Dayswork By Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel

The Melville Thing: Compulsively Readable.

A Review, and Interview with Dayswork authors Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel by John David Morgan

In Dayswork, new from W. W. Norton in 2023, married couple Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel have created what might be called a novel, or a biography, or a literary analysis, or even a pandemic diary. The book follows a fictional protagonist, based on Habel, but clearly not Habel, who is obsessed with researching Herman Melville. The unnamed protagonist, along with her husband and two teenage daughters, are locked down together during the pandemic. Moby Dick is discussed at length, but also researched are Melville’s failures, including the novel Pierre, and Clarel, 18,000 lines of iambic tetrameter, the longest poem in American literature. Many lessor-know aspects of Melville’s life are portrayed. For example, at the end of his writing career, he was deputy inspector No. 75, at a salary of $1,200 per year, considerably less than a jailkeeper’s.

The book is in some respects an audit of the life of Melville. Consider the discrepancies in the height of Moby Dick author.

He's 5’ 8 and ½ inches at age 19. Then, is 5’ 9 and ½ inches at age 21. He's 5’ 10 and 1/8 inches at age 30. And at age 37, he is only 5’ 8 and ¾ inches.

Habel is the author of In the Little House, winner of the 2008 Copperdome Chapbook Prize and the poetry collections Good Reason, winner of 2011 Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition, and The Book of Jane, the 2019 Iowa Poetry Prize winner. Her work appeared in Issue 14 of Miracle Monocle and our print micro-anthology, MonsterBachelder is a prose writer and the author of four novels, most recently The Throwback Special, A National Book Award finalist and winner of the 2016 Terry Southern Prize for Humor awarded by The Paris Review.  

The authors described the unconventional process of writing the book as sitting at the dining room table writing each sentence together. Habel typed, but they sat next to each other and composed out loud. 

The pre-COVID writing lives of the couple, two writers in the same house competing for the resources of time and mental space, is demonstrated with the “shed,” a six-by-eight foot building with a plywood floor and steep hinged roof situated on the property of their former residence. The shed contained one desk, one small bookcase, one lamp, and a rug. The couple would take turns writing one hour a day in the shed, one writing while the other stayed inside the home with the children.

“Through the sliding glass doors of the family room, the spouse with the two small children could see the spouse seated in the she, writing; through the windowpanes of the shed door, the spouse writing could see the spouse in the family room with the two small children.

Time moved so quickly in one room and so slowly in the other.”

The book brings in several author’s experiences with reading Melville, from E. M. Forester to Laruen Groff. Throughout the work, Hershel Parker, author of a 2,000 page Melville biography, is called “The Biographer.” Parker’s discovery of evidence of a meeting between Melville and National Hawthorne, at which Melville presented Hawthorne with a signed edition of Moby Dick on its publication date, is a high point in the book, and a fine example of the now possibly lost art of true dogged literary research.

Another biographer presented in the book is Elizabeth Hardwick, along with her unfaithful husband, Robert Lowell. One of this writer’s favorite lines from the book: “they were happy, when they weren’t miserable.”

I was fortunate to connect via Zoom recently with Bachelder and Habel regarding Dayswork. The following is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.

You’ve done several interviews since the release of the book. Are there questions you're getting tired of answering?

Chris Bachelder (CB): No, not at all. We’re delighted when people are interested in the book.


Dayswork is not a typical plot-drive work. Do you all consider it an experimental novel?

Jennifer Habel (JH): Yes, it’s experimental for sure. One of the things that seemed unusual to us was the fact that it’s in small pieces, but we viewed those  pieces as being continuous. That was something that we hadn’t seen around a lot.

CB: There is a lot of fragmentation in contemporary fiction. You could call the novel fragmented, certainly in that it’s in small pieces. But to elaborate on what Jenn is saying, it was important to both of thus that have connections between the pieces. There is a lot of jagged experimental novels that are digressive, dissociative. The logic here, we wanted each piece to have connectivity between pieces, for each unit to connect to what comes above it and below it. That was to create a sense of her work, and her thought process, as she went through her day, and her research. I would say what was unconventional was the collaborative part. The genre mix-up. The way it looks on the page as well. Sometimes experimental means difficult, or challenging. We wanted to make a beautiful book.

JH: One thing that makes me happy when we hear someone that says the book is compulsively readable. A page-turner of sorts. That’s not often what you hear with experimental.


Did your publisher and/or editor push back on the unconventional format, say not having chapters?

JH: Actually, the manuscript we submitted had no breaks whatsoever. It was continuous. Our editor, before he acquired it, the editor suggested we do some things, one of which was to provide those breaks. We are glad about that. It was an excellent change.


In a previous interview, you said that you had to cut 5,000 words. How difficult was it to “lift out” pieces of text, given your goal was to have a continuous flow?

