Jessica Keener

Night Swim, Jessica Keener’s debut novel, is drawing high praise from critics and a gathering storm of readers. It’s the story of Sarah Kunitz, a sixteen-year-old Jewish girl living with her troubled and fractured family in Boston, circa the 1970s. But this is not your standard coming-of-age novel. You’ll find no saccharine here. The portrait Keener creates of adolescent girlhood is so beautifully and lovingly rendered that it practically radiates that same amber light you find in fading family photos. And yet there is also a subtle cautionary tone throughout, one that seems to warn the reader of the allure and trap of nostalgia. Sarah returns to her more painful memories, looking for answers, to a childhood marred by distant and difficult parents, by class, racial, and religious prejudices, and by the overwhelming aches of young love and sex. That is to say, the same things awaiting us all if we choose to go there. Keener goes there, and I’m glad she took me.

I had the pleasure of seeing Keener read last month in New York where we started this conversation. Among many things—music, publishing, her hometown of Boston, even the life-threatening illness that changed her life and profoundly affected her writing—we talked about what Keener calls “the mythic, powerful essence of motherhood” and “what happens when a woman is unable to carry the responsibility and burden of it.”

—Scott Cheshire

 

 

INTERVIEWER

You’re a writer of short stories, and non-fiction, but this is your first novel. Can you tell me how that came about?

JESSICA KEENER

Technically, this is my second novel. (Like many authors, I have another one in the drawer.) I started Night Swim when my son was born eighteen years ago. I wrote it in spurts, then put it away, took it out, wrote some more. Several agents repped it and tried to sell it. No dice. In my frustration, I carved out five excerpts from the novel and sent them out. All were snapped up and published and a few won awards. This encouraged me and reinforced my own deep belief that I had a good story, a good novel. A writer friend told me about Lou Aronica who had just started Fiction Studio Books. Lou invited me to submit my novel. He read it quickly and offered to publish it. At first, I was scared to go the independent, small publisher route, but once I got past my fears, I felt absolutely liberated. It’s been wonderful getting Night Swim out into the world.

INTERVIEWER

Let me ask, obviously, the notion of a “night swim” is elemental to the novel. There is an actual night swim, late in the story, which leads to an especially difficult hurdle for Sarah. But really the entire novel, which opens late into the night, is something of a “night swim.” Could you talk some about how this idea came to shape the book?

JESSICA KEENER

The idea came to me at the end of writing the book. Typically, I don’t see the whole novel when I begin. That’s true when I write short stories as well. My writing process involves discovering as I go along. I don’t understand the ultimate goal or undercurrents  until later.  After a first draft, that’s when I go back and fix, and restructure and fill in gaps, and become conscious of what I’m after. So, the idea of a night swim –that emerged much later, but made perfect sense to me: taking an emotional swim through time and memory, feeling, and place.

INTERVIEWER

Robert is obsessed with an adolescent science-fiction series called Time Planets in which twenty-two different dimensions are posited; at one point Peter complains, “nobody lives in such rigid time zones. It’s insanity”; and a favorite song of Sarah’s and Peter’s is Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” in which Mitchell sings “we can’t return we can only look behind… like a bird calling far away at sea.” Time is ever-present and seems utterly amorphous throughout the book.

JESSICA KEENER

I think we all live with layers of time inside us, like currents in an ocean. Things, people, dramas that took place in the past live on in our present selves consciously or unconsciously, and shape or determine choices we make about our futures. Time is powerful. It carries memories, pains, joys, confusion—it carries it all. I’m fascinated by how this dimension we call “time” influences us throughout our lives.

INTERVIEWER

Is music important to you? It seems so given how music, too, is so poetically and carefully woven throughout. How do you imagine it functioning in the novel?

JESSICA KEENER

Very important. In fact, I used to sing until I had a bone marrow transplant and had to take male hormones, which screwed up my voice. So, writing a story with a protagonist (Sarah) who is a gifted singer, allowed me to express that old love of mine. Music is also a way of capturing sounds of a particular era in my novel—the 1970s—and used as a means of self-expression and healing for Sarah and her brother. It’s additionally a commentary on art—that need to find whatever creative force is inside us in order to experience life as vital and meaningful. For the mother, who could no longer play violin due to arthritis, the blockage of this form of expression turned destructive.

