For author Lindsay Hatton, her hometown of Monterey provides the perfect setting for a debut novel about a remarkable teenage girl and her connection to two iconic Central Coast attractions: Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row.
"Monterey Bay," published earlier this month by Penguin Press, focuses on Margot Fiske at two stages in her eventful life: in 1940 as a 15-year-old employee and lover of marine biologist Ed Ricketts, and in 1998, as a founder of the aquarium, musing on mortality even as she oversees the delicate release of a giant sunfish that has outgrown its quarters.
Although Margot is a fictional creation, the novel draws heavily on local history, reshaping it to weave a story of adolescent longing and the urge to leave a permanent record of accomplishment.
A Monterey native born in 1979, Hatton now resides with her husband and two children in Cambridge, Mass. She is set to appear in downtown Pleasanton next week for a luncheon and reading event at Towne Center Books.
In a telephone interview, Hatton recalled her childhood as "happening in a relatively sleepy place and a ton of fog" and said that it was "steeped in all the marine stuff you would expect."
For Hatton, "all the marine stuff" included working as a high school intern at the then-recently opened Monterey Bay Aquarium.
"At that point, the aquarium was not yet the international juggernaut that it has since become," she said. "They were very open to young people with marine biological leanings."
Hatton worked behind the scenes, cleaning the tanks, feeding fish and writing visitor program scripts. (She also greeted visitors while wearing a sea otter costume.) Her passion for writing and her tendency toward seasickness, however, led her away from pursuing a career in marine biology.
College took her to Williams in Massachusetts, where she studied creative writing with renowned short story writer Jim Shepard, author of "The Book of Aron" and "Like You'd Understand, Anyway." The first seeds of what would become "Monterey Bay" took root in his class.
"There's a passage in the book where I describe cutting and chopping up squid that are being prepared to be fed to other animals," Hatton said. "That was a job I had when I was an intern (at the aquarium), and I just wrote it as a stand-alone scene when I was studying with Jim."
After graduation, Hatton worked as an investment banker on Wall Street for a few years before enrolling in an MFA program at New York University, where her instructors included "Ragtime" author E. L. Doctorow.
Like Doctorow, Hatton mixes real-life personalities with fictional creations in her novel. Chief among the historical figures is Ed Ricketts, marine biologist and confidant to novelist John Steinbeck. Steinbeck immortalized Ricketts as the charismatic "Doc" in "Cannery Row."
Even though Ricketts' lab is scant footsteps from the aquarium's current location, it took Hatton years to view Steinbeck's short novel as a source of inspiration.
"As strange as it sounds," she said, "I did not read Steinbeck's 'Cannery Row' until I was about three or four drafts into my own book."
"What I knew of Ed Ricketts was his scientific legacy," she continued. "He truly is the founder of marine ecology, and a lot of the Monterey Aquarium's exhibit design is based on his theories."
Once Hatton began to delve deeper into Ricketts' life and career, she saw the possibilities of using him as a springboard for a girl's coming-of-age story.
"I was lucky in the fact that both Ricketts and Steinbeck left behind a lot of journals and letters and personal essays that gave me a window into how they spoke to friends. Not so much how they spoke to each other, because unfortunately there are very few, if any, remaining letters between the two of them," she said.
During the course of her research, Hatton did find that Ricketts had at least one confirmed relationship with a teenager.
"She was 17 years old. According to Steinbeck at least, Ricketts' appetites were wide-ranging in terms of the women that he invited into his bed. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that someone like Margot might enter his life," Hatton said.
"Monterey Bay" opens with Margot losing her footing in a tide pool and badly gashing her head. Ricketts sews up her scalp and soon becomes her lover.
Later, Margot signs on as the biologist's sketch artist, drawing the incredible creatures he pulls from the ocean and navigating the emotional minefield constructed by Ricketts, Steinbeck and Anders Fiske -- Margot's entrepreneur father, who intends to purchase the biggest cannery in town.
Talented, driven yet vulnerable, Margot is no ordinary teen heroine. Asked whether she ever worried that some readers might find her too precocious, Hatton said, "Absolutely. I did, but I also think that, for a girl of her circumstance and for someone that would have the kind of mind that could conceive of the aquarium, she would need to be an exceptional person."
Hatton said that it was important for her not to glorify Margot's relationship with Ricketts but also not to paint her as a victim.
"I think there's a lot of anxiety in our culture surrounding girls and their desires and their sexuality," the author said. "I wanted Margot to be someone who was complicit in her own situation, a situation that she should never have been in."
As for the scenes of Margot toward the end of her career, Hatton said, "From the very beginning, it was very important for me to have that chronological juxtaposition. I like historical fiction to not feel too dusty."
When Hatton moved East to go to Williams, her mother would joke,"Oh, you're going to meet a boy from Boston and you're never going to come back to California."
And, Hatton said, "Her worst nightmare was fulfilled."
Hatton returns to visit Monterey when she can, and the Central Coast, she said, still plays a deep role in her imagination.
"I love Cambridge, but I'm always nostalgic, always a little heartbroken for Monterey," she said. "It's one of the many ways I feel a kinship to Steinbeck. He always longed for that part of California in particular -- Monterey and Pacific Grove -- even though he spent the final years of his life in New York and elsewhere."
Read It and Eat
Lindsay Hatton is scheduled to appear at Towne Center Books and discuss her novel "Monterey Bay" with readers on Aug. 5, starting at 11:30 a.m. The author's appearance is part of the downtown book shop's Read It and Eat series, which features a reading, Q&A session, book signing and food inspired by the author's work. For more information, call the shop at 846-8826 or visit www.lindsayhatton.com.