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Author Talk: May 14, 2010

In this interview, Holly LeCraw discusses the slow evolution of her debut novel, THE SWIMMING POOL, and sheds light on the motivations behind her characters’ unlikely behavior. She also explains the initial reason for writing the narrative from several perspectives, reveals the book’s few autobiographical details, and talks a bit about her next work, tentatively titled THE SWEETNESS OF HONEY.

Question: So --- how did a nice Southern girl like you end up writing THE SWIMMING POOL? An affair, a murder, another affair…

Holly LeCraw: Oh, Lord. The plot was as much of a surprise to me as anyone.

Q: That really happens to writers, then? They don’t know what they’re going to write until they write it?

HL: Absolutely. To me, at least. I started off with a brother and sister, who became Jed and Callie. I knew the mother was dead, and I knew that Jed wanted to know who had killed her. At first I thought it was a short story. Then, one weekend, my wonderful husband took our kids down to the Cape to give me some peace, and after I had sat stunned in the silence for a while, I started playing around with those characters. I started asking questions --- so, where’s the dad? Hmm, I think he’s dead too. But something is amiss. Not another murder, but a complication…maybe he had an affair. How does that matter? And then Marcella came to me, and the whole thing just opened up.

That has happened to me before: a story seems fairly straightforward, and then some side character --- in this case, the mistress of the father of the protagonist --- comes along, and lets me look at it slant. The side character takes center stage, and suddenly the plot is much more layered.

Q: And then Jed and Marcella got together…

HL: I resisted that idea. I really did. The idea came to me and I just thought, no. I was shocked, shocked! But I quickly realized that was what had to happen. The skeleton of the book did come to me almost all of a piece, which was awesome, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. It’s like a puzzle, worked backwards: you’ve got these people and you know they are making some crazy bad choices, but they aren’t bad people, and so the task becomes to figure out not what they do, but why they’re doing what they’re doing. I am interested in plot per se, but I’m particularly interested in the emotional plot, in what leads people to make the choices they make. And from the beginning I was fascinated by the ripple effect of actions, particularly transgressive ones.

My husband has a great tag line for the book: there’s a lot of sin, a lot of punishment and, in the end, there’s redemption. I suppose that’s the plot of most books. You can’t have a plot without some sin, and, being from the Bible Belt, I couldn’t have sin without punishment --- although I certainly wasn’t thinking that way as I was writing. The “punishment” was entirely organic, cause-and-effect. And then, because I am a fundamentally optimistic person, there had to be redemption as well. But it’s not simple redemption. It’s quite fraught. The book ends with a bit of resolution, but the characters will be dealing with these circumstances for the rest of their lives.

Q: You seem pretty comfortable with plot.

HL: Well, you have to have one. At least I think you do. It’s one of the oldest questions in the world: “And then what happened?” It’s why there will always be stories, whatever forms they take.

But I began THE SWIMMING POOL thinking I was not good at plot at all. The very first short story I ever sent out was rejected because it was “short on event” (among other sins). I think that scarred me! And I like looking very closely at small moments --- moments that are enormous in terms of emotional plot, but maybe not, you know, action. So I was surprised to have all these twists pop up.

Also, for a long time I thought the big reveal was going to be that Marcella had had an affair with Cecil. When I realized that you actually needed to find that out early on in the book, I was just at a loss about where the tension was going to come from. So that is what the structure grew out of --- part of the tension comes from the past unfolding, not just the present.

Q: The book is written from several points of view. Was that a decision you made at the beginning? Was that difficult? Is it harder to write, say, from a male point of view?

HL: At first, the book was in Jed’s voice, in first person. But that was too limiting, so I switched to third person, and then Marcella became such a major character. I think I started writing from different points of view to understand the characters better. The plot of THE SWIMMING POOL is the product of the confluence of desires of several different people, and so it made sense to me to look at it from different angles.

As far as writing from a male point of view --- it’s definitely something I thought about. In the end, Jed, for instance, is a character who’s not me, just like Callie or Marcella. But I did think about the maleness. My first novel, which is now residing peacefully in a drawer, was from a male point of view, and that one didn’t work. One of my friends --- male, of course --- told me to remember that men are only really interested in two things: sex and status. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that --- but I’m just repeating what some man told me!

Q: So Jed is sex- and status-crazed?

HL: Well, I don’t think so. Obviously sex is a part of the book --- I mean, people are having these affairs! But I think it’s more Forsteresque. Only connect. The characters are craving connection, and not just of a sexual nature.

I also think Jed, in particular, cares about control. That’s not status per se, but perhaps it’s something more men care about. I was interested in the idea of control, and our fundamental lack of it, and it seemed like part of the plot from the beginning: one day, Jed has a mother, and then suddenly she’s dead. Was it random, or not? Either way, control is an illusion. How would he deal with this? It’s why he’s so stuck at the beginning of the book: he feels he has no control over his life. Then he makes a decision --- he’s leaving his job, he’s going to take care of Callie. And once he’s on Cape Cod the post-mortem struggle he’s having with his father, a classical Oedipal struggle, comes to the surface.

