A Conversation with Joanna Hershon
Nicholas Delbanco is the Robert Frost Collegiate Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. He directs the Hopwood Awards Program and the MFA Program in Creative Writing there. The author of twenty books of fiction and nonfiction, his most recent novel is called What Remains, and his most recent book of nonfiction is The Countess of Stanlein Restored.
Nicholas Delbanco: Where did the idea for this novel first arise, and can you talk a bit about the process of composition?
Joanna Hershon: The beginning of the process, as far as I can remember, began in two ways: one rather practical, and the other more mysterious. Firstly, the practical: by the time I was in my early twenties I'd written a slew of short stories and poetry and two plays, and up until that point, with most of the pieces I'd written--even if I didn't feel they ultimately worked, which was usually the case-- I thought I'd learned something and I moved on. When I began thinking about writing a novel, I was struck by a story and a short play I'd written and how both of those pieces, which on the surface were unrelated, didn't feel finished and, more importantly, still compelled me. I sat with the two pieces and thought hard about them, figuring out what they had in common, and I began very quickly to have an idea for a novel, an idea that took on a life of its own.
The more mysterious and no less important beginning of this process was an image I'd had for a long time--I can't remember how long. The image was that of a pond in the middle of the night and a young man swimming alone, across the pond and back, the night before something big--something important and dark--was about to happen. There was this feeling that accompanied the image: a heavy foreboding, some kind of hubris, and a story began developing from there.
ND: Did you have a model in mind for this book? Was it improvised in terms of structure? Did it always, for example, move chronologically?
JH: The development of Swimming did, in fact, unfold chronologically. Sometimes the writing was so dependent on the order of events that it was almost frustrating for me. For instance, when I was about midway through the novel, a fiction workshop teacher advised me to write some scenes from late in the novel when Lila and Aaron meet in Ann Arbor--just to get a sense for myself of how it would go. I found that I could not experience the scenes before my characters were ready, so to speak. They weren't there yet, and in consequence neither was I.
While these and many other aspects of creating Swimming felt difficult, I found that--especially once I had faith in the structural possibility--my characters were able to truly emerge. At the same time, as I suppose is always the case, I came to believe in the structural possibility only as my characters became strong enough to sustain it. I wrote the whole novel in a linear fashion. Try as I may, I am never able to write scenes from further in a book than where my characters have progressed, even if I know where they need to end up. I loved writing the characters in this book, getting to know their many flaws, and having compassion for everybody's myriad mistakes. I think the brief years between being a teenager and being twenty-something is a really interesting time, a time when (depending, of course, on where, in what part of society, etc.) there seems to be a window of opportunity before true adulthood kicks in. That window closes abruptly on Aaron and Suzanne because of the tragedy that occurs, and I enjoyed catching up with them in their early thirties, seeing just how much can happen in ten years, and how what happened defines both of their lives in very different ways.
ND: Is there any conscious echo of the Cain and Abel story here, or of Suzanne as a mythic temptress and destroyer of men (her last name is, after all, Wolfe); you're writing of primal experience, death and rebirth--the pond with which the tale begins, the lake at which it ends. I think of Conrad's famous phrase, "In the destructive element immerse" and wonder how much of Swimming was engendered by that image of the dark water itself.
JH: I certainly didn't set out to write an interpretation of Cain and Abel, but I was very aware as I created this story that I was investigating prototypes--the good brother and bad brother, the vixen, the love triangle-- and I was and still am very interested in finding the details within prototypes, and how a person's self-perception is often different than the roles they're subtly or not-so-subtly assigned by their family or society. I think I gravitate equally toward the extremes of Greek drama as well as toward the painstaking realism of Chekhov. I'm constantly struggling with a balance of light and dark, where to pull back and where to let loose while creating drama. And, yes, the visual image of the dark and murky pond played a large role in the genesis of this story. The water is so much weightier and greater than any individual story, and that primordial image pervaded my imagination and gave ballast to the rising conflicts among the characters.
ND: In many ways this book is about shape-shifters, false identity, actors playing parts. Can you be specific about the way your experience of theatre, both as an actress and a playwright, structured scenes and themes? Did you hear the dialogue, for instance? Do you imagine how your characters might move as if onstage?
JH: I get very involved with my characters, experiencing them in a way that feels very similar to acting, which I did for many years and I think definitely affects the way I approach a story. I know I inhabit my characters as if I were approaching them as characters to a play, and I definitely hear dialogue and envision scenes in terms of choreography. When writing a scene I tend to find myself thinking: what does this character want? I always return back to motivation and how, specifically, one character as opposed to another character tries to achieve their desires. What are people's little tricks? Where is someone's confidence and where is his or her insecurity? Are they ever one and the same and do they ever really alter? I'm also interested in expressing how people perceive themselves as opposed to the way others perceive them, and how the gap between intention and action can be so much greater than any individual can see at any given time.
The book is, I agree, very much about shape-shifters. I think the youth of the characters has a great deal to do with how prominently role-playing figures into the story's progression. All of these characters at one point or another are seeing who they are, or, perhaps more accurately, who they might or might not like to become. Writing allows us to manage time, to slow life down or speed it up. We can see the seed of conflict growing, and no matter how large or small the particular conflict is, it's exciting to trace the steps and examine how we get there, how and why a moment can explode. . . .
ND: Talk a bit about your sympathy for these not-always sympathetic characters. Do you approve of Jeb's aloofness, for example, or Suzanne's attempted seduc-tion of Jack--or does the question of "approval" even enter in? The one character in Swimming who seems to have all the right instincts is Ben, and is the fact that he's a foreigner germane? Are you commenting in any way on the drug and dropout culture here, or is it simply the surrounding circumstances--the landscape through which these people move?
JH: I can't say that my approval or disapproval of characters enters explicitly into my writing. I try to approach writing characters by being them, and it's the rare person who truly thinks he's a bad guy, and most people think they have great taste. If I can find a character's motivation then I can find his or her humanity, and I think this is where the most interesting conflicts arise: both in a person's capacity for kindness and their underbelly of ugliness and shame. People's vulnerabilities are often at odds, laying a fertile ground for humiliation.
As for Ben having all the right instincts and being a foreigner, I didn't decide on his nationality with any symbolic logic. I do think, however, he represents pure hope for Lila, and I wanted him to be as foreign to her reality as possible while at the same time being quite comforting. Ben was a character who arrived on the page fully formed. I think of him as a gift.
How the drug and dropout culture played a part in this family's life was something I started out the novel being quite aware of, but as I began to get further into the story, the precariousness of any family regardless of time or lifestyle took over as a concern. I did want to evoke enough of a careless feeling in the family to inspire a vague panic, and Jeb's smoky emotional and actual absence from the household served to usher in some instability. Any tragedy provokes an examination of what could have happened differently. The Wheelers' literal and emotional landscape happened to have been born of a certain renegade sensibility in which both beauty and disillusionment figure greatly. I think, however, the same can be said about nostalgia of any kind--not just the late-sixties variety.
ND: In some ways this novel borrows from the tradition of the Bildungsroman--a tale of "growing up." Lila at story's end has put her past behind her and is facing forward, driving west. What has she learned about the past that permits her ghosts to rest?
JH: Part Two is indeed a coming-of-age tale, and Lila is able to grow up and move on when she not only understands but also experiences the characters of her past as not merely characters or ghosts, but as human beings, ultimately very fallible.
ND: This is the kind of "thriller" in which we know what happens early on, and the real mystery involves the working out of a solution--how Lila's mission will end. Were you ever tempted to render this a more conventional mystery or, in technical terms, stick to a single witness and limited point of view? Because you move from character to character, the reader gains an overview and a kind of collective perspective. Did you have this in mind from the start?
JH: My instinct was to have the most action-packed, pivotal drama of the book happen quite early on because I've always been interested in the suspense of not necessarily the event and what happened but what it meant to the characters involved. I wanted the reader to care about the people involved enough to follow the survivors of the main event, and enough to go beyond the action and into the reaction.
There were many voices along the way that encouraged me to make Swimming more of a traditional mystery, employing more conventional suspense (what happened on that fateful night?) and I did try to do it that way. Eventually, however, I realized it wasn't the book I wanted or needed to write. I wanted the readers to directly experience all the prurience and violence of the main event but to have the innocent one, Lila, not experience it directly but be haunted by its aftermath. My challenge was whether or not readers would care enough about Lila, identify with her so much that they'd be willing to go on another journey--her journey. Ultimately, this book was always supposed to be her journey and I wanted readers to go wherever Lila took them. I tried many different ways of telling the story, but it wasn't until my last semester in graduate school (a year and a half after starting the book) that I actually believed I could tell the story the way I'd originally intended and that all I'd written thus far (basically Part One and initial stabs at Part Two) wasn't going to have to be scrapped.
I had a difficult time with perspective: who has what information? Whose minds do I allow the readers into in order to tell the story in the best and most interesting way? How do I sculpt and shape the story? I sacrificed all kinds of interesting characters and smaller story lines in order to serve the narrative better, and that was always difficult to do--to find what was essential and extract it from what dragged the book down. The collective perspective was always intended. In fact, I began with additional points of view in Part One, but eventually reduced them to those of Aaron and Suzanne.
ND: Swimming has very particularized geography. The book divides itself almost equally between New Hampshire, New York, and Ann Arbor. Beyond the accident of prior personal familiarity with these places--and their usefulness as contrasting locales--is there anything specific these three settings represent?
JH: In terms of the novel's geographies, each place comprises its own little universe with its own set of rules. Part One in New Hampshire is, or so I hope, rather timeless and elemental within the surroundings of the path, the woods, the pond. New York, by contrast, is certainly all about the moment, specifically the possibilities inherent in every moment of being among so many people from countless different places. New York is a Pandora's box of stories. To choose to live there, at least for Lila, is to lift the lid.
ND: New York has many millions of citizens and Ann Arbor more than a hundred thousand; Lila's quest leads her unerringly, however, to Suzanne and Aaron (as David Silver). In what way does Pria's sense that this is fate and not coincidence mirror your own? Do you have, I mean, a personal conviction that "things are maybe more connected than we can ever know," as Pria puts it on pg. 223?
JH: I do not have a personal conviction, as Pria does, that everything is tied together and that paths are ultimately preordained. But I certainly do believe in the mysterious, and I have experienced enough of it to want to dramatize life without the constraints of "what are the odds?" Lila enters an ever-increasing, heightened state of awareness, and I do believe that this nearly feverish take on reality can tend to blur what one should or shouldn't do. Sometimes this behavior or energy can invite some strange circumstances indeed. As a writer, however, I am in no such feverish state, and I could have chosen to make Lila's search for her brother "more realistic." But I wasn't really interested in doing so.
As a writer, the crafting of the book was like solving a mystery, figuring out for myself how to make the missing years--the years that the readers don't witness--show up in the characters. Pria is a character that brings to mind both that kind of profound yet subtle change over time; the experience of writing her character very directly informed the plot. I originally needed a way to get Aaron, Suzanne, and Jack out of the house, and I thought Pria would simply be a minor figure hosting a party, but then I wrote a chapter through her point of view. I thought it would be interesting and helpful to step outside of the Aaron-Suzanne-Jack triangle and get an outsider's perspective, and when I did, a whole world opened up to me. Pria became an integral part of the story. She became not only another woman for Lila to seek and find and (as she can't help but do) compare to Suzanne, but also, very importantly, Pria be-came a character who embodies the capacity for change and redemption (no matter how small, and even a little bit comical), which is, I think, an important aspect of the tale.
ND: What, if anything, would you change in this book?
JH: I don't know that I would change much about Swimming. I see the book as an old friend--a friend from whom I might have grown somewhat apart and with whom I may not always agree all the time, but whom I value for their individuality.