I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“Some of the best nonfiction is now being written as fiction.” Peter Rock on his new novel, The Night Swimmers.
Peter Rock’s ten books span a glorious range of voices and narrative forms. From the experimental photo/image project Spells to the heart-twisting novel My Abandonment, which inspired Debra Granik’s award-winning 2018 film Leave No Trace, his body of work is extraordinary. I’m lucky to share a city—Portland, Oregon—with Pete, who is an ardent supporter of other writers and possessed of a dry, melancholy, generous wit. Recently I asked him about The Night Swimmers (Soho Press), his beautiful new novel about writing, swimming, fatherhood, and unknotting (or trying to) the mysteries of one’s past. We talked about the book’s origins, its hybrid and intertextual impulses, and what it feels like to make fiction about people you love.
Leni Zumas How did you come to start writing The Night Swimmers?
Peter Rock I found myself in a very uncanny moment, and I reacted to it.
This is actually a scene that is accounted for in the novel: Five or six years ago in Wisconsin, I was looking for something, both daughters in tow, and we went into the Red Cabin, an old shack where I used to sleep. I found myself surrounded by the artifacts of my life twenty years before. An old bicycle, pieces of windsurfers, a Montana license plate from a favorite truck, but especially remnants of my attempts to be a writer. The old desk where I tried to write stories and, on the walls, personal but discouraging rejections from C. Michael Curtis at The Atlantic, quotations from Albert Camus (“It is only in order to shine sooner that that the author refuses to rewrite. Despicable. Begin again.”) and Ernest Hemingway, a photocopy of a picture of a handless blind boy reading Braille with his lips.
It was a pathetic tableau, an atmosphere of self-serious loneliness still lingering. I was fascinated and embarrassed at the same time. Also bewildered. I mean, there was no good evidence in those artifacts that my pursuits were anything but pretentious and delusional, that they might lead anywhere. And yet here I was, all this time later, having published books, being a kind of professor and—more surprisingly—having a family, these excellent daughters. It was uncomfortable to feel connected to that person, difficult to understand there being a continuity between him and me.
I tell my students, “If there’s something that you don’t know much about but that seems to be calling you, it’s because there’s something inside of you that is resonating with it—it’s your job to explore this connection.” This goes back to my days as a museum security guard, where I passed time trying to make up stories for all the artworks in my care. And then reacting, in books I’ve written, to a newspaper story of a father and daughter living in the wilderness, or the history and beliefs of an apocalyptic church in Montana.
This time the mysteries I was reacting to were once inside me, very close to me. So the questions of “What happened?” and “Why?” and “What was wrong with me?” all rose up. And I decided to look into that time, and the pieces of it that were available to me, and to see what possibilities would present themselves, and what I would do.
Because really the goal in all of this is to have something come out of me—in words—that I don’t expect, that surprises me. I try not to start out with ideas or intentions. How does it work for you?
LZ I share your impulse to pursue questions like “What is wrong?” and uncanny sensations instead of starting with a grand scheme. What usually draws me into writing is curiosity about my own and others’ discomfort, and I love your deep attention, in this novel, to doubt and unease. A crucial site of discomfort in The Night Swimmers is the act of writing itself: the narrator is trying to make sense, through writing, of memories and feelings and artifacts that resist (to varying degrees) sense-making. He wonders—and the reader wonders alongside him—if it’s even possible to impose order on these unruly relics. How do you feel about writing about writing? Any particular pleasures or challenges?
PR I’ve found that if there’s something I ever inveigh against—child narrators, autobiographical information, narrators who are writers—as bad, something I’ll never do, that is a sure sign that eventually I’ll find myself in a situation where whatever I’m writing demands that I do that very thing. Believe me, I think there’s nothing worse than narrators who are writers—worse yet, writing teachers! Many people I know have been conscripted to hunt me down and kill me if I ever write a scene in a writing workshop!
When I realize that the material I’m drawn to calls me into such a quandary, then the questions become, “How can I make this specific, or more interesting, or not hateful to me? How can I be certain that it is actually unavoidable and integral to this project?”