Marcella, in a way, is the obverse. She has relinquished all control. For her, waking up, recovering from her grief, means moving beyond the sense of powerlessness she’s felt all her life.

Q: Let’s just get this out of the way: how much of the book is autobiographical?

HL: In terms of the plot, nothing. Nada. Someone who had read the manuscript, but hadn’t met me in person, asked if I was tall, dark and Italian, and I was like, um, no, I’m short, blonde and Southern…and on other fronts, both my parents are alive and well, and I am happily married.

There are two ways, though, that I’ve used my own life. First, one of our children was a premie, like Callie’s (he is absolutely fine now, by the way), and after that birth I had postpartum depression. Mine wasn’t as dire as Callie’s, but it was quite real, and scary. I was very lucky that I got treatment right away, and while I didn’t include it in the book with any agenda, I am happy to talk about my experience. Even now, post-Brooke Shields and everything, PPD still isn’t taken seriously enough.

The other way it’s similar to my life is that I’m from Atlanta, and we vacation on Cape Cod. Other than that, it’s all “refracted autobiography,” as some wise writer who isn’t me first said. I think that was Forster too.

Q: Have you spent all your life going to Cape Cod? You seem to know it well.

HL: No, I only started going there after I met my Yankee husband --- which, gulp, was 20 years ago! So I guess I’ve just spent almost half my life going there. I must admit that is something I share with Marcella: when I started going to the Cape I just did not get the concept of the place at all. There are all these ancient houses with tiny windows and low ceilings --- built for winter, not summer --- and the water’s cold and sometimes the whole place is cold, even in summer, and it’s just not resort-y. Comfort is not a priority. I grew up going to the beach in South Carolina, which was very different. But I think it is often easier to analyze things from the outside. So hopefully I’ve captured the feel of the Cape. It’s become very special to me --- finally. I always feel that place is a crucially important character in any story.

Q: How long did it take to write THE SWIMMING POOL? And you mentioned a novel in a drawer --- what’s up with that? Would you dust it off for your next book?

HL: I honestly don’t know how long it took to write this book. Partly that’s because of the first book I wrote, which I eventually put aside. I worked on that one for eight or nine years (I kept stopping to have babies) and I got increasingly desperate about how long it was taking. I would set myself these impossible deadlines: it is going to be done at the end of year five. It’s going to be done by the end of the summer. By next spring. Etc. etc. Actually, they weren’t impossible deadlines, it’s just that the book was hopeless by that point. But I made a lot of extra stress for myself. When I started this one, I told myself I was only concentrating on the writing; it wasn’t going to be about proving anything to myself, or to anyone else, and it was going to take as long as it took. So, on purpose, I refused to notice what year it was.

That’s the long answer, and it’s true. The short answer is three or four years. I suppose I could go back to my journals and figure out precisely, but I don’t want to.

Q: Would you ever revisit these characters? Would you ever go back and say definitively what happened next --- after the end of THE SWIMMING POOL?

HL: Well, never say never. But I spent a long time with these characters, and I loved them thoroughly, and now I’m moving on. I have some new loves. But I feel like I left these characters in a really interesting place. I do know what I think happens. But I wanted the book to end, not inconclusively, but with the idea that doors were still open that could lead several different places. There is never a complete and total end to any story.

Q: Would you tell us what your idea of the real ending is?

HL: No.

Q: Oh, c’mon.

HL: The whole point is that “your” ending --- your idea of what happens next, after the last page --- is as real as mine. Once people start reading the book, they’re not just my characters anymore.

I had a great moment during the process of writing the book. I had presented a section to my writing group and everyone started arguing --- nicely --- about one of the characters and his motivation. I think it was Jed. Now, in a writing group, you’re always listening to feedback and criticism and deciding how you’re going to revise based on that feedback, and so I was taking notes and thinking, gee, this is all really contradictory, Jed must be a real mess --- but then, as this conversation was going on around me, I realized that people had different viewpoints not because the scene was badly written, but because Jed had become truly complex. His motivations made sense, but they weren’t simple straight lines, because no one’s are. He had become a real character. And I also realized that, hopefully, someday, people were going to read the book and I wasn’t going to be around to explain him.

I don’t want to overdo the your-book-is-your-child metaphor. But you do have to launch your book. You do have to send it out into the world, and wave goodbye, and hope for the best.

Q: And then begin your next book.

HL: Exactly.

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about it?

HL: Right now it’s called THE SWEETNESS OF HONEY. There are two half-brothers, and there is a good brother and a bad brother --- but of course the good one is not entirely good, and the bad one not entirely bad. They’re both teachers at a New England boarding school; and they fall in love with, shall we say, the wrong people.

Q: More?

HL: No, no more. I have to figure out the rest myself.

© Copyright 2010, Holly LeCraw. All rights reserved.

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