It goes without saying between us that I knew you in grad school, and had the privilege and also, I’d say, the deep fascination of having seen this novel as a story workshopped around a table. How did it grow from that moment into this?
The short answer is: a ton of revisions! But I was really thankful to have time and space provided by SLC to expand the short story that you read, “Murray,” into a novella. David Ryan was an invaluable mentor in helping me to develop Murray’s character, and conceive of Nancy’s thorough accounting for the dissolution of their marriage, the losses and misunderstandings that made him the detached, obsessive, but still, I hope, relatable, distance running coach, the novel opened with. David helped me get the pacing right by breaking up any exposition into tiny bits to reveal gradually as the story progressed. I also relied on these revelatory fragments to build each character’s arc around the shared past their chapters circle around. David helped me take what had begun as a more conventional, linear narrative and experiment with its shape, opening up new possibilities for managing time across Murray and Nancy’s two competing storylines. I decided to set Nancy’s story in the past, but while my graduate thesis confined Nancy’s chapters to telling the story of Jean’s death and ending there, writing the novel became about extending that timeline.
How did you go about doing that?
At first, I thought that I could make the novella Part I and spend the next year after the MFA working on Part II, but that was hardly the case. I quickly learned what a sensitive balancing act writing a novel was. Not only did I have to restructure the pacing of the story to sustain a novel length, but I had to go much deeper into the characters, uncovering the whole of their disparate pasts, the challenges inherent to their love and early years of marriage, and the opposite ways in which they’d chosen to grieve in the aftermath of Jean. Their story required a tremendous amount of research on what it was like to lose a child. I’ve never had a child myself and had to imagine what that would feel like in my body, and then what it would be like to lose that story in my body. It was heartbreaking to read about parents who’d never recovered from that kind of loss–a reversal of the natural order of life, a shattering of a dream, the devastation of never knowing the future of what might have been. I had to make that a lived experience in my writing, not something that was researched and translated; it had to be experienced vividly by the characters on the page. I had to learn to sit with their grief. And it was fitting because I’d never really sat with my own grief over the past. I no longer have a relationship with my father, and the reality of what could have been but never was, was incredibly painful to try to render through Murray and Nancy’s hope for their child. It required seeing my own life through another lens, and as someone who has always used running as a means to escape that pain, I realized that it would always be there if I didn’t take the time to immerse myself in it, observe it, concretely through my writing. Writing Murray and Nancy’s story became over time a means of letting go of what I couldn’t control about my own past.
That’s such a beautiful, beautiful sentiment.
As a quick aside, because I want to spend time talking about the novel: looking back now, what would you change about the workshop model, if anything? What would your ideal education for writers look like now?
A very good question. I can’t help but wonder what your thoughts are on this too. But one thing I’d like to change about workshops is making them less prescriptive. I think it’s tough, because when we are “workshopping” something we are looking for something to fix–it’s a word that connotes taking things apart to improve them, but often I worry that workshops become more destructive than constructive in diagnosing the problems of a piece. So often we try to give another writer a range of options that feel less like suggestions and more like solutions, but then the solutions end up stunting the writing. I personally have always found the questions other readers ask to be far more interesting and generative than solutions, and I hope the workshop model can find a way to facilitate that model more too. I’m not sure what the answer is–maybe it’s limiting workshop responses to questions and circling areas of text that felt problematic that signal the writer to take a closer look and go deeper in her own way, rather than the prescribed way of the teacher or the class’s collective commentary. The other problem with workshops seems to be that because more often than not the tone becomes destructive more than constructive in response to a work that the writer is likely to leave not feeling inspired to return to it–which defeats the point of it all, so I think finding a model that makes the goal of the workshop to be, above all, a continuation of the writing process, is the only one we should be adhering to.
Yeah, I love that. The idea of coming out of a workshop feeling like that moment of time was part of the process, and not just that, but something that furthered each member toward their own goals, however different.
I really liked David Hollander’s approach, in particular. I liked how he had us focus on places where the energy was highest. That gave each writer something tangible to go back to and make bigger and bolder in a revision. This past summer I studied with Lidia Yuknavitch, and she had a similar approach. Not only did she ask us to highlight energy highs, but she copied those points onto a whiteboard and got the class to rank their favorite characters and scenes. This made the work visual and alive for us as a community. At the end of the class, she also made a generative writing prompt based on what she felt was working well in a given piece to apply to our own craft. Every day I left feeling more energized than when I’d arrived and was eager to return the next day. The workshop prioritized joy and excitement over fear and frustration. In turn, we felt more positive and supportive of one another’s work, unified by that joy-based energy, not to mention the boldness of feeling encouraged to take even greater risks in our work. So I’d love to see this kind of approach become more of the norm. It will require a kind of emotional reprogramming in which empathy plays a primary role, but I believe it’s doable if faculty and programs are willing to work together toward that aim.
