‘This Other Instrument’ – Chloe Lane on The Swimmers
“For me the death and its means is the necessary awful thing in The Swimmers that allows the reader to see more deeply what Erin and Aunty Wynn are made of”
Chloe Lane discusses her exprience of trading a career in art for a career on the page, how competitive swimming prepared her for the writing life, and the inspirations and influences that guided the writing of her sparkling debut novel The Swimmers.
How long have you been writing? Why did you start?
I started writing when I was in art school in the early 2000s. My publications from that time were mostly reviews and profiles of exhibitions or other artists. Looking back, the shift I made from that kind of writing to fiction wasn’t a huge stretch, as many of the things I wrote then included unnecessary fictional elements like detailed character descriptions and dialogue. Around 2005 I published a short profile on an artist who is now based in Berlin. I distinctly remember a section of this piece discussing the sculptural works he was making at the time through the lens of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, leaning on some of the energy of those books. I can’t remember exactly what I said or if I even pulled it off, but I do recall the feeling of how much fun it was to write, how much the page felt like the place I should be. It took me a while longer to completely let go of wanting an art career, to put down that instrument, but I have those years to thank for introducing me to writing, this other instrument, which I have learned to play better.
What were your favourite books growing up?
I was fortunate to grow up in a house full of books. I read all the fiction on our shelves, including books my parents had from their youths, and what I picked up on fortnightly trips to the library. For my tenth birthday my parents bought me the complete The Lord of the Rings in one huge, illustrated, hardback volume. I lugged that tome in its own plastic bag to school and back every day, so I might have it on hand for SSR (sustained silent reading). Strangely, I remember less of the actual story than I do the experience of transporting the book on the school bus every day. There were probably more books of non-fiction on our shelves than fiction, in particular on art and architecture, as well as a collection of volumes from the 1970s about the supernatural, and many National Geographics. All of these I loved. Having said that, the books I remember most vividly from my earlier reading years were adventure stories. For example, the Tomorrow series by John Marsden and the Hatchet books by Gary Paulsen. Though decades have passed since I cracked one of those novels, I can recall scenes from those pages as vividly as if they were things that I experienced in the flesh.
What inspired you to write The Swimmers?
I was curious to see what it might look like for a regular New Zealand family to help take the life of one of their own. I was interested in the emotional story—the toll this takes on each family member, and how they deal with their grief, guilt and obligations to the ones they love. But the logistics of carrying out an assisted suicide in a country where it is illegal, at least during the time the novel was set, that’s what drives the story forward. I initially intended not to show the mother’s death, or to even reveal whether she went through with it, hoping, I think, that the journey to that point—the family banding together and doing everything in their power to assist the mother—would be enough. Two books I read early on when I was writing the first draft—Act of God by Jill Ciment and Blindness by José Saramago—changed my mind about this. Though these are two wildly different novels, one thing they have in common is they don’t look away. About a third of the way through Act of God something terrible happens. It’s a different kind of terrible to the contagion that provides the dramatic premise for the rest of the novel—it’s smaller, personal, and it drastically raises the emotional stakes for one of the novel’s main characters. Saramago piles it on in Blindness, and whenever I wanted to look away and not write the tough final scenes in The Swimmers, I remembered that book, and that wading through the hard stuff was what made the emotional payoff of the novel so earned. For me the death and its means is the necessary awful thing in The Swimmers that allows the reader to see more deeply what Erin and Aunty Wynn are made of.
“I think what I do try for is the kind of realism that acknowledges that some of the heaviest, darkest moments of our lives, can also be woven through with unexpected levity”
The Swimmers is set in your native New Zealand, but the bulk of the novel was written in Florida. Do you think that affected the process of writing it at all?
During the years I worked on the book, my husband and I housesat for a friend a lot during the summer months. The windows in her writing room overlooked a lake in North Central Florida, so while I was trying to write about the rural north of New Zealand with its gorse-pocked paddocks, manuka woods and subdivisions of kitset homes, I could see alligators doing laps in the water. Sometimes the gators would bask in the sun on the lawn at the front of the house. More than once I looked out and saw a turtle digging a nest in the sandy earth above the lake’s edge, depositing her eggs, and then hurrying back to the water. I also saw raccoons, possums, armadillos, snakes, all kinds of water birds, and unbelievable lightning storms from that room. None of these things make me think of New Zealand. I started writing The Swimmers my first summer in Florida though, so we’d been living there only about a year. Most of the stories I wrote in that first year were set in New Zealand, as Florida and I were still in the honeymoon stage of our relationship and I didn’t know how I really felt about it yet. When everything I was learning about writing was also starting to click in new ways—I was initially in Florida studying towards a MFA at the University of Florida—I found it helpful to have a place I could write about that I felt comfortable with, a solid foundation. I guess New Zealand will always be that place for me. During the six years I lived in Florida, I only returned to New Zealand once. A lot of things also started to get fuzzy during that time, and I had to work hard to remember the exact pitch of the birdsongs, the way the light is because it is so different, the slang names for things, the way New Zealanders talk, the way New Zealanders don’t talk––how we like to really relax into an awkward silence.
Erin is a former competitive swimmer and an art lover, are either of these elements drawn from your own experiences?
I was a competitive swimmer as a teenager. Swimming was my first true love, and those years of intense training and competition continue to make an impact on my life. Though I trained with a squad, swimming is quite a lonely sport, all those hours with your head in the water, pacing up and down. I think being drawn to that life prepared me for the writing life, which can also be a little lonely. Erin is wired in a similar way. She is determined to carve out her own path, everyone else be damned, though it’s a character trait that softens in her by the end of the novel. Like Erin, I also didn’t make it as an artist, though art, specifically painting, was my second love. I still write the occasional artist profile, with a focus on contemporary New Zealand painting. One of my favourite New Zealand painters, Nicola Farquhar, provided the painting, titled “Peachthief,” for the cover image in both the Gallic Books and New Zealand releases of The Swimmers. My husband, Peter Gouge, is also a painter, so that world is still very much a part of my life. When I was pregnant with my son, I visited the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. I first learned of that space when I was in high school. Finally getting to experience those paintings for myself was a kind of pilgrimage. It still overwhelms me to recall standing in that room, the way the light fell that afternoon, the sounds, the other bodies who were there the same time as me, how it all made me feel.
The novel contrasts a difficult subject matter with a lot of sardonic humour and eccentric scenes. Was this an intentional style or did it come about organically?
Whenever I try to be funny I am not funny, so any laughs I get are generally unintentional. Though maybe that isn’t entirely accurate. I think what I do try for is the kind of realism that acknowledges that some of the heaviest, darkest moments of our lives, can also be woven through with unexpected levity. Or failing that, an absurdness that is inescapable because life is absurd. One of my all-time favourite quotes, is one that Padgett Powell shared when I was studying with him towards my MFA. It came via Donald Barthelme and it goes something like, “What must wacky modes do? Break their hearts.” Though the origin of this is in a more experimental fiction, it has stuck with me because I think it’s true of all the best fiction. Not just that if you’re writing something weird and experimental that it also must be grounded and convince us that the characters are real and can bleed, but that if you’re writing something with characters who we must believe are real and can bleed, then the wacky, the funny, the absurd should ideally be present too.
“When I was younger I bought into the myth of the slightly unhinged writer, staying up all night furiously drafting, believing that giving up sleep meant I was more serious about what I was doing.”
What are you currently reading?
I have just started reading the new Claire Vaye Watkins novel, I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness. I adored her first story collection, Battleborn, and so far this one is even funnier and more brutal. I regularly teach one of her short stories in my fiction classes as an example of how to write about place in such a way that it rises up to occupy the space of another character. The story, titled “Man-O-War,” is set in the desert, and you can practically feel the heat and the dust rising up from the pages. Somehow she makes the landscape in which the story takes place both wide open and alien, as if the characters could be living on the moon, and also incredibly claustrophobic. I also recently finished Wolf by Douglas A. Martin. It was a tough but ultimately quite magical read, with a bit of Faulkner energy, and a voice I will not easily forget. The next three titles on my pile are Strangers I Know by Claudia Durastanti, The Door by Magda Szabó, and the Gallic Books title Rider on the Rain by Sébastien Japrisot.
Are there any books or authors you reread and return to?
This is one of the joys of teaching fiction for me—the cache of authors I will always teach and so be forced to re-read on a regular basis. I love re-reading. I love finding new ways to unpack a scene, to marvel at what the author has done, to learn from it. Anton Chekhov, William Trevor, and Joy Williams are three I enjoy revisiting in my role as a teacher. For the novel I’ve been working on since I finished The Swimmers, there have been a few books I’ve read multiple times, trying to figure out how to make something or other work. I love short novels, and three I’ve gone back to multiple times are A Separation by Katie Kitamura, The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott, and Wildlife by Richard Ford.
What does your writing routine look like?
My dream writing routine is to be up early and write till lunch, and then take the afternoon to do other things: paid work, exercise, read. Of course this isn’t always possible, and since my son was born (he’s now three years old), I’ve gotten better at switching in and out of writing mode, and making the most of whatever time is available. The only time I don’t like to write is at night, as I am a terrible sleeper, and if I don’t put enough hours between imaginative work and bedtime, I will not sleep at all. When I was younger I bought into the myth of the slightly unhinged writer, staying up all night furiously drafting, believing that giving up sleep meant I was more serious about what I was doing. Now I know I will produce nothing worthwhile working like that, and in fact I work best when I approach the page as if it were a regular job, where I sit down every day and work, knowing that what I produce that day may be terrible or it may be great, but either way I will be back the next day to keep working at it. I think this is why the novel form appeals to me too. I am very happy to inhabit the same world day after day for years on end. I also think this is where spending hours each day with my head under water doing laps of the pool has prepared me well.
What are you working on right now?
I have nearly finished writing my second novel. It is titled Arms & Legs, and it tells the story of Georgie, a New Zealand woman in her thirties living in a small University town in North Central Florida, and what happens when she discovers the remains of a missing student while volunteering on a prescribed burn. Prescribed burns are a common fire prevention tool used in Florida’s many wooded parks, something I became very interested in during the time I lived in Florida. Georgie is married, mother to a two-year-old son, and has recently started an affair with a local man. The novel details how finding the boy’s body shakes her and seeps into the many cracks in her life, resulting in acts of violence both physical and emotional. It’s also a bit of a love letter to Florida.
Posted on 05/05/2022 by Isabelle Flynn in