It’s the New Year (with all good wishes to TNB readers), so let’s talk about fresh starts. When and where did you begin writing Night Swim, your debut novel? What were the circumstances?
Geographically, I was living in Atlanta, GA. Chronologically, it was early 1990s. Developmentally—and that’s really the point of your question—I was at a breaking point. My husband and I were shifting things in our life—feeling restless, unable to get pregnant, renovating our house, trying to adopt a baby, trying to change something essential that we couldn’t quite articulate. We had tried for five or so years to get pregnant and it wasn’t happening. Adopting seemed even more impossible. My first novel (Body Chemistry) hadn’t sold—a devastating disappointment. I was battling invisible viruses of depression and failure. I think renovating the house was my way of trying to gain control of uncontrollable feelings, my way of attacking chaos and feelings of inadequacy as a writer and un-pregnant woman.
In other words, you were losing a sense of your life’s direction?
I didn’t think of it that way. I only knew I was feeling wild inside, wanting to pull down barriers I couldn’t see. By renovating my house, I could hire other people to knock down walls for me, rearrange my living space for me, and do it in a defined measure of time. If I could do that, and succeed, maybe I could bust open those other areas in my life that felt locked in. So, after nine months of weird, dusty smells, constant machine noises, and construction workers tromping through every room (like people in a bad dream) the rebuilding ended, or phase one of it anyway. Fatigued, disoriented from lack of routine, and desperate for silence, my husband and I escaped to Budapest for a two-week vacation. When we returned, there was a message on our phone machine from a priest asking if we were still interested in adopting. One of his parishioners knew a pregnant young woman seeking parents to adopt her baby.
Whoa. Knocking down those walls actually opened a door to becoming a mother, exactly as you hoped. Kind of supernatural, don’t you think?
That’s how it felt. Getting this call, and I’ll get to the details in a minute, was otherworldly. Unbelievable. The timing was pitch perfect. Several months earlier, my husband started sending out a letter we had written to Episcopalian priests expressing our desire to adopt. I was sure, convinced, resolute that such an unorthodox method wouldn’t work, but my husband had met a man who had done this very same thing and it had worked. So, every day, my husband mailed three more letters, until he’d sent 100 letters to 100 Episcopalian priests throughout the Southeast region. To my astonishment, we got many letters back wishing us well, sending prayers. Out of the 100 letters, only one priest wrote to say he was sure this method wouldn’t work. He said it with such authority, it angered me. Who was he to predict this? Of those 100 letters, we also got one phone call from a lovely priest who had studied music in Boston, where I grew up. This priest told me he rarely came across a situation like the one we were hoping for, but would keep us in his prayers, etc. This same, lovely priest called us again a few months later and left that life-altering message about his parishioner. The wonderment of such a call, it’s hard to explain —fate, randomness, destiny? Beam of starlight from a distant solar system? Pin-sized, powerful, focused light shining through our brand new, living room windows? A few months later, our son was born. We drove six hours to Florida to get him, and when I returned home, a new mother, I started writing what would eventually become Night Swim.
Out of chaos, G-d created…a new house, a new son, and a new novel—more of that eerie synchronicity.
Indeed. I didn’t understand this at the time, but holding our son in my arms, the transformative power of that event—that was the culminating agent that initiated a long chain reaction that trailed back to my childhood and opened up a channel for Night Swim. Adopting a child, becoming a parent, gave me a vastly different perspective on my childhood, one that I needed to write this novel. For Night Swim is very much about family, and the loss of a parent, and how children deal with tragedy and grief. Parenting is something you must choose. It doesn’t just happen to you. Also, and I’ve written about this in a few places, one of my best friends lost her mother to suicide when we were teenagers. This suicide sparked deep, sad feelings I had toward my own mother, feelings that had haunted me for years. All of these things converged.
You also grew up in an upper middle class suburb with live-in, black maids just like the Kunitz family in Night Swim. Clearly, this novel is autobiographical, right?
Sure. To a point. I harvested personal experiences to create something outside of my personal experience. I can list lots of similarities between the Kunitz family and my own family (wealthy suburb, country club life, socialite mother, 1960s childhood), but the two families separate and become distinctly different at a juncture that encompasses crossroads of personal understanding, detachment, and clarity. That important juncture allowed the dynamics of my fictional family to detach from my “real” family and move ahead on its own and necessary direction. It took me years to get there because I had to first wrestle and untangle the two families within the safe regions of my unconscious. The word “safe” is key here. I had to feel psychologically safe from the dangers these emotions from my own family evoked in me—emotions that involved a distant parent, and a parent whose temper was out of control. I had to overcome guilt, shame, fear—fear’s the big one for me—a childhood tangle of confusion—all wrapped in desires for love, compassion and forgiveness. I’m a huge believer in trusting your unconscious and allowing it to direct your story. For me, this process took years.
Many writers figure these things out much faster. They go right at the muck and don’t get stuck. What takes you so long?
I’ve stopped judging myself for this. I’ve simply come to accept this. I’m in my fifties now. I’m clearly not going to be a writer who churns out dozens of novels in my lifetime. Actually, I never aspired to that. But, I also got stuck in sinkholes of insecurity, doubt, terrible attacks of personal failure and despair. Those were difficult phases in my life. I allowed my despair to take over and paralyze me for months at a time, even years. Every writer confronts this possibility. I succumbed to it. If you’re a writer reading this, don’t do it for long. Don’t allow yourself to swim in those sinkholes for as long as I did. At the same time, I’m more understanding about my earlier attraction to darkness, the desire to swirl and lose direction, to dance with darkness because somewhere I believed that a greater understanding of the unwanted muck of life would lead to a greater understanding of its opposite—light. Playing with these extremes, experiencing them as a child, as an adult—knowing them—would lead to knowing something more about humanity and, from there, a chance to write about what is true.
Could you say a little more about your main character—Sarah Kunitz’s upbringing? In particular, the maids, the money?
Like Sarah, I grew up with black, live-in maids in our house. I don’t talk about this much because it sparks instant judgment. But I never liked it. The story of the Kunitz family allowed me to address this way of living in a more personal, intimate way. I wanted to get behind the mask of money. Money fools people in so many ways. How we perceive money and how we relate to it is pretty complicated, but it doesn’t make up for the tragic loss of a parent or the need to be loved.
How has your perception of yourself as a writer changed from when you started at nineteen?
I no longer have a perception of myself as a writer. I just write. At nineteen, my idea of myself as a writer changed week to week. I was holed up in my attic bedroom (in a nice house in a toney Boston suburb) reading twelve hours a day, and becoming whatever writer I was reading—Blake, Dickinson, Conrad, Joyce, Elliot, Genet, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Austen, O’Connor, McCullers, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Sexton, Dickinson, Rilke, Plath, Donne, Shakespeare, and so many more. Did the writer wear black? I wore black. Did the writer drink? I drank. Did the writer smoke? I smoked. Did the writer feel paranoid? I felt paranoid. You get the picture.
Any other question you want to ask before you and I end this session?
Yes. I’d love to ask readers this: How do you climb out of your emotional sinkholes, or avoid them? What helps you overcome self-doubts? Do you believe, as I do, that some self-doubt must remain in our system as an agent provocateur to gain greater vision? I’m also giving away 5 free copies of Night Swim. Email me and I’ll enter your name in a drawing. My son (yes, that son) will pick 5 winners on January 10, 2012.