Lucy Clarke has written a wonderful debut novel that suggests she’s a new artist who we should all watch. Her novel, Swimming At Night, is about several subjects at once, including sisters, travel journals and the sea.
I was sent her book and found it fascinating and my hope–which was realized–was that this email interview would make it even more intriguing. While not a sister, I love the sea, enjoy swimming and like reading others’ journals.
The novel is about two sisters, Katie and Mia. As the book begins Katie is contacted by the police who tell her Mia has been found dead at the bottom of a cliff in Bali, after committing suicide. Her sister had been traveling around the world with her best friend when she died..
Katie decides to move outside her comfort zone to try to figure out what happened, and she learns much more than she bargained for. I can’t go into specific here without giving away spoilers… let’s just say she is haunted by what she learns not only about her sister but also about their relationship and their relationships with others.
Clarke tells the story by alternating chapters–one chapter about Katie, one chapter about Mia, and so on. At times the book quotes from Mia’s travel journal, giving glimpses to Katie and the reader about what was going through Mia’s head in the months, weeks and days leading up to her death.
And now to the interview…
How did the idea for this book develop?
The idea that sparked Swimming At Night came from my fascination with travel journals. I love the colourful places they’ve been written, the pages thick with smears of sunscreen and grains of sand. Whenever I travel, I keep a journal and I’ve often thought how intriguing and tempting it must be to read someone else’s travel journal. What an insight it would give you into who they are. With this in mind, I asked myself two questions that were to be the fuel for the story: Who could the travel journal belong to? And, who finds it and why? From there, the relationship between sisters Katie and Mia was born.
How and why did you decide to do alternating chapters with each sister taking turns speaking?
I wanted Katie and Mia to both have their own ‘voice’. As the old saying goes, there are two sides to every story–and I wished to show both. The split narrative was also a useful device for creating tension as it helped push the story forward as more and more questions are raised by each sister.
How would you describe the two sisters?
At first glance I think Katie appears to be a very structured, organized and controlled young woman. She is intelligent and personable and has a good job in London. Mia, her younger sister, is more of a free-spirit and is always seeking adventure–yet can be reckless and selfish with it. However, the personality traits of both sisters shift as the novel travels forward, and Mia and Katie begin to discover new shades to their identities.
Did you plot the whole story out or create characters and see what developed?
My process is that I begin with a simple premise, which I then thicken into a plot outline. I don’t have the outline pinned down chapter by chapter; rather, I’ll split the book into three ‘acts’: the beginning, the middle and the end, and plot the key events that will take place within these acts. I’ll also create bibliographies for each of my main characters. After that, I get down to writing. I ‘free write’ the first draft, which to me means writing it in one big gulp without looking back. This draft is always very short–perhaps only 30,000 words. After that I build upon the draft–and often write seven or eight drafts before I have something I’d be happy to show my publisher. I suppose it’s a little like the way a painter may work: they layer colours and play with textures and shading until they can eventually stand back and think, ‘Yes. That’s what I was after.’
I understand you are a fan and user of travel journals and that played a role in the creation of this book. Can you tell us a bit about that as well as describe what your travel journal is like and what surprises lay in store of anyone who would read it?
Yes, I always keep travel journals whenever I’m away. There’s something delicious about sitting on a beach in a new country and opening the first page of a fresh journal. I love to record memories of interesting experiences and my travel journals are also a useful research tool when I’m back in the UK and writing about far flung places. My own travel journals are much like Mia’s in that they’re written by hand, usually with strange doodles filling the margins, or pieces of memorabilia tucked into empty corners. If you picked up my latest journal that I wrote this year in the Philippines, you could read about sleeping on the deck of a boat beneath the stars, climbing to the top of a limestone cave, and diving a WWII wreck . . .
Did you travel to all the locales in the book (California, Hawaii, Australia, and Indonesia) while working on this book or were those places you have been to before that what with you being married to a professional windsurfer?
All the settings within the novel are places I’d visited before beginning the novel. My husband and I spend as much of each winter as we can abroad. (England is a wonderful place to live, but less so in our long winters!) As you mention, my husband is a professional windsurfer, so we are both lucky enough to be able to take our ‘offices’ with us when we travel. Over the past few years, our travels have taken us to Chile, Hawaii, Western Australia, Tasmania, Fiji, New Zealand, Canada, Philippines, Europe and the US.
I have read that you listened to certain albums to get into a character’s mindset. That prompts this question: What albums did you play for which sister?
I listened specifically to two albums. It’s not that these albums are necessarily my favourite, but for me they both captured something of each sister, so when I played them it helped me step into the character’s mindset. For Katie, I played Brett Dennen’s self-titled first album. The music is full of sunshine, light and easy grooves and it felt just right for Katie. In contrast, for Mia, I chose my favourite Beck album called Mellow Gold. The music has an alternative and experimental flavour, both fun but dark, and I felt it reflected the complexity of Mia’s character.
What’s next in store for you?
I’m currently editing my second novel, which is set on a remote and wildly beautiful island off the coast of Tasmania where I’ve spent two winters researching. It is the story of a recently widowed young woman, who travels to Tasmania to meet her late-husband’s family. Isolated on the shores of the island, she begins to uncover disturbing details about her husband, causing her to question both who he really was and the nature of his death . . .
I’ll end with what I call my bonus question: What question do you wish you would get asked and how would you answer it?
Q: Where’s your favourite place to write? A. In a beach hut! I’ve grown up on the south coast of England, so the sea has always been part of my life. Cities are wonderful and exciting places to be, but after a few days I feel an almost gravitational pull towards the coast. Our family has a beach hut that sits right on the sand and has views stretching for miles. The hut is quiet and peaceful and it’s my favourite place to tuck myself away with my journal, pencil, and a nice cup of tea!