The Cousteau World of a Lit Fiction Writer

by Dar Methiew (appearing in the August issue of Ophelia’s Wading Pool and re-printed with permission.)

I have met the fiction writer, Kipp Wessel, three times. The first was when we were both enrolled in the MFA program in Missoula, Montana, some 20 years ago, and the most recent was on the shoreline of his lake property in St. Paul, Minnesota, where we met to discuss his soon to be released debut novel. The only other time we met was in between these two points – a chance interlude on a tumultuous Atlantic Ocean and a night we both nearly lost our lives.

Of all three meetings, the most recent, the lakeside conversation in the tree dappled sunlight, was not only the safest meeting, also the most open. Wessel comes across as a man whose heart knows the astonishment of being yanked free by gale force winds, spending years adrift, and eventually finding its way back to shore. Like his debut novel First, You Swallow the Moon, Kipp Wessel is a man who understands loss and the transformational power of returning from the storm. And he no longer refrains from sharing his insight of that journey.

It wasn’t always the way. When I met Wessel, both of us in our early twenties and immersed in the craft of short story writing, absorbed in literary arc, character development and metaphor and surrounded by the Bitterroot Mountain Range of western Montana, he seemed about the furthest thing from an open book. Of the many personalities enrolled in our program, he was seemingly enlisted in the faction that might be termed the “walking wounded.” Silent, observant, difficult, if not impossible, to get close to. He wrote beautiful, sensitive stories – work that sometimes wandered, often took chances, and usually revealed billboard-sized hints of the sources of his interior struggle and social detachment – an older brother he lost a year before joining the writing program and a girl he was still in love with but no longer with, an estrangement that spanned the length of time he spent in Montana and saturated every hue of fescue and sky, until, eventually, he gave in to its defeat.

I confessed to him when we reunited these two decades later, my memory of him from our MFA days had vicariously married his image to the one of Richie Tenenbaum, the fictional creation of Wes Anderson minus the red, white and blue sweatband, a man more at peace releasing falcons to the sky than talking to people across a table, a man two shoes and one sock away from a complete, 72 unforced error style meltdown on the Center Court asphalt at Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

“Wow,” he says, sitting across from me now, casually clutching a Mexican glass tumbler of red wine he lovingly nurses. “That bad, huh?”

“We make everything up,” I answer. “We round out our observances with our own imaginations, each connected dot. Doesn’t mean we get it right.”

“No,” he answers. “I was…somewhat unhinged. I remember wondering why the absolute deep end was seemingly taking so long. I couldn’t fathom what was keeping me from plummeting over its edge.”

He sits casually slumped in his douglas fir deck chair, dressed in cargo pants with frayed cuffs, a paint-splattered heather gray chamois shirt with triple rolled sleeves and what looks to be a five day incubation of a generously salted beard. His hair holds the evenness of a field of wheat newly plowed by blunted scythe, wandering tufts pointed in seemingly random directions and length. And his gaze, though warm and inviting, still wanders from time to time to the framing woods where, moments before, we had observed a doe and two dachshund sized fawns emerge, freeze, and then bound back into the darkness. Deer distraction aside, he is far more present than I remember him.

A half hour in, I find the opportunity to ask him about the night we both shared a literal shipwreck. I sallied a somewhat routine question his way about the identity of his literary guide – Hemingway? Cather? Carver? Faulkner? (Every writer has at least one.) And he responded with a name I hadn’t considered…

“Jacques Cousteau.”

“The French diver?”

“Everything is a puzzle,” he says. “Every meaningful thing. If the writer’s role is to reveal the hidden mysteries of who we are and what we experience, you couldn’t find a better role model than Cousteau. He showed us it’s possible to unravel the entire ocean, layer by layer. And he did it in a way most hadn’t thought of — by merging with it, by meeting the endless sea on its terms. Whatever you write about, it has its own laws, its own heart. It’s bigger than you are. The trick is to observe it where it is. To let it lead. You fish something out of its water, it disappears. The thing it was disappears. You have to respect the sea you’re exploring. Writers could learn a lot from that French diver.”

