An Interview with Chip Cheek, Author of Cape May

More people than I can count have told me that Chip Cheek is an amazing–legendary–Grub Street instructor and even better writer, and now that I’ve read his debut novel, Cape May (Celadon, 2019) I get it. Set in 1957, newlyweds Henry and Effie take the train from Georgia to the New Jersey coast for their honeymoon. They are both just out of high school, shy and virginal–but that ends quickly once they meet their glamorous neighbors, Clara, Max and Alma, who sweep the southerners into a whirlwind bacchanalia that left them–and me–spinning. Together the group breaks into abandoned summer homes, sails, walks naked under the stars and makes love all while devouring gin. . . and more gin. As the weather cools and a storm blows in, every character finds themself drowning in the weight of lies they’ve built carelessly at first, meticulously later.

While on the surface this plot is straightforward, the questions it asks are not and that is the brilliance of this book. Cheek had me wondering when does a marriage start–or end? What kills the fiercest attachment? And why do some people hold on to one another even when they shouldn’t? These questions stayed with me for a long time after I put the book down–and this is exactly why we read: to question, to think. And I didn’t even mention yet that Cheek writes some of the best sex scenes I’ve come across in a long time.

Read this book. It will ravage you and keep you wondering. We at Dead Darlings were thrilled when Cheek agreed to this interview, so let’s get to the good stuff:

Most of our readers are writers—and we want to know: Chip, are you an outliner or a pantser? And what do you teach new writers to do when they sit down to start a novel?

Oh, I’m definitely a pantser. I never start with an idea I want to convey, or even a clear sense of a project in terms of plot or form or approach. I admire writers who do that, who are like, “I wanted to explore the ways in which humans do X or Y,” or, “I wanted to try this cool trick with alternating POV.” Whenever I’ve proceeded that way, with a plan, the result is always reductive, or didactic, or predictable—anyway, bad. So I write whatever is obsessing me, in whatever way feels natural. What always gets me first is a setting—a place and time and usually an occupation. Then come characters, at least two, very blurry at first. Then a situation with a little (or a lot) of tension in it. That’s enough to set any story running, and in my experience, if you don’t interfere with it too much—if you don’t overthink it or predetermine it—it’ll naturally wind its way in the direction of your deepest obsessions, and/or the things you don’t understand, or things that disturb you. This is where the good stuff is. I once began writing a scene set in an observatory at night, of a grumpy astronomer complaining to his grad student about the cloud cover interfering with their observations. That’s all I had at first; I just think astronomers are cool. But soon I’d written a touching (to me) little short story about loneliness and the courage it takes to make a connection with another person. I couldn’t have pre-planned my route there, in part because I didn’t even know how much this subject meant to me. When I understand something fully (or think I do, anyway), I lose interest in it. This is true even in revision. I might do some light outlining after I’ve finished the first draft, to get a handle on what I’ve got, but until the end I try to keep some essential part of the story mysterious to me. (Robert Boswell writes beautifully about this in his craft essay “The Half-Known World,” in the collection of the same title.) I’ve never taught novel-writing before—I never felt qualified, since until recently I hadn’t successfully finished one—but I guess I would encourage something along these lines for any new writer setting out on a novel: hold onto the mystery for as long as you can.

I understand Henry and Effie are characters from other novels you’ve written. What made you decide to take them out of other books and put them into Cape May?   

