On the occasion of Julie Otsuka’s stunning new novel, The Swimmers, being published, Narrative has a few burning questions for the author.
1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?
In fiction that would be six-year-old John Henry, in Carson McCullers’s Member of the Wedding. In life it would be my mother, who died in 2015. Everything I write seems to be about her in some way—this is especially true in The Swimmers. Even when I try not to write about her, she somehow surfaces in the work, if only as a ghostly penumbra. All these years later, I’m still trying to figure out who she was.
2. A line (that you or someone else wrote) that continues to inspire you?
From an interview with the painter Joan Miró: “I work like a gardener. Things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. I must graft. I must water. . . . Ripening goes on in my mind. So I’m always working at a great many things at the same time.”
I find it helpful to try to keep several things going at once in my writing. Some ideas come to fruition right away, others need nurturing over time, some arrive practically dead on the vine but are revived many years later. I’ll work on whichever project, or scene, or chapter my brain is drawn to on any particular day.
3. The story, book, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time? What did it teach you?
The Laramie Project, by Moisés Kaufman. A beautifully constructed play based on interviews the actors did with people in the town of Laramie, Wyoming, after the murder of Matthew Shepard. One of the most powerful works I’ve ever read, and a perfect example of how to give voice to an entire community in the wake of horrific tragedy.
4. What’s a writing day for you?
Prepandemic, my day was much more structured: I’d do research and take notes in the earlier part of the day and then, several times a week, head out to the gym. In the early evening I’d head over to my neighborhood café, which is where I got my best writing done. I wrote my first two novels and most of The Swimmers at that café.
Now, because of the pandemic, I am one of the many who work from home. I’ve given up the gym and the café until things feel safer. My best time for writing is now, for whatever reason, in the late morning, while seated at my desk with a cup of coffee, looking out over the roofs of Manhattan. It’s a very different writing experience.
5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?
It used to be: go to the gym or to the café! Now I just go for a walk.
6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?
Not sure about ten. But one word I seem to use a lot in my writing is however. It’s a nice escape hatch. You can say one thing, and then immediately pivot and say its opposite. In life it sometimes feels like everything I say—besides I and you—is a variation on Covid: mask, test, vax, boost, positive, negative, peak, surge.
7. What’s your current obsession?
It’s very mundane. Having just finished Swimmers, I have piles of manila folders all over my apartment, filled with various drafts of chapters, final page proofs, old copyedited pages (known, aptly, in publishing, as “dead matter”), notes, articles both read and unread, etc., that I move from one place to another, depending on where I need to sit. It’s ridiculous. So my current obsession is tossing out the files I no longer need and clearing out space on my shelves for the stuff I do want to keep, in order to make room for my next project. Which means culling my bookshelves, which I’m always loathe to do. It’s a very NYC problem. Somehow you have to make it all fit.
8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?
Maureen Howard, my thesis advisor at Columbia, was the first person who encouraged me to write about my family’s experience in the camps during WWII. Up until that point, I’d written only humorous short stories and did not think of myself as a “serious” writer. If it hadn’t been for her, I never would have written my first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine.
9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
I wish I’d truly understood, at age twelve, that my parents would not be around forever, and that I had been kinder to them, more forgiving. They were doing the best they could.
10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.
For lasting love, I’ve always relied on the friendship of women. Even after thirty-five years, I still get excited every time I go out to meet my best friend for lunch. My heart does a little back flip, and I am as keen to see her now as I was when we were young. In fact, even more so, as our lives have become more complicated and we no longer take the future—or the times that we can be together—for granted. I’m never happier than when I’m sitting across from her at the table, analyzing and discussing the events of our lives over an extended meal. It’s been a wonderful, lifelong conversation that I hope will never end.
Finally, is there a passage from The Swimmers that you’d like to share with our readers?
The pool is located deep underground, in a large cavernous chamber many feet beneath the streets of our town. Some of us come here because we are injured, and need to heal. We suffer from bad backs, fallen arches, shattered dreams, broken hearts, anxiety, melancholia, anhedonia, the usual aboveground afflictions. Others of us are employed at the college nearby and prefer to take our lunch breaks down below, in the waters, far away from the harsh glares of our colleagues and screens. Some of us come here to escape, if only for an hour, our disappointing marriages on land. Many of us live in the neighborhood and simply love to swim. One of us—Alice, a retired lab technician now in the early stages of dementia—comes here because she always has. And even though she may not remember the combination to her locker or where she put her towel, the moment she slips into the water she knows what to do. Her stroke is long and fluid, her kick is strong, her mind clear. “Up there,” she says, “I’m just another little old lady. But down here, at the pool, I’m myself.”
Most days, at the pool, we are able to leave our troubles on land behind. Failed painters become elegant breaststrokers. Untenured professors slice, shark-like, through the water, with breathtaking speed. The newly divorced HR manager grabs a faded red Styrofoam board and kicks with impunity. The downsized adman floats, otter-like, on his back, as he stares up at the clouds on the painted pale blue ceiling, thinking, for the first time all day long, of nothing. Let it go. Worriers stop worrying. Bereaved widows cease to grieve. Out-of-work actors unable to get traction aboveground glide effortlessly down the fast lane, in their element, at last. I’ve arrived! And for a brief interlude we are at home in the world. Bad moods lift, tics disappear, memories reawaken, migraines dissolve, and slowly, slowly, the chatter in our minds begins to subside as stroke after stroke, length after length, we swim. And when we are finished with our laps we hoist ourselves up out of the pool, dripping and refreshed, our equilibrium restored, ready to face another day on land.