Author Interview with Elizabeth Poliner

Centered around what happens to one family during the summer of 1948, Elizabeth Poliner’s first novel, As Close to Us as Breathing, is a story of loss—whether sudden or creeping—and of memories layered in time. Narrator Molly sifts through mid-life recollections linked to the shocking accident that tore into the comfortable annual rituals of her family’s beach vacation the year she was twelve. Realizing there is “a chanciness to the business of life” and “a surprising solitariness,” she observes how different family members endured the resulting pain, as well as other more hidden wounds. She reflects on “the ways our worlds collapsed, the ways we made sure they did.”

Skillfully weaving the characters’ perspectives, Poliner draws out the tensions of multiple overlapping domains in As Close to Us as Breathing: female and male, child and adult, individual and group, winter’s work or school life and summer’s escape, the circles of recent immigrants and of longer-established populations, religious and secular, past and present, what is secret and what is known.

Since its publication in March, 2016, As Close to Us as Breathing has received broad acclaim, including a Kirkus starred review, ranking on best-book lists by BuzzFeed and Amazon, plus praise-filled endorsements from writers Elizabeth Strout and Edward P. Jones. Publisher’s Weekly declared the novel “an exquisitely written investigation of grief and atonement, and an elegy for a Jewish family bound together by tradition and tribe.” Heller McAlpin’s review for National Public Radio lauded Poliner’s book as a “nuanced, intricate family drama…a marvel of artful storytelling.” In The New York Times, Eli Gottlieb called As Close to Us as Breathing “a big-hearted roundelay of a novel that…performs the invaluable service of rendering a lost world.” Other rave reviews appeared in Tablet, Jewish Book Council, and The Jerusalem Post.

Poliner’s first work of fiction, Mutual Life & Casualty, is told through linked stories. She has also published a poetry collection, What You Know in Your Hands, and the chapbook, Sudden Fog. In addition, journals such as Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Colorado Review have selected her short stories or poetry for publication. A recipient of numerous artist grants and fellowships, Poliner has completed residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is an associate professor at Hollins University, where she teaches creative writing. With the paperback edition of As Close to Us as Breathing out this month (November, 2016), Poliner took some time for a conversation with Dead Darlings.

Dead Darlings: You’ve commented (on omnivoracious.com) that Woodmont, Connecticut, the main location of As Close to Us as Breathing, is “the only place on earth where all four sides of [your] extended family intersect.” Was it hard to move beyond any family stories you grew up with, about this real-life town and its people, as you created the novel’s fictional family members?

It wasn’t hard to move beyond family stories because there really were no stories. There were facts: both sides of the family went to Woodmont; they enjoyed themselves; my mother’s family rented; my father’s family stayed in cottages his grandfather owned, etc. Growing up, I heard about “Bagel Beach” from my parents, but only the name, not any events there. The one detail I heard about a lot was how the teenagers back in my parents’ day used to hang out at Sloppy Joe’s, and a favorite treat there was ras-lyme soda. But that, too, is more fact than story. So I didn’t have a story to go with, just the place and a curiosity about what it might have been like back in the days of Bagel Beach, when the coastline was divided ethnically.

Your novel does vividly evoke that Woodmont, as well as a past Middletown and New Haven. Did you spend a lot of time researching Connecticut in this mid-twentieth-century period (and at what stage in the writing process), or were you able to find out about the right atmospheric details from your family?

I did spend a lot of time researching. Part of my research about the Woodmont of 1948 was to interview my parents and ask them questions about everything I could think of. What did they wear back in the 1940s? Where did they hang out? Where, exactly, was Bagel Beach? Where did people who came to Woodmont in the summers come from? What did the cottages look like? Beyond these interviews, just as I was preparing to write the novel, I went to Woodmont with my mother, and we walked the length of it together. As I took photos, she was able to tell me what had changed, and what would have been there in the 1940s. That was an invaluable trip. And I gained knowledge of Woodmont from a book that contained postcards from the 1920s through the 1950s or so. That book allowed me to see the place at time periods earlier than my acquaintance with it, which began in the 1960s, when I was a child and would go there for two weeks every summer with my family. Since I did go to Woodmont as a child, my own memories of the place informed my sense of place in the story as well. As I wrote the novel, I always kept a map of Woodmont right beside my computer, and I was constantly referring to it, to better see just where everything was.