It was then I reminded him of the night the two of us almost merged with the sea – literally and nearly permanently. It happened the night we stumbled into one another aboard a ship, the Cote D’Ivorie, a passenger cruiser sailing somewhere between Halifax and the equator when we discovered each other across the vessel’s crowded dining hall at the hastily organized evening happy hour.

“What a night,” he mumbles, and flashes a smile.

At that time, it had been nearly a decade since our graduate school days, and we were both suitably flummoxed when we recognized each other so removed from context. We stood open mouthed with bowing paper plates mounded with chewed shrimp tail ends in one hand and squat bottles of Red Stripe in the other, and then we greeted each other like reunited soldiers from a distant war. I told him about my current assignment for my then on again/off again employer, National Geographic, and he proceeded to tell me about this novel he was working on – a story of a young man who loses a brother and dreams nightly of grizzly bears until he follows them into the woods to figure out why, a novel exploring the transformational power of grief.

“What are you doing on this ship, though?” I asked, still trying to piece it all together.

“Well, you know that novel I’m writing?” he asked. “It’s really about broken hearts, you know? About how we come undone, how we fall apart…”

And before he finished the explanation, a giant wave pounded the starboard side of the Cote D’Ivorie smartly enough to shear a truck sized opening across the reinforced steel bow and tossed us both, in tandem with several dozen other passengers, from the dining hall’s starboard to port in a single moment.

The boatswain’s scream penetrated the chaotic din of the aftermath. “Draupner wave, Draupner…” he yelled as he crawled his way across the beer bottle littered hardwood floor before finding his footing near an exit and disappearing, presumably en route to the bridge.

Neither Wessel nor I had heard of a Draupner wave. Nor did we have an inkling of whether the wave was part of a newly minted storm or some other singular freak event of nature. We only knew the ship’s happy hour had come to an abrupt end, and the next agenda on everyone’s dance card consisted of finding our individual path to safety.

Behind a line of others, I climbed my way through the nearest exit and up a flight of stairs. The entire port freeboard was riddled with kelp and pulverized squid. I wrapped an arm around the wet rail and peered out at the swollen sea, now rolling like a serpent’s back. If the wall of water moving away from the boat was the outwash of the wave that just had hit us, my heart pounded at the thought of another, of equal size or greater, in similar pursuit. When I poked my head back down the stairway to see if Wessel was following, the boat lights flickered four times and then went dark. The perimeter of the freeboard basked in the photo luminous emergency lighting. You could barely see anything but the stark outline of the boat and the stars above it.

“This could be bad,” a fellow passenger said, and I assumed he was referring to the newly failed lighting. “Take that staircase,” a crew member instructed. “Upper deck.”

I took a deep breath and tried feeling my way along the passageway, pushing aside the buoyed flotsam that swam between the walls and knocked against my knees. A steady line of shoes, clutch purses, flashlights, marlinspike and life vests bobbed by. At one point, I felt what I imagined a lamprey eel curl around my ankle, and the water logged carpeting beneath my feet felt like mud.

“Is this boat sinking?” I asked the purser on deck who was hurriedly stacking sea ration containers.

“I heard it was a wave,” he answered. “We didn’t hit anything. A freak wave hit us.”

“So we are sinking or we aren’t?”

I watched a throng of life vest clad passengers over the purser’s shoulder. Their faces were illuminated by their vest strobes and made them appear more like Halloween trick or treaters than ship passengers.

“My gut says no,” muttered the purser. “We have our protocol, is all.”

I didn’t have the nerve to inform him their “protocol” resembled, at best, mass chaos. Tinny loudspeakers blasted emergency instructions in French then English and followed by a series of more regional languages of Niger-Congo. I could hear the repeated thuds of an axe whacking into the gunwale, someone’s attempt, I imagined, to liberate a lifeboat. Passengers and crew seemed to be moving as if pursued by antic pterosauers or enemy fire. It was like Busby Berkley water folly choreography poolside at the insane asylum.

