Amity Gaige, SEA WIFE

Amity Gaige, SEA WIFE

Zibby Owens: Amity Gaige is the author of three novels, O My Darling, The Folded World, and Schroder which was shortlisted for the Folio Prize in 2014. Now she has just released her latest book which is called Sea Wife and has been launched to great acclaim. Published in eighteen countries, Schroder was named one of the best works of 2013 by New York Times Book Review, The Huffington Post, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Kirkus Reviews, the Women’s National Book Association, Cosmopolitan, Denver Post. There are literally ten other ones, so I’m going to stop. Amity is the recipient of many awards for her previous novels including Forward Book of the Year Award for 2007. In 2006, she was named one of the Five under Thirty-five Outstanding Emerging Writers by the National Book Foundation. She has a Fulbright and a Guggenheim Fellowship and residencies at MacDowell and Yaddo. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, Literary Review, The Yale Review, and One Story. She lives in Connecticut with her family and teaches creative writing at Yale.

Welcome, Amity. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Amity Gaige: Thank you for having me, Zibby. I’m glad to be here.

Zibby: Your novel, Sea Wife, by the way, was in the window in the only bookstore I’ve seen in real life in the last two months. You got prominent placement for your beautiful cover.

Amity: I am so happy to hear that. It is such a pretty cover. It’s this robin’s egg blue. It kind of sticks out.

Zibby: It does. It’s great. It’s very peaceful too even though there’s a lot that goes on. Can you please tell listeners what Sea Wife is about?

Amity: It is about a family of four that decides to scrap their conventional life in suburban Connecticut and go on a boat in the Caribbean for a year. It’s told from two perspectives, and finally three. There’s the husband and the wife and then their little daughter who pipes in towards the end. It’s written in a unique way in that the husband and wife alternate a narration as frequently, sometimes, as every other line or every other paragraph. It’s kind of telling the story together. You realize as you read on that they’re telling the story from different timeframes. It’s really Juliet, the mother and the wife, the woman, the protagonist, it’s really her story. There’s so much you don’t know as the narration starts. All you know is that she’s reflecting on their time at sea. You get to read Michael, the husband’s, perspective as well. It alternates between the two of them for most of the book.

Zibby: And you know that she has a penchant for closets.

Amity: Who doesn’t? Yeah, she does. She’s sitting in a closet at the beginning of the book. It was just a lot of questions about why. You know she’s undergone some sort of loss. Her children are fine. Her mother is there helping. The rest of the story’s unpacking what happened as she looks back on the journey.

Zibby: I love how when you were describing how she lost her closet to begin with, you write, “But I am a mother. Gradually, I just gave them all away, all my spaces, one by one down to the very last closet.”

Amity: I wondered if you related to that.

Zibby: I completely relate to that. I also related when you said about the husband, Michael, how he was morbidly funny and how he got funnier and funnier “while I, who had been funny, got less funny.” That was so spot on.

Amity: Right? I know. We used to be funny. What happened? Thank you for saying that. A lot of those lines are definitely culled from my own insights or from, certainly, friends. A lot of this book is inspired by so many conversations with so many women. I’d had a friend of mine, Susan Choi who wrote that great book Trust Exercise, we were talking about Sea Wife and she found another line. A couple of other women have mentioned the one about “Even though we were both educated people and we understood things about gender roles, we just signed up for the same kind of stereotypical gender role set we thought had been consigned to the cultural ash heap.” She and a couple other women have brought that up. Little nuggets throughout the book about how it feels to be in a contemporary marriage, to be a woman, a working woman, a mom with her own ambitions, a lot of stuff about that.

Zibby: Here’s just one more line when you wrote, “We’re just a hyphen between our parents and our kids. That’s what you learn in middle age. Mostly, this is something a mature person can live with, but every once in a while, you just want to send up a flare. I too am here.” I feel like, Amity, I am now reading your diary, is what’s going on here.

