Emma Fedor, AT SEA

Emma Fedor, AT SEA

Debut author Emma Fedor joins Zibby to discuss At Sea, a mesmerizing, haunting, and genre-defying novel about a whirlwind romance with a charismatic soldier, his unimaginable ability to breathe underwater, and his sudden, traceless disappearance with the baby they had together. Emma discusses the themes she enjoyed exploring: the irresistible pull of first love, the fierceness of motherhood, and the unpredictability of grief. She also talks about her own struggles with infertility, her arduous journey to publishing this book (it involves the slush pile and Pitch Madness on Twitter?!), the book she is working on now, and the authors who inspire her.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Emma. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss At Sea: A Novel.

Emma Fedor: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Zibby: Listeners cannot see the cover, but you have to just stop what you’re doing as you listen and google this cover or something for At Sea by Emma Fedor. Fedor? How do you pronounce it?

Emma: Fee-dor.

Zibby: It’s this very cool underwater blue with this coral At Sea and these two bodies. It is just so beautiful and captivating. It’s a great entry point into the story, which is also immersive and interwoven and bubbly and all the things. It’s a fitting cover.

Emma: Thank you. They did a great job with it.

Zibby: Emma, tell everybody about the book. What is At Sea about?

Emma: At Sea follows Cara. She’s a recent college graduate. She’s twenty-two, aspiring artist. When she can’t find a job, she resolves to spending the summer on Martha’s Vineyard with her kooky aunt. While she’s there, she meets and fall in love with Brendan, who is this charming, charismatic soldier who’s on leave. He tells her this incredible secret and claims that he has the ability to breathe underwater. The two fall into this whirlwind romance. They end up having a child together. It’s not a spoiler. I’ll just put that out there. They have a child together. They one night, Brendan and the child just disappear without a trace. Don’t know what happened to them. For years, Cara’s left to figure out what happened to her family until one day, a fisherman spots two figures in the middle of the ocean not near boats or land or anything. They’re in the water. Then they just go right back under the water, and they never come back up. That’s how the novel starts. You see these two figures. Then Cara’s trying to figure out, was that them? Am I crazy? Could he really breathe underwater? Was this true? I tell people it’s a little bit romance, a little bit thriller, a little bit coming-of-age. It’s got a lot going on.

Zibby: Did you watch Splash ever? You’re too young, probably.

Emma: No, I know, with Daryl Hannah.

Zibby: Not that this is like that, but just the notion that there could be someone with these extra powers, and almost like The Little Mermaid, even. It’s almost like the story The Oldest Time or whatever that — Donna’s Oldest Time. Never mind. A tale as old as time, but in a whole new, modern way. The scene that I can’t get out of my head is when Cara walks in and Brendan’s trying to give the baby a bath. She’s like, I know what you’re doing. No, no, no. You don’t know if the baby has this gift or not. Stop. Cold sweat type of reaction to that.

Emma: There’s that scene. They have this baby. They wonder, would the baby have inherited this gift? The father, Brendan, decides to test it out by holding the baby underwater. As a mother, that’s terrifying. I have a three-month-old. I just had a baby, so it was hitting close to home for me too now, scenes like this.

Zibby: That piece of it, the fear of life as a new mom, was so vibrant. I’m actually surprised that you wrote it before all of that because it really captured that fear, and the empty crib and what you feel, oh, my gosh, bringing someone into the world and all of that.

Emma: I’m glad to hear that.

Zibby: Then you use time really interestingly in the book when you’re going back and forth. You introduce us early on to Graham, the current-day partner. There’s so much that courses through about how these men even handle her reactions to big things and loss and everything else and how she navigates around them, finding her way, swimming around to try to find her spot in the world. Tell me a little bit about how you structured those relationships and all of that.

Emma: The first thing you touched on is the element of time and how it works in the novel. As you know, the novel alternates between time periods. It starts in, I think it’s 2008, which is when Cara and Brendan are first meeting and their courtship. Then it goes fast-forward to the present when he’s gone. She’s moved on with someone else, Graham. It’s interesting because when I was writing it, it originally was in a part one and part two. I wrote the whole first part and then the whole fast-forward to part two, to 2013 five years later. It just came from experimenting that I had this alternating narrative idea. I knew I wanted to start the book with that scene of those two figures in the water who disappear and don’t come back up and that mystery of it. I just thought that really draws in the reader and makes you think, what? What’s going on? Gets you turning pages, I hope. It’s so funny. There’s so much hate on prologues in the publishing industry, too, that I was like, I don’t know, you’re not supposed to have a prologue. I don’t know how I feel about it.

