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A Process Not Without Casualty: Amity Gaige in Conversation with Susan Choi

When I received my advance copy of Amity Gaige’s new novel, Sea Wife, something immediately warned me to clear the decks—well, the day’s calendar—before I started it. I don’t know if it was the luminous Caribbean blue of the cover—the color of seductive water concealing great peril—or if it was the charged, terse title, or if it was Gaige’s well-earned reputation as the author of masterful and spellbinding novels, but I knew I was going to read this book straight through and snarl at anyone who tried to interrupt me.

I was right. To say I was dazzled by Sea Wife would be an understatement.  I was so captivated I sometimes had to remind myself to breathe while I was reading.  As a reader, I devoured the book—even thinking, in the last 40 pages or so, Slow down and save some for later—but I didn’t.  As a writer, I was envious. Wow, I thought, how did Amity Gaige learn to sail the high seas/write both beautiful poetry and beautiful poetry criticism/get so far inside the head of a Trump voter that he becomes deeply sympathetic?

Recently I got the chance to ask. Gaige and I floated the following questions and answers back and forth between the islands of our separate quarantines in Brooklyn.

Susan Choi: Maybe, start with how you achieved such authority in terms of sailing that it seems as though you literally wrote this book while circumnavigating the globe in a sailboat?

Amity Gaige: First of all, this praise makes me need to pinch myself. Susan Choi, the author of Trust Exercise, thinks these things about my book? Your book made me envious, so we’re even.

I must have wanted/needed a challenge like the one I took on for Sea Wife. Why else would I have tried to write a book about sailing when I had no sailing experience? I had to learn how to sail. (I write about the ill-fated trip I took to the Caribbean for Coastal Living Magazine this month). I had to learn the hundreds of archaic nautical terms that are second nature to the sailor. But the most mind-bending challenge was trying to plot the novel. How do you know what should happen next when you don’t understand the rules of the environment?

My secret weapon was a sailor named Ben Zartman, who raised his three girls on a boat. He was the sucker who responded to my deranged emails. Over a period of about four years, he answered reams of increasingly bizarre theoreticals, like “I need something to go wrong in a remote anchorage. What if they foul the outboard motor by leaving a sheet lose in the water?” Ben and his amazing wife, Danielle, welcomed me into their lives, and onto their boat, the Ganymede. One rainy evening in Rhode Island, when I was close to finishing the book but didn’t know how to move through the final scenes, Ben, Danielle, and I had the most intense brainstorming session. Never have I let other people inside my creative process quite like that. If I can take any credit, it’s for being bold enough to call up strangers and ask for their help. I never know why people say yes to my requests, but I think it’s because they want to share their knowledge. In order to write Sea Wife, I also spent days following my neighbor around his Hartford insurance company, conducted interviews about postpartum depression with women in my life, and read numerous works of popular conservative political thought. I have a friend who is a cop who read and fact-checked each of the scenes involving police procedure. I owe a lot of people a lot of favors. Maybe now would be a good time to take a yearlong sailing trip myself…

SC: I love these stories behind the story—now I want to read the book about your friendship with Ben and Danielle! Speaking of stories behind the story: I so vividly remember reading about the incident you’ve said first inspired you—involving the yacht Rebel Heart—that I was surprised when I looked it up to find that it was six years ago, in April 2014.  Can you talk about how that news story got its hooks into you?

AG: What struck me about that story is how much blowback the Rebel Heart couple got for taking their kids on such a journey. You can’t win as a parent; you are either too reckless or too narrow-minded in your approach. Personally, I was feeling confused myself, resentful of the conventions of my suburban neighborhood, and my duties as a wife and mother. I’ve always admired people who take risks, even if they end up losing. Especially if they end up losing! This preoccupation can also be seen in my last novel, Schroder.

SC: A stroke of your storytelling genius here is that while the real-life Rebel Heart couple seemed to have a watertight—forgive me!—marriage, the marriage of your novel is in big trouble even before casting off.  Did you already know what your characters’ big issues would be before you started writing, or did these evolve as you went?