Amity: It’s so funny. You’re picking out a lot of the lines that I definitely really relate to. There’s a lot of that in there. There’s also stuff that I don’t. There’s stuff that since I had to represent different points of view, I really had to imagine my way into especially Michael’s consciousness. He’s my male character, and I wanted to give him a lot of depth too. The line you just read is from him, so there we go.

Zibby: Wherever they appear on the page, we know where they’re coming on. No, I’m kidding. Obviously, it’s fiction. I’m not trying to suggest that this is all what’s actually in your head. I’m really just poking fun.

Amity: Let’s admit it. We always think that the author is the same as the characters. I do too. We often imagine that, that they’re the same. Of course, they’re not. My family is all intact. We never left suburban Connecticut. It’s more of an imagination than anything else.

Zibby: I heard that you did learn to sail so that you could write this book.

Amity: I did.

Zibby: How was that?

Amity: That was a nightmare, but I am a better person for it. Walking that back a little bit, I started with this idea that I really wanted to set a book at sea. I love describing things. I love books with a strong sense of place. I definitely think that Sea Wife is kind of in that category. The setting is so important. I did my best to certainly learn everything I could about sailing and about maritime life. I interviewed many, many families who live at sea. I visited them. At a certain point, I knew that I needed to sail on my own — not on my own. I ended up going to the Caribbean to Grenada for a ten-day sailing course, which frankly wasn’t a lot, but I learned everything that I needed to know to write Sea Wife, which is not just how some of those parts of the boat work. Sailing is very complex, so I did need to know what a winch and sheet and stanchion are. It was more that I really needed to feel the wind at sea and hear it and hear a whistle in the rigging. I needed to feel what it feels like to try to walk when you’re below or try to sleep in a storm, all of those sensory aspects of things. That’s what I got when I went on that sailing course. Since we did meet some weather, I also really needed that to inform some of the later scenes. Basically, the last quarter of the book is one long journey into the middle of the sea. It was very necessary that I went and took that journey myself. Also, my characters are really novice sailors. They’re not pros. It helped that I wasn’t trying to be an expert about sailing. They were more like me. Juliet is more like me in the sense of, she was like, “Okay, I’ll do this for you, honey. I want to try to save our marriage. I’m depressed myself. I need to have an adventure and maybe try something new.” She was extremely weary and skeptical. I think the real journey of the book is really hers, which is that she needs to break out of that fear and indecision, and sail. Really, that’s what she ends up doing.

Zibby: Wow. Your structure, as you mentioned before, is complicated in that one point of view is at the end after the adventure. One is at the beginning from a different character’s point of view. Then you interweave a third. How did you keep that all straight while you were writing? What did your desk look like? Do you have it all in your head? Do you have notecards? What was the process like for you?

Amity: That is a really good question. It was kind of controlled insanity, I would say. It was definitely my most ambitious thing that I’d done. Not only was it quite difficult to try to write about the sea when I’m not a sailor, but also to structure the book exactly as you said where it’s back and forth in time. It also has a strong narrative, but it has these moments of meditation. Say one characters comes under Michael, he meditates on helicopter parenting. Then Juliet comes and meditates on poetry and women poets. I thought of the book, I like the metaphors of waypoints in sailing. In sailing, there are waypoints, which are just legs in a journey. Sometimes those waypoints are in the middle of nowhere. If you’re going to cross the ocean, you still have to aim for something, but that point might be just coordinates in the middle of the ocean.

It was very similar in writing the book. Let me just get to this waypoint. Let me get to this waypoint. I’m going to sense or intuit my way from one to the next. I hope that we are going towards — I knew where I wanted to go, but I did not know the waypoints. I was constantly pushing towards the final goal in the journey, but there was a lot of movement on the way. One thing I hope about the book is that the reader feels both those things too, both the narrative tension in terms of the total journey, which is across the sea, and also the momentum of these waypoints and these pauses where one character remembers or reflects on things. Those are also quite important. As you’re reading the book, there’s a sense of forward movement and also pausing. I think they’re both important. Of course, if somebody wants to read it all in one sitting and just power through it, I love that. I’ve gotten some readers saying, I stayed up all night, or I lost sleep to read this book. I think that’s a huge compliment. There also are these poetic moments of stillness in the book.

Zibby: And also with Juliet being a poet and having her own poems. It’s perfectly fitting.

Amity: Right. She loves her poetry. She’s studying it and trying to be an academic. She also just is a sensitive person hoping to understand her own life experience through poetry which is something a lot of us do.

Zibby: After you write a book like this — I know this is not your first novel by any stretch. I think it’s your fifth. Did I get that right? Your fifth or your fourth?

Amity: This is my fourth. For a second, I was like, oh, my god, did I write another book and forget about it?

Zibby: I’m sorry. I have it front of me, but I was not — anyway, sorry. Okay, your fourth. After delving deep into what happens with a family away at sea and really going into the relationships, how do you then go back to your own family? Does that make you feel any differently about your own marriage or your own parenting or anything having examined this other fictious family’s life for a while?

Amity: That’s a great question. For sure. I think I felt that mediating on my own life and choices throughout the whole process of writing the book. As I was researching, I was meeting families who were living in nontraditional ways. I started out the book thinking these people are crazy. As I said, I’m not a sailor. As time went on, I realized that there was actually — I’ve always admired people who take risks and adventurers even if they don’t succeed, and sometimes especially if those adventures don’t succeed. I was moved to see these people taking these risks — not reckless. These are very good sailors. They know what they’re doing. The children are extremely safety-conscious and everything. I admired them. It didn’t make me want to go and set sail, but it reminded me how much it matters that a spirit of adventure is in my own life and to not live a life out of fear. Of course, you don’t need to go sailing to prove it, but a spirit of adventurousness even in smaller ways. My own parents, one great thing they did with me is they were great travelers. We went to some strange places in the world. That made a huge impact on me because I had more perspective. I would get out of my narcissistic little box that we’re all born in. That’s very valuable. I want to bring that to my children. I want to be able to have them be brave in nature, and spiritually. I do want to do that. Then like everybody, I often don’t and can’t do those things. It’s an aspiration and something to keep in mind and to do whenever possible.

Zibby: #Goals.

Amity: Also, I will say, of course I thought a lot about marriage. I have a beautiful, supportive husband. Nobody ever believes that because there are these stressed marriages in my novels. I would say that, of course, this sense of marital stress, it’s quite common, especially when children arrive. It hits men and women quite differently, the arrival of the children. I think it’s always so important to remember that the other person is a human being with their own dreams and to try to honor that, each spouse honor that in the other. I think that that’s something that Juliet and Michael, they fail at. They try, but they don’t do it in time. I guess if there was sort of a message that the book gives, it would be to try to do that while you can. Love each other while you can. Try to communicate while you can. Don’t let the past or other wounds rob you of connection with your spouse or with anybody.

Zibby: Now that you have all that relationship advice out there, any parting advice for aspiring authors?

Amity: Aspiring authors, oh, my gosh. I’m a teacher. I’ve taught so many years. I love teaching. I think that aspiring writers should reach out and find community. They should find a mentor if they can or peers who are like mentors and get together and celebrate their writing. There is so much genuine community in sharing your work with others and hearing what they say. You don’t need to wait for publication for that to happen. It’s certainly one of the coolest things about being a published writer, is that suddenly that community really opens up and you hear from strangers. That’s the coolest thing in the world. Until you can get to that place, you still share. Share. I think that’s what we’re looking for, recognition from others and to be seen by others when we write our stories. Don’t wait.

Zibby: I love that. That was awesome advice. Thank you so much, Amity. This has been so much fun. I feel like now I want to go meet you for coffee or something.

Amity: I know. Maybe someday in better times.

Zibby: Someday, yes. In the meantime, Sea Wife, congratulations. So exciting. Thanks so much for coming on the show.

Amity: Thank you so much. It was so fun.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Amity: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Amity Gaige, SEA WIFE