It didn’t quite happen like that; it wasn’t a conscious decision. I’d been working on a previous novel for about two years, and I was spinning my wheels. It was a totally different book from Cape May, a dark novel about the Jim Crow South, set in Georgia in the twenties and drawing on stories from my family’s history. I had a lot of great scenes and passages, but nothing was cohering, and the writing began to feel like drudgery. One day, for reasons that made sense at the time, I decided to marry two of the characters together. One was Henry, the main, point-of-view character, and the other was Effie, who at the time was a minor character. This wasn’t the first time I’d been sidelined by a love story and had to wrench myself back to the main action, and here I was doing it again. I sent them on a honeymoon to Cape May, New Jersey, which was a place I liked—my writer friend Lizzie Stark had a beach house there, where a group of us used to go on writing retreats—and suddenly I couldn’t stop writing. In just a few days, I had over fifty pages, and I realized this was the novel I wanted to write, not the one I’d been suffering over for the past two years. I happily dumped the old novel and finished the first draft of Cape May in two months, almost to the day. (Revising it took two and a half years.) The whole experience taught me a lot about my sensibilities, and the difference between subjects that deeply interest me intellectually and those that are urgently, personally important to me.

Were you driven to write by the larger questions around marriage, loyalty and love, or by the characters?

I was driven by the thrill of the situation and setting. The more I wrote, and the more nuanced my understanding of the characters and situation became, the more I could think about the larger questions involving marriage and love and desire, which gave depth and meaning to the action. But what compelled me to write was just the thrill of it. It was the most fun I’ve ever had writing. I couldn’t pull myself away from my desk. I want to do it all over again.

Our readers LOVE this one. What was the biggest editorial change you made while editing Cape May?

I love this question, too! It was the point of view. It was always in Henry’s point of view, but I wrote most of the first draft in first-person. The first-person point of view was just a continuation of how I’d been writing the previous novel, and I kept going because it felt natural and I liked the voice. But after I finished the first draft, I realized right away it had to be in third-person, because the focus of this novel is extremely intimate, and third-person can be far more intimate than first-person. With first-person, there’s always a question lingering in the background of the reader’s mind, consciously or not: Why are you telling me this? And with my novel, that would quickly become, Whoa, TMI. But with third-person, you can—to paraphrase Jennifer Haigh, I think—show what people do when they don’t think anyone is watching.

Moving along to content. One of my favorite scenes comes at the end when Effie turns to Henry and says, “I don’t want an explanation. . . What I need to know is can I live with it. Are you worth the trouble. . . What do I gain with you, Henry?” What did this question mean to you? And what do you want your readers to think about as we read it?

I just see it as a very revealing moment for Effie’s character. To a large degree, this marriage—marriage in general—is transactional to her, probably more so than she’s been able to admit to herself up to this point. She’s capable of being romantic, of course, and she has a great deal of passion inside of her, as she’s demonstrated earlier in the book, but at her core she is not a sentimental person. Yes, Effie might say, love is important in marriage, but so are other things—real-estate assets, for example. I love Effie; she’s my favorite character in the book. She’s an amalgam of all the tough, no-nonsense Southern women I grew up with—my mother, various aunts, my sister-in-law. I know her well.

Let’s talk about Clara. She was the character I loved/hated. She swept into your novel as a dangerous beauty brimming with money and a carefree live and let live attitude. But as I got to know her she surfaced as someone who was broken and lonely. How did you understand Clara’s position in your cast of characters? Did she change the course of Effie and Henry’s honeymoon and marriage, or were they destined to go where they did no matter what?

That’s a great reading of her character. As I was revising, I kept shorthand descriptions for each of the characters, to keep me on track. Clara’s was beautiful socialite who feels her youth slipping away. Under the glittery surface she projects, I think she’s very lonely and sad. Maybe not broken—I think she’s tough, and that she’ll end up making a place for herself in the world—but there’s a pervasive sadness about her. She shows this toward the end, in the resigned way she accepts the course of events. In the plot, I think she mostly functions as the character who makes things happen. She’s the instigator, the catalyst, the one who gets the ball rolling. There’s no doubt she changes the course of Henry and Effie’s marriage, but only in the sense that she gets this particular ball rolling. If she hadn’t been around, they’d have found some other way to wreck each other. That’s love!

**** SPOILER ALERT **** Alma’s drawing of Henry was a ticking time bomb from the moment you dropped it into your pages. Yet I can’t help but wonder, was the moment when Effie found it the end of her honeymoon? Or had it already ended? What were you thinking when you made it explode in that beautiful scene?  