INTERVIEWER

I must say for all the pain and sorrow in the novel, I can’t think of one moment it’s not handled unflinchingly. This makes for a sober read but also a more engaging one. Do you think your own experience with illness has affected the way you write?

JESSICA KEENER

There’s no question that my illness, a blood disease called aplastic anemia, which I had in my early twenties, altered my approach to living; how I view death today, and how I write. For almost two years, I was fatally sick, in danger of dying every day, any minute. My physical self was failing. It also felt like a manifestation or extension of a despairing, psychological state I’d been battling for several years before my official diagnosis. Maybe I’d been physically sick without knowing it and that underlying physical disease caused depression. But, in my late teens, I became suicidal. I flirted with the idea of getting rid of myself as a way out of unhappiness. I wanted to explore this issue of self-destruction in Night Swim. My illness took me to the brink of all that. The lowest point was the time I lay in a hospital bed struggling to breathe, needing an oxygen mask because I didn’t have enough blood. That was terrifying. Yet, a miracle of sorts happened to me right before entering the hospital that flooded me with hope.

I had a dream. –Not an ordinary dream but a mystical one, a vision while napping one afternoon a few weeks before entering the hospital for my transplant. I’ve only written about this a few times because it sounds hokey and trite, but it was the opposite: powerful and transformative; spiritually riveting.  The essence of this dream rippled through my flesh, it changed me.

In my dream, a massive white star floated high in the black universe, a body of white light that communicated to my core: I would be okay. I would live. When I awoke, I knew this to be true. Not one sliver of doubt. It wasn’t an intellectual knowing, it was sensate, in my organs, in every limb and cell in my body. It sounds like a supernatural story, but sure enough, I had my transplant and it was very successful. That was 35 years ago. That dream stays with me still. And eradicated those unrelenting, hopeless, self-destructive thoughts I once had.  So, yes, my illness and my experiences leading up to and after it, infuse how I write today, and how I shape my characters, and create what I suppose might be seen as my writing style and author’s point of view.

INTERVIEWER

Sarah’s mother, Sarah’s father, Peter, and of course, Sarah, all have very complicated relationships to music. And in the end, music and time sort of become one, for Sarah. Do they not?

JESSICA KEENER

I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I think that could be.  For Sarah, music is the medium that carries her personal stories and memories.  It’s a way of communicating simply and purely; bringing something sweeter and loving to her family dynamic, to others and herself; and cutting through tangles of words that frequently caused Sarah and her family pain and misunderstanding.

INTERVIEWER

Readers have certainly been responding to the most palpably felt, and yet beautifully understated relationship in the book, that of Sarah and her mother. All of which is subtly alluded to by way of Sarah’s mother’s passion for roses, lovingly tending to them. Yet all the while she fails to tend to her daughter. She even blames “arthritis and children” for her long gone career in music.

JESSICA KEENER

This missing element in the mother-daughter relationship was difficult to write about; it almost felt taboo, yet essential to the novel as a whole. What happens to a family, to a child, when a mother is emotionally absent? How do children deal with this? And why does this happen and how does it happen? I wanted to explore these questions in Night Swim. I also wanted to get at this cultural turn in the road in 1970, a time when women were trying to redefine their roles as mothers. In Night Swim, it’s as if Sarah’s mother was trying to shore up some imaginary world in which she is a star in her world, but what is her world, really? And a star of what? And to whom? Where is her connection to her children? At the same time, I wanted to delve into the children’s world and show how they are all desperately trying to connect with a mother who can’t seem to give them what they need.  At one point Sarah says, referring to herself and her brothers: “We were entities whose biological threads connected to something amorphous, which we called Mother.”

It’s an uncomfortable topic, the antithesis of motherhood. In another passage Sarah describes her mother as someone who “moved through the house edgily nudging and pushing to her destination of remoteness…” It’s sad. It’s disappointing to see such a flawed character, yet I wanted the reader to feel compassion for the mother despite her severe limitations as a nurturer, and to do this I had to show the mother’s pain. I’m not sure this answers your question. Basically, I wanted to explore this mythic, powerful essence of motherhood and see what happens when a woman is unable to carry the responsibility and burden of it. I think it’s an issue that many women with children struggle with. I wanted to face this head on without glossing over its implications or impact on children.

INTERVIEWER

I thought of The Help while reading Night Swim, not so much because they are similar books but because of “the black maids that came and went.” In the hands of some writers, those maids, “all black,” would become easy and sympathetic broad portraits. I think you chose the much more difficult, effective, and ultimately moving path: that of presenting real black women who flit in and out of her life, most of them stoic, even stony in their demeanor, who still manage to mother her.

JESSICA KEENER

Well, the truth about that is I grew up in a household where we had black, live-in maids. I think this was part of the nouveau-riche, Jewish jet set way of life that my parents lived. Like Sarah in the novel, I was bothered by this routine—a black woman living in my house part of the week, then leaving to go home to another life and town that I never saw or experienced. What was that really about? I wanted to capture this ambivalence.  Live-in housekeepers are witnesses to intimate dramas. I wanted to show how these “invisible” people are intricately involved in families, while simultaneously excluded and kept on the periphery. There’s a disconnect and imbalance, and though we’ve read about this in literature coming out of the south, I’m not sure how much it’s been addressed in literature set in New England, where Night Swim takes place.

INTERVIEWER

Sarah says, “We were sometimes Jews.” Here too, rather than painting in broad strokes, you give particular and often fleeting glimpses into this Jewish family. And yet while the book is resoundingly the coming-of-age story of a sixteen-year-old girl, it does accrue another rather subtle and complicated story of race and religion.

JESSICA KEENER

Well, the hope is that people will take away many different things from this novel. So, race and religion, how we perceive others, how we treat others, how we want to be treated—those are all parts of a larger story about life that I wanted to tell. Plus, we all come into this world naked. But, then we’re dressed by our families in cultural and religious clothing that either feels good or not or somewhere in-between.  We grow up eating certain foods, talking a certain way, taking on behaviors that the culture or race and religion deems acceptable or not. Sometimes these things work on us in subtle ways, and other times they interfere with daily living. They scream when we need silence.

INTERVIEWER

It is likely readers will assume that Night Swim is partly autobiographical. And while I would argue that the usually best novels are, I wonder if this distinction is important to you?

JESSICA KEENER

I have mixed feelings about this. Friends and family who have read the book have pointed to a specific scene in the novel and asked: Did this happen to you? And I have to tell them, no, no, no and remind them gently that the story is fiction.  I pulled many elements from my life, without question, but the story is its own world separate from me. So, it’s a funny thing. I write stories that are inspired by things that happened to me personally or that I witnessed or heard about; yet, there’s a separation that occurs, that must occur, in order to have the freedom necessary to write fiction.

INTERVIEWER

The book also seems deeply informed by your life in Boston, by the city itself.

JESSICA KEENER

Certainly, Boston and its surrounds are very much part of who I am. I grew up in a suburb close to Boston, went to school in New England, returned to Boston after I got married, raised our son here. Northeast weather patterns and landscapes are organic to how I experience and see the world.  As a child, I rode the trolley into town on weekends with my friends. In high school, we explored inner city neighborhoods.  It was fascinating to be exposed to so many different kinds of people—the Italian North End, Chinatown; yet Boston isn’t overwhelming in size. It’s a walking city. It’s got a European feel. It’s worldly and intellectual, scientifically advanced, but provincial and clubby in its barbaric devotion to sports. It’s young and forward thinking, old and stodgy. In Night Swim, I loved incorporating some well-known Boston landmarks in key scenes—the Boston Symphony Orchestra and New England Conservatory—to enhance the drama. So, yes, the book is very much informed by my Boston-based roots.

INTERVIEWER

Sarah observes, “good behavior offered a way of telling lies.” I find this explains a lot about the Kunitz family dynamics.

JESSICA KEENER

Yes. Every family has a face or behavior that is acceptable or not acceptable, and that serves to reveal or hide what is truly going on. In the Kunitz world, a clean kitchen somehow represented law and order in the household. Sticking to the six o’clock dinner hour or following table manners was an imperfect attempt at staying connected; a way of trying and failing to harness what was about to flip out of control.

INTERVIEWER

There are two lines in the novel that I find to be especially moving and, well, profound. Sarah says of her once very sad and now deceased mother, “I tried to touch her absence.” She also says, “Singing didn’t have a before and after. It stayed and stayed.” These two ideas seem to sum up not only what Night Swim is about but what all good fiction tries to do. Any thoughts?

JESSICA KEENER

I guess I wanted to convey that love, in all its manifestations, is eternal; it doesn’t leave us. Our emotions are powerful. They rise above or move outside of time and, like singing, seem to hold an essence of forever-ness.

 

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