Joe Donahue: Amity Gaige's new novel “Sea Wife” is a swift and thrilling literary page turner about a young family who escaped suburbia for a year-long sailing trip that up ends all of their lives. "Sea Wife" is told in dual perspective. Juliet's first-person narration after the journey, as she struggles to come to terms with the life-changing events that unfolded at sea. And Michael's Captain's log which provides a slow motion account of these same inexorable events, a dialogue that reveals the fault lines created by personal history and political divisions. 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.
It is a great pleasure to welcome Amity Gaige to this week's Book Show. Thank you very much for being with us, what a great pleasure to have you on the program.
Amity Gaige: Thank you, Joe. I'm so happy to be here. And I love your show.
Well, thank you very much. I so enjoyed this novel because I didn't know what to expect in the sense of I thought it was going to be more about sailing, and I was delighted when I found out that it was more about this relationship of this family. With that said, I'm interested of what, what was the, the precursor to at all of how you decided to take on the subject and put your characters on a boat?
I am not entirely sure how I took on something like that. I'm not a sailor, it sounds like maybe you're not either.
And I absolutely appreciate how it's really not a book about sailing. It is a book about many other things: marriage, and gender, and travel, and politics. So I had a lot of those subjects kind of spinning in my mind. I am not entirely sure why I decided to put them all on a boat. Given that I am- I have no experience sailing and I had to learn everything. So it was a big, you know, kind of ask of myself and my family too because I ended up having to learn how to sail, I had to go down to the Caribbean and- By myself and take a sailing course. But I think that the reason I wanted to do something like place them in the middle of the sea was the sort of metaphorical impact of that kind of a setting. The stakes are so high when you have a family trying to cross the sea, so it's inherently already kind of dramatic and suspenseful. Now, many, many people do sail very safely. But I think that the reader really feels the stakes of that journey, especially when there's little kids, who are perfectly, completely unharmed by the end of the book. I want to add, add that disclaimer. And so, I also felt there was kind of a metaphorical or allegorical journey just in, in in a marriage and whether a marriage kind of makes its crossing through life. so the, the kind of separate fates are all represented in the book The fate of the marriage and the fate of the woman, and the fate of the man and, and in every marriage, those three fates are not always the same. So, I think that really, the putting them on a boat externalized that whole idea that I was working with.
I am not a sailor, as you mentioned, I'm also not a parent, but I did have that initial reaction, which perhaps is a parental reaction, which is as the characters get ready to go on a boat, their daughter is seven, their son is two. And you think to yourself, "Oh my god, what are they thinking? Why are they doing that?"
Well, I think you're not alone. I myself had that same question with- The book was sparked by a news story of a family who did do this. Again, there are many I've since learned, learned, but the family that caught my attention, ended up having to scuttle their boat. Which as a non-sailor, I probably have to explain that term is- You purposefully sink your boat when you get rescued. And so they ended up having to do that they had two little kids aboard too, and when they came back- Now see why is not based on their story, but I was absolutely interested in the firestorm of criticism that they met when they came back from that journey, which people said exactly that: "Why, why would you, why would you do that? You know, life is full of challenges enough, why seek out such a challenge and bring your children with you?" And, yeah. Anyone interested thinks that's a compelling question will see it played out, here in "Sea Wife". I was kind of agnostic about how I felt about this family doing it with their children. It's not the kind of thing I would do. But at the same time I wanted to give them- I was completely interested. We, I think we all are interested in the people who take those journeys we never would take ourselves. And I think as the New York Times review puts it really beautifully of this book, it says, you know, it makes you, "takes you on an adventure, and then it makes you very glad that you're back home on your own familiar ground."
So it, it did the same to me. But what I ended up feeling about those families who take those journeys is that they, there's a lot to gain, especially that the children have these incredible experiences of adventure and learning and also experience of other people and other cultures. And I'm not sure if I feel like my children, I happen to have two, you know, are getting a better education sitting at desks or computers in their school. I mean, what, how is that, how is that better? So I think there's a lot of interesting things to learn from people who parent in non-traditional ways or take those risks and bring their children along.
In having read much of your work. It seems that you like to have us, the reader, try to sympathize with these people who do rash or, or even passionate things.