One strand of investigation in The Night Swimmers involved including my own writing from the past: notes toward fictions, quotations I copied down, and especially letters I wrote. To show how pretentious and tender I was, and to try to draw a line between those words and the ones that are commenting upon them. Were they written by the same person, or not? When I write “to try to draw a line between,” is that a connection, or a division?
I also included the writing of others (whether people I know or famous people), the collections of words that haunt my own, to show that anything we write is part of a conversation, or is informed by all these words around and inside us. And then passages from musty books about the Loch Ness Monster or the psychic photographer Ted Serios, notes between young lovers written in libraries, notes about ghosts found stuffed into tree stumps, writing scratched into birch bark, all sorts of found texts.
In most creative nonfiction I admire, one has the sense that the author is trying to figure something out because they have to, for themselves, that something is really bothering them and the best way they can get to it is by writing it down. They’re not thinking of someone outside of them reading it. That’s how I felt when I was writing The Night Swimmers, and how I wanted it to feel, once I was outside of it—that a reader had gained intimate access to something they really weren’t meant to read.
A big lesson to me in working on this book was found in reading all the letters I wrote to my ex-girlfriend, Semi, after she sent them to me (against my wishes). Those letters, in which I was communicating only with her, trying to get her to like and understand and come help me be unlonely, were so, so, so much better than any fiction I wrote during that time. They were full of careful descriptions of my quotidian life, and my hopes and frustrations, and suffused with yearning.
LZ What sort of relationship does your writer-self have with social media?
PR Evolving? Problematic? Potentially interesting? For a long time, as documented in my novel, I thought of being a writer as a kind of identity, calling, destiny. Now I’ve been working on being a person who sometimes writes, who likes to do it, and who talks less about it—or tries not to claim it as an identity that is somehow exalted. Ideally, it’s about the story, not about me; I’d like to be forgotten, or subsumed, when someone is reading something I wrote. I’d like to be in a dream while writing. And most of the time I’m not writing; I’m doing other things, trying to improve on being a person.
I published my first book in 1997—before Amazon, really, or the internet as we now know it. Book tours were a real thing; an author got a lot of help with promotion from the publisher. Now there is so much pressure on the author to do all this work: to get your friends to interview you, to have a social media presence, to sell the product. It’s a very lonely situation. If I get another letter or email from the Author’s Guild about “learning how to build my brand,” I’m going to saw off my head. The truth is I find disporting myself that way so depleting, and it makes me loathe myself, and it changes my relationship to actual writing.
Instagram is more interesting and problematic. There, I guess, my curation is wider, in that I include so many other things, and I’m letting people see what is happening around me, what is drawing my attention, what I’m up to. But I limit that to people I actually have met in person—a way to be in touch with distant friends and relatives, people who I can’t see. I like that.
Perhaps some people’s personalities or some people’s work are more in alignment with this. We’re also talking about the relationship of an author’s “personality” to their work, or if somehow sharing this personality and life might shed light on or gather interest for the work. And sometimes there are writers who manage to do that. In its way, Facebook or Instagram can document a life, in all its joys and frustrations and obsessions and haphazardness, but it’s all so super self-conscious of an audience, of garnering these “likes.” It would be kind of wonderful to have an Instagram where you could never access what you’d already posted to see if anyone liked or even saw it.
This twin-inclination, to make or offer something and then to need someone to witness and praise it, is so brutal, so human. Inescapable. Which is why all this tangle—the distortion that imagining others’ attention might cause when making something, and then the way seeking others’ attention warps what we do and who we become. Still, this notion of writing without considering an audience remains an ideal, for me. I think of Eileen Myles’s Instagram, for instance, where mostly she is documenting peripheral things around her, random and often ugly, almost never the central focus you would expect. It seems a little random, but it’s wonderful, often boring—and then, when you least expect it, a startling insight. It sometimes seems like a joke, but it’s not. Or is it? I suspect that Eileen is well aware of self-presentation and curation, but she’s having fun with it, and with her life.
