Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A marriage. Grief. Running toward something new. Jaclyn Gilbert talks about her incandescent debut novel LATE AIR (great title, right?)





Come on, don't you just love debuts? The notoriously cranky Kirkus Reviews does, calling LATE AIR, "elegiac...a carefully plotted and cautiously hopeful novel about the ties that outlast marriage."Jaclyn Gilbert received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and BA from Yale University.  She is the recipient of a research fellowship from the New York Public Library, a contributor to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Post Road Magazine, Tin House, and Lit Hub.  

I'm so jazzed to host her here! Thank you, Jaclyn!



I always want to know about process. I understand that this brilliant novel was a short story first. (That was my experience, actually, with my first novel!) How did you transform it into a novel? How difficult (and exhilarating) was that?

A very good question that goes right into the heart of the process.  I started this novel as a story for my first fiction writing workshop as an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College.  Around my class schedule, I began a habit of running along the Bronx River greenway.  One October day, I ran past a park golf course and wondered about the possibility of a stray ball hitting me or another runner nearby.  I thought suddenly of all my years of college running on the Yale campus golf course, and how never once I had considered these risks.  Something about the terror of that hypothetical asked me to sit down when I got home to try and write it as a scene.  I felt something lock in through the moment of writing—something about my past experience intersecting with my imagination as my pen scribbled over the page.  When I shared the work with my class, I received several emails from readers wanting to know what happened—asking me what my plans for the story were.  I began to consider the character of Murray as part of a larger work, or one that circled his own journey into his past around the inciting incident of a golf injury his star runner, Becky Sanders

At the time, I knew very little about traumatic head injury, but began reading as much as I could on the topic, studying regions of the brain, and the speed and distance required for a golf ball to incur severe damage.  I also knew that the narrative felt too confined to the coach’s experience of his athlete’s accident, and I wanted to weave in a female perspective that could look at larger questions of grief and recover.  At Sarah Lawrence, I had the good fortune of working with David Ryan as my thesis advisor, who was the first person to get me to think deeply about what stories Murray might have repressed from his past.  He helped me think of trauma as an echo split into tiny fragments that could erupt out of the coach when triggered by a sound, smell, or image.  I spent weeks meditating over the color and shape of Becky’s wound, and through drafts of endless free writing, I began to see where its echoes might resurface in the present narrative, through the blue of a swimming pool for instance, or the color of the sky around dusk, and I began to imagine a deeper trauma running parallel to that of Becky’s.  I began to imagine Murray’s runners as extensions of the daughter he never had, and this understory became a constant source of interrogation for me.  I have never had a child myself, so I began immersing in research around what it might feel like to give birth to a child in my late thirties.  Over time, I was able to develop the character of Nancy, someone whose literary and perfectionistic neuroses I can identify with, as much as I can Murray’s obsession with running and the body.  Transforming this story into a novel was very much a process of trying to marry and reconcile different aspects of myself through characters that were as much parts of me as they were points of departure through their lived experience as new parents.

Their own opposite journeys around grief, or the opposite ways they needed to heal in the aftermath of an unfathomable loss, in many ways allowed me to grieve the greatest loss of my own past.  My father and I no longer have a relationship, and my own struggle to redefine my relationship to running as not something I need to use to control and order my life to the point of injury, but as something that allows me to be present in my body and more compassionate toward myself as a whole, ultimately fueled the writing and recovery process driving this book. So much of Late Air’s emotional arc required questioning what it means to grieve as a means of survival—and what it means to forgive oneself and those you love in the process.  The opposite nature of my characters’ journeys also helped move the plot forward; while I knew they each had to find their own way through time and memory back to one another, I didn’t know how they would, or how many pages it would take.  My revision process was about constantly finding that balance, shaping their paths in a way that felt most organic to their humanity, and the trauma that fractured their lives, but also joins them together at the end in a search for lost time, love, and wholeness.


One the things that moved me the most is the idea of how marriage changes—how it can grow.  I always used to think that the best relationship was when it was new and passionate and sparking with excitement, but after 25 years, I’ve discovered the best, truest, deepest love is when you’ve been through so much together, when you can actually learn to see each other. Even so, I was surprised and moved at how the novel ended. Did you always know it would end that way?

I think my answer to this question is embedded in my answer to your last one, but in short, I suppose I didn’t always know the novel would end this way.  I think this is true largely because it took me time to understand the scope of the story I was trying to write.  At first, I thought it was the story of one coach and his runner, but when I began layering in his past and realized it was really a story about a marriage and the death of a dream, I began to see more clearly where it could end.  I vividly remember the day an image of the ocean came to me, with a couple sitting on a bench looking as gulls dove in and out for fish, and something about that image felt right.  I kept the image vaguely in my head, writing toward it as best I could, and in time, images of blue and water began to recur.  In this way, I began to see that blue was both a source of pain and healing for my characters.  That the ocean of breath, or the life force that is taken from Nancy and Murray, is also the thing that they share and are looking for through running.  I think it was this image that allowed me to imagine Nancy becoming a runner toward the end of the novel too—even though it is the last thing she imagines herself becoming after she blames Murray’s obsession with running and coaching as the reason behind their failed marriage.  

