Sara Jaffe – Dryland
SARA JAFFE offers up her debut novel, Dryland, in September (Tin House Books). This is an amazingly evocative and restrained piece of writing; as Maggie Nelson says, “It’s realism, but its realism brushes ever so deftly against the allegorical, making the novel shimmer, part diary, part dream.” Dryland resonates with wonder, with subtle and earnest discovery. It’s about growing up, about friendship and families, about sexuality and swimming and—as this interview will demonstrate—so much more.
Jaffe holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, RADAR Productions, and the Regional Arts and Culture Council. She is also co-founding editor of New Herring Press, a publisher of prose chapbooks. Her short fiction and criticism have appeared in publications including Fence, BOMB, NOON, Paul Revere’s Horse, matchbook, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She resides in Portland, where she has taught at many of the surrounding colleges. Here she talks with Peter Rock about her astounding first novel.
PETER ROCK: Where did the idea for this book come from?
SARA JAFFE: It came from a long short story I wrote called “500 Free,” which didn’t feel done when I finished it. I’d been thinking of writing about swimming for a long time—both because I love the physical sensation of swimming, and where my mind goes when I swim, and because I’m a pretty bad swimmer, or at least firmly mediocre. I care about succeeding in a lot of things I do, but I felt content to fail at swimming. Why? I got taken up with the idea of failure, with choosing to fail, and how this might be a liberatory or subversive stance, a queer stance (see Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure—which, interestingly, mentions swimming a few times).
I was also fixated on this scene in the Japanese film Still Walking, which is about a family that comes together each year to mourn the older brother’s death. He died saving a young boy from drowning, and part of the yearly celebration is when the young boy, now older, comes over to pay his respects. The scene where he visits is awkward and poignant. That’s sort of how I got the idea of the missing brother, and of Ben—this idea of someone else coming in and acting as a surrogate for someone who’s gone.
PR: Of course, the real failure when swimming is drowning; I’ve been thinking of that with regard to something I’m writing, how one can always coast on a bike, or get off, or stop running and walk, or just sit down if one gets tired. With swimming, failure has its consequences.
On a slightly different tangent: I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that felt so sincere, that never turned coy or knowing or cynical. Julie’s voice is at once naïve and insightful. And she never wavered, I never felt like she was a character, but a person. Her consistency made me very happy. Was tone something you worried about or sought?
SJ: The word “sincere” is interesting to me. So is the way you move in this question from “voice” to “character” to “tone.” And I guess by interesting I mean that these are not associations I’ve made, but I’m into thinking about what they have to do with the text. To some extent, I think your impressions of sincerity and consistency do have to do with choices I made around character—I really didn’t want to write a teenage narrative that was “wise beyond her years” or particularly self-aware. At the same time, I wanted to capture the fact that she might think of herself as self-aware. She doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. Also, this may be related: the book is written in the first person, but I don’t think of it as being only from Julie’s POV. At times I actually wrote other characters’ dialogue by imagining the scene from their perspective. I wanted the first-person to feel constructed, written. Contextual? I guess: the text holds her accountable, in some way.
Also, I think some of what you describe as tone has to do with choices I made at the level of language. I really worked to keep any “chatter” out of the text. As little exposition as possible. No sentence that did something another sentence also did. No winks at the reader. I wanted the sentences to feel taut. Do you think that has something to do with the effect of “sincerity” you felt?
PR: Yes. And I guess my question suggests that I understand this effect as a series of separate decisions or strategies or intentions; really I believe it works more closely to the way you describe—it all arises from having a handle on the character, and how she might understand her world, how she might speak. And as insightful and complex as Julie is, she is also sometimes confused and hesitant, which generates a natural restraint. Could you say a little more about the constructed-ness of this first person narration? That’s interesting to me…
SJ: Harry Mathews said (in a conversation with performer Jim Fletcher, published as a chapbook by Semiotext(e)), “I think that fiction is realistic when it reminds readers that what they are reading is a lie.” That is, first and foremost, fiction is written, it’s a representation of an experience, and some of my most pleasurable moments as a reader come when I can feel the tension between the language on the page and what it attempts to describe. Dryland is certainly working in a more conventionally realist mode than many of the writers that come to mind when I think of this productive tension (New Narrative writers including Robert Gluck, Dodie Bellamy, Camille Roy; Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story; contemporary fiction writers Lucy Corin and Susan Steinberg; Mathews himself, with his use of Oulipian constraints), but I attempted to destabilize the text in subtle ways.
