Monday, April 19, 2010

Holly LeCraw talks about The Swimming Pool

Holly LeCraw's The Swimming Pool is the kind of dark, thorny, complex novel I love. But don't take my word for it. Amy Tan called it riveting and psychologically complex, Tom Perrotta called it gripping and passionate, and raves came in from People, Entertainment Weekly and more, giving this glorious novel the attention it deserves. I'm honored to have Holly here answering my questions. The story of a present day love affair against the backdrop of a past filled with secrets and lies, The Swimming Pool is truly knockout.

Thank you so much, Holly.

So, what’s it like to be a debut novelist getting all this attention?

Unreal. It’s a dream come true, and all the rest of it. But I am very conscious that I am at the beginning (hopefully) of a career, and I will have much more to be proud of when I have stuck it out and written several books, not just one. I should probably just relax and enjoy it more…I am always a little too concerned about hubris.

Where did the idea of the novel come from? (I read your remarkable essay on Amazon about the line between what happens in real life and what happens in an author’s fiction, so I had to ask this.)

The characters, the plot—I honestly don’t know. But there were certain themes that had been on my mind, and I think the story came about because of those preoccupations. I was thinking about how obsessed we are with control, and how in this life it’s all illusion; it can disappear in a second—for instance, the moment you find out someone you love has been murdered. I am a Metro section addict—I read about the things that befall ordinary people, and wonder what happens next, after all the news articles have been written. And so often those stories involve secrets, and ordinary, decent people making terrible decisions. Also, I am a mother, and I started the book when my kids were very small. So, really, it is parental love that is the underpinning of the book. The illicit romantic stuff is really just the surface.

Betrayal figures prominently in The Swimming Pool—do you think it’s ever possible to be betrayed) or to do the betraying) and come away unscathed?

I don’t think so. I think it’s possible to heal, but no way would it not leave a wound. I don’t know if I personally could survive it, or if I could heal very well.

Honestly, the plot of The Swimming Pool involves things I would never do. Dear God, I hope not. But I knew that they were things that these characters would do, and that these characters were not fundamentally bad people, despite their actions. I wanted to dig down and understand the how and why.

The ending, which I won’t give away, is a stunner. At what point in writing the novel did you know what your ending was going to be? Did it surprise you?

Let me just say that I am dying to go visit some book groups (I already have a few scheduled), so I can talk about the book with people who have read it! It will be so interesting to hear what people think of the ending. It came about naturally—I didn’t know it at the beginning of the process, certainly. When I had the idea it shocked me (just like the idea of Jed and Marcella’s affair shocked me), but it also seemed right. Once that idea was in my head, nothing else would work.

I knew that my job then would be to make it believable from a character point of view. The characters involved absolutely had to act organically, and the ending had to be the natural outgrowth of their other actions and of who they were. Also, I don’t think it’s shocking from a whodunit point of view; real mystery buffs would probably spot it a mile away. But I think it’s shocking from a character point of view.

Speaking of the ending, I should mention that the only really substantive change my editor wanted was for me to lop off the last seven pages of the manuscript—what was essentially an epilogue. I absolutely agonized over it, but in the end I decided she was right. And she was. Now I can’t imagine it any other way. I like very much that these characters come to some sense of peace and resolution, but that the story is not over—it’s continuing, somewhere, after you close the book. I know where I think they go, but readers might have other ideas. Which is as it should be.

I have to comment on the great marketing strategy—a book about a steamy love affair, dark secrets, set on the beach, yet with a pedigree of blurbs that makes it undeniably literary. I especially loved the marketing letter which ended, “Is it hot in here?” as a tease. Were you involved in the strategy? Was this how you saw your novel?

No, that line was my editor’s. She gets all the credit. I always saw it as literary fiction—or, at least, that was what I was shooting for. The more commercial aspect of it is surprising to me. Probably because when you’re writing your first book in total obscurity, it’s amazing to think that anyone will ever want to read it! I like the term “literary page-turner.” Literary merit and plot are, obviously, not mutually exclusive. I always read for plot—although by plot I usually mean emotional plot rather than action, and in the end that’s what this book is about. It is about how characters get from A to B to C emotionally and psychologically. There is a tremendous amount of tension in those evolutions.

I also want to say that I was so, so lucky with those blurbs. Those authors were extremely generous; it’s an embarrassment of riches.

What idea is obsessing you now?

My next book. The working title is The Sweetness of Honey. It’s a Cain and Abel story about two half-brothers, nearly twenty years apart in age, who are both teachers at a New England prep school; they fall in love with the wrong people, who, just to make things interesting, are also the same people…the center of the book is the older brother, who’s Cain, of course. Another deeply flawed character whom I love anyway. The bad guys are always the most interesting, right?

And finally, What question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask?

Oh, no mortification. These were wonderful questions. Thank you so much for having me here.