Yes. Yeah, that's absolutely right. My last book, "Schroeder", I think does cover some of that territory, and certainly that character, because he's kind of, he's impersonating an American and he has something of a, I guess, a kind of a criminal background. He definitely does endanger his daughter. But I did sympathize with him and I did ask the reader to sympathize with, with him. The same thing does happen here. I think that these characters are a little less, they're, you know, they're not criminal. They're just ordinary, very ordinary parents that are- I live around a lot of people like them, I guess I'm one myself, you know, they have a lot of commonplace stressors. They're struggling to, you know, stay in the middle class. They're a nuclear family, which means they're completely alone in several ways, they don't have their extended family. You know, they're kind of broken off, this little broken off nucleus floating through the world. There's a lot of things I relate to about them. And although Michael was a slightly harder character for me to write, for several reasons, I also felt it was necessary to make him a full, rich character and somebody that you also care about, and in order to take the emotional journey of this of this book, to, to feel and relate to both characters.
Amity Gaige is our guest on this week's Book Show. The name of the new novel is "Sea Wife", it is published by Knopf.
So let us talk about those main characters. You mentioned, Michael, he is the husband. We read about him through the Captain's log that he writes, which is we find out is written after the fact. Where we meet Juliet who is, is the wife and she's telling us what is, what is happening currently. When did you strike that that balance that that’s how you would tell their story?
Mm hmm. That's a great question. And I struggled with that as a writer, I went on to so many similar journeys as the characters through this book. Though I hope that it's a well plotted book and that it's very, it's got a kind of dramatic profluence to it. I did write it, just going from point to point. I like to use the metaphor of waypoints because it's a sailing metaphor, but you go from one point to the next and see where you're going to go once you arrive to that destination, even at that destination is in the middle of nowhere, because waypoints are just legs in an a long, longer journey. So when I started writing the book, I actually had them both on the boat in present tense. And you know, this sounds really technical, but I struggled with that it was like, something was missing. And I realized that I needed to have them not only in different points of view, but also in different moments in time. So I let Juliet, sort of start the book in her closet, reflecting on the experiences and then proceeding to relate them. And so Michael speaks from a different point in time exactly as you're saying, through the Captain's log. And what's- Its unique structure, I kept looking for books as models to use as I was writing this and couldn't find any, because there are lots of books with dual points of view. But this book, of course, rotates on points of view so frequently, and listening to the audio book is so trippy and wonderful. I love the audiobook, because it's really like a play. So the dialogue moves back and forth pretty rapidly between the two. But then as you point out, Joe, they're in different timeframes as well. So there's something about the book that, it's good for readers who like to kind of use their powers of inference, I think it puts some more demand on the readers power of inference to say, "Oh, we're here now. Now we're over here. How does that relate to that? You know, why does this moment follow that moment? Why does this line of poetry follow that memory?" Bit by bit, waypoint by waypoint, I do hope that the book makes sense and that the journey the reader feels is satisfying. And in the meantime, you have to bear a little bit of like "What's going on?" A lot of books you know they're written "A- B- C- D" I mean, it's not just chronology but I would say like "Sea Wife" starts at maybe R or S and goes back to "R- A- S- V". It's a complicated structure but hopefully you know, fun, complicated in a fun way.
Well, it is it is a puzzle sometimes- And I have so many follow up questions to what you just said. So let me begin with the ‘waypoints’, because when you talk about that and going to the different places. I mean, that can happen on one page.
Which is really fascinating because it's not even- We can be in current day and then the- And then Juliet can then be at home after. We can be on the boat, this can be after the trip has concluded. Dealing with her daughter then, dealing with her daughter now, dealing with her mother- It, it can take quite a circle.
Yes. Yes it so it was a mind bender to write.
Yes. But it seems sort of freeform too, though.
Oh, I love that you feel that way. I have to say that though it was difficult. It was difficult the way, yeah, that's satisfying way of any difficult challenge, a kind of a chess match or something. You know, where you're going, you know what you want, you know, but you don't want to get there through the conventional way. I, I feel that- You see this in some of my previous work too. But I think I've long had some problems or questions about just the conventional novel and modern life seems to have changed the way we think and read and certainly not just technology but the, the changing of attention, the changing of timeframes, the multitasking of our lives. There's something energetic I think about this way that I tell the story in "Sea Wife" and I don't, I don't know how, how much I'll ever go back to writing novels in a sort of, with conventional exposition, you know where pages and pages go by of explanation or exposition from about something. I love- Actually, it's weird because I love reading those, I think that sometimes they're just masterfully done. But maybe it's that my brain doesn't work that way or that I wanted to speak to some sort of contemporary way of thinking or just also, you know, it's a traditional story it's a sea adventure. I mean, another reviewer pointed out it's, you know, what one of the legacy of like, "going to sea" stories. There's a lot of precedent for it but I did want to tell it in a new way. And I wanted that form to be significant, too. So it's not just a trick or a typographical conceit. It's also, means something. So as you know, Joe, from looking at the book, it's an absolutely beautiful book design wise. Yeah, they, they put, sort of scoot Juliet's point of view to the right side of the page- I'm sorry, to the left side of the page.