The scene where Julie goes to the coach’s office to try to quit comes to mind. Julie’s and Coach’s ideas of what’s going on in this scene are completely different. Because I’m keeping formal fidelity to the first person, I can only share what Julie hears (i.e. I can’t share what other characters are thinking), but I as the author can be thinking about what they’re thinking and have that guide their speech and actions, rather than putting Julie’s interpretive gloss on it. My hope is that that strategy creates a tension similar to what I described above, in which Julie’s “I” attempts to claim authority, but fails. Narratively, affectively, the first person traditionally says “Trust Me”; I wanted my first person to trouble that notion, not just because Julie is an unreliable narrator, but because the written representation of any self is always a form of artifice.
PR: And does this hold especially true for an interview-by-email? Just kidding. Next question: Why 1992? Why is that time interesting? Does it change the pressures on the characters if they don’t have cellphones or FB or even the internet?
SJ: Yes, 100%. I really wanted this dynamic of Julie “looking for” her brother, but not knowing where or how to find him, except possibly in a swimming magazine. If the internet existed the searching/finding would be so different; he’d automatically come closer. Also, in the early 1990s gayness hadn’t yet hit the mainstream—Ellen didn’t even come out until 1997. I thought it would be more interesting in terms of plot and character if less was “available” to Julie. And, I was 15 in 1992. So maybe also a little bit of laziness? I didn’t have any interest in researching what it was like to be a teenager today.
PR: Ha; I’ve proven many times that researching and writing about things one has no interest in is not particularly fruitful! But I am interested in swimming, and you are interested in swimming. What is it about swimming? How is it different than other high school sports, and are these differences dramatic, or grounds for drama?
SJ: I know! I think of swimming as the artist’s sport, but why? I’m a lifelong mediocre swimmer, and I was on my high school swim team for only one season—I quit at the beginning of the second to be in the winter play instead. For me it’s always felt dreamy and meditative. Maybe it’s like running, in that it doesn’t need to be competitive, can happen completely solo, and thus is—or feels—more intensely personal?
PR: It’s a book about sexuality, and awareness, and characters figuring out their identities and attractions, and yet so little is ever fully resolved—for the most part, the narrative denies most of its characters a kind of epiphany of sexual identity. Does that seem like a fair assessment, and why/not?
SJ: That does seem like a fair assessment. In fact, very close to the time we were going to press my editor pointed out that Julie never actually wonders whether she’s gay, and suggested that that might be a problem for some readers. But I really wanted to avoid that moment of epiphany. I was thinking a lot about the relationship between identity and experience, how one might conceive of oneself as “gay” or “a lesbian” or whatever before having had sexual experience with someone of the same sex, or, conversely, a person might have those experiences but not have them automatically mean something about identity. Julie falls into the latter category. This isn’t because she “refuses labels” or some other more contemporary figuration of sexuality, but because, even after having had these experiences, she still can’t conceive of herself as a sexual person. And she doesn’t have the political consciousness to claim that identity independent of experience.
My decision to avoid a decisive “coming out” moment (to herself, or others) also has to do with narrative, and narrative conventions around coming-out stories. “Coming out,” for most LGBT people, is not a singular moment but a series of moments, reveals, lies, near-misses, postures, openings. It’s often discontinuous and illegible, and the actual moment of saying “I’m gay” doesn’t really mean quite as much as a narrative might want to make it mean.
PR: Excellent. That makes sense. This is actually the kind of sincerity I meant; to force the almost-expected epiphany would seem to falsify and simplify a lot, here. This is where the storytelling really impresses me in retaining its complexity by respecting its characters.
Shifting directions: There’s so much music in the book. How did you think about employing it, and what about your choices (I admit that I’ve always been a “Country Feedback” fan, too, just like our heroine, Julie—p. 175; and then having Alexis play U2’s “One” over and over again really locked her character in, for me. But we’ve also got the Beastie Boys, and My Bloody Valentine, etc….)?
And then there’s even Grease and—a little meta—a Grease sing-along at a slumber party where girls are engaged in cosmetological work….