I would echo that, for sure, and advocate for more spaces grounded in that kind of generosity.
Now, back to the book: Murray is a complex and complicated character, who, I think, rises above the cliche of the hard-ass masculine figure of authority. What, to you, gives him the tenderness that I think he has? Did writing into his character alter, if at all, your own thoughts on masculinity? How?
Making him as complex as I felt he deserved to be was no easy task. I think what was most challenging about him was the temptation of the cliches you so aptly point out: a hard-ass male coach who can’t relate to his women athletes. But to reduce Murray that way would not only have been too easy, but it would have also paralyzed my writing process as someone who came from many years of running under male coaches. And my coach at Yale, in particular, was a sympathetic role model in my life. He was detached at times and focused on his top stars at any given season, but as a whole he treated each one of us equally, caring not just about our performances on the track, but our academic lives within a program of study as rigorous as Yale’s. I’ll never forget the summer after my freshman year, when he wrote me a letter about my high marks after my first semester of running. I was terrified of not being able to keep up academically, and the fact that he believed in me, especially at a time when I had a lot of emotional distress going on in my family, has always stayed with me. So I think the tenderness in him was always there in my imagination of my own coach.
I love that notion of finding different areas of tenderness in people that might not seem so present at first.
But at the same time, I also knew I had to step outside my own emotional attachment to Murray’s character, to envision what it might have been like for him to have lost a child, and then his wife to another man. I had to interrogate how those events might have hardened him? And also what his childhood would have been like growing up in a coal mining town. I had to look at all the ways his emotions had been repressed–the gender norms that are so crippling to men and women both–especially when it comes to a process as unknown and unnameable as grief. We can’t put grief into boxes or stages in the same way we can’t put people in boxes, though we might try to in a capitalistic society driven by timetables and other reductive measures of our human worth. And along those same lines, when I considered the troubling reverberations of an idealized masculine identity onto Murray’s psyche, I saw how his coaching only made that more problematic–since the success of his career had always been quantified running times and national titles, these constant outward markers of success. Such an outward focus made it safe and normal for Murray to never turn inward, but not looking at his own losses, can only take him so far. When Becky’s accident triggers a reenactment of the pain he’s spent the last two decades suppressing, his system begins to break down. It’s human nature, and I wanted to be faithful to that process more than anything, because it’s a process that involves reckoning with painful memories, forgotten hopes and desires, his loneliness and longing in Nancy’s absence. I also realized that a marriage is never as simple as one side of a story, and what I learned from the duality of Nancy and Murray’s perspectives, was that Nancy had denied Murray the space to grieve–a truth she comes to realize herself–but in denying him that space, he had no other choice but to go to work, to try to survive for them both when Nancy was incapable of doing that, and I hope that his sheer will to survive is part of what makes him tender and more human for the reader.
That’s such an apt way of putting it. His sheer will to survive. And I think that’s what I related to the most in him. He wanted to carry on, but was forever trying to figure out how. Now, I know you have a competitive running background. How does that factor into your writing? Not simply in terms of subject matter, but also in terms of your approach to the page, or the novel’s form?
Looking back, I realized that writing this book was in many ways my own attempt to concretize an emotionally charged time of my life. I felt this constant fear of failure at Yale, even when I excelled in the classroom or in a race–I worried that the rug might be yanked from under me. I think a lot of it had to do with losing my relationship to my father at this time. The inexplicable nature of his gambling addiction and emotional abuse as a result, but my need to use running as a means to cope got all bound up with operating in fight or flight mode on a pretty constant basis. I ceased to be in touch with my needs and developed disordered eating habits that led to chronic injury by the time my senior year rolled around. Those four years were marked by some of the greatest successes of my life, such as running 10:05 in the 3K, something I might not ever have achieved had I chosen not to run competitively in college, and it was also where I bonded with my teammates, a bond I’m certain I’ll cherish for the rest of my life–but it was also a traumatic time, marked by pain, denial, and disappointment. Those four years I think will always feel much longer than the time they are meant to encompass. I think they aged me to certain degree, taught me how painful life could be, in realizing that the people who claimed to love me the most could also be the person to hurt me the most. And so I think that’s why competitive collegiate running become the backdrop for this story to unfold. It is an emotional landscape for processing my own past, albeit abstractly, through narrative.
There’s so much there. How did you find a way to tell it?