I don’t know when exactly their honeymoon ends; I’ve never thought of that, though that’s a very interesting idea. Maybe it does end there. But for me, the moment Effie finds the drawing is the moment she realizes what Henry is: at the very least, a terrible hypocrite, given his righteous anger in the preceding scenes.

One more content question. “The secret to life was hidden from us, Henry thought, because we couldn’t be awake to see every moment of it. If you could forego sleep a little while and see it uninterrupted, something essential would be revealed to you. But you could only just grasp it, because eventually the veil had to be lowered, you had to sleep. He wished he never had to sleep.” This was one of my favorite passages. Can you tell us what you meant by it, both for Henry and for your reader?

I think this passage is getting at an idea that pops up in various forms throughout the book—essentially that much of our lives is cloaked in familiarity, in conventions, in routines we’ve inherited or that we have created to make life more comfortable and to keep us from seeing ourselves too clearly (otherwise we’d descend into chaos and madness), but that sometimes, in unfamiliar circumstances, these veils fall away, for better or worse. There are several references in the book to familiar things made strange, to enchantments. On their honeymoon, Henry and Effie have entered an enchanted realm where everything is strange, and their normally hidden desires are laid bare, and with the lack of the usual restrictions—their families, their routines, their conventional ideas about what a marriage should look like—they feel free to indulge in those desires. It’s a little bit like when people behave badly at a work conference. Like, What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Afterward people say, I wasn’t myself, but that’s just self-effacement. In Cape May, Henry and Effie are being very much themselves. And generally speaking, when people are behaving badly—a required element of good fiction!—they are revealing themselves more clearly than ever.

Finally, let’s get personal. What are you reading now? What books do you recommend?

Oh, yay! This is my favorite question. Right now I’m reading Einstein’s Shadow, a so-far excellent popular-science book by Seth Fletcher that just came out, which details the efforts of a group of astronomers to take the first image of the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. I love a good science book—anything by Elizabeth Kolbert, for example; I devoured The Sixth Extinction. And while I’m on the subject of science, I highly recommend two beautiful, slim books by the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and The Order of Time. Both books are brilliantly written and mind-blowing. As for more general recommendations, my greatest writerly heroes, the ones who have made the most impact on me, are Alice Munro and Marilynne Robinson—though your readers are probably familiar with them to the point of boredom. Still, I don’t want to exist in a world without them, and I reread each fairly frequently. My happy-place book is Moby Dick. I’ve read it start to finish twice, and have read some chapters dozens of times. It’s utterly insane and brings me such joy—especially the weird cetology chapters. Finally, I’m lucky to have many incredibly talented writers as close friends, and a freakishly high number of them are publishing books in 2019. Whitney Scharer’s debut novel The Age of Light is a wondrously beautiful book about the artistic awakening of photographer Lee Miller and her fraught relationship with Man Ray. Whitney and I are in a writers’ group together and were working on our books at the same time, and her amazing draft pages kept the pressure up for me to try harder on my own. Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers, one of the best, most devastating collections of personal essays I’ve ever read, is coming out the same month as my book. And Christopher Castellani’s latest novel, Leading Men, about the relationship between Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo, utterly floored me and made me weep over lost loves and the passage of time. I could go on at length with recommendations (how have I not mentioned Elisa Gabbert’s stunning essay collection The Word Pretty?), but I’d better stop here. Thank you so much for the questions and for your interest in Cape May! This has been delightful.

About Chip Cheek: Cape May is Chip Cheek’s first novel. His stories have appeared in The Southern Review, Harvard Review, Washington Square Review, and other journals and anthologies. He has been awarded scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, and the Vermont Studio Center, as well as an Emerging Artist Award from the St. Botolph Club Foundation. He lives in El Segundo, California, with his wife and daughter.

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