Like any woman who refuses to take anti-depressants or drink heavily after her husband disappears, Sia began to float. ~ from The Art of Floating
When we lose someone who is an anchor in our lives, there is a natural inclination to withdraw from the living, to retreat inward. Or, if you’re Sia Dane in The Art of Floating, upward. And sometimes, it takes more than therapy or time to recover.
For Sia, in Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s new novel, it takes a few of the town’s eccentric characters–like her best friend Jilly and the elusive Dogcatcher–and especially the arrival of a speechless man, who seems to have walked straight out of the ocean and onto the beach.
Through setting and character and brief chapters in The Art of Floating, O’Keeffe weaves together themes such as sorrow and empathy and letting go in a unique and captivating way, giving readers a glimpse into the psyche of a woman who simply wants to know the truth of how or why her husband disappeared.
I’m thrilled to host Kristin Bair O’Keeffe today for an interview. As a bonus, she’s offering a copy of her new book to one lucky reader! Leave your name in the comments to enter the giveaway; Random.org will choose the winner on Tuesday, May 6th.
Now, welcome Kristin Bair O’Keeffe!
CC: Sia’s full name is Odyssia, given to her in response to her mother’s obsession with The Odyssey and, perhaps, marking Sia for her own arduous journey after her husband’s disappearance. How did the writing of Sia’s story unfold for you? From the seed of an idea? From a myth that took on a modern feel? Organically or from the pages of a well-thought-out plan?
KBO: As I wrote in a recent guest post for Shelf Pleasure, I discovered the seed of this novel in 2005 while waiting for a turkey and provolone sandwich at a café in Haverhill, Massachusetts. There was an article in the New York Times about a mute, unresponsive man who’d been found soaking wet on a beach in Europe (Germany, I think), and when I read it, I had one of those “this is my next novel” moments when angels sing and lights flash and sirens sound.
Shortly after, I moved to Shanghai, China, with my brand-new husband, and there, I started to write this novel. Throughout the first few drafts (I wrote 48 in total), I believed I was telling the story about the man found on the beach (Toad). I was writing with the focus directly on him, but as I wrote, I realized that there was this amazingly cool woman who found him on the beach and who had suffered a horrible, soul-altering loss that had sent her on an incredible journey through sorrow, far from the shores of home. Somewhere in there, I figured out that I needed to shift the spotlight to this woman.
I’d fallen in love with Homer’s The Odyssey the first time I read it in my 9th-grade English class (we read the entire thing out loud! it was incredible…), and I’d always wanted to write a modern-day structural/emotional/female version of it. Through some cosmic magic, that desire and this particular story dovetailed. That’s when the structure and the voice began to fall into place, and suddenly the woman who finds the man on the beach had a name: Odyssia (Sia).
CC: I love the role that setting and environment play in your novel. In the book, even Sia’s house takes on her sorrow, as she closes the shutters, burrows in, and falls apart, until–finally–the house itself “crack[s] open on its own accord.” Shortly after, Sia discovers Toad, the mysterious man on the beach who, battered and worn, appears pushed ashore by the ocean. The way you write about the house and Toad’s appearance almost suggests that we reach a threshold with empathy and loss, so that we can no longer suffer alone. Was that your goal in making sense of place and setting such an important character in the novel?
KBO: When writing the early drafts of The Art of Floating, I wasn’t conscious of using place and setting in any one particular way. I was just letting the story unfold and figuring out its path. But once I recognized that getting as close to Sia’s experiences with and expressions of sorrow and loss were vital parts of the story, I knew I had to push past all trite descriptions of such and create authentic representations. In the “real” world, we often cushion our reactions to loss. After a tragedy when someone asks, “How are you doing?” we often say something along the lines of “Oh, fine. Just fine.” We cover up how we’re really doing because raw expression makes some people uncomfortable, like Joe Laslow in the book. Sia’s inability to move past her grief makes Joe crazy.
Once I understood this aspect of the story, using place and setting to help to reveal Sia’s grief happened quite naturally. At conferences I often teach a workshop called “The Geography of a Novel” that explores how to make the physical and emotional geographies of a story work together. In this way, it was a lot of fun figuring out which aspects of Newburyport and Plum Island, Massachusetts (where The Art of Floating takes place) complemented and/or highlighted Sia’s personality and state of mind (and, equally important, which didn’t).
CC: In this blog post on your website, Writerhead, you talk about the many hats you wear as a mother working a full-time job, promoting one book while writing another. With such a busy schedule, what gets you into Writerhead. Or better yet, how do you make time for Writerhead?
KBO: Honestly, this is the toughest writing period of my entire life. I have an amazing six-year-old daughter; I have a wonderful but demanding job as the director of publications at private high school; I’m promoting my just-published novel The Art of Floating; and I’m trying desperately to get my next novel into shape. Throw a little bit of life into it (gym, grocery, kiddo activities, birthday parties, dinner, garden, husband, etcetera) and you have about seven minutes a day for writerhead. Not much.
Yet I’m writing. From 4:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. each day, I’m at my desk working on the new novel. Yep, I’m exhausted. Yep, I have deeper sacks under my eyes than I ever thought possible. But yep, I still get into writerhead.
CC: What are you reading these days?
KBO: I just started reading Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, a memoir about the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka that Deraniyagala survived, but that claimed the lives of her husband, two sons, and parents. It’s good. Powerful. Heartbreaking.
This year, my favorite novel was Haruki Murakami’s IQ84. It took about three months to read because I have even less time for reading than I do for writerhead, but so, so worth it.
On my “to read” list on Goodreads?
- Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China by Leta Hong Fincher
- Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (I know, I know! I’m probably the only person on earth who hasn’t read this marvel yet.)
Also, I read a lot of books with my six-year-old, picture books as well as chapter books (mostly, right now, about fairies). We’re in the middle of Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, and we reread Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who and The Lorax as often as possible.
CC: What’s the best advice you’ve heard that sticks with you through thick and thin?
KBO: Writing begets writing.
Kristin Bair O’Keeffe is the author of the novels The Art of Floating (Penguin/Berkley, April 2014) and Thirsty (Swallow Press, 2009). Her work has been published in numerous magazines and journals, including Poets & Writers Magazine, The Gettysburg Review, The Christian Science Monitor, and HYPERtext. She has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago and has been teaching writing for the past twenty years. In late 2010, after nearly five years in Shanghai, China, she repatriated to the United States and now lives north of Boston with her husband and daughter.
And don’t forget to leave your name in the comments for a chance to win a copy of The Art of Floating!