And they scoot Michael to the right. And then later on, their daughter, talks in kind of the middle of the page. And I like that as a visual. And I like that as a way to keep the voices separate. But it also means something to me too, because it means, it's something about the back and forth of the couple, their intimacy, even across time, and about the dialogue of every marriage or every long term relationship. It's almost like I consider the book to take the form of like two people telling a story together, you know? Two long married people telling the story, interrupting and contradicting each other, trying to understand each other failing, trying and failing, trying and succeeding, to understand each other
Because one is a story and the other one is a Captain's log. But you talk about that- The, the structure and the, the form that you wanted to write it in. It certainly seems more- There's better evidence of it in in Juliet's telling, right, that's where you that's where you see the back and forth.
You do. You're right. And Michael sort of stays more in one timeframe. You're right. And I think that, you know, it really is in the end, it's Juliet's book, you know, it's really her journey, she ends up, you know, holding the key to the narration. She is the one who I think needs to retell this story. And so I think that it's true, she, she is she, her emotional arc is really the emotional arc that the reader takes, or that I would hope the reader takes, through the stress of the journey and also the redemptive qualities of it, the learning she accomplishes.
Juliet says early in the novel, "Michael had dreamed of sailing around the entire world in one year. My ambition was to survive the year without personally sinking the boat.
I relate to that. Let's keep our expectations super low.
But also that this guy, and you, you go on later in that chapter of that, this guy Michael is different. This is Captain Michael and, and you write: "He was a wonderful new stranger, this Captain Michael. Or was that other man the stranger? I sometimes wondered."
I am interested in who we are both under ideal circumstances and under circumstances of stress. And I think one thing that's going on now if I could just leap to, also the contemporary moment is we are going through a lot of stress as a country with the pandemic and also mass protests. We are really humbled, many of us who have, who were previously, you know, comfortable, are very humbled by what we have learned through this storm, as I, you know, could, could say. And I think a lot, it's kind of the height of privilege to say, "Oh, I am this person, I am generous or creative, or tolerant"- Only, you know, under, when I've only been those things under ideal conditions. It's much more real, to have been humbled and to be stressed. And then still be those things, tolerant, generous. And so, you know, you know who you are in sunny weather. Well, who are you in the storm? Who are you after the storm? And I think that I'm, continue to be interested that in my writing, but it's seems particularly pertinent today.
What else just stay with the political theme of the book for a moment, which, which comes in and out, Michael writes that, "I didn't even realize we were politically far apart until long after the kids were born. Until then, let's face it. I was like my mom, apolitical, I didn't think freedom had anything to do with politics. And then this election happens and everybody chooses a corner." Which just leads me to the obvious, which is you, you write this portion of this, a part of this as, as a result of the election of 2016?
That's correct. Yeah. I was writing the book already before that just turmoil began. And I think we would all agree no matter what political side we're on, this has been just years of turmoil and certainly polarization. And I was, of course, distressed. I have been distressed by that, and I needed to, I think as a novelist, you hope to, you perhaps should, try to let your novel that you're writing be infected by the changes that happen while you're writing it. I mean, you're working on that book for years and things happen. And so it should influence your work. And it should influence even your writing, your- The lines that you write. So, I, I wanted to be able to do what I would encourage others to do, which is to try to imagine the other side. And I do find that both in marriage and in politics, it's absolutely necessary to find one's like, I don't want to say antagonist what- The person on the other side to be a human being, with some merit to their opinions. And there's no there's no forward movement without that. In fact, I feel like just imagining the other is increasingly just so important. And if people could do it more, the other would seem not like the other at all. And so I had to do it myself here. So I really had to, I mean, I relate more to Juliet. But Michael gets in a couple zingers at, at Juliet that I think are very fair about what he feels politically and I had to sit with that, I had to explore that I did a lot of reading of like contemporary conservative thought. And tried to imagine him as a real whole person. I knew if he were just, you know, cardboard cutout, it's not fair to ask a reader to read a book with somebody who's just a flat character. You know, half the book you don't like or relate to the character. It was a personally- An experience of personal growth, for me to write the book.