Did your own musical experience inform these decisions?
SJ: First off, that Grease bit isn’t meta—it’s, like, deliberate performance! No subtlety intended.
Music was really important to me when I was Julie’s age, but it got really really important to me when I was a little older and discovered punk, indie music, riot grrrl, etc. I think of loving “Country Feedback” as really indicative of an indie music kid in the making—choosing the most obscure song on a mainstream record before you have access to other channels toward obscurity. Ben is about to turn Julie on to all this underground music that will blow her mind, but I was more interested in creating a character that existed right before that moment of transformation. Julie is so defensive, and would, of course, make up excuses for why something that she doesn’t enjoy or get is bad in some way. It was really fun, for example, for me to come up with her description of MBV as “choked syrup music.”
PR: I was an indie music kid in the making, listening to ”Country Feedback” (while bad-mouthing “Losing My Religion”)! And, growing up in Utah, I now realize I should have been in Portland. What benefits did setting this story in Portland provide?
SJ: For one thing, setting it in Portland allowed me to distance myself from the narrative a little more (I grew up in New Jersey). It also allowed me to think about the ways Portland has changed since the early 90s (which I know about a little firsthand, and also from conversations with people who have lived here for a long time). You may have noticed, however, that I never actually refer to the city as “Portland.” I mean, it is Portland, but I wanted to be able to play a little fast and loose with geography and the like. I felt inspired by an interview with George Saunders where he says that he doesn’t care that much about place in his work. Obviously one needs to be aware of setting, to some extent, but I liked the idea that, at least narratively, place only had to be as important as I wanted it to be.
PR: In some ways, a reader might see this novel walking the line between Young Adult Literature and Literary Fiction for Adults. Is that problematic? Interesting?
SJ: I wrote Dryland with an adult audience in mind. And I specifically conceptualized the book as NOT doing some of the things I thought YA novels did: offering a clear narrative of maturation or change, valuing plot over language/style, attempting to make the protagonist “relatable” (god, how I loathe that word). I understand, now, that contemporary YA lit can be very “literary,” and that there’s lots of challenging, complex, stylistically interesting YA lit out there. So at the end of the day, if younger readers enjoy reading Dryland, that’s great.
That said, I do think the critical discourse around YA lit still favors the qualities I described above. I’ve already read a few summaries of the book that focus really heavily on the extent to which the reader can identify with Julie. And I guess I find that a little troubling because I do want the reader to feel some distance from her, as well—back to what I was saying above about how “she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know.” My hope is that she feels like a character that readers can examine in a more holistic and critical way than if they were merely identifying with her. In her blurb for the book, Maggie Nelson said it had an “allegorical” quality, and I really like that—sort of like, I think of the story as a commentary on a particular kind of experience, rather than a seamless representation of it. And the former is what I fear might get lost if the book gets read as YA.
PR: Did writing a novel about swimming make you a better or worse swimmer?
SJ: Better, because I read a lot about the physics of swimming in this exercise science textbook called Swimming Even Faster. I learned that when swimming freestyle you shouldn’t apply full pressure to your stroke until your forearm is perpendicular to the floor, so that you’re giving all your strength to push the water behind you.
Worse, because swimming for me is ultimately a meditative form of exercise, I think how my thinking gets loose in the pool, and I would save up questions about the novel for pool contemplation and forget about my stroke while I thought about them.
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Sara Jaffe is a writer, musician, and teacher living in Portland, OR. She coedited The Art of Touring (Yeti, 2009), an anthology of writing and visual art by musicians drawing on her experience as guitarist for post-punk band Erase Errata, and she is co-founding editor of New Herring Press, a publisher of prose chapbooks and beyond. Dryland is her first novel. (Author photo by Nadia Cannon.)
Peter Rock’s most recent book is The Shelter Cycle, which concerns the end of the world in Montana in 1990, among other things. His previous novel, My Abandonment, has won an Alex Award, the Utah Book Award, and been published in Germany, Turkey and France. He is also the author of the novels The Bewildered, The Ambidextrist, This Is the Place, and Carnival Wolves, and a story collection, The Unsettling. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and two fierce young daughters. He is a Professor of Creative Writing in the English Department at Reed College.