I’m not sure exactly how my identity as a runner influenced Late Air’s shape, but I do know that running is a mirror for seeing all the ways I’ve been fractured. Since it’s been a coping mechanism, it carries with it every memory of loss and injury I’ve ever experienced, as it does moments of intense joy and elation at surpassing the limits of my body. So, in other words, the fragmenting of time and my body could be seen through Murray’s fragmented psyche as the past ruptures through him while he tries to manage his everyday around Becky’s accident. But the novel’s experimentation with time also captures my belief that the best runs make time stop, show us that the stopwatch is no more than an illusion, if we let go of our pain long enough to transcend it, so that it’s just our bodies moving in space and our breath watching our bodies move. There’s no better feeling that that one. To me, it’s the essence of love, of freedom, of what it means to endure the unknowable fact of our own lives. And I hope that comes through when Nancy takes up running, when she taps into running’s meditative potential for achieving self-forgiveness and healing. I also like to think of running as a map of time and the body, the way every runner can see her life through the repetition of certain loops through a given city or period of time. Running allows for continual observation and perspective, and the ending of the novel aims to make that true, I think–this idea that time is far more than minutes and seconds–because those measures contain within themselves a kind of epic otherness that can’t be charted or broken down. In life, like love, or the shape of a story itself, time is fast and slow at once, compressed and expanded; it is never as simple or singular as a minute is long.
Gosh I love that. Running is a mirror for seeing all the ways I’ve been fractured. With that in mind, I was struck so often in this novel by your depiction of effort. You capture the red-line so well, which is the term I use to describe that very tenuous place where a runner (or anyone) is so far along the edge of their body and their ability that they are either going to perform at their best or risk self-destructing. Can you say more about how you wrote into that zone, how you went about accessing that space and then depicting it?
This is such a beautifully articulated question! I hesitate attempting to answer it. But I can say that I’m always trying to live somewhere along this line, I think. Chasing after it on the road, or with my pen, for the adrenaline rush it is destined to bring. Yet time and again, I’ve also had to learn the hard way that if I’m not careful, straddling this tenuous line, my body will break, or I’ll burn out. My history of injury and overdoing runs as long as I’ve been running. But maybe that’s why the depiction of the “red-line,” as you put it, finds its way into my writing, whether it’s in depicting a character on the brink of something great or disastrous, or the events the novel is circling around, those losses and failures, I know I’m always terrified of repeating, yet I’m also willing to risk injuring my body that would bring me closer to that less tangible emotional pain. It’s a really hard thing to explain, but I think my body has always been a kind of proxy, a means of gambling and testing myself, which is easier for me to focus on than the relationships and more elusive hurts I can’t control.
Body as proxy, yes. Definitely.
So I guess you could say that accessing the zone–that too, is something, I’m pretty sure I stumble on accidentally in my writing, by practicing it in my running and needing it in my life as a survival mechanism. It’s also the only time I feel most free to be myself, to let my subconscious do the work, quietly in my head on a run, or on the page. I have a love affair with “the zone” itself, because it’s the only thing that will transport me out of my obsessions, clear my head of its need to over-intellectualize, level me out emotionally, since anxiety is my worst enemy and the thing that keeps me from my writing and running, if I lose my connection to the habit of sitting down or tying my shoes.
All of these complications of self lead me to a final question. One of my favorite lines in the novel is when you mention how Nancy’s parents tell her that “characters could never be as complicated as real people.” It’s a fascinating line to me, especially because of the way you complicate both Nancy and Murray. Do you believe Nancy’s parents?
It’s funny you bring that up, because that line came out of listening to a fiction writing podcast–or maybe it was an audiobook–I can’t remember now, but at one point in the episode, the writer said writing was dangerous, especially creating characters, because they can never capture the complexity of human experience. I found myself at odds with that idea. I wanted to believe it was true, but I also feared that if I did, it would be too defeatist–how would I challenge my work to that end if I didn’t believe that it was worth trying to render human life true on the page. I also realized that the books that became my favorite books were because they put words to what I felt couldn’t be named in myself. I am thinking of Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (to bring us back to Kathleen Hill’s class!), and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. I realized that the reason I love these works is not so much because of the specificity of the lives or the events they depict, but because of the emotional experiences they are able to render as true and lived. To be immersed in the language of these writers is to enter a consciousness that feels as real as complex as life itself, and that to me is the point of reading and writing together, to striving toward a specificity of thought and feeling through language that reminds us that we are living and surviving each moment of our shared existence. The point is to let us observe and know ourselves again–to let the process of making and absorbing art transform us.