I thought, let’s just play around and see what happens. I printed the whole thing out and literally paperclipped sections and shuffled them around until I got it just right. I hope it helped with attention, in a way, to go back and forth. It’s tough to do because you don’t want people to get confused. You want to show that the characters are different from each time period, which speaks to the second part of your question about these two men, Graham and Brendan. Cara’s twenty-two, pretty naïve when she first meets Brendan. He’s just really exciting and new. She falls for that. Then later, she grows up because she goes through all of this turmoil. Then she veers toward Graham, who’s much more stable. Although, as you mentioned, even he kind of doesn’t always believe her throughout the book. He’s always sort of questioning her. Nothing’s ever sunshine and rainbows with either of them. I think it’s really interesting to see how she changes and how her priorities change, too, over the course of the novel.

Zibby: Totally. I also completely related to this, when you were talking about the books that she was reading. You said, “What was wrong with her? She’d felt so good the past few months, and now suddenly, it seemed as if she might burst into tears at any moment. She paused at the entrance of the room and took a deep breath. Everything looked as it always had, the white wrought iron bed frame, the scallop shell pillows, the green crystalline curtain knobs, the emerald window seat cushions. Books she could remember her mom reading leaned against a decorative brass anchor on the bureau: The Poisonwood Bible, Memoirs of a Geisha, Summer Sisters.” This is just such a perfect immersion to going to her parents’ house. I was so rooted in that time and place because that is how you would find my mother’s shelves back in the day. Talk about her relationship and the loss and all of that with her own family of origin.

Emma: When we meet Cara at the beginning of the novel, she’s still sort of reeling from the loss of her mother. It’s been years. Her mother dies shortly before she goes to college. This is four years later, but grief, as you know, doesn’t just disappear overnight. It can be triggered by the smallest thing. The vineyard was something that she always did with her mother’s side of the family. When her mother passed away, they just kind of stopped going. She had always assumed, as a family, we’ll still go. She didn’t realize it doesn’t have the same connection for her father. It might be too painful for her father. She hadn’t gone. She goes back, and she just gets this wave of emotion. I think anyone who’s experienced grief can relate to that. You’ll be totally fine one minute. Then there’s something that triggers. It brings it back. You try to fight it. No, I don’t want to do this here. I was doing so well. Then there’s always this shame to it. You feel like you should be moved on by now, but it lingers. It can hit at any moment. I think that’s important with Cara’s character because it also shows that she’s still really in this vulnerable state. I thought some people might think, why is she falling for this guy or believing what he says? It’s so outlandish. There’s a lot of red flags here. He loves her so unconditionally from the bat that that’s so nice and easy for her, whereas her life has been in turmoil with her family the past few years. She grew up in Vermont. Her dad picked up and moved the whole family to Arizona, which is the opposite of Vermont, and has a new wife now. It’s a huge part of who she is and where she is in that moment of time. Reconnecting with her mother’s family and remembering her in that way is a huge moment for her.

Zibby: Have you had a similar grief experience?

Emma: Not necessarily. I haven’t, thank goodness, lost anyone super close to me in that way. Honestly, as a writer, what I do is I find any kind of grief or something similar I’ve found, and then I channel it into a different way. In my life, one thing I really dealt with was infertility and trying to get pregnant and having miscarriages and doing IVF and having failed transfers. A lot of that was going on near the time I was writing this book. That was a similar thing where I just always had this grief looming over me of, oh, my gosh, what if I never get to have a child? That’s something that I would use to channel into Cara in this book. Then of course, also, I would think, what if I did lose my mother? How would I feel? What would that be like? That’s how I do a lot of my writing, is what if? or finding a similar situation and thinking how there are parallels.

Zibby: I’m sorry you had to go through all that. It’s a unique brand of misery.

