Tamara Ellis Smith interviews Amy McNamara about her debut novel, Lovely Dark and Deep
I was recently fortunate enough to review Amy McNamara's debut novel Lovely, Dark and Deep. The book is gorgeous. It is full of unspeakable pain, oh yes, but it is also buzzing with truth and hope and love. The rugged coastal Maine landscape mirrors the story in its raw beauty.
I asked Amy if she would be interested in being interviewed here about landscape, and she couldn't have been warmer or more enthusiastic about it. It has been a gift to connect with her. I am ridiculously excited and honored to have Amy McNamara here today. Welcome Amy!
I will just jump right in
Tamara: Lovely, Dark and Deep is so rich in its attention to landscape. It was impossible not to feel like I was right there with Wren, feeling the cold of the wind off of the ocean, smelling the salt and pine, seeing ocean-landscape crash up against forest-landscape. How did you gather and then articulate the details of this rugged Maine Coast?
Amy: Thanks for saying so! That's great to hear. I didn't actually travel to the real Maine for the first time until after I'd written the book.
Maine has been a fictional setting for me since I wrote my first "novel" when I was twelve. I've always loved the ocean and I guess whatever I discovered about Maine in the encyclopedia at the library (likely photographs and articles about lumber and lobstering) helped me imagine a vast forest shouldering up to the rocky coast. Sometimes it's best not to have too much information when you're working with your imagination.
After I'd finished a draft of the novel, I drove myself up there to see if the real place bore any resemblance to the one I'd described. To my utter amazement, it did.
Tamara: Somehow I'm not surprised by that
Amy: On that trip, I photographed everything that made me think of my characters. The setting was so familiar, I caught myself expecting to spot one of them. (It was a surprise to see there is a Wells, ME.) Yet when I returned, the pictures felt more like a distraction from the book than a help. They pulled me out of the imagined setting and anchored me in my own life as opposed to the lives of my characters. While I revised the book, I set the photos aside. I needed to stay with the dream of the story, the landscape as I'd written it. I didn't look at them again until after the book was released. Taking that time away from looking at them allowed the images to become less literal for me and more evocative.
Tamara: What does landscape mean for Wren?
Amy: It changes throughout the book, but initially for Wren the landscape and her father are almost a single entity. Her father's place used to be somewhere she felt free, but it also holds her father and his desertion of her. In that regard the landscape is initially a place she can go to be overlooked, a place she hopes will diminish her, and in so doing, contain her, help her to deal with the enormity of her feelings.
Tamara: Does it turn into something else as she begins to heal?
Amy: Well of course there's that whole idea of pathetic fallacy
Tamara: Pathetic fallacy?
Amy: Writers assigning human feeling to nature or to inanimate objects (the commonly taught Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud"). I certainly used that throughout the book there's a spring feeling in the air toward the end, yet this is also part of what Wren's railing against, the notion of a sorrowful sky, cruel ice, &c., &c. Wren is struggling to see the world as it is, what is true about it, to understand her place in it, which of course has recently been made clear to her as something far less secure or important than she'd previously thought. She experiences a diminishment of herself before nature that seems appropriate to her now that she's had a brush with a swift and powerful arrival of the end of life.
Tamara: Yes! And as a reader I couldn't help but feel that about myself too, you rendered those feelings so clearly
But back to you for a minute. What is your personal relationship to Maine?
Landscape is often, to me, an actual character. What do you think of that?
Amy: I like that idea thinking of landscape as a character. I don't know that I do that, literally, or set out to do that, but feeling located in terms of joining the dream of the story is very important for me as a reader and by extension as a writer. I'm always thinking about process and wondering how other people sit down to do it.
When I wrote Lovely, Dark and Deep the setting just was. I didn't think about the work it was doing until after I finished a draft and saw how it functioned. That said, having a sense of place, of my surroundings, believing that it exists reinforces the work of the story. It is, for me, an essential part of the joyful leap I make when I leave myself and join a fiction. When you say it's often an actual character to you, are you speaking as a reader or a writer or both?
Tamara: I think I am speaking about both. I had to think for a minute there... but yes, I think as a reader I need to feel connected to the landscape of the story by way of my senses (can I see, hear, smell, feel the place) which is very similar (perhaps the same) to the way I need to feel connected to the characters. This is, no doubt, the reason why I think of landscape as another character. And really, this is not a conscious thing at all. It is why I FEEL landscape as another character without even realizing it.
