Have you ever wondered what your parents were like as a newly married couple before they had kids? Sure, we’ve all seen the photographs from their pre-parenthood days and have heard the story of how they met, but that doesn’t really tell us anything. Was theirs a whirlwind romance that would make you swoon? Or, was it filled with tumultuous times that tested the strength of their love?
This month’s Jen’s Jewels Holly LeCraw explores a sister and brother’s intense struggle to come to terms with the haunting revelations from their parents’ past in her debut novel, THE SWIMMING POOL. Splashing on the scene with her expertly written book of dives and dips and twists and turns, this psychological tale will keep you up until the wee hours of the morning. Mark my words…Holly LeCraw is the new IT girl in the publishing world!
As part of this interview, Doubleday, a division of Random House, has generously donated 5 copies for you, my lucky readers, to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end. And as always, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your reading adventure.
Jen: As a debut novelist, the story behind the path that led to publication can be just as fascinating as the novel itself. So that my readers may have a better understanding of the woman behind the words, please share with us your educational and professional background.
Holly: I don’t know about fascinating….the path has consisted of working hard, alone, in little rooms, for a long time. Also, battling myself for a long time–that is, learning how to get out of my own way, and to trust the results.
I have a degree in English from Duke and a master’s in English from Tufts–an M.A., not an MFA. My original intent was to get a Ph.D. and go into academia, but I realized that was the wrong place for me. I did go to writing workshops at Bennington (back when it was a summer program), the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and a few other places.
When I first got out of school, I worked briefly in publishing, but once I realized I wanted to write, I started waitressing and temping and things like that. In retrospect I’m not sure that was the best route, but at the time I couldn’t envision putting my creative energies into both a job and writing. Then I started having kids and became a stay-at-home mom, and fit writing in wherever I could.
Jen: Describe for us your “Ah! Ha!” moment when the decision to pursue a career in writing became a reality.
Holly: For a long time I didn’t think of it as a career–because “career” connotes “money,” which I definitely was not making from writing. And, also, a sense of legitimacy that took a long time for me to feel. But one answer to your question is that there were a series of moments when I proved to myself, over and over again, that I was miserable if I wasn’t writing. I thought that in order to be a grownup you had to work in an office and wear high heels and be otherwise respectable, but whenever I tried to be that person I failed miserably, so I finally threw in the towel.
The first true artistic “ah-ha” moment I had was when I was writing a story called “August,” about seven or eight years ago. This was after I had spent years writing a not-very-good novel, and had finally put it aside. I had three little children and not much time; I was pretty discouraged. But I had started this story, and I guess because I figured I had nothing to lose, I was being freer about it–I didn’t know where it was going at all. I had some images in my head, and I was just swimming from one to the next.
One afternoon I was working and realized I just had a few minutes before I had to leave to pick up kids. Normally I would have stopped, but I decided to press on, what the hell–and then, all the sudden, I had finished the story. I hadn’t even known I was near the end. And the end was a complete surprise to me; but it was perfect. That was the first time that I really got out of my own way–that I had not tried to control every word before it came out.
That story was nominated for a Pushcart, and led to some wonderful things. And I remember that moment, sitting at my desk, looking at those words I had just written, going, “Oh. So that’s how it works.”
Jen: Your debut novel entitled THE SWIMMING POOL has made a definite splash in the publishing world. An intricate storyline layered with emotionally charged characters makes this book a must-read. I could not put it down. Bravo! How did you arrive at the premise?
Holly: It started with Jed and Callie, the brother and sister. I knew their mother had died, and they didn’t know who had killed her. I thought it was a short story. And then my husband took the kids away for a weekend, and in that lovely quiet the basic outline of the book appeared. The key was Marcella; she was a very small, ancillary character for about three minutes, and then I realized she was major.
Jen: As I mentioned, your book is a story within a story. Let’s start by dissecting its parts. Betsy and Cecil McClatchey have a typical country club marriage. From the outside, it looks as if they lead an idyllic life. Yet, one day Cecil dares to cross the line and has an affair. What is the catalyst that leads him towards the path of self-destruction?
