"Of course I'm not a prostitute": Laura Kasischke and Yannick Murphy on first-person, genre fiction and parenthood

Just how close to the material does an author have to get?

Published August 6, 2014 10:58PM (EDT)

Laura Kasischke, Yannick Murphy       (HarperCollins/Patrice Normand/Paige Hiller)
Laura Kasischke, Yannick Murphy (HarperCollins/Patrice Normand/Paige Hiller)

Laura Kasischke:  Yannick, I’m so happy to have this chance to have an exchange with you.  "This Is the Water" is one of the most breathless novels I’ve ever read.  It charges forward like the racing swimmers that form its core.  Many prose writers are called "stylists’"when, in my opinion, they really just have a peculiar voice.  But your prose style — the present tense, second person, the omniscience blended into the almost hypnotic refrain first occurring in the title:  "This Is the Water" — is artfully perfect for the plot that unfolds.  Did this style occur to you along with the subject, or did the subject inform the style?  Did you write this novel as quickly and feverishly as it reads, or was that effect achieved through the most careful of crafting?

Yannick Murphy: Thank you! With this novel, I wanted the water to seem like it had a personality, and to have an actual role in the narrative’s unfolding.  The more I thought about this, the more the sentence formed in my head “This is the water.”  I knew it was the sentence I had to begin with, and then what followed seemed like a logical progression where everything that Annie observed was presented in this way.  Annie has to deal with a lot of different circumstances affecting her emotions throughout the book, and her stating what she sees using the second person is a way for her to stand back from these upheavals. The lives of the other characters, though, were just as important to me as Annie’s, so this blended technique you’re referring to is what I used to give them all a chance to weigh in on the story, and you, the reader, to get to know them and see things through their points of view, as well. The first draft of "This Is the Water" came very quickly and felt pretty effortless; it’s the revising that’s slower and more arduous, especially after receiving comments from my agent and then editor!  I’m curious in your new book, "Mind of Winter," it seems that your profound and eerie ending came from a merging of beads, and tidbits of information that we learn about this mother and her adopted daughter, was the story written breathlessly for you?  Were you part of the discovery process as well, and didn’t know how it would end until you wrote it?

Strangely, I knew the whole novel, whole, before I started writing it.  I’d been working for a year or so on another novel, the plot of which I was figuring out (or not figuring out) as I went along.  That novel was driving me crazy.  Then, I woke up one morning with the title, the characters, the beginning-middle-end of "Mind of Winter," and started writing.  Like my protagonist, I kept getting interrupted as I tried to write it.  The only other novel I’ve written that happened for me like that was the first, although I knew the end of "White Bird in a Blizzard" because it was based on a true story.  Usually I am very much working with the “discovery process,” but this was such a relief after spending so long on a discovery process (the other novel) that never resulted in a discovery … I did notice, however, that in "This Is the Water" you incorporated, and to such great ends, so many types of novels in this one.  This novel is a thriller, a novel of suspense, a domestic drama, a social satire and a murder mystery with some steamy romance tossed in.  Do all of these literatures form your influence?  What are the novels that you read for pleasure, and what are the novels that have had a lasting impact on your work?  Are they the same?

I’m delighted to think that it may contain all of these genres, which I hadn’t really thought of!  I don’t think in terms of writing within a particular genre, I simply concentrate on writing well and providing enough tension about what’s going to happen to the main character so that the reader is compelled to keep reading.  I usually think of the main character going on a journey, and they don’t know what they’ll find along the way; I want the reader to also feel as if they’ve never been on this kind of journey before, but that it’s an important one, that it feels true.  In my own reading, I don’t limit myself to genres, either.  If I find a book that is well written, where the author has obviously made the effort to present their world to me in a way that feels surprising or different, then I’m with them all the way.  Writers whose writing I shake my head at in wonder, and wish I were as good as they are, include Cormac McCarthy, Lorrie Moore and Flannery O’Connor.  I love their use of language.  I learned that each time a sentence falls to the page, it should be an amazement, but while writing novels, I find it hard to constantly keep that at the forefront of my thinking, and sometimes the need to just show someone walking across the room makes me turn out plain sentences, devoid of anything remotely resembling attention to the rhythms of language.  Do you ever experience that?  How do you fight against it?  Does your sensibility as a poet help you in this regard?

Similar to your short story writing lesson, I was told, with a poem, every line should be its own poem.  I also hate the flat sentences that are often necessary to move a character from one end of the room to the other.  I try to stay with the sensory at all times, however, and to use sensual experience to convey psychological states.  So, if the carpet is shag and the character is barefoot you have a nice opportunity to convey through physical experience that your character crossing the room is creeped out by the room — or at least that’s what I try to do.  When I veer away from the sensory detail the writing, for me, feels like the proverbial pulling of teeth. 

