Ben Shattuck? Look for a collection of his short stories to be published in 2023. And his short story History of Sound has been purchased for a screen play, leading Shattuck to explore that style of writing, which he enjoys: “It’s the best—it feels like cheating—there is no exposition, you don’t have to worry about the quality of prose. A long description gets in the way. Flowery prose does not work. It’s like morse code of speaking.”
Ben Shattuck’s accomplishments are impressive. In addition to being a published writer, he is a painter (his sketches illustrate Six Walks). He is director and curator of the Dedee Shattuck Gallery. Along with his brother he runs the Davoll’s General Store with a café and a pub. And he is father to toddler Ida Lupine with his wife Jenny Slate.
“In grad school I had so much time to write, and I made a lot of bad writing… being a father and running the general store took up so much of my time last year…there was a moment when I saw the deadline for my next two short stories approaching and realized I had to change my habits. I would wake up really early, give the baby her bottle, then my mom would take the baby, and I would go to the studio WITH NO INTERNET (that’s important) and write for three hours. I call it ‘strike quick and get out of there.’ I just assigned myself the time, and I’ve written some of my best work.”
The 2022 Nantucket Book Festival event Nat Philbrick & Ben Shattuck: In Conversation will be held in the Methodist Church, 2 Centre Street, at 9am this Friday. Tickets are not required for this free event, but author talks often reach capacity, so arrive early to get a seat.