Authors Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel on Melville, Marriage and Co-Writing ‘Dayswork’

The novelist and poet saw a silver lining in the Covid quarantines and embarked upon a shared creative odyssey.

When we were all stuck at home in the early days of the pandemic, those of us who are partnered had to find a balance between the demands of remote work and the demands of our relationships. With so much unplanned closeness, it’s not surprising that divorce rates increased. For a lucky few, however, lockdowns and quarantining became opportunities for collaboration.

Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel. W. W. Norton

Poet Jennifer Habel and her husband, novelist Chris Bachelder, were among the couples brought closer by Covid-19. So close, in fact, that they decided to write a book together—a new frontier in their twenty-year union, and one that was “remarkably conflict-free… it was a marital hack,” according to Habel.

Set during the pandemic, their novel Dayswork (published by W. W. Norton) follows an unnamed narrator as she navigates an obsession with Herman Melville the man, Herman Melville the author and his authorship of Moby-Dick while quarantining with her family. “She had all this time at home, shut in like in a boat or a ship, and trying to get across the ocean of Melville information and scholarship,” Bachelder told Observer.

How did you decide to write this book?

Jennifer: We didn’t decide to collaborate! We didn’t say, “We’re going to write a book together.” Like the narrator, I became obsessed with learning about Herman Melville, and Chris cohabitated with someone with this obsession, so we talked about it a lot. We kind of fell into it.

Chris: I don’t think it would have been possible, or even very appealing, at least to me, a few years ago because I’m more private about my writing in the early composition stages. It was a surprise!

Jennifer: We would sit at the kitchen table and write each sentence together. I typed, but we sat next to each other and composed out loud. I’d say what about this, and he’d say what about that, and we’d collaborate on the actual sentence. It was a fascinating process.

Was working so closely on a sentence-by-sentence level and also as a married couple challenging?

Jennifer: Everybody who hears about this project wonders how we did this without getting divorced. But neither of us tried to fight for anything the other person didn’t like.

Chris: It made me realize how many bad ideas I have each day. If one of us said, “Let’s try this,” and the other said, “I don’t think so,” we would just move on. It wasn’t personal; it wasn’t contentious.

Jennifer: In a way, working together eliminated some of the conflicts that we’ve had as two writers in the same house competing for the resources of time and mental space. Because we were working on the same thing, I didn’t have the feeling of, for example, “Come back, I’m stranded here with the kids,” because it was something we were working on together.

Chris: The starting line wasn’t either of our visions. Conflict would arise if someone was trying to realize their personal vision but neither of us was.

‘Dayswork’, published by W. W. Norton. W. W. Norton

There’s so much biographical information about Melville in this, but at the same time, it’s metafictional in that it takes place in a domestic setting in the pandemic. How did you decide what form this book would take?

Chris: The book became much more about partnership, collaboration and marriage once we started collaborating. That was a surprise. And once that became part of the process, it changed the content

Jennifer: We didn’t have many early readers, but the ones we did have wanted more of her and more of the marriage. We worked to add some of that in later drafts.

Chris: I was grumpy about that. I was wrong! I’m supposed to be the novelist, and I was wrong about so much.

Why did you decide to set it during the pandemic?  

Chris: We had the time, but also because the character had the time and the obsession… It was a time of various obsessions for people; that was what she got into. There’s an illness metaphor with “catching” Melville.

I can’t help but notice how it fits into the wider genre of women artists reckoning with their relationships to creative men and the stifling of their own creativity, like The Wife by Meg Wolitzer, Jennifer’s The Book of Jane and Wifedom by Anna Funder. Why did you decide to tell the story from the woman’s perspective?

Jennifer: I’ve been fascinated by the subject for many years. What kicked off my research of Melville was an article by Jill Lepore about Arrowhead, the house where Melville wrote Moby-Dick, but also the women in the house, and notably his sister Augusta, who was the copyist of Moby-Dick. A lot of what is getting worked out in this book is the cost of making art and the worth of making art.

In the balance of art and life, what gets prioritized? And how does that play out historically when it comes to gender? I feel a lot of ambivalence about these great male artists who were not great in their private lives. I feel anger and frustration at some of their actions towards the people who live with them while they make this art, even as I revere the art and recognize in some ways the maniacal focus that can be necessary to make the art. Paradoxically, the pandemic allowed me to be more monomaniacal about making art than I’ve ever been before. I actually got a taste of it because I had more time than I ever have and was more focused than I ever have been.

It’s so interesting that you say you had more time to create during the pandemic when a lot of women felt more pressure with caregiving responsibilities.

Jennifer: [Our teenagers’] lives were more circumscribed so we weren’t driving them all over and going to different sporting events. And then also my actual job organizing a visiting writers series really shrunk down.

There were no visiting writers!

Jennifer: Just writers visiting on Zoom, but that’s much less work.

Where does the title Dayswork come from?

Jennifer: We had that title pretty early. It comes from a letter [Melville wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne] in which he talks about his “days’ work.”

Chris: We liked that resonance. Given the narrator’s quest and our daily work, we loved it.

Lizzie gave Herman a kitten after the completion of the poem “Clarel.” So what did you do to celebrate the completion of Dayswork?

Chris: [Jennifer was given a bottle of champagne for her birthday] and it was the kind of champagne Melville had on his hikes with Hawthorne, and there was a haiku on it that said, From now on, It’s all clear profit. But Jen wouldn’t open it for her 50th so instead we waited until we finished the book, which was just a few days before our 20th wedding anniversary.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the Barbie movie, but there was a clip going around social media of a hot pink copy of Moby-Dick on Barbie’s bedside table. What do you think that means?

Jennifer: Maybe they were nodding to the fact that Barbie’s getting ready to go on a big journey.

Even though the titular Moby Dick is a sperm whale, what do you think of the recent orca uprising? 

Jennifer: We deserve it. Whatever they’re plotting, we deserve it. It also points to signs of intelligence—

Chris: —and distress.

Finally, you wrote that “perhaps one day I’ll visit the Herman Melville Memorial Room, provided it reopens, provided I can travel.” So did you?

Jennifer: We did visit it before we finished the book.

Chris: The sensation of walking around Arrowhead with a tour guide—I wanted to add a footnote to every single thing they said!

Jennifer: It was interesting to confirm that Melville’s study was indeed the biggest room in the house.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Authors Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel on Melville, Marriage and Co-Writing ‘Dayswork’