I grew up outside of Middletown, and went there quite often as a kid, so I didn’t have to research much about Middletown except period details, such as the names of restaurants and movie theaters of yesteryear. Because of the family-owned department store in the novel, I did research the impact of the Great Depression on Middletown, and that was quite interesting. Middletown was pro-active and consequently not as devastated as many other places.

I didn’t begin the novel until I felt I’d done enough research to write about the time period and places with authority, but along the way, as the story developed, I found myself having to do further research about so many things, including WWII, the history of Good Humor franchises, and all kinds of period details.

Another observation you’ve made, in speaking with Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman for Jewish News Service (jns.org), is that the number of characters in As Close to Us as Breathing contributed to “a difficult writing process.” How did you decide on the number of siblings, spouses, and cousins when you might have chosen to make the family smaller?

The story began with a sense of a woman, like my grandmother in the 1940s, who could not drive, and was consequently dependent on her husband to get her around. But I could see that, in Woodmont, such a woman would have a kind of autonomy—because the grocer and baker were so close, and because peddlers came past the cottages selling fish, fruit, milk, and other goods. So even without her husband around, this woman was fine. That was the first seed of the story. Then I began to see this woman in a cottage, and almost immediately understood she was there with her sisters. Then it was a matter of sensing who the husbands were, and the children, if any. And if there were no children or husband, perhaps there was someone else, and that’s where the secret love affair between Bec and Tyler McMannus emerged. So the development of the number of characters was an organic part of imagining the situation. The deeper I imagined, the more characters I could see beyond the already pretty large extended family—characters like Pearl Delaney, who works with Tyler, and Mimmie Klein, who loved Nelson when he was young. I don’t think it’s a matter of deciding the number of characters when you write a work of fiction, but rather a matter of imagining and seeing what’s there.

In the same JNS interview, you say that the novel’s narrator, Molly, “is herself and all of them at the same time.” It seems challenging to orchestrate so many characters within a first-person narration, even when enriched by the hindsight and further knowledge Molly gains in adulthood. With the present trend of novels written in rotating close-third-person points of view, did you play with this alternative at all?

I did not play with an alternating third-person point of view. I knew from the start that Molly was the narrator. As I envisioned the accident at the heart of the novel, it became clear to me early on that Molly’s role in the event was to witness it, and only to witness it. The other members of her family had a different kind of role to play—their actions that day had something to do with how the events of that tragic day unfolded. But Molly was simply there, witnessing. And it seemed to me that as a witness she’d make a great narrator.

I knew from some other works of literature I’d read that a first-person narrator could become a kind of witness at large, taking on the role of an almost omniscient narrator, and as the story expanded, I gave Molly that latitude. In a sense, Molly’s ability to tell her story, and everyone else’s, is an expression of the tension at the very heart of the novel, between self and family. At twelve, Molly thinks she’s just herself, and is in the process of discovering that unique self (in her words, “this silent inner self whom only I actually knew”), but the entire novel, by way of the narration, dramatizes how she is really deeply interconnected with the others in her family. Her real self is both the self only she knows and the self she only knows in relationship to others. That’s perhaps paradoxical, but the more I wrote into it the truer it felt—not just to the story but to human identity generally.

I was intrigued by your Literary Hub (lithub.com) essay, “How Mapping Alice Munro’s Stories Helped Me as a Writer,” because the writing of short fiction versus novels is not often seen to correspond so closely. Are there other short-story writers who have influenced your work as a novelist?

