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John Lamb, Published October 16 2013

Weekend Watch: Author inspired to fill in blanks of female characters of the classics

Fargo - Some authors follow a simple bit of advice: Write about what you know.

Sena Jeter Naslund prefers a different approach: Write about what you read.

“It’s as natural for me to write as it is to read,” she says from her home in Lexington, Ky.

Naslund earned national acclaim for her 1999 novel, “Ahab’s Wife,” the story of the captain’s young spouse, left behind in “Moby-Dick,” told from the woman’s point of view.

Both books inspired visual artist T.L. Solien’s show, “Toward the Setting Sun,” at the Plains Art Museum through Jan. 12.

In turn, the show brings Jeter Naslund to Fargo this week to discuss her books and how a written story can lead to a visual image.

“I was completely and thoroughly thrilled,” she says of her reaction to first hearing that Solien had created a number of different works inspired by her breakthrough novel.

“I think it is just wonderful when one art form speaks to artists in another art form. It’s just magnificent that he found so much inspiration in ‘Ahab’s Wife,’ ” she says.

She was moved to writing her companion to Herman Melville’s classic after realizing not only was Ahab’s wife not developed (or even named), but that there was a lack of strong female adventures. Her feelings were compounded as she watched her daughter take to the text.

“When she was just a child, she would recite Ahab’s speeches. I was glad she had a good ear for language and could recognize a masterpiece of literature,” Jeter Naslund says.

“But then I thought, ‘Too bad there’s no great woman character in ‘Moby-Dick’ in whom she could identify and whose speeches she may want to make her own.’ So it wasn’t just a gap in the literary landscape. It was something I wrote for my daughter and other young girls, affirming the idea that the woman can be adventuresome and also find her own place in the universe through courage and persistence.”

Solien follows Una, as Naslund names her, past the final pages in “Ahab’s Wife,” presenting her as a pioneer on the westward expansion on the American frontier.

Jeter Naslund enjoys the idea of someone else telling the story of character she brought to life, saying that all is fair in fiction.

“I’m really in grand literary tradition when I take one story and make it into something else,” she says. “From Shakespeare on down people have felt justified in doing that, and I certainly do.”

The writing teacher at the University of Louisville hit the books again for her latest novel, “The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman.” The novel within a novel follows an author the day after she finishes her book on the French painter Élisabeth Vigée-LeBrun.

Jeter Naslund’s novel in part follows the structure of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” and nods to James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

“It’s an exploration of women and creativity, even when their lives are full of domestic activities or social pressures,” she explains from her house, looking out onto the Fountain of St. James Court. Her house is part of the setting in the new book, proving that inspiration is all around.

Jeter Naslund is looking forward to seeing Solien’s show tonight, but she’s already pleased knowing something she wrote fueled another person’s artistic endeavor.

“This has been a spark and lit some sort of fire in him and let it burn brightly and beautifully,” she says.

If You Go

Sena Jeter Naslund is in town to read from and discuss her novels, including “Ahab’s Wife” and “The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman.”

Her appearances include:

• A reception from 5:30 to 6:30 tonight at Plains Art Museum, 704 1st Ave. N., Fargo.

• A reading from 7 to 9 tonight at NDSU Barry Hall, 811 2nd Ave. N., Fargo.

• A book signing from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Friday at Zandbroz, 420 Broadway, Fargo

• A writing workshop for teachers, 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday at Plains Art Museum. Registration required, contact Kelly Sassi at kelly.sassi@ndsu.edu.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533