The way you say it "feeling located in terms of joining the dream of the story" resonates strongly for me. Yes! If I can leap into the story and land on ground that I can touch and see and smell then I can stand with the characters who reside there. Is that what you mean?
Amy: Yes! I need to feel oriented in one way or another before anything else can happen. As a reader and as a writer. If I'm oriented in some way, I'll go anywhere with the text, but if I don't have a sense of the basic rules of the given world, then I find myself struggling to follow or imagine other details. This is not to say I need or want art to be particularly concrete or literalI list toward the abstracteven so, I need to know what the overarching structure is, the frame of the thing, before I can easily wander in and join the fun.
With characters sometimes less is more. If a writer provides me with too much information about a character's appearance, information that's not necessary to the theme or plot, it puts me off. I think there's a danger of robbing the reader of the chance to participate in the making of the thing. The imagination we bring as readers to a text is a large part of the joy of reading, part of how we internalize story, how it comes to life for us.
Tamara: What does landscape mean for you? What is your belief about landscape? How do you manifest this belief in your work?
Amy: That's a huge set of questions. I am very affected by place. Everything about it, the quality and cast of light, what scents are on the air, whether or not it's moist or dry, if it's filled with evidence of the human spirit, the natural world, or some combination thereof, all of that plays into my general outlook. I can be undone by something as ridiculous as a battered and abandoned plastic toy bumping against a curb, then buoyed again by a great swath of red paint someone's thought to draw across a surface for only the reason of placing red somewhere it wasn't yet. I drive my husband nuts by pushing our furniture around when I need a change of perspective. I don't know why my surroundings work on me in the way they do; I certainly know people for whom it is not important, yet to me, it's always the place to begin.
Tamara: I am just the same way! Both in terms of being undone or buoyed by a tiny great detail and in terms of moving furniture! (And driving my husband nuts!)
Amy: Does that count as a "belief about landscape?" I'm not sure it does, but I'm sure it informs how I work. Before I can tell the story of an imagined place, I have to see it in my mind's eye. I tried, for a few months, to write a story about a girl who lived in a house I'd seen in a dream I could picture the house so clearly, I even drew it, yet when I tried to write about it, it remained elusive. I couldn't approach it through language head-on. It was the strangest experience. Eventually I took that to mean the house didn't belong in the piece I was writing. I had to let it go (though I can see it yet) and trust that if it's important it will come back to me at some point. Sounds pretty mystical, doesn't it? But it feels like that like if the setting isn't present, nothing else is going to adhere I need to see where I am before I can begin doing anything meaningful there.
Tamara: Yes! I have thought a lot about the ways we are affected by landscape and continue to ponder it...and I am very curious to get a little deeper with you here. Do you think that one of the reasons, perhaps, that landscape (light, scents, evidence of human spirit, etc) plays into your outlook is because you feel very connected to it? Like you are in a constant relationship with it? It penetrating you, you penetrating it? I feel like there is something essential in humans being more connected to our landscapes than we think we are, and I wonder what you make of that...
Amy: I suppose that's true we are animals and as such part of the whole natural cycle, including our incredible talent for innovation and our clearly formidable powers of destruction. And at the rate we're going we'll drive ourselves to extinction, the planet shrugging us off like a pest.
So do I feel very connected to landscape, in a constant relationship with it?
Yes, I guess I do, definitely in terms of my immediate physical surroundings, especially where beauty or the absence of beauty is concerned, but not in a way I like to look at very closely. It's kind of like thinking about your heart beating or the way we breathe without having to remember to do so. In terms of writing, I find some things are better left without scrutiny. I don't know if that really answers your question, though. So, yes. I can only speak for myself but I do feel deeply connected to my setting. Whatever that might be. City, country, subway, office. But I wasn't consciously building the landscape around Wren when I first wrote it. When I try to do something only the trying shows. But because I wasn't counting heartbeats, so to speak, they were able to flutter along in their own rhythm. I find when I loosen my grip on the reins, things float to the fore.
Tamara: But because I wasn't counting heartbeats, so to speak, they were able to flutter along in their own rhythm. Oