READ CLOSE: The main character, Erin, and both her mother and her aunt, were competitive swimmers. Tell us about why you chose this sport?
CHLOE LANE: I wrote The Swimmers when I was living in Florida. I was a competitive swimmer when I was a teenager, but I hadn’t swum for years. Florida helped me find my way back to it. The pools there are many and stunning, and it’s easy to swim outdoors for nine or ten months of the year, twelve months if you’re a little braver and willing to face the freezing temperatures of the short winter. My life in Florida was simple: I wrote, taught and took classes, and I swam. When I started thinking more deeply about who Erin, Aunty Wynn, and Erin’s mother were, the things they did and loved that helped to make them who they were, swimming was at the forefront of my own heart and mind. In addition to being members of the same family, I wanted there to be something at the beginning of the novel that bound these women together, even if it was only this sport.
I personally love how solitary swimming is. Even when I belonged to a club and trained for hours every day with other athletes, all of us moving up and down the lane with only an arm’s length between us, it was never a team pursuit. Come competition day you’re even more alone. It’s only you up there on the starting blocks. It takes a certain kind of person to be fulfilled by this kind of activity, I think. A self-centered, very focused and determined, maybe even obsessive personality. On the surface the three central women in The Swimmers seem very different, but they all share some of these personality traits: Erin’s mother has lived her life by her own rules, and for the most part done all of it alone, even admirably so; Erin wants to be part of something bigger, but in her heart she’s still too selfish and ambitious to make room for other people; and some of the things the reader learns about Aunty Wynn in the novel reveals how self-centered she can be too. What these women experience over the five days of The Swimmers shakes some of this up, but this is where we first find them, where we begin.
You could never have known how timely the topic of euthanasia would be, with the referendum timed for not long after publication. Are you interested in bio-ethical issues, or was this story driven by character?
I wanted to find out what it would look like for a regular Kiwi family to help take the life of one of their own. I wanted to see the logistics of that play out. But more importantly, I wanted to see what kind of emotional toll it would take on the people involved. The first version of this story was a short I brought to Jill Ciment’s workshop at the University of Florida (UF). It was a grainy piece about a fractured family coming together to scatter the ashes of a recently deceased member. Jill was the one to point out I was trying to cram too much into this short piece and that it wasn’t working. She showed me all the places I could begin to “crack it open” and suggested that I should try a longer form, take my time with it, go deeper. So while this is a story about assisted suicide––that’s what gives the novel its forward momentum––I think of it more as a story about family and some of the ways we get each other and miss each other, some ways we can hurt and save. On the journey to helping Erin’s mother receive a peaceful death on her own terms, Erin and Aunty Wynn do some morally questionable things. Though if I’ve done my job correctly, hopefully it’s what they reveal of themselves along the way, the small ways they change and leave themselves vulnerable, which gives the story its emotional payoff.
The Swimmers looks at beauty and ugliness, at success and failure. It’s a fiction that talks about physical prowess, artistic talent, and judgment: tell us about the process of writing a novel to create a world that investigates these ideas with women as the driving force of the novel.
I went to a girls’ high school in Auckland where it was drummed into us every day and then shouted to us from the stage every school assembly that we were exceptional young women and we could do anything we wanted with our lives. Some of the girls I went to school with were exceptional and now they’re out there in the world doing what they do and ruling at it. For the rest of us, this insane positivity was more of a double-edged sword. Yes, we all deserve to feel good about ourselves, to feel supported, to want and to not be ashamed of that want. But it’s also a bit of a shock to step out into the world and realise you’re only mediocre and that maybe your idea of yourself is not quite right.
For Erin, being able to make art and swim, to be able to do these things at the highest level so that others may experience some level of curiosity or amazement, be moved in some way––that was her dream. Through her failure to achieve this she understands that hard work and sacrifice are important, but that they’re not everything, that if you’re without that thing we call talent or natural ability, then it doesn’t matter how many kilometres you swim in the pool every day. At this stage in her life this is something she is struggling with, being what she thinks of as talentless. This is why she can only see herself in respect to someone else’s achievements. For example, her swimming career vs. Aunty Wynn’s, or how little she has to offer at twenty-six vs. everything Karl’s (her ex-lover’s) forty-year-old wife has to offer.
