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Author Talk: July 12, 2012

THE UNDERWATER WINDOW by Dan Stephenson follows two best friends --- and rivals --- as they compete for the same gold medal in the Olympics. Archie may be the world’s greatest swimmer, but Doyle is rapidly approaching the end of his career with unfulfilled dreams of glory, and decides to give it one last shot in the 400 meter freestyle, which Archie holds the record for. In this interview, Stephenson talks about how he found time to write this novel, the incomparable sense of mental balance brought on by swimming, and the similarities between lawyers and swimmers.

Question: Why did you write a novel instead of a non-fiction book for swimmers?

Dan Stephenson: I started out thinking I’d write non-fiction. But while non-fiction has been done to death in swimming, the sport is really under-represented in literature and movies. As I started reflecting on the insights and experiences I’d accumulated over 40 years of swimming, it dawned on me that I might be able to put it all together into an interesting story. Once I started down that path, I became addicted to the creative side of storytelling, like molding characters and weaving plot lines. It was much more fun for me, and, I hope, more entertaining for readers, to say what I wanted to say in novel form.

Q: You practice law and you swim. Where did you find the time to write a novel?

DS: Well, it took almost five years. I was working lawyer hours the whole time, so I wrote on airplanes, in airports and hotel rooms, during nights and weekends.

When I’d finish a chapter, my wife Tracey would read it and say, “give me another chapter.” As we were recent empty-nesters when I started writing and the characters are about the same ages as our kids, Tracey and I adopted them as surrogate children. My real kids and kids-in-law got involved, and it became a longstanding family project.

Q: Do lawyers and swimmers have anything in common?

DS: Being a courtroom lawyer is a lot like being a swimmer. When a new case comes in, you’re about two years away from going to trial and a ton of hard work has to be done every day until that trial. Like swimming, it’s all about preparation and it all has to be done with an end in mind --- winning at trial. And when you’re in court, in front of a jury or a judge, the adrenaline flow is just like when you’re standing on the starting blocks.

Q: Would your family and friends see any similarities between you and Doyle?

DS: Yes, but only because we both wear glasses. Doyle is a better swimmer than I am. On the other hand, Doyle is a bit of a fumbler when it comes to women, whereas I’m totally suave.

Q: Were you ever tempted to base a character on a swimmer we would all recognize?

DS: People are naturally going to compare Archie to Michael Phelps, but before Michael there was Mark Spitz, and in between were some of my contemporaries who were Archie-like: Brian Goodell, John Naber, Rowdy Gaines, Tracy Caulkins. Archie’s accomplishments are not my invention, that’s true --- all these people were on a par with him there --- but his personality is entirely fictional.

Q: What about your own swimming career --- why are you still swimming?

DS: I rest my case on THE UNDERWATER WINDOW. The physical benefits are pretty obvious, but there’s a mental thing about the sport that draws you in and keeps you going. At my age, I love the fact that I can set and achieve goals, challenge myself, win and lose, that I have teammates and nemeses. It gives me something to talk about.

Q: Do you ever find yourself at meets competing against swimmers who were your rivals over 30 years ago?

DS: Absolutely. I’ve been competing against him Jim Montgomery off and on for 27 years. Jim was the first person to break 50 seconds in the 100-meter freestyle and won three gold medals at the 1976 Olympics. We’ve been racing against each other in Masters meets for 25 years and we both competed in the 2012 Masters World Championships in Italy.

Q: What’s your current training schedule?

DS: I swim with the Rose Bowl Masters team at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center in Pasadena and train five or six days a week. I’m at the pool by 5:30 in the morning and swim for about an hour and a quarter. My coach is Chad Durieux, who is 23 years younger than me. We have a great team of older and younger swimmers.

Q: Is it ever too late for someone to take up swimming?

DS: There’s a swimmer on the Rose Bowl team named Mo (short for Maurine), who is 90 years old. She works out, swims in meets, is a national champion and soon to be world champion --- if she can beat her nemesis, that is. Mo inspires everyone on the team.

Q: Will non-swimmers enjoy THE UNDERWATER WINDOW?

DS: Yes! One of the reasons I wrote the book was to help non-swimmers better understand the sport. I was inspired by the book A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT by Norman MacLean (the movie based on the book starred Brad Pitt and Craig Scheffer). That story is set in the world of Montana fly fishing and focuses on the relationship --- and talent disparity --- between two brothers. It’s a great story even if you know nothing about fly fishing and by the time you finish it, you have a much greater appreciation for the sport. That’s what I was aiming for. The basic story of THE UNDERWATER WINDOW includes friendship, rivalry, love, and self-discovery, all of which stand on their own, with or without swimming. The world of swimming adds a unique color and dimension.