Emma: Thank you. I’ve got my baby girl now. She’s downstairs.

Zibby: Aw. Congrats. You went to Kenyon. You studied writing. When did you first start? Where did you grow up? Give me the backstory up to here and how you got to wherever you are now.

Emma: I grew up in Connecticut. I told myself I would never go to Kenyon because my parents went to Kenyon. I have four aunts and two uncles who went to Kenyon. I was like, I don’t want to be just like everybody else, but I got sucked in, in part because I sort of knew in my soul that I wanted to be a writer, and it’s known for its writing program. I went there, did an emphasis in creative writing. Then when I graduated from school, I spent some time abroad. Then I came home. Similar to Cara, I couldn’t find a job. I was living at home at my parents’ house. I remember thinking, all right, I’ve got all this time. My parents are helping support me for the time being. I’ve always wanted to write a novel. Let’s just give it a shot. Can I even write that much? That was the first thing for me, not even, is it a coherent story? Can I write that many words? Coming from school where I’d only written thirty pages, max. What was great is that this was back in the time where not everyone had Wi-Fi. We didn’t have Wi-Fi in the house. I had to use the family computer if I needed internet. I would go upstairs with my laptop and have distraction-free writing time. I wasn’t googling things. I didn’t have a smartphone.

That was my first attempt at a book. I wrote a whole book, a lot of ways inspired by some of the time I spent abroad. I was like, I did it. I wrote a whole book. I’m never going to give up on it. I put my blood, sweat, and tears in this. I educated myself on agents and pitching to agents and the publishing industry. I set this goal of wanting to do traditional publishing. For years and years, I revised. I redid my query. When I started, you had to mail in your query letters and materials, snail mail. People were so afraid of opening attachments, which is so funny now. Then slowly over time, people started. It’s just funny to think of that now. I would go to the post office. I’d mail it in. Then over time, it was like, it’s just not working. I think I sent close to a hundred queries. Maybe I got two requests for material. I did the thing that I said I would never do, and I was like, I’m going to start over. I came to understand more about the industry. I knew I was a better writer at that point. I was sick of the old manuscript. I missed writing something. That original manuscript, it maybe didn’t have a strong enough plot. It was kind of this regurgitation of all these things I was feeling.

I started from square one. I started writing At Sea. It took me forever. It took me five years to write At Sea because I worked full time. I do a lot of writing in my day job. The last thing I wanted to do when I got home was keep writing. I was tired. It was mostly just weekends here and there, maybe vacations. Just kept chipping at it over time. Then I entered the query trenches again. This time, I think I had a better understanding of how to pitch and what agents were looking for. I don’t know how long I was doing that. I probably sent close to twenty-five or so queries but this time got much more interest, so I knew I was a little closer. Anytime anyone expresses any interest, you’re like, oh, my gosh, jumping on the couch. So great. Then it eventually led to a call with my current agents, Wendy Sherman and Callie Deitrick, who are the best dream team.

Zibby: I really like Wendy Sherman so much. She’s awesome.

Emma: Amazing. She’s like you. She just never stops. I don’t know how she does it. It’s been amazing. Then they were able to sell it to a publisher. Here we are.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, congratulations. I love hearing stories like that.

Emma: Thank you.

Zibby: I saw in the acknowledgments that you thanked someone for finding it in the slush pile. It’s amazing.

Emma: It really was in the slush pile. I’m sure you and I could talk about this all day. Another thing I just think is really interesting is that there’s a Twitter event that happens a couple times a year called Pitch Madness. Other writers probably know about it, #PitMad, where you can pitch your book on Twitter, but it can only be — I don’t even know what the limit is on Twitter anymore — 130 characters or whatever it is. Then actual agents and editors will go on and like it. If they like it, that means you can send them material.

Zibby: I literally have never heard of this. I feel like a moron. I feel so out of it talking to you. I’m like, okay, Pitch Mad. I didn’t know prologues were out of favor. I really like prologues. Where is she getting all this news? I feel so out of the loop.