Amity Gaige is our guest on The Book Show this week. The name of the new novel is "Sea Wife".
As you said a moment ago, this- You see this as, as Juliet story, and Juliet's novel, certainly. But Michael really gets his way a lot, right? I mean, they're on this boat because of him. And she gives-
It's a man's world!
Yeah, she gives in a lot to him and, and tries to live up to that the best she can.
Yeah, she does. She does. Well, I mean, she's not without her own flaws. She struggles a lot with self-esteem. She gives up a lot. Some of it perhaps is kind of culturally preordained, that she's going to give up things as a woman and a mother. She gives up her dissertation. She gives up a lot of things. And she needs to stop doing that.
And so learned a great deal out there at sea. Of course, that's like the one part I can't really talk about, but the like last fourth of the book, you know, it was really a crucial journey and towards empowerment and perhaps away from the self-doubt, and the sort of internalized, perhaps even sexism, of her own life.
There, there is a mental health aspect to this. But it seems when I was saying that it Juliet seems to give up so much for Michael. But Michael feels often that he's given up so much because of her and the, the depression and the mental health issues that she has been dealing with, as he sees them or not, which is fascinating. I'm curious as to, in writing this because you, you do touch on again without giving too much away. But you do deal with motherhood, you do it- You deal with postpartum depression. These are very real issues that you look at with this woman who is now on a boat in this very foreign, very foreign place, trying to figure out what's going on.
Thank you, first of all, for just recognizing all these things in the book. It's so sensitive and I appreciate it. She, She is definitely struggling with postpartum depression, which in some ways- I mean there, there- She has a sort of depressive personality probably. And it could be that part of what happens to her when she becomes a mother. I mean, it's an extension of something that a lot of women feel and a lot of women have shades of after the birth of a child. I think that it's what the- That's a clearly a mental health crisis for, for women, it's something nobody talked about until quite recently. But the larger crisis is also just this sense of giving up your space, you know, and women giving up their spaces for, for the family, and giving when they have not yet retained any of that strength, you know, for themselves and for their own careers and their own emotional health. So I think that it's Juliet's position is one that a lot of women can relate to absolutely, including myself.
You mentioned the audio book, which I read the book and I listened to the audiobook, and-
You didn't. Amazing.
I was fascinated by the audio book. And this is very wonky, and I apologize. But I just have to ask this question. And this is from an audio perspective as well, from being a radio guy, but one of the things I found really interesting is that the- When you're reading the text, there is a natural pause between Juliet, Michael, Michael, Juliet. And there's that, a line or just a space, and that is a natural pause. In the audio, her voice ends and his immediately begins. And I found that fascinating because to me it made things just a little different, because it was, as you said earlier, this idea of, of the characters in a long marriage of really finishing each other sentences and having sort of a tag team sport of telling a story.
That is so funny you say that. I was contacted by the director of the audio book, which has never happened to me before. I'm a huge audio book fan. I love them when, especially when I'm driving but also cooking. So he said, he helped me, he let me give feedback about casting the book. So I found this most brilliant woman to, Cassandra Campbell to read Juliet and she- The experience is so trippy because she's sort of is the voice of Juliet in my head. It's so surreal to have that experience. My own voice is not the one I imagined for Juliet, but this woman really was. And it was I was when I listened to the audiobook, I got this amazing feeling of being able to hear the book as a stranger might. It estranged the book for me enough so that I could hear it and experience it. So I loved it. But he also let me weigh in. It was actually my idea to run the text together like that. I said, "I don't think it would be a good idea to have a long, you know, formal pause in between each character's speech because there's so many shifts," I said, "that that'll just take forever." So, that was my idea. You just gave me public credit for you know, that note that I made to the director of the audio book.
Amity Gaige's new novel is "Sea Wife". It is published by Knopf. What a great pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much for-
It was so wonderful. Thank you, Joe. Thank you very much
A great pleasure.
We enjoy hearing from our listeners about our shows. You can email us at book@WAMC.org and you can listen again to this or find past book shows via podcast or at wamc.org. Sarah LaDuke produces our program. Bookmark us for next week, and thanks for listening. For The Book Show, I'm Joe Donahue.