Some early readers of the manuscript thought it was strange to place art and sport side by side in the book, and for Erin to be as moved by witnessing an athlete in the pool as she was by a painting. I don’t believe these things are actually very far apart. I think about what happens when I walk into a museum or someone’s home and there is a painting hanging on the wall that stirs something inside of me. Maybe I just like the colours, the movement of the brushstrokes, maybe it reminds me of something, a room from my childhood, a place I visited once, or maybe it pushes at a feeling inside of me that I can’t quite describe. But why do I watch sport? Because I like the feeling of my pulse quickening when the person or the team I’m rooting for is doing well or not. And how satisfying is it to witness the human body at its best? I also like to remember what it was like to be fit, strong and quick, though I probably enjoy the sadness of losing that too, of the ways my body has since failed or disappointed me. At the end of it, the best experiences of these things make me feel something, good or bad, fun or dark, and maybe help me know myself a little better. Erin gets that too.
What books, film, art or music have influenced your writing?
Probably the biggest breakthrough I had with my writing, and this was something that happened while I was studying at UF, was letting go of the kind of writer I wanted to be for the kind of writer I could be. Jill Ciment helped me a lot with this. So did Padgett Powell. Padgett’s mentor was Donald Barthelme, and his reading lists included Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Flann O’Brien, and Barthelme. But the one author we read every week, his Collected Stories becoming a sort of bible for Padgett’s class, was the Irish author William Trevor. Some of Trevor’s stories are the singularly most devastating things I’ve ever read, likely ever will read. While I’m writing this I’m thinking about a scene from a Trevor story that I haven’t read in years, but that still pulls at me, tears me up. They’re traditional stories, no games. Reading Trevor made me see that style is style, that it’s in you or it isn’t, and even then if those fun and tricks on the page are not in service of a truckload of humanity, then they’re just that––fun and tricks. Fun and tricks can be great, but Padgett used to quote Barthelme here: “What must wacky modes do? Break their hearts.” I’d been so focused on trying to write with style I’d forgotten what writing can do, the best thing about it. So I stopped trying to write in wacky mode and instead I focused on putting the sentences down on the page in the clearest way possible. It started to work then.
I guess if I could only read one author for the rest of my life William Trevor would be a top contender. Up there with him would be Joy Williams, Alice Munro, Anne Enright and, though she has been less of an influence and more of goddess to worship at the feet of, Flannery O’Connor.
I always look at books as part of a wider conversation. Tell me two or three books you would like to see The Swimmers sit alongside in conversation, books that would inform and augment a reader’s experience of your novel.
A couple of books came out while I was working on The Swimmers that I really enjoyed, and that to a lesser or greater extent are narrated by young women at crossroads, while also exploring narratives around difficult families. These are Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. One of my absolute favourite authors is Anne Enright. Her novel The Gathering is one I come back to again and again. She writes about family unhappiness with such unflinching clarity, intelligence, heartbreaking honesty, but also with a humour that is so slight and dark it works like another punch to the guts.
What are you reading right now? What is on your To Be Read pile?
I’m just about finished reading Pip Adam’s Nothing to See, which is so tough and funny and unbelievably moving. I was recently trying to describe Pip’s writing to someone, the often breathless quality of it, and the best I could come up with was that it felt a bit like rolling down a hill where you feel like you’ve lost control, you’re at the mercy of gravity. But before you crash or careen off the edge of the cliff, Pip catches you, and you realise that you weren’t falling, that she was pulling you along and always in control, taking you exactly the direction she wanted to take you. It’s a wild and rewarding ride. Next on my “for fun” list are A Girl’s Story by Annie Ernaux and Miss Jane by Brad Watson. I’ve also got a few things I’m re-reading in connection to the new novel I’m working on: A Separation by Katie Kitamura, Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill and Joy Williams’ incredible travel guide on the Florida Keys.