The basic premise of The Lifeboat is simple: A small group of survivors cram onto a lifeboat after their ocean liner sinks. But inside that one-sentence pitch is a rich, complex and intriguing novel that stays with you.
The story of lifeboat #19 happens in 1914 and involves the fate of 39 passengers huddled on a lifeboat that’s 23 feet long and 7 feet wide. The formidable John Hardie takes the helm as their leader, but it’s the first-person narrator — 22-year-old newlywed Grace Winter — who makes this novel remarkable.
When the novel opens, we learn that Grace is on trial for a murder. Clearly, she survived the lifeboat; and obviously, someone was killed during the ordeal. As Grace tells the story, however, we learn that she is an unreliable narrator. This is no early-20th century shrinking violet. She tells us how she managed to snag a wealthy husband (who went down with the ship), she approaches her fellow survivors with a cold aloofness that could either be explained by a hard will to survive or an unshakeable selfish determination, and she regards her situation with an eerily level head. Outwardly, she is a quiet survivor. But readers get a peek into her inner thoughts, including her personal telling of events that ultimately lead to the trial.
Charlotte Rogan, author of the critically praised novel, took time to chat about The Lifeboat and her motivations behind it.
I was completely surprised by how unlikable Grace was — and yet, I kept reading. I’m always amazed when writers are able to present unlikable characters that readers still want to spend time with. In your opinion, what is it about Grace that keeps readers hooked?
The first time I encountered a reader who insisted on liking a novel’s protagonist, I was completely surprised. For me, likeability is not important in a character at all; the ability to fascinate is.
Think of all the interesting anti-heroes that populate literature: Madame Bovary, Humbert Humbert, Becky Sharp, Raskolnikov, Alex of A Clockwork Orange. These protagonists range from selfish to troubled to bad, but we are fascinated by them for their torment or for the strangeness of their circumstances or for the compelling way they are presented or for how a glimpse into their minds lets us grapple with the conundrums of our own.
Besides facing a horrendous, life-threatening situation, Grace is also ambiguous. I see ambiguity as an invitation for the reader to enter the story—to decide what actually happened, to put him or herself into the main character’s shoes. The more involved readers are with the character, the more likely they are to keep reading. It doesn’t really matter whether they are rooting for her or looking on in horror or simply wondering what they would do in her place.
Oh, and not all readers dislike Grace! She is a survivor, and there is something to admire in that.
This book could be approached in so many ways: as an adventure; as part of a critique on feminism, class systems and/or gender roles; as a character study, etc. etc. There are so many layers to this novel. When you set out to write it, what kind of book did you want to write? Did you intend Lifeboat #14 to be a microcosm of its society?
I always start with character, or a character in a particular situation, and then themes evolve. So I guess I didn’t set out to write any particular sort of book. But the things you mention all interest to me, and a writer’s interests are bound to come through in the work.
It became apparent to me early on in the writing process that the lifeboat was, in fact, a microcosm of society. I have always been interested in philosophy and thinkers like Hobbes and Rousseau, who theorized that early societies evolved when people gave up some of their freedoms for security. I have often wondered who those early people were and if later generations are necessarily bound by the decisions of their forebears. What if the rules only advantage some people at the expense of others? Are those people morally justified in breaking the rules?
I also saw the lifeboat as a metaphor for the planet earth, a place with limited resources and a growing and increasingly demanding population. How will/should those resources be allocated? It seems to me that fiction is the perfect vehicle for asking the sort of questions that might be unanswerable, but that make us think.
According to your bio, you were raised among a family of sailors. How did that influence your writing?
My father was both a self-taught naturalist and something of a tyrant as a sea captain. He taught us a little bit about sailing and a lot about respect for the ocean and the natural world. Our family vacations were often spent sailing on Lake Michigan or along the coasts of Connecticut and Maine.
For many years, my sister and I were too little to be of much help on the boat, and it was mostly our job to stay out of the way and to not fall overboard. It was these experiences of being surrounded by people who were stronger than I was and being helpless in the face of nature that allowed me to imagine what those weeks in the lifeboat must have been like for Grace.
How would you describe Grace?
If I were going to come up with one word for Grace, I would call her adaptable. I think adaptability is the number one indicator of survival. Bending rather than breaking and all that.