Alice Munro is someone whose work I have loved deeply and read deeply for decades. With regard to her writing, the line you’re drawing between stories and novels doesn’t seem so clear to me, perhaps because Munro, of all people, writes novelistic stories. Her stories can have such immense complexity and scope. It was inevitable, I suppose, reading her stories, cherishing them, and finally mapping them, that I would learn a thing or two from her. Edward P. Jones is another writer of stories (and a novel) whose writing I have read very closely for a long time, and he might be an influence too, though it’s often hard for me to be the one to judge that. I know that during the writing of As Close to Us as Breathing, I studied some passages from his work to see how to make certain kinds of transitions. I think that whenever I read fiction, I’m reading for enjoyment but also, if I really like the work, reading to see how the thing works, so I’m influenced by all kinds of writers.

Does your work as a poet come into play when you are wearing your “novelist hat”?

There isn’t much room for my poet self when I’m writing a novel. Novels take up so much space in the brain (and on the desk) that all else goes away for a spell. When I was writing only short stories, I could flip back and forth pretty readily between fiction and poetry, but in the last years I’ve written less poetry as the novel has taken over. The one poem I wrote recently was described by a reader as “a novel,” which was upsetting to hear, but I could see her point. It’s narrative, and there are lots of stories suggested by it, as well as characters. That said, the attention to rhythm and word choice in poetry carries over into fiction. I think, in this way, my prose is always influenced by my poetry. I really hear language, and have a need to voice my writing too, which allows me to feel the rhythms as much as hear them. Rhythm is so important to all writing. The rhythms of a novel play out over a larger field than the rhythms of poetry, but rhythm is just as important in fiction as it is in poetry.

For me, the structure of As Close to Us as Breathing beautifully mirrors the spiraling loops of memory. Also in the Literary Hub essay, you say that you had “no plan for the novel’s structure, but felt it out draft by draft.” Was it in an early or later draft that you decided to reveal the death that is so central to your novel in the very first sentence?

It took some time to discover when and how to reveal the death at the book’s center. I just didn’t know whether to build to that without the reader knowing it was coming, or to mention it earlier. I was always leaning toward mentioning the death upfront, and in my early drafts it’s there, on page one, but almost hidden—just a passing phrase in the middle of a large opening paragraph. It was there, but so tentatively. (By the way, chapter one in those early drafts isn’t anything like the finished chapter one; much of the original chapter one is now chapter eleven. I had a whole different structure going at the start.)

But with time, and with the gradual draft-by-draft restructuring of the whole book, and some growing clarity about how that structure worked—telling the story of the whole summer of 1948, and doing so linearly, from the family’s arrival at Woodmont until the accident—it made more and more sense to put the accident upfront. Doing so gave me the latitude I needed to go into each week of that summer, where nothing as dramatic as the accident happens, but where I’m establishing the various tensions that lead to each character doing what he or she is doing on the day of the accident. And it established from the start that what happens in this story isn’t as important as how it happens, and how it happens (how the accident happens) has everything to do with who each character is and what they want for themselves.

The upfront reveal also allowed me to weave in those backstories, which are all about who these characters are and how they came to be that way. And it gave me the freedom to jump forward at times, to sections that dramatize the after-effects of the accident. In the end, it seems like a very obvious decision to place the reveal of the accident at the beginning—the whole structure moves from that choice—but my understanding of this was as gradual as the process of working out the novel’s overall windy (or looping) structure.

I wonder if you encountered any resistance (from agents, editors, and/or early readers) to this decision, or to the way you chose to structure As Close to Us as Breathing, given the publishing world’s current tendency toward propulsive plots and minimized backstory?