Holly: I don’t want to say it’s a garden-variety midlife crisis–although maybe it is. Actually, I think midlife crises aren’t garden-variety all the time. I think they can be profound existential crises. You’re confronting the idea of mortality and realizing it might be too late to reinvent yourself, and realizing all the decisions you made that you didn’t even realize were decisions at the time. Some people panic and throw everything away. I’ve seen it. I don’t want to play to stereotypes, but it seems like men panic much more easily.
I have to confess that I have the least sympathy for Cecil of any of my characters. I had to work hard to understand him–because Marcella falls in love with him, and I had to respect that, and respect him. People have affairs all the time, and usually they’re not evil people. But a betrayal like that, especially in what is a good, solid marriage, is just incomprehensible to me personally. So I had to work very hard to try and figure it out. I think Cecil just decided he hadn’t taken enough risks. He had always played by the rules, and he began to wonder what would happen if he didn’t. I think Betsy could also sometimes be rather closed; she is almost frighteningly self-sufficient. I think he was attracted to Marcella’s vulnerability, because it was so different from Betsy, and made him feel useful, and powerful.
Jen: Why does Betsy choose not to confront Cecil even though she is well aware of his indiscretion?
Holly: Well, she’s aware, in an intuitive way, but she doesn’t have any concrete evidence. And it’s really only right before the end of her life that she admits to herself that she knows. This just occurred to me, but I think she’s like Elizabeth Edwards was for a long time (or the public perception of her, anyway)–she’s just going to rise above, and hope this bad thing goes away. Betsy is a very orderly person; this is the ultimate disorder, and she is just not prepared to face it head on.
Jen: Within a blink of an eye, everything changes when Betsy is brutally murdered by an intruder in her own home. How does Cecil’s decision to not expose his affair, even though it would prove his innocence, affect his relation with his daughter, Callie? And, with his son, Jed?
Holly: I think Cecil is so shattered he is not thinking clearly. He can’t connect A to B. He assumes that his children will know he’s innocent, and by the time he realizes that maybe that isn’t the case, he feels powerless to do anything about it. His feelings for Marcella are completely eclipsed by what has happened to Betsy; he decided at the beginning not to tell anyone, because it seemed irrelevant to him and because it seemed like a betrayal of Betsy, and later he doesn’t have the wherewithal to revisit that decision. He traps himself. And when he dies, he leaves Callie and Jed in the trap.
Jen: Years later, Callie and Jed are still suffering due to the circumstances surrounding both of their parents’ deaths. (Cecil dies not long after Betsy’s murder.) When Jed accidentally finds an old bathing suit hidden in their summer home, what makes him search out the owner? Or, is it simply a subconscious effort to bring the past back into the present?
Holly: The book takes place, as books do, when the characters are at a crisis point. Their parents died seven years ago, but the premature birth of Callie’s daughter has pushed Callie to the brink. Jed senses this, and he is ready to join her there–ready to shake himself out of his emotional paralysis. The bathing suit reminds him of a time when he still felt life held endless possibility–and, incidentally, when he was attracted to someone, which he hasn’t truly been in a long time.
Jen: Marcella is a troubled woman whose life has been a series of disappointing events that have stripped her of all semblance of self-worth. Quite simply, she is an empty shell yearning for love. When Jed shows up on her doorstep looking for answers, why does she choose to open Pandora’s Box?
Holly: That is a very, very good question. Maybe a bit of a chicken and egg situation. The first answer is that they have a powerful sexual attraction from the beginning–but why? Honestly, it is something I didn’t want to examine in too analytical a way when I was writing it. It holds a magic that I didn’t want to parse away. Their relationship is taboo, definitely; it has quite an Oedipal tinge. Jed has lost his mother (who, however, was nothing at all like Marcella), and Marcella never had the son she longed for so desperately. She doesn’t think of him as a son, but that suggestion is there.
But at the same time, they’re equals. They’re mourning the same person, the same situation, and they’re both so broken. It’s possible that each was the only one that could have brought the other forward.