I am convinced that this image of the shared void between Murray and Nancy as a body of water helped me find the ending most completely, to explore all of its reverberations through the color blue in Late Air as a dual means for learning to sit inside our wounded bodies, as well as transcend them through a shared experience of love and loss in the end.

I was also fascinated with how you wove the past story in with the present story, the story of Nancy and Murray’s marriage in with their respective careers. For me, it’s always so difficult to know what to put in and when. How did you do such alchemy?

One of the most helpful tools I learned was through my thesis advisor, David Ryan, who told me about kernels and satellites.  In this craft idea, you decide which thing had to happen in your book to make it the story you are telling, and you decide that, you have to be very selective about which details, scenes, and images will be most effective at circling that core moment or truth.  Once I realized that I was telling a story about two traumas, I had to think about all of the ways those two traumas were working in echo; I had to figure out which key aspects of Nancy and Murray’s characters would be most effective in establishing their love for one another and their hope for their first child, as well as reveal all of the ways that dream had been shattered through the past and present narratives.  I would say that none of this came easily.  So much of it relied on telling the surface stories of both Murray and Nancy’s lives, both apart and together, and then deciding all of the ways they overlapped, and what scenes would allow me to most effectively create depth and sub-text around what I know, or at least think I know, to be true about them.  This whole process required a lot of cutting and reshaping.  It required a lot of patience and diligence in trusting that layers would be able to weave themselves together through the magic of memory, imagination, and time—or through the process of revision itself, since it allowed me to deepen my connection to the story I was trying to tell, allowing the story to form its own memory and pool of subconscious I could call forth in moments of intensive rewriting. 

I know you were a runner yourself, which acts as a superb metaphor in the novel i.e. what are we running from and why aren’t we running to? Can you talk about this please?

In writing this book, I realized that running is a double-edged sword.  In one way, it can be something that allows us to run away from our emotional pain, as a practice that allows for the adrenaline rush, or the high, that can let us escape what we don’t want to feel or re-experience.  For me, it was my father’s critical words when I was a teenager.  The last thing I wanted to feel or hear were these words, and running allowed me flight from the idea of the woman I feared becoming in his eyes.  Running in this way was a means to control my body, to focus on racing times and my weight instead of the question of my father’s love, which proved to be conditional when I was in college.  The conditionality of his love set in motion a grieving process that I think Late Air seeks to reconcile or find peace with.  I realized that my writing process was very much tied to my identity as a runner; I realized I needed to find a way to affirm myself through the experience of writing, as much as I did in my experience of running, so that both writing and running could serve as paths of salvation, and not destruction. 

In this way, the book became about running toward what I was most afraid of feeling, so that I could ultimately transcend and heal from that loss.  The death of a child is, I think, in many ways a metaphor for the death of the child in me, or the child I felt my father couldn’t love unconditionally in the same way I was trying to find a way to love myself unconditionally in this life.  Nancy’s journey took the shape of my own through her own desperate search to sit in her body again.  Her running chapter offers a source of healing that can redirect her journey as one that seeks not to forget her pain, but that which accepts it and lets it go so that she can forgive herself as a wife and mother.  It is what allows her to have compassion for Murray by the end of the book.  Through Nancy, I ultimately found greater compassion for myself; all the long runs I took while writing this novel helped me learn to sit in my body just as she had to; Nancy also taught me to sit through the most uncomfortable aspects of the writing process.  Rather than flee the scene, I had to write through conflict, feel what my characters were feeling in their bodies in order to make their experiences most whole.

What’s obsessing you now and why? 

 I am obsessed with a lot of things, I would say.  But one thing I realized I am particularly obsessed with is the psychology of repression: how we can spend our whole lives repressing a given story or feeling like a secret that leads to a continual cycle of trauma.  In our current political climate, I often think about how many stories have been repressed through the whole of human history to give priority to other stories that do nothing but incur further violence and destruction.  I feel desperate to understand why we may repress what we do because we are men or women, husbands or wives, sons or daughters, parents or children; I realized that it is the fact of binaries that lends for a continual repression of otherness that fails to recognize the ambiguity of our humanity.  As a writer, I realized I want to do more to honor that ambiguity, especially as it relates to societal norms, and I want to find a way to show that moral ambiguity is far more interesting than absolutism’s attempts to define our morality as either good or evil.   In my writing, I hope to make the experience of reading more about the process of asking questions and trying to see things from as many vantage points as are possible, so that we can begin to believe in the multiplicity of truths, and celebrate the shared experience of not being able to pinpoint a single answer.

 


I think you’ve allowed me to get at the heart of what I am trying to write.  Thank you! I think my last answer to the great human question is that to find patience and love for ourselves is to find it in others, and as a writer who is still very poor at practicing patience, I am determined that each day I try to be more patient, I might inspire others to do the same—as a means of becoming less reactive when confronted with fear and conflict.  As a writers and readers, my hope is that in an age confused by the competing demands of technology, consumerism, and media, we can still find time to step back and observe how beautiful it is we are all here together: alive.

1 comment:

kold_kadavr_ flatliner said...

I'd sooooooooooooooooooo love to
see you in Seventh-Heaven, dear...
God bless you with discernment.