Emma: That’s the thing. There’s no right or wrong way. That’s the biggest thing. I always felt like I had to follow these rules. I hope no one takes away that they can’t do that. It’s just when you’re like me and you listen to all those podcasts and you read all the blogs about how to get an agent’s attention, those are some of the things that come up. For the Pitch Madness, for anyone who’s querying, it’s a fascinating exercise because it forces you to boil down your little query pitch to just this little logline. I remember thinking mine were so cheesy and stupid. I was like, this sounds so bad. I think it was, “He says he can breathe underwater. She’s not so sure,” just these little teaser .

Zibby: That’s good. You’re like, ooh, what?

Emma: Exactly. Those are the ones that got the attention. For me, I was like, that doesn’t convey the richness of the book, but it gets attention. It really transformed the way that I did my queries and I think ultimately made me write a better pitch for the book and helped me land my agents, just that exercise. We writers can be a little longwinded sometimes. It’s your book. It’s your baby. You want to write everything you possibly can in this pitch. Oh, and it has this. It has this. Then this happens. I think it’s a cool exercise for people too.

Zibby: Wow. I’m actually trying to finish this novel I’m writing, which is due in five weeks or else I’m going to miss my pub date, but it’s okay. I’m like, how would I even summarize this on Twitter? I better do that because it probably helps you focus the book itself when you know exactly the main hook or the main piece of it. That’s excellent advice. I’m taking it personally.

Emma: You have to pick one thing. It’s so hard. Ultimately, I really feel like it helped me.

Zibby: Not to mention, I have to now go on and try to find books myself that I have to publish for Zibby Books.

Emma: You should look into it. It’s pretty cool.

Zibby: People are always like, everybody in the publishing industry knows. I’m like, I’m literally sitting in my room. Where is this industry? We’re all connected, but there’s not a hallway. It’s not like a college campus.

Emma: The publishing headquarters of the world.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Five years, good for you. One of the things that you’re saying that is just so important is this whole notion of, you will not get a book published if you don’t keep working on your book and keep trying to sell it. If you don’t hit right away, it’s fine. I honestly think you can’t sell a book until you’ve written two practice novels. You have to learn how to do it before you write the — I guess occasionally, people do it, but I think it’s so rare. Even though you think it’s the best thing, and it probably is really good, it’ll just get better. It’s so hard to break in that maybe a B is great, but you really need an A+. Most times, even if you do something well, you should just wait until you get better at it or something.

Emma: I hated hearing that. It didn’t matter how many times. I was like, no, I’m not going to be one of those people that’s like, I gave up and started over. No way. I can’t stare at that blank cursor, but I did. I think it comes from, if you love it enough, you’ll keep doing it because you want to keep going. You have to keep writing. That’s a huge part of it too. Just wanting to be published and have that part I don’t think is enough. You have to genuinely enjoy the process. At least in my case, I never would’ve been able to do it if I didn’t derive some joy from it. Don’t get me wrong, some days, it’s torturous. Most of the time, I love it.

Zibby: I feel like for the vast majority of us, no one’s like, we really need you to write a novel. No one’s sitting around waiting for another novel for the shelves. It has to be something deep inside you that you just cannot let go of. Are you working on anything new now?

Emma: I am. I promised myself I would get a manuscript draft done before the baby came because I was like, I don’t know what my life is going to be like. Glad I did that. We’ll just put it that way. It’s totally different from At Sea. It’s a book that surrounds a bunch of rock climbers. There’s a rock climber, you find out at the beginning he’s fallen to his death, but it’s a little suspicious. We’re not sure what happened. The book starts a few months before that. It’s a multi-POV novel told in the perspective of four people who are very close to him, all of whom may be suspects. I’ve got a whole manuscript draft of that so far. I haven’t sold it or anything. I don’t know what’s going to come of it. That’s a little teaser. I don’t rock climb, so that’s definitely a challenge. I’m fortunate that I have a sister who does and for years was a really avid rock climber. She’s reading it right now and giving me all these tips and saying, this is totally inaccurate. This would never happen. I almost feel like she should be listed as coauthor or something if it ever comes out because she’s helped me a lot with it.

Zibby: You could give her “with.” By…with…

Emma: I’ve already planned I’ll have to put one of those notes that’s like, “Thank you, Halley, for checking everything, but any mistakes are my own.”

Zibby: With a three-month-old, I could barely function. I couldn’t even get dressed. I mean, I did, but it was hard. The thought of using all of your creative juices at the same time, hats off to you. Good luck.