I think Marcella also might initially give in to Jed partially out of guilt. She feels she has helped to wound him, and so wants to comfort him. Which she does. He hasn’t been able to love anyone, really, since his parents died, until he reconnects with her.
Jen: When Marcella reveals the details of her relationship with Cecil, how does Jed’s opinion of his dad change? Or, does it? Is he more sympathetic or critical of his father’s imperfections?
Holly: I think Jed hasn’t been able to mourn either of his parents fully, because of the ways he lost them–that’s why he is so stuck. With his father, he has been stuck in rage. When Jed finds out about his father’s affair, in an odd way it re-humanizes Cecil for him. Jed is disgusted and devastated, but his father also becomes less monolithic in his mind, and that is the beginning of being able to really see what he lost.
Jen: The wounded soul in this story is poor Callie. Unable to accept the fact that her parents are dead, she barely exists in a world that has shown her no mercy. How is her relationship with her husband Billy a direct correlation to the way in which she views the atrocities in her life?
Holly: That’s a very interesting question. In some ways she has been much more functional than Jed since they lost their parents–she’s gotten married, had children. I think though that her relationship with Billy is quite shallow–just as probably all her relationships are shallow at this point, except with Jed. She is a great one for soldiering on, like Betsy, and what happens during this book is that she finally cracks under the pressure. Being a trouper like that requires a lot of energy directed outward and not much inward, and that’s not sustainable for Callie.
Jen: Without giving too much away, how does Marcella’s new relationship with her ex-husband Anthony help her to reconnect with her daughter?
Holly: I don’t think it’s her relationship with Anthony so much as the fruits of her relationship with Jed–she begins to wake up, to be able to see other people, to feel some agency. She begins to dwell less on her losses and the things she never had, and to look instead at the things she does–namely, her daughter. She’s also able to reconsider her relationship with her own mother, who died when she was about Toni’s age, and which had never been very functional; and that helps her to see herself as a mother and to think more clearly about how she and Toni relate. It goes the other way too–as Marcella begins to thaw, their relationship becomes vital again, to each of them.
When I was writing the book, I was very conscious of the beauty of these people’s lives. That might sound crazy, given all the tragedy and drama in the book. But their connections are profound, and they all begin to sense the wonder and depth of their love for each other, both the people they have lost and the people they still have. I hope that in the end readers feel it is a hopeful story.
Jen: I wish we could talk about the shocking ending, but we can’t. Suffice it to say, my readers will not be disappointed. So, let’s switch gears and discuss your promotional plans. First of all, do you have a website? If so, please take us on a brief tour.
Holly: I do have a website– www.hollylecraw.com. All the info about the book’s promotion is there, and more about me, and writing the book. And there are links to friend me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter.
Jen: Are you planning a book tour? Also, will you be participating in author phone chats? And if so, how would my readers go about scheduling one?
Holly: I am going on tour–I’ll be in Atlanta (where I was born and raised); Seattle; Washington, DC; Nashville; Durham, NC; and Oxford and Jackson, MS. And I’ll be at a bunch of stores here in New England and also on the Cape, where the book is mostly set.
I’d love to do phone chats and book group visits! The contact info is also on my website.
Jen: Are you currently at work on your next novel? If so, what can you tell us about it?
Holly: Right now it’s called THE SWEETNESS OF HONEY. It’s a bit of a Cain-and-Abel story–there are two half-brothers, one middle-aged and one just out of college, and they are both teachers at a prep school in New England. They each fall in love with the wrong people–and, just to make things interesting, the same people.
Jen: Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to stop by and chat with my readers. What a powerful and well-written novel! I do believe this is only the beginning of a long, successful career. Best of luck!
Holly: Thank you so much. You asked wonderful questions. And I certainly hope you’re right.
I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Holly. Please stop by your favorite bookstore or local library branch and pick up a copy of THE SWIMMING POOL today. Better yet, would you like to win one instead?
Okay, FIVE readers who enter the Fresh Fiction contest regarding this interview with the correct answer to the following trivia question will be winners! Good luck!
Until next time…