Do you think your writing is more vivid if you’re close to the material you’re writing?  I know this is a personal question, but I’m curious, you’ve written so convincingly of swimmers, and of children’s athletics, and the experiences of their parents, that I feel I have to know about your life as a mother.  As a “track & field” mother, I recognized so much of the ritual, the anxiety, the social interactions — and, more than just finding your details familiar, these details made me see the strangeness of so much I’ve taken for granted (which is, by the way, the greatest gift fiction can give us IMHO) — and I felt certain that only a woman with firsthand knowledge of that culture could have written this novel.  Am I wrong?  Would you mind saying a little about your family life?

I am a swim team parent.  Am I like the mothers in my book?  Sometimes, yes, I think so.  I can be a hot mess when my daughters swim.  Sometimes I can’t even watch the start of their races for fear they’ll disqualify and wobble up on the blocks before diving in or not do a two hand touch at the wall.  The other day my daughter was doing a 400 meter race and she miscounted her laps and stopped early, after only 300 meters!  My heart, it stopped.  Then she realized everyone was continuing the race and so she pushed off the wall and went like a bat out of hell and made up the distance.  So much disappointment and elation in a mere matter of minutes is murder.  The life of a swim team parent can have huge stretches of boredom where you’re waiting all day for your child’s turn to come up, mixed with mere seconds of excitement and terror when your child is in the water and racing.  I guess being a firsthand participant in this world has helped me write the book.  I get to turn things on their head, I get to see how I would feel if I were one of the other parents on the team.  Maybe I’m always looking for a contradiction in myself, and that’s what gives me the ideas for my novels.

I could see how the main character in your novel "Mind of Winter" could also be many mothers out there, constantly worrying about their child’s actions and emotions, but at the same time occasionally fed up with always having to be attuned to them.  Is that a contradiction that resides in you as well?

I would try harder to distance myself from my characters and their situations, but that always seems to me to be more revealing than just accepting, and admitting, that I wouldn’t be able to make anything up that wasn’t in some way completely familiar to me — either from my real life or from my imagination.  My first novel was from the point of view of a prostitute, so a number of people felt free to ask me if I’d ever been a prostitute.  I protested that of course I’d never been a prostitute!  It’s a novel!  After a while I started to think — now, really, would I rather have people imagine that I’d once been a prostitute (which I hadn’t) or to know the obvious truth:  that I sat alone in a room for two years imagining that I was a prostitute …?  There’s no way to dodge the "c’est moi" if it came out of your head, and you were the one to put it in on the page.  Yes, that character is me, except that I don’t have an adopted daughter, and my chickens have never cannibalized each other, and I’ve never been to Siberia, etc. 

I think you also inhabit your characters; because of the POV you employ in "This Is the Water," there’s very little distance between the characters and their creator, it seems to me.  Luckily, for the reader, you are obviously a very astute observer of human motivations.  I was surprised repeatedly by how multilayered these characters were, and how psychologically accurate the details of their inner lives seemed to me.  Are you the kind of writer who is over by the wall at the party, figuring people out?  Do you think you are more interested in human behavior than others?  Are you, off the page, as perceptive as you are on the page?

I’d make a terrible witness!  My powers of observation in the real world are dismal.  Ask me what color hair a person has who I just met five minutes ago, and I’ll tell you blond, maybe, because that’s the way I remember it.  But in actuality, the person could have flaming red hair.  It doesn’t matter much what the reality of it was, what matters is that (I hope!) I can convince you, the reader, that the person had blond hair.  I might be perceptive about human behavior, but I don’t think about it at the time I’m negotiating the real world.  Maybe I soak it up without thinking, and then later, when I’m writing and remembering and thinking how a character may act, it’s a resource I can draw upon and flesh out onto the page. I’m so delighted that you found the characters interesting and believable, Laura.

Am I correct that this is your sixth novel?  How did the process of writing this one differ from the others, or did it?  Are you always at work on a novel or a writing project?

I am always at work on something, whether it’s a short story, a novel or sometimes a children’s book. Sometimes I like to do research for my books.  For example, I did a lot of research for "Signed, Mata Hari," a fictional account about the infamous spy’s life.  I didn’t need to do in-depth research for "This Is the Water" since I knew firsthand what it was like to be a swim parent.  Often though, I would have to ask my kids to verify a fact about swimming that I didn’t know, like what’s a reasonable warmup set a coach would give her swimmers? I usually write a first draft all the way through, then I go back and try to get it right before I send it off to my agent, Judy Heiblum, who is the first one to read my work.  She is a great editor, as well as an agent.  She always seems to know the right amount of criticism to give to get me interested in tackling the work again when it needs rewriting.  It’s a delicate matter.

