I come from a long line of very good liars.
Sir Christopher Hatton, one of Elizabeth the First’s favorite consorts, put on such a convincing show of financial abundance that, upon his death, the royal court was stunned to learn he was £40,000 in debt (approximately ten quadzillion dollars in today’s money), much of which was owed directly to the queen herself.
My maternal great-great grandfather (who shall remain nameless) swindled the United States government out of money and land by claiming he was 1/16th Cherokee and forging the documents necessary to prove it.
My dad, Dave Hatton (who is named here because he is a wonderful person), has also been known to give the truth a little bend. There are certain stories he tells about his youth — the one about the catamaran, for example, or the one about smuggling a bull-fighting sword across the border from Tijuana by shoving it down the leg of his pants — that are simply too wonderful to be 100 percent true. I’ve called him out on this once or twice, and each time he just shrugs and smiles as if to say: Yeah, I’m stretching it. But isn’t it better that way?
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In Monterey Bay
, my first novel, I carry on this family legacy.
Specifically, I claim that the Monterey Bay Aquarium was created by an eccentric heiress who, as a 15-year-old, had a torrid and life-altering romance on Steinbeck’s Cannery Row
with a lecherous marine biologist nearly three times her age. None of this is true. Margot Fiske, my protagonist, bears no resemblance whatsoever to the aquarium’s real-life founders. Similarly, there is no evidence that a young woman of Margot’s description ever steamrolled her way into Steinbeck’s world with such drama, spectacle, and consequence.
This is not to say that I fabricated everything. Steinbeck is portrayed in the novel, as is his real-life muse, Ed Ricketts, and where they are concerned, I stuck to the facts. I studied their books and journals and essays and letters. I made sure times and dates and names and places were as correct as possible. I tried to hear their voices and dream their dreams. There are, I’m sure, some unintentional errors for which I’ll have to atone. My intention, though, was to write about them with as much respect and honesty as I could muster.
In the course of researching Steinbeck and Ricketts, I also researched my own family. Here, I discovered some happy — and surprisingly truthful — coincidences. My dad, much like one of the characters in my book, worked in fish canneries as a young man. My dad’s dad, much like Ed Ricketts, studied ichthyology and worked closely with the California Bureau of Fisheries. So maybe the tendency to fib wasn’t the only thing I inherited. Maybe, as the result of some obscure epigenetic shadow-workings, the riddle of the ocean was always lingering there in my subconscious, making itself known in mercenary little spurts until, finally, I had no choice but to decipher it.
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But I’m still not sure this answers the question, "Why did I lie?" Here’s the truth: I don’t actually blame my genealogy. I blame my hometown. I spent the first 21 years of my life in Monterey. During high school and college, I worked summers at the aquarium. I became well versed in the region’s colorful history and in the natural history of the bay. I had, in other words, an abundance of irrefutable, rock-solid evidence readily at hand. Even so, I knew there was something else. Whenever I thought of the aquarium and how it came to be, I could see an imagined tale of heartbreak and ambition just below the factual surface: an alternate founding legend that captured how it really felt to stand knee-deep in a tank full of hungry bat rays, to watch the morning fog roll in, to be alone on Cannery Row at midnight and hear the whispers of ghosts.
Margot Fiske, my novel’s hero, is one of these ghosts. Unlike John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, she never actually existed. She is an invented composite of girls and women I’ve read about and known, and of girls and women I could have been. Through her, there are many questions I’ve hoped to explore. What is the price of inappropriate desire and its expression? Is it possible to both escape and embrace a family legacy? Do people belong to places, or do places belong to people? When, if ever, is captivity preferable to freedom?
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These days, I don’t live within walking distance of a beach. I am no longer at work on a book about fish. I am, to be honest, a little sick of aquariums. When I close my eyes at night, however, I’ll be damned if I don’t see water. Not regular water, but aquarium water. I can tell because it’s lit with a vivid blue glow and it’s impeccably clear and clean. And when something swims into view I know that, upon waking, I’ll exaggerate its size. I’ll hold my hands up in front of my husband — who is a scrupulously honest man — and I’ll say, "It was this
big!" And instead of being impressed or charmed or fooled, he’ll look at me and say, "Yes. Yes, I believe you."
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is a graduate of Williams College. She holds an MFA from the Creative Writing Program at New York University. She currently resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but was born and raised in Monterey, California, where she spent many fascinating and formative summers working behind the scenes at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Monterey Bay
is her first novel.