In Anne Landsman's new novel, The Rowing Lesson, she digs deep into the complexities of family life in a most artful and orginal way. Below my interview with the author.
Jill Dearman: What was the genesis of your novel, "The Rowing Lesson"?
Anne Landsman: My novel grew out of the loss of my father, who had been a country doctor in South Africa for over forty years. He was a larger-than-life character and after his death I felt compelled to imaginatively recreate the world he had been born into, to try to understand how it had shaped him, and by extension, how it had shaped me. What made this more urgent was that he died in South Africa, while I was in New York City where I’ve lived for the last three decades. I’d just discovered I was pregnant and decided not to go back for fear of miscarrying. So “The Rowing Lesson” became the funeral I missed, and will always miss.
JD: Your book is so character-driven; could you tell us about the process of developing Harold and Betsy's voices?
AL: The process of discovering Harold and Betsy’s voices began with a letter I wrote to my father in the last two weeks of his life, as he lay in a coma brought on by end-stage renal failure. At the time, I was agonizing about whether or not to fly back to South Africa to see him before he died. As I came closer and closer to deciding not to go, it was impossible for me to feel any peace or closure. A friend recommended that I write a letter to my father and have a family member read it to him. So I sat down to write, remembering what made my father’s character so vivid, so alive. His greatest passion of all was his love of doctoring. I remembered him coming home after having delivered a baby, blood spots on his white shirt, his tie, joyfully proclaiming, "It's a boy!" or "It's a girl!" Tears streaming down my cheeks, I wished him well on this mysterious journey he was about to undertake, and I told him how much I loved him.
Years later, this short, second person address became the spark that ignited Betsy’s voice, as she sat vigil at her father’s bedside, having made the journey I decided not to make. Harold’s voice was drawn from the memories I had of my father – his oddball humor, his non sequiturs, strong opinions, sometimes outrageous behavior.
JD: I felt as if I was watching a Bergman film as I read your book; it possessed such depth, but such a stark, cinematic quality. Are there any films that have inspired you as a writer?
AL: There have been many, many films that have inspired me. I trained as a screenwriter in the early eighties, getting an MFA in screenwriting and directing from Columbia University. I learned to think visually, and tell stories in scenes, and have never given up the habit. So I don’t think there’s any one film that I have been particularly influenced by—it’s really the medium as a whole that has informed my fiction.
JD: Did you ever question the direction you were going in while writing this book? How do you work through a (writerly) crisis of confidence?
AL: I definitely questioned the direction I was going in, as I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to sustain the second person voice all the way through to the end. There were many days when I had to force myself to work through my fears, my lack of confidence. What always sustained me—and still sustains me as I work on my third book—was the sense that the pages I’d written had a pulse of some kind, and that I just had to keep that pulse alive by moving forward, and following the inner logic of the story. I still remember how happy I was when I finished the last chapter, and realized that yes, that unusual second person voice had taken me over the finish line!
JD: How do you balance the demands of your real life with your writing life?
AL: Balancing the demands of my writing life and my real life is something I work at every day. I live with my husband, our two children—a girl of fifteen and a boy of twelve and a half—and our dog. I have never been particularly good at writing in the midst of family life so I take myself off to the Writers Room, a non-profit workspace for writers in downtown Manhattan. I’m capable of writing non-fiction at home but need to be in a place where I’m assured of no interruptions to write fiction. Sometimes it’s a struggle to get out of the house—the vacuum cleaner needs fixing, one of the children is home from school with a fever, or the dog (who has all kinds of health problems!) needs to be taken to the vet—but I try as hard as I can to leave, and get to the Room. By now my family knows that it’s in everyone’s best interests for me to keep writing as I’m much happier when my work is going well.
JD: What can you tell us about your next project?
AL: My next project is something completely different. I’m working on a young adult novel that’s either a historical fantasy, or a fantastical history and I’m having lots of fun with it. Can’t really tell you anymore…
JD: And so we shall end on that mysterious note. For more on the craft of writing, please check out Bang the Keys and until next time, I leave you with this question: has the death of a loved one inspired any of your fiction?
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