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Interview: September 9, 2005

September 9, 2005

Award-winning journalist and short story writer Jim Lynch talked to's Carol Fitzgerald and Joni Rendon about his debut novel, THE HIGHEST TIDE. In this interview they discuss Lynch's profound respect for oceanographer and author Rachel Carson, and how living close to the water has fueled both his imagination and his fascination with ocean life. He also reflects on the similarities and differences between himself and his young protagonist, as well as the shifts in perspective one's coming of age will evoke. After years of being a journalist and a short story writer, what made you decide to write a novel --- and what was your inspiration for THE HIGHEST TIDE?

Jim Lynch: Writing novels has been my ambition since my late teens. The inspiration for TIDE came to me when a rare deep sea fish washed up on a beach near my house on the outskirts of Olympia. It intrigued me that marine biologists were puzzling over how such a deep ocean fish wound up in our shallow bays. And that's when it hit me that just about anything that swims or floats in the Pacific could wind its way to our quiet waters. The next revelation was learning that kids often make the exotic discoveries.

BRC: You evoke the infinite variety and exquisite mysteries of marine life --- even down to the floating plankton --- with a contagious intensity and tenderness. What inspired your fascination with this underwater world? Did you ever consider becoming a marine biologist in lieu of being a journalist and writer?

JL: I've been lucky to live near a Puget Sound beach for the past seven years, and during that time my fascination has snowballed. The more you learn about the tidal critters, the more variety of life you witness, the richer it gets. And part of what I set out to do is to capture that powerful humbling feeling that comes over most people while walking along an ocean or a tidal flat.

And no, I never considered being a biologist. However, researching and writing this novel helped me understand why wildlife and marine biologists tend to look so serene.

BRC: The book's rather unusual thirteen-year-old protagonist, Miles, is a vertically challenged, Rachel Carson-quoting insomniac who's as naive on the subject of love as he is knowledgeable about nature and the landscape around him. Clearly, you both share an enormous reverence for the sea, but do you possess other similarities as well?

JL: Miles isn't based on me as a child. I shared some of his insecurities and curiosities about sex. And I too felt that the world was stunningly in focus at that point in my life. But Miles is far more observant and independent than I was. And his parents, friends and circumstances were nothing like mine.

BRC: Miles sees things in the natural world that most people don't take the time to notice, and as a result, he makes some unusual discoveries that help others see things in a completely new way. Do you think all young adults have something to teach us if we made more of an effort to pay attention?

JL: No, I don't think all kids have something to teach us. But I think the wisdom of many children is routinely overlooked, even by their own parents. If a child is bright and insightful, adults usually get excited about their potential --- not what they offer right NOW. The problem, to paraphrase Rachel Carson, is that the clear and refreshing vision of a child is often lost by adulthood. Or, as Miles puts it, it's easier for children to pay attention because they aren't in a hurry and their minds aren't cluttered with to-do lists and other distractions.

BRC: Clearly you admire Rachel Carson's work. When did you first read her and was there always a plan to have her writing this prominent in THE HIGHEST TIDE?

JL: I, like most people, knew Rachel Carson only for SILENT SPRING. I didn't realize she was originally and principally a brilliant oceanographer who had written three bestsellers about the ocean and sea life. I didn't know how beautiful and powerful her writing is. I discovered all that during my research for TIDE. One of the biggest breakthroughs for me was when I decided to pass my obsession with her to Miles. At first, I feared it would feel implausible on the page. But the more I learned about Rachel and her reverence for a child's sense of wonder, the more sense it made.

BRC: In the book, the sea and tides are metaphors for many elements of the human experience, such as the cycle of life from birth to death and the transformations that take place along the way. Did you set out to do this as you began your writing or did this theme emerge?

JL: The story came first. I saw the assorted metaphorical potential early on, but my goals were story-oriented. I focused on the dueling narrative crescendos of the emotional and ecological elements of the story. And I focused on narrative momentum. As for the metaphors, it was my goal to make them come naturally out of the story, and never force or overwrite them.

BRC: The novel draws a parallel between the ocean's ecosystem, wherein every organism is dependent upon another, and the human world, where relationships are equally symbiotic. Each of the book's characters draws sustenance from others in physical, mental or emotional forms. What are some of the ways you've drawn strength from the relationships in your own life? Did any of your personal relationships influence your writing?