I pressed on toward the stern. I wanted to make my way to open air and a view of the deck. I wanted to see if I could spot Wessel. Anywhere. Traveling alone and on assignment, his was the only company I had a reasonable shot at securing, and I realized we could each use some, under the sudden circumstances, the old wisdom of misery and company as intertwined bedfellows.

The next crew member I confronted was a steward. I asked him for directions and he tersely instructed I repeat what I did during the muster drill.

“Muster?” I asked. I boarded the ship late, had probably missed the mandatory evacuation drill, if there was one.

“Just head aft,” he answered.

We collected, en masse, center deck and waited for clearer directions. Some of the children on board had become separated from their parents, and the crew quickly established a temporary orphanage along the periphery, so I began ushering bewildered parents towards it. I could hear the wail of lifeboats now screaming from their davits. Emergency running lights flickered a strobe effect over the melee, making everything appear to be moving eerily slower than it actually was.

And then I noticed Wessel for the first time since the moment of chaos, before we became separated mid-conversation. He was bathed in a blue L.E.D. wash from a penlight he held in his teeth, an impromptu audience of momentarily parentless children seated in front of him, their legs crossed, as he grasped chunks of coral in his hands and visually illustrated the art of juggling. He outlined an imaginary box, eye level and a couple feet higher, and marked each upper corner of the box he’d toss the coral. And then he began the slow act of tossing multiple coral pieces into the air, contrasting figure eight patterns deftly palmed in place with his fluidly moving hands. In doing so, he maintained the trance of children against a whir of chaos.

Like the children seated before him, I forgot, momentarily, we are motes of dust tossed in a reckless, seldom yielding storm. And a man I once viewed as eternally lost at sea seemed now immediately at ease beneath the curtain of anarchy. Every other adult human being on that deck was either hurried, irritated or panicked. But the man I once viewed as emotionally shipwrecked was the calmest one in view – serenely tossing coral chunks, a gravity defying ellipse above his shoulders, before a sea of tranquil children.

It wasn’t the world, its continually evolving complexities and tragedies, Wessel was ill prepared to meet. Look at how calm he remained in the churned seas surrounding the both of us that night. His vulnerability was more personal, more inward. We each possess an Achilles heel. Wessel’s just happened to be the same two aorta and ventricle chambers that also kept him alive. He felt too much. He probably loved just as awkwardly as the rest of us, but he felt the repercussions of that failure, and of loss, especially lost attachment, lost relationship, to the point of overwhelm. Having now read his novel, I see that part of him even more clearly.

I wish I could say I displayed an equal degree of calm, but it got much harder when the second “Draupner Wave” struck the ship’s hull, and I found myself sailing across the coaming with the force of Sandy Duncan’s off broadway Peter Pan minus the safety harness, the dark sky unraveling, the sea beneath me momentarily cleaving in two. And then it was just ocean break and a dizzying cacophony of seagulls. The first couple times my body bobbed the crest of waves, I had a clear view back to the ship and could see Wessel’s form disappearing from view.

I scissor kicked toward a floating deck chair, its legs sticking up through the waves, flickering the incandescence of the crossing signal flares above it. The salt air smelled of sulfur. One of the flares streaked a neon orange and pink trail over my shoulder and smacked the sea twenty feet away with an exaggerated hiss, like a star, a vibrant comet, ripped from sky.

When I ask Wessel about that night, all these years later on the shore of his home, ask him how that experience factors into his Jacques Cousteau writing education, he pauses and then answers: Our role is to merge with the sea. Sometimes the sea swallows us whole.

It wasn’t clear whether he was reflecting on the sinking of the Cote D’Ivorie or other times in his life, maybe the period I first met him, his heart in pieces beneath the wide Montana sky.

I could tell you the rest, how I made my way back to the ship, how we all got rescued that night from our lopsided vessel. Or I could relay the breadth of the engaging conversation Wessel and I shared most recently on the shore of his home. But then I’d simply be keeping you from reading his novel, which is proportionally more interesting and rewarding than either of these other stories.

Go find a copy of First, You Swallow the Moon by Kipp Wessel. It becomes available in 2016, in hardcover, paperback and e-media.