Author Tom McNeal has won the California Book Award (Crooked and Goodnight, Nebraska); the James Michener Prize (Goodnight, Nebraska); and the O. Henry Prize (What Happened to Tully?).
Now, seven years in the making, McNeal’s novel To Be Sung Underwater (Little, Brown & Company) is due in bookstores June 2, 2011. I talked with McNeal about Underwater, a beautiful story about the depth of love, and how we occasionally leave rippling heartache in our wake.
Underwater, which I have recently reviewed for Blogcritics, is loosely based on a longtime friend of McNeal’s who never truly recovered from a lost love. “When you get to a certain age,” says McNeal, “you start thinking about the shape of your life. You wonder, what makes a good life? A good marriage? Pretty often the two questions become one.”
McNeal thought it would be interesting to explore the choices that preempt a given life path. “What if the first love is the only one that really takes? What do you do with the rest of your life?”
These universal questions set his riveting story in motion. The implicit promise McNeal makes to his readers to address these curiosities resonates within protagonist Judith Whitman, a Hollywood film editor in the midst of a mid-life awakening, yearning to go back in time and revisit the road not taken. While she sees her life play out before her like a film, she is unable to edit it accordingly. In ways, she wants to manipulate the emphasis and intensity of her own story. “She’s not a perfect person,” McNeal says, “but she’s smart and watchful and sensitive to the needs of others. I thought she would make good company.”
Tom’s wife, National Book Award finalist Laura McNeal, reviewed early drafts to ensure he related the female experience in a credible manner, though she says that he needs no help in this department. One way or the other, he gets it right. Most notable are Judith’s conflicted feelings about motherhood, her marriage, and how her past might possibly relate to her future.
Whitman’s past involves lost — but not forgotten — love interest Willy Blunt, a simply complicated man who views life through a Bushnell rifle scope. “I would never say Judith made a mistake,” McNeal says, referring to her decision to leave Willy behind. He believes in both the strength of their relationship and their divergent paths.
Laura, however, disagrees.
“I read the book as the history of an understandable but tragic mistake,” she says. “The book is true for me because it makes plain that Judith must choose between her youthful ambitions and the love of a person who could not help her realize those ambitions. I think the essential female dilemma is how to pursue an ambition without betraying those — children, parents, friends, men — who might need or want you to be somewhere, or someone, else.”
Judith and Willy’s reunion 27 years later in the pine-scented woods of Nebraska is both surprising and inevitable, the hallmark of a terrific ending. While McNeal had a feeling for the final scene before he started writing, his route was not direct. “I feel my way with the story,” he says. “Character drives everything.”
For McNeal, setting the ending in the pine-scented woods of Nebraska seemed right. “One of the things I love about Nebraska is … there is this dilation of the senses. It almost acts like a decongestant. You can breathe better, see further. It’s a more elemental life and you’re surrounded by some pretty sturdy people.”
McNeal knows how to write sturdy people well. He is one of them, finding time to parent his children, work in a family business, and “work at the desk,” which Laura says is how he refers to writing fiction. “Tom finds it hard to say to someone, ‘I’m a writer’ or ‘I’m going to write now,’ ” she says. “He just says he ‘works at the desk.’”
McNeal’s quiet clarity ripples on the surface of his persona and work, and his life lessons beneath have profound and endless depth. This summer, become absorbed in To Be Sung Underwater.