JL: I am very close to my family and friends, so it only makes sense to me to create a community of mutual reliance. As for my personal relationships, there are some similarities with Miles's. I fell for and married a woman seven years older than me, and I had an unusually close relationship with my wise old grandmother.

BRC: The characters in the book are a vividly rendered study in contrasts: Miles's best friend is an elderly housebound woman, his first love is a girl five years his senior, and his own parents are as indifferent as he is impassioned. What can we learn from these relationships between starkly contrasting individuals?

JL: The contrasting characters grew out of the material without much premeditation other than that the whole book and all of its characters were designed to accent and showcase Miles's gifts and vulnerabilities.

BRC: THE HIGHEST TIDE takes place during one summer. Did writing a book that focuses on a short time period place any constraints on you? Or was it easier to make a transition from short fiction to novels working like this?

JL: For some reason, I always find myself writing about the summer, whether it's short or long fiction. Perhaps it's because the summer is so short and precious in the Northwest so everything feels magnified. But with this story, I wanted to contain it to a summer because at Miles's age, summers can be fully contained odysseys. So that was my goal, a momentous and tumultuous summer in which a boy comes to understand some big things about himself, people and, perhaps, the universe.

BRC: There are references to Miles being short throughout the book and then at the end he begins to grow. Is there a metaphor here?

JL: Sure, it works as a metaphor about Miles exiting childhood, but I see that as secondary to the fundamental narrative development that little Miles O'Malley, whom you've spent the prior 240 pages with, has slipped away.

BRC: Miles's elderly best friend Florence, who suffers from a degenerative disease, puts him in a difficult position by asking him to keep quiet about her deteriorating condition so she can avoid the nursing home. What served as the inspiration for this unique bond between a young boy and an old woman?

JL: My father-in-law came to live with us during the final years of his life. He had a spiraling Parkinson's condition similar to Florence's, which gave me insights into how some people would cope with it. Miles is so close to her, in part because she is the one person who sees his gifts. That fact alone fosters his loyalty to care for her as best he can.

BRC: Instead of being interested in girls his own age, Miles harbors an intense crush on his troubled former baby-sitter, Angie. Why did you choose to write about unrequited love?

JL: Unrequited love and obsessive infatuation is more interesting and more realistic to me than any story of lovey-dovey teenage bliss. When it comes to fiction, I prefer irrational love, and love against the odds.

BRC: Miles seems to be a product of his environment, such as the surrounding bay and the influences of his adult friends rather than a product of his parents, who are victims of their own inertia. Are there any conclusions we can draw from this, and did you consciously set out to explore the issue of nature vs. nurture in writing the novel?

JL: I didn't consciously set up a nature versus nurture exercise. I wanted Miles to be so immersed in the natural world that he almost didn't need friends or family. I wanted it to almost sustain him with its surprises and mysteries. But as the story shows, it can only do so much. He still needs his parents, on some level, even if they're inert and oblivious to the magic around them.

BRC: The sea seems to speak to Miles, and at one point he says, almost without thinking, that "Maybe the earth is trying to tell us something" by using the sea as a mouthpiece. Are environmental issues a subject you're passionate about and how can we tune into the messages that our planet may be trying to convey?

JL: I have a reverence for saltwater and dense forests, but I'm not an environmental activist. And I don't have an agenda beyond basically what Rachel Carson espoused --- that we need to pay attention, that too many of us go through life "unseeing." The more we pay attention and the more we learn about the world around us, the less likely we are to harm it.

BRC: Despite his young age, Miles is wiser than his years, and as he sagely observes, "People usually take decades to sort out their view of the universe, if they bother to sort at all." What does your own view of the universe --- and our place in it --- look like and how has it evolved over time, particularly as you wrote the novel?

JL: Good question, but I am going to duck it. I'm still sorting out my view of the universe and would rather not try to clumsily paraphrase it here.

BRC: What authors, besides Rachel Carson, have inspired you?

JL: Ken Kesey, Albert Camus, Kent Haruf, Louise Erdrich, Robert Penn Warren, Joan Didion, Ian McEwan, Michael Cunningham, Charles Baxter, Ward Just, James Cain, Robert Olen Butler, Jess Walter, Alan Lightman, etc.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?

JL: I'm working on a novel set in western Washington along the U.S.-Canadian border, where the two countries are often divided by nothing more than a drainage ditch. I'm not far enough into it to predict when it will be ready, but I like what I've written so far.