Emma: Thank you.

Zibby: I’m glad you have a draft, but still.

Emma: It’s fitting that I’m on the “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read” podcast today. That’s what I was thinking. My husband couldn’t watch her. My mom couldn’t watch her. Grandpa’s down there, his first time alone with her. I don’t hear anything, so I think they’re doing okay.

Zibby: When I interviewed Claire Bidwell Smith in person years ago, it was in LA, and she’s like, “I have to bring my baby.” I was like, “Great.” We sat next to each other. He was in his little car seat on the floor. Then I was holding him for a while. We had the microphone between us. Then I’d pass him to her. Now he’s a kid. I’m like, that’s the baby? That would’ve been fine if you were holding a baby. I love babies so much. Oh, my gosh, I’m such a baby addict. I miss having them in my orbit. I love having older kids now. Even just to borrow a kid for an afternoon would be fine.

Emma: I’m trying to savor even the times when I’m totally strung out and sleep-deprived. I’m like, savor this moment.

Zibby: Do you have authors who, your whole life, you’re like, this is my role model author or just someone I’ve loved to read over time? Any in the spotlight of your mind?

Emma: Growing up, huge influence on me and who made me a huge reader was Judy Blume. Come on. She’s got a movie coming out soon. Definitely, how Summer Sisters is cited in the book, that’s a little nod. As a kid, I just felt like I could really relate to those books. It really got me into reading. She’s been huge. Probably, my favorite author right now is Lily King. I just love everything that she does. I could never even put my books in the same room as hers, but I aspire to write like she does. I just think it’s so beautiful done. She’s a big one for me as well.

Zibby: I love Lily King. Writers & Lovers was so good, and her recent short story collection. Any advice? I know we’ve talked a lot about advice, essentially, by our conversation, but any parting advice for aspiring authors?

Emma: What I was trying to say earlier is that you have to find what works for you. It’s so easy to go into the wormhole of blogs with advice or even take advice from teachers or other students. There’s no right or wrong way to go about this, both in terms of your lifestyle and also just your process. I felt this pressure to be this starving artist writer who’s only dedicated to her craft and would stay up all night writing and would live paycheck to paycheck. That’s what a real writer is. Over time, I was like, no. I need insurance. I like stability. I like knowing where things are going to come from. Maybe it makes it slower. I don’t get done as quickly. I like to pay my bills on time. I don’t like to wait until the last minute. I do my taxes in advance. Then I’m less stressed, and I write better. I had this stupid preconceived notion in my head that there’s a certain type of writer. I always thought I needed a writing space with a desk. No. I write on my laptop in my bed in my pajamas with horrible posture. That works better for me. Some people write every day. I’ll go weeks without writing, and that’s fine. Some people outline and have a whole idea of the plot before they go. I have almost no idea where I’m going when I start. I just start writing, a pantser, as they say, rather than a planner. Just keeping that in mind. You have to know who you are and what’s going to get you to sit down and write and keep going. There’s really no right or wrong way. Some people, it’s huge to get an MFA, but you don’t necessarily need one if that’s not something that’s working with your life right now. I, for years, worried that I would never get anywhere without that. Basically, my advice is take all advice with a grain of salt.

Zibby: That is actually great advice. Do you have a big Kenyon event coming up to celebrate your book? I hope that they’re planning on doing something.

Emma: No, not yet, but I’ve been in touch with them. We’ll see. Stay tuned on this. I hope so. There’s a bunch of other authors who might have books coming out soon.

Zibby: Love it. It was so great getting to know you. Where are you based, by the way? Where do you live now?

Emma: I’m outside Boston in Massachusetts.

Zibby: Nice. Awesome. I hope our paths will cross. I’m sure I’ll be in Boston. It was great to get to know you. Congratulations on At Sea.

Emma: Thank you. Thank you. This was so fun. Thank you so much, Zibby. Good luck with your bookstore opening.

Zibby: Thank you. Yes, I’m so excited.

Emma: So exciting.

Zibby: Thanks.

Emma: Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye, Emma.

Emma: Bye.

Emma Fedor, AT SEA

AT SEA by Emma Fedor

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