Speaking of delicate, I wanted to ask you about "Mind in Winter."  In the book the reader is propelled forward in this drama so delicately, by just a spider’s web thickness of suspense to keep us turning the pages, but that delicate hold you have on us is what’s so magical about the book, and what makes us want to follow you even more because it’s not an offensively tight or predictable hold that you have on us.  Do most of your works also have such an effective hold on the reader using the same technique?

Well, thank you for calling it an “effective hold.”  I would, of course, like to think so!  But if that happens I believe it’s because I almost always have the same plot:  a protagonist is discovering something of which she has heretofore been only subconsciously aware.  I don’t set out to do that, but when I look back on my novels I find that’s always the case.  I think it comes about because of my writing process and maybe my interest in the surreal, and Jung, and Freud.  And it may also have to do with something others have pointed out about my personality:  I’m big into denial, I guess.  Or so I’ve been told.  What I’ve noticed to be one of the strongest features of the novel is how textured it is, how every character has a back story, and every subtext has a subtext.  All of these are blended seamlessly, and it all moves at the same high speed, while also organically, toward the shocking ending. 

Did you conceive of these characters, even the minor ones, as such multidimensional creatures from the beginning, or did the process of writing and revision reveal their obsessions and their pasts to you?

I usually start writing my characters without any sense of their back story because I feel that’s the most natural way to do it.  For example, if you just saw a horrific accident and wanted to tell someone about it right away, you wouldn’t start by saying, “I was driving back from the supermarket, after going to the library where I took out the latest David Mitchell book, and I saw a green Chevrolet hit a white Subaru head on …”  Instead, you’d probably launch headlong into saying, “I just saw two cars crash …” and so there would be more of a sense of immediacy to the story.  Immediacy is what I aim for – it makes the reader feel as if the writer has let them into their private circle, there’s no need to preface everything, because the reader is like a longtime friend, and knows things about you already.

That said, I do respond to comments from my editor, and she often asks me to fill in back story for the reader, to make the characters’ lives richer.  For example, I wrote that the serial killer in my book was eating a sandwich, and my editor wanted to know what kind of sandwich does a serial killer eat?  I ended up using my husband’s favorite sandwich “a turkey and sweet pickle” sandwich.  My editor also wanted to know why the character Chris was so personally involved in finding the killer, so I imagined what might have happened to Chris to make her so emotionally invested.  I think it was a good choice to add that back story for Chris, it made her actions later in the book more believable.  However, I do worry about how much, as a narrator, I should interfere in the novels I write.  For example, do you ever feel the need, in your novel writing, to let the reader know there is a sense of high-minded intelligence, that you should drop back and let the reader know that this is not the real world?  In effect, do you ever reveal Oz behind the curtain and tip your hat to the reader?

If I were a different kind of writer, I would certainly see the need to do this.  But, for whatever reason (neurotic reason, I’m sure), I’m just never thinking of the reader.  I’m sorry to admit this, Reader, but while I’m writing, and even as I’m revising, I almost never have the faith that anyone except for myself and maybe my husband will ever be reading this.  It’s very freeing, but there also end up being no “shoulds” — and, well, maybe there should be.  I do think that this is a great impulse, though, and I’ve appreciated it in the work of other writers.  For example, I don’t feel the need to give a lot of information about a character’s life.  The novels that I really love just drop the reader into the middle of things, and the reader and the writer figure out things from there as they go along.  That’s my ideal. 

I like the idea that instead of giving a flashback to a narrator’s childhood, a sentence in the right place about a brother’s suicide or a family pet that ran away will be enough to convey why certain fears or obsessions are pertinent to the here and now.  But I also really appreciate a flashback that really takes me back, and makes a new scene and story, fully fleshed out, that will resonate under the surface of the present.  I was curious about your own writing habits.  For example, I try to write a little every day, and it’s always different, and I find there are no tricks that ever really work for me.  The only superstition I have is that if I let the novel go without working on it for more than a week, I have to start over from the beginning.  This keeps me from going more than a week without working on a novel, but when I do take a break of more than a week, I think it’s because I know that I need to start over from the beginning — which is never a bad idea anyway. 

But with poetry, OMG.  I have to use the same kind of pen, the same kind of notebook, and I have to be alone in the house and know there will be no interruptions for several hours, and then the poem draft must sit in the same place on the same desk for four days before I type it into the computer.  Well, as you can see, I would never have finished a novel that way…What about you?  Do you have particular writing habits or tricks?

I try to stop in the middle of a place that is fun to write.  It is often in the middle of a sentence, that way I’ll be excited to return to it the next day, and it will be easy to dive into it again.  I once learned that Cynthia Ozick won’t go forward until the sentence is right, and she never goes back.  I don’t write like that, though, but I do admire it.

By Laura Kasischke

MORE FROM Laura Kasischke

By Yannick Murphy

MORE FROM Yannick Murphy

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Flannery O'connor Laura Kasichke Laura Kasischke Lorrie Moore Writers On Writing Yannick Murphy