CB: Yes, that was hard. We cut more than 5,000 words, because we added some new material. There wasn’t tremendous pushback, but given the current fiction marketplace is not hungry for unconventional work, so they wasn’t big pushback, but there was concern, and we were asked by the publisher and editor to make it a little more readable, and reader friendly, in ways that didn’t compromise the vision at all. That’s always a thing where Jenn and I had to go and talk about the suggested changes, and we did. Our changes make it a better book.


What was the timeline for publishing Dayswork? Was timeline impacted, or extended, due to COVID?

CB: Jenn started reading about Melville in 2019. We started working together in fall of 2020, so the timeline was three years at least.

JH: That’s right. The first draft was completed in May of 2022. The revisions, fact checking, and getting permissions took us up to Fall of 2023. The book was originally scheduled for January of 2024, so instead of a delay, the book release was pushed up, to make it a fall book. So, we really had to hustle, with fact checking and getting permissions. It was a pretty compressed process.


Chris, you have said the book has the concept of a log. Could you elaborate on that?

CB: We struggled for a little while about how to talk about the book, what it was, what our narrator doing, how we might characterize it as a form. We settled on a research log. We quote other people’s logs, such as the rowing log by George Harbo and Frank Samuelson, and the crying log of Mary Ruefle the poet, the journal of The Biographer. It was a way to talk about the dailyness. That’s what the form of the log gets at that we liked. It gets at the dailyness of the protagonist’s journey. A log suggests a journey, too. That’s how we thought about her, a journey across Melville. So, in that respect, a log it how we settled.


The book opens with the line, “Bon Voyage.” Was that Chris’s idea, or Jennifer’s?

JH: For a long, long time, the book opened differently. It opened with the discrepancies in Melville’s height. We were dealing with this idea that you don’t even know how tall he is. He seems larger than he was, or the reverse. Late in the rewriting process, we were being asked to highlight the married couple a little bit more for the reader. So, we thought framing the book with them would be a good idea. We tried a lot of different things before landing on that as the opening. Although, I don’t remember Bon Voyage?

CB: Yes, I remember that was late. It’s so funny, because now that’s the beginning of the book, and it will be forever. But for most of the book, that was not there. It was really added late. I don’t remember how it came about. We really liked it, because it gets back to that journey thing, a departure, and an evocation of ocean. It’s a departure, a goodbye. Once we came on it we liked it, but it took us a while to find it.

JH: Bon Voyage reflects the idea that Melville could embark on these great adventures, but women couldn’t do that in the same way. There’s some sense that the narrator is embarking on a journey, even though she is house-bound. So, it’s kicking off her journey that she takes with the book.


The interesting thing about that, is that is demonstrates the collaborative process. You two worked as one mind, and you can’t even say who thought of the opening line.

CB: We have very little memory of that kind of, who owns what. It’s all blended together.


The book is dedicated to your teenage daughters, your “shipmates,” Alice and Claire. Were they supportive of the project? And a follow-up, are either of them aspiring writers?

JH: One of the reasons we dedicated the book to them was they lived through this with us. They lived with our distraction and obsession. Chris and I worked at the dining room table, in the center of the house. They would say, “ugh, they’re doing Melville,” that’s how they referred to it. They would be waiting for us to stop working, say to have brunch, so they tired of it for sure. They are now sixteen and eighteen. When we working on it during the pandemic, they were thirteen and fifteen. A tough time socially.

CB: It’s was like we had caught another illness, the Melville illness. The social stuff was important, and they were missing out on that. Neither of them have expressed interest so far in creative writing. They both enjoy writing, but neither has expressed an interest in fiction or poetry.


Last question. What else would you like to talk about, what would you like the readers of Miracle Monocle to know, about the book?

JH: Nothing specific about the book, but, Elizabeth Hardwick is a big part of this book. She’s from Kentucky. She spent her adult life in New York, but a lot of people probably don’t know that she is from Lexington, Kentucky.

CB: For us, when you set out to write a book, either independently or together, you set up your tent somewhere in a zone where there’s not going to be an answer, or the answer is going to be really hard to find. Because if the answer is too easy, you pick up and move your tent somewhere else, to where it’s more complicated. We thought about Melville a long time. We were interested in him as a case study of larger questions. He’s mysterious as a person. The issues about how well you can know someone in the historical record. The issues about is art worth it. Despite the great cost of art, is it worth it to the people around them? The thousands and millions of people who enjoy the work of art. Those are the questions. The book helped us formulate those questions. We didn’t get any closer to answering them. Which is fine. That’s not why we set out to write the book is to answer anything.

JOHN DAVID MORGAN is a graduate editor of Miracle Monocle.