The Night Swimmers, as an assemblage, is perhaps not unlike that; of course, it’s more tightly curated, and now limited, no longer malleable or ongoing.
LZ What are the complications (ethical and otherwise) of writing fiction about real people, including your own family?
PR I think I’m about to find out.
This is complicated, and I’m okay with not having a satisfying answer. Let me just begin by saying that every person, every situation, every piece of writing will operate under its own rules, and those rules are made up or will become evident as we go along.
I used to, years ago, get really upset when considering my friends who wrote nonfiction about their families, to wonder about exposing others. I recall, for instance, that Charlie D’Ambrosio’s “Documents” really threw me, as he exposed things about his family’s life that had parallels in my family, and which I wouldn’t share. I had questions of fairness, felt deeply the injustice of violating another’s privacy in a public setting. I had all kinds of tangled and high-principled notions of who was qualified to tell whose story.
Lately, though, I guess I feel a little more like “Who cares? Why not?” Any memory is a fiction, and limited by its nature to one person’s perspective, so any recollection about another person is just that: one person’s take on another, distorted by time and all manner of things.
When I started writing this book, I used real situations and real places and people’s real names as a way to ground the story, to convince myself. This is the nature of fiction, for writer and reader: we start out with an agreement that what is going to happen is made up, with the hope that we’ll forget that or cease to care, and real feelings will emerge within us, that we’ll be engaged and surprised. I was working with memories, but I was also adjusting time to make the story work, to create new proximities, and then recreating and creating situations and conversation; along the way, I began seeing possibilities beyond memory.
Brian Blanchfield talked to my students once about his excellent book of essays, Proxies. When he was asked about the discomfort and pain that his writing caused others (especially his mother), he said, “Well, it wasn’t easy, but I’d say that writing my essays and having them read accelerated certain relationships to where they had to go.” In a perhaps less fraught way, writing my novel helped me engage with people from my past, but more importantly allowed me to be a more honest and continuous person to myself (and also to my wife!).
I did have a lot of rules about how I proceeded. While I fictionalized, and sometimes had people do or say things that they didn’t actually do or say, I let many of the “characters” from the novel read the parts where they appeared, and I changed anything with which they took issue. I did not change any documents that I had from the past, beyond excerpting. In one or two cases I slightly changed names, especially of people I didn’t know well. Why did I allow photographs of my actual daughters to be printed in the book, especially because in the story they sometimes do and say things that never occurred? They think it’s funny, are proud, and of course look much different now, but they haven’t read the book. My wife wept when she read it, because they have changed so much, in behavior and aspect, but she didn’t ask me to take out their pictures. If she had, I would have.
I want to trouble this notion that fiction is somehow less real or separate in coming to an understanding of a life. To return to this idea that a writer must be “convinced” of the reality of the story he’s writing—when I was deep in working on this one, these distinctions of past and present and fiction and nonfiction were not apparent to me. It all seemed like the same thing. Whenever it was a question of being true to what the story wanted or what “actually happened,” I went with the story, and often wasn’t even aware I was making a decision. I don’t mean to sound cavalier, because I was and am worried, and I pursued this story with love and seriousness. My hope is that most won’t read it while primarily wondering “what is real and what is made up?”
LZ This blurring of genre borders, this both-at-once hybridity, is associated with the label autofiction, which has been applied to the work of Marguerite Duras, Sheila Heti, Karl Ove Knausgård, Ben Lerner, and Édouard Louis, to name a few. Does the label feel right for The Night Swimmers? Why are we so obsessed with categorizing texts in the first place? What if readers had to meet a text on its own terms, without first being told what to expect from it?
PR The publisher called my book an “autobiographical novel,” and I’d rather they hadn’t. I wouldn’t be any happier with autofiction, of course. Such labels, like any general category, are an attempt to ignore differences, to simplify, to take away responsibility from the reader. They speak to a publisher’s or reading public’s anxiety, a desire to understand something before it’s apprehended. Marketing.
Why do we possess this anxious eagerness to categorize? Is there any way to expunge it, to leap into something without knowing or caring how it has been categorized? Perhaps that’s impossible. We’re such an anxious species. (But can we do it, publish books like this? Let’s.)