AG: I see now that Sea Wife is really a response or an offering to many people in my life and in society at large. I have indeed struggled personally in some of the ways Juliet has, but in the end, she is a composite of so many conversations, with so many women, and men, too. Women in particular can be so open and unguarded with one another. So I started with the notion that the book would be a kind of a duet, a call and response—a lament of a wife, and the slightly echoey rebuttal of her husband. I also knew that Juliet was wounded, and this was my expression of anguish over the effects of sexual violence.

Of course, the book does not succeed if Michael is the bad guy or the chump. He’s a human being; he loves and believes and wants and hurts too. He wants to be a better man and a better dad. I’m so glad you found him sympathetic, Susan, despite disagreeing with him politically. I found it edifying to write him, because I had to find a way to hear this imagined character reflect on his own losses and reckon with his choices. Late in the novel, he confesses that when he fell in love with the hyper-intellectual Juliet, “I suspected I would never be a satisfying husband to her, but I did it anyway.” This is a very honest thing to say.

SC: I love oceangoing novels so much, many of my all-time favorite books fall into this category:  Moby-Dick, Marianne Wiggins’s incredible and under-appreciated novel John DollarTreasure IslandA High Wind in Jamaica…I could go on and on.  Now yours has joined this list.  Were there particular works of maritime literature that you thought about as you were working on this?

AG: Oh, I cannot wait to read John Dollar. I have never even heard of it! Maritime works that were essential to writing Sea Wife: Robert Stone’s nauseatingly tense 1992 novel Outerbridge Reach, a truly excellent non-fictional portrait of a sailor lost at sea called The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst. I also gained such insight from Gwyneth Lewis’s 2005 memoir of sailing with her husband, Two in a Boat. I dutifully worked my way through classics like Robinson Crusoe, and Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum, published in 1900. But I think in the end I only like maritime literature where somebody loses their mind. Yes, Moby-Dick.

SC: Your title, Sea Wife, bristles with contradictory meanings even before we read the book, and once we’ve read it, becomes even more meaningful in light of Juliet’s literal and emotional journeys in this story, all the external obstacles she rages against, and all the internal ones she creates for herself.  Can you talk about the title, and the character who ironically bears that title on the boat, Juliet herself?

AG: The title is somewhat mysterious to me. I like that it’s a spondee. Would you do me the honor of explaining what it meant to you, Susan? For example, these various forms of wifehood you mention above? Then I will steal your answer.

SC: No need to steal my answer, I’m thrilled you might find it useful! Well first of all I loved that you didn’t use an article: it’s not A Sea Wife or The Sea Wife. And so to me it immediately took on the sound and appearance of not just a book title, but a title of rank, like ‘seaman’ but lower. In the book Michael makes a big show of calling Juliet first mate—and he, of course, is captain—and it’s supposed to be jokey, this hidebound hierarchy imposed on their enlightened marriage. But in fact the marriage is starkly unequal in all sorts of perilous ways. Michael and Juliet both believe she’s more intelligent than he is, and that he’s more rational than she is, and though obviously partners are going to be different, these particular differences are really charged in this marriage. Despite their having met at college and subscribing, they thought, to every progressive idea about marriage, Juliet notes of their domestic life “We divided everything up unconsciously along gender lines I’d thought had been consigned to the cultural ash heap”—a line that made my blood run cold with recognition. So there’s all this incredible tension in the book around the marital power imbalance, around traditional roles, around the idea of being captain in your own life regardless of whether you’re on a boat or not. Then, at one point in the book which I don’t want to describe too much lest I spoil it, Juliet—who has raged against all these imbalances and confinements—finds herself being addressed, correctly, as “captain,” and she’s completely flustered and tries to dodge the title. Of all the white-knuckle moments in this book that was one of the most excruciating for me, because I so well understood how and why Juliet had internalized the title of “sea wife” despite her resentment of its inferiority. It’s very difficult for her to recognize the captain in herself. And you recognize this with your heart-wrenching ending—which of course I won’t describe! Okay, enough of me answering. Back to me asking:

Not just your command of the subject matter, but your command of the story’s structure is virtuosic.  You have multiple time frames, multiple voices, multiple formats—for much of the book Juliet trades off storytelling duty with her husband, whose log/journal she’s reading—yet the story comes together seamlessly, and the reader is never lost for an instant, even on the high seas without a landmark in sight.  Did you struggle to come up with this structure or did it flow together for you as fluidly as it does for the reader?  Sorry for all the watery language!  I can’t help it!

AG: Um, can I use this as a blurb somewhere? I humbly accept your praise. As my husband will tell you, writing this book almost made me lose my mind. If you combine the ambition of the research, the demands upon the spirit in delving into certain difficult subjects, and the technical complexity of the structure—multiple voices, timeframes, formats—you pretty much put me in the same crosshairs as poor Donald Crowhurst or the protagonist of Outerbridge Reach. I am not sure why I took all that on. It’s possible that the tension the reader feels in reading Sea Wife runs parallel to the tension of the author trying to write it. Maybe I’ve bought in to a kind of Stanislavskian theory of needing the stakes of my writing to be as high as those of my characters. The process was not without casualty.

I will say, however, that the form of the book was what excited me most. I liked writing in bits. I wrote the bits blind, hoping that they would stand in some thematic and narrative relationship. I have moved away from writing extensive fictional exposition. I believe less and less in the stability of the conventional novel. This is one thing I loved about Trust Exercise; you take half of a novel that is amazing on its surface, then you subvert it, and in so doing, make a whole that’s even better. This formal subversion works with Trust Exercise because it’s not tricksy, or ornamental, but rather, essential to the meaning of the work.

The point-and-counterpoint nature of the narration in Sea Wife is also—I hope—illustrative of the meaning. If the novel is about dialogue, and the failure of understanding and partnership, and the importance of partnership—both political and marital—then the form reinforces the meaning of the novel. Readers will see a very cool typographical gesture toward that theme in the way the two characters’ voices sit on opposite margins of the page. I wanted the book to be published sideways, so the book page could be wider and the voices could be further apart. But turns out, that’s a completely impractical idea.

SC: Now that you’ve said it, I’m dying to see a version of this novel published sideways. Not only would it space the voices even farther apart, as you say, but it would evoke the width of the horizon at sea…who cares if it’s impractical? Now I feel like Michael trying to persuade Juliet: if people only did things because they were “practical,” would we have poetry?

Sorry—I’ll move on. Did this novel ever surprise you, as you were writing it?  Or did you have your course all charted out in advance?  (You can see how good a thing it is that my own dream of writing a maritime novel has never been achieved.)

AG: I love your nautical metaphors! We use them because they make sense. Yes, the novel surprised me in lots of ways. I did not expect Sybil to pipe up. I did not know Michael’s secrets. I did not know in what ways the family would be challenged. I did not know about the crucial protective gesture Juliet’s mother makes toward the end of the book.

SC: Sibyl’s piping up is a thrill—I loved when it happened. And overall I loved and admired your portrayal of Sybil and George, a.k.a. Doodle.  You capture their voices unerringly, brilliantly, and without a shred of sentimentality.  Can you talk about writing about children, and how to do it so well?

AG: I steal! My lovely seven-year-old daughter provided me with many of Sybil’s kid-coinages like “garatulations!” or “Let’s stay up until 10:75!” It was my daughter’s observation that “the easliest way to win is to cheat.” I’m sorry to expose myself in this way; when I write kids, I am a mere secretary.

SC: What was the single hardest thing about writing this book?

AG: Trusting that it would come together.

SC: What was the easiest thing?

AG: Not easy, but pleasant—describing the sea. What a powerful, changeable thing surrounds us. Weather at sea offers so much insight about the human psyche. The high winds, the roiling waters, the sun canting down from the broad sky after a storm; these are the earth’s feelings. Witnessing weather at this scale is what finally lessens my heroine’s depression. Every mood in human life is exemplified by the sea.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
Living a Lie: The Millions Interviews Amity Gaige
I’d Rather You Decide: The Millions Interviews Susan Choi

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