Luckily for me, I did not encounter any resistance to the structure. One of my readers, looking at the book in draft form, had a bit of a problem with the backstories, and that gave me motivation not to change the structure but to tighten the writing there as much as possible, to be sure those parts sailed along. I also worked out better ways of linking the backstories to the 1948 drama, to be sure everything felt connected and fluid. When it came time to market the book, my agent loved it just as it was, and Lee Boudreaux, the editor who bought the book, likewise loved the structure and found it to be quite a compelling part of the book. She even wondered how I did it. (The answer is slowly, over a long period of time, with constant uncertainty.) I feel very fortunate that Lee always loved the book just as it was. She certainly had editorial comments, but not along the lines of restructuring. Her comments mainly had to do with clarifying moments and with tightening certain sections, particularly in the latter part of the book. “Let it gallop!” she said.

Is there a question you wish someone would ask you about As Close to Us as Breathing, and how would you answer it?

One subject that I haven’t been asked about is the pervasiveness of loneliness in the lives of many of the characters in the novel. In some ways, the novel explores, almost anthropologically as I see it, the social system that the Leibritsky family comprises. It’s a social system of many rules—“a mob of rules” as one chapter title calls it—some of which are explicit, such as certain religious rules (to observe the Sabbath, for example), and some of which are implicit, such as the social customs within the patriarchal culture of 1940s America. As I wrote into the story, it became clear to me who was “in” and who was “out” in this world of rules—which character’s life was supported by the rules and which character’s life was marginalized by them. And I played with that a lot, and learned a lot from doing so.

Bec, for example, a working woman who has never married and is childless, is very much on the margins of what’s acceptable for women at that time (and therefore what’s acceptable within this rather conventional family). The depth of her loneliness only becomes known to her when she dares to stay away from her family for the weekly Sabbath meal and have dinner instead with her non-Jewish lover. With the lover, she experiences something she hasn’t experienced before: being front and center on Shabbat. Of course, the lovers are on their own, at a restaurant in a different community, secretly together, but it’s still a revelation for Bec to feel important, and in so doing, to realize how unimportant she typically feels on Shabbat. That dinner scene between Bec and Tyler was a very moving scene for me to write.

Other characters are marginalized too, for various reasons, and experience deep loneliness, including Nina, whose sexuality marginalizes her; Nelson, who, like Bec, has never married, and that simple fact puts him constantly on the edge of family events (there’s not even any room for him at the beach cottage); and Howard, who after the accident, moves away from his passions for business and for Megan O’Donnell to do the “right” things in life, but obviously suffers as he does this. Ada is too unconscious of her feelings, frankly, to feel loneliness in her life, but the way she comes alive in Woodmont, when she’s on her own and around her sisters—the way she can breathe there like nowhere else—implies that those other three seasons, when she’s living a more conventional life, are very hard on her. I even see the patriarch of the clan, Mort, as lonely too, and that shows up with his disassociation from the passionate ball player he was in his youth and his projection of that dream onto his son Davy, and, perhaps most poignantly, in his disassociation from God, whom he can’t reach in prayer after the accident. He’s full of guilt for not living up to his role as protector of the family, and in a sense, this immense failure has led him to not know who he is anymore. And that’s a terrible loneliness—the loneliness of losing one’s core sense of self. So the depth of loneliness in the book, which has its roots in sociology, I think, was really moving for me to witness and experience as I wrote.

Can we look forward to reading more about these characters, or will your next novel take us to another time and place?

As the story in As Close to Us as Breathing feels resolved, so too do the characters. This could always change down the road, but right now, I feel that I’ve told their stories and have moved on. My next novel is set in another time and place, and involves a different group of characters.

I emphasize group. I don’t know why this keeps happening, but so far all my books of fiction—Mutual Life & Casualty and As Close to Us as Breathing and now the new one, in progress—engage large casts of characters. They are less about a single person than about group dynamics and, in the end, interconnectedness. It’s quite hard to dream up all these people, and after As Close to Us as Breathing, I can hardly believe I’m doing it again. But it seems to me our subjects in fiction grab us as much as we grab them, so what can you do?

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