I’m struck by how much patience we have if we believe something is real, that it happened. The tension in nonfiction is about a kind of exploration and questioning and discovery, a rattling around of understandings and misunderstandings, but the frustrations of something “not happening” or there “being no plot” seem like less of an issue with readers; some degree of monotony is pretty familiar from our everyday lives.
Those novelists you asked about—one thing they have in common is a remarkable sense of voice: that first person narration, that intimacy of someone apparently writing straight out of their experience. The richness of the experience allows access to what is invisible, the dimensions inside. Many of the books we might categorize as autofiction might be pretty boring if the interiority were removed. They would not make interesting movies!
Ten years ago, David Shields was on that weird barnstorming crusade with Reality Hunger, describing how he had given up fiction because he couldn’t stand moving all the furniture around, the artificiality, that he wanted access to consciousness more directly—which is an interesting provocation, to me, but doesn’t quite make sense in my world. When he writes something like “one of the smartest ways to write fiction today is to say that you’re not, and then to do whatever you very well please. Fiction writers, take note. Some of the best fiction is now being written as nonfiction,” that certainly has resonances with autofiction and how it picks up on some of the strengths of nonfiction. Yet I might make a counter-argument: Perhaps some of the best nonfiction written these days is being written as fiction?
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets changed the way I thought about writing and living, and for me really troubled the notion that different kinds of information should be separate, or separated. My first read of it was a physical, psychic event. For many reasons. But the thing that is pertinent is simply the way she juxtaposes different kinds of information, allowing these alignments to accrete and resonate—how she’ll include a very intimate memory next to a quotation from Ludwig Wittgenstein or Donald Winnicott and not get anxious or worry about always delineating, categorizing, explaining why. They all belong together. One is not subservient to the other, or separate, or causing, or explaining.
Nelson once came to talk to my students, as well. She looked around the room, and my students had their books for other classes on the table—Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Avital Ronell—and she asked, good-naturedly, “Why do you read these things? I mean, if it doesn’t make you happier in your life, if it’s not applicable and continuous, why?” This on the one hand seems like a simple statement, but on the other suggests a greater kind of responsibility, or an honesty about why we’re drawn to one thing or another, a recognition that we are making decisions all the time with our attention, and those decisions become us.
Typically, theory and fiction and dreams are often prefaced by “just,” or seen as somehow less weighty, as ancillary. I’m curious what it might mean to not prioritize one kind of experience over the other, to not suggest causes and effects or temporality in these comfortable ways. Exploring this curiosity was where writing The Night Swimmers led me.
In the novel, I reflect a fair amount on the paintings and the journals of Charles Burchfield, who is kind of an aspirational figure. One place I’d first encountered his work, unknowingly, was in the Thematic Apperception Test, used in psychiatric treatment, where patients react to paintings and images on cards by telling stories. “The test recognizes,” its instructions explain, “that these fantasies and dreams are not less real than ‘actual overt deeds,’ and often more revelatory. What we hope and imagine and daydream is as real a part of our life, if invisible, than any action or conversation or outside appearance.”
“In writing a diary,” Charles Burchfield writes in 1911, “I first thought that only events should be written; then gradually I began to put descriptions in which led me to describe my feelings at seeing different scenes and objects; now I think I ought to put in my imaginings, for they are part of a person’s life.” This way of generating material, and this Burchfield quotation, are both keys to how I approached writing my novel—that I would react to what drew me, see what came out of me; and that I would include all these external and internal aspects of my life, the day and the daydream, but I wouldn’t make easy distinctions between them.
Was it important that much of the novel arose from the artifacts and experience of my life? Yes. Is it important for readers to know or feel that? That’s none of my business. Which kind of brings us back to whether it might somehow be possible to apprehend something without first anxiously consulting a label.
Leni Zumas’s novel Red Clocks won the 2019 Oregon Book Award and was named a New York Times Editors’ Choice. She is also the author of The Listeners and Farewell Navigator: Stories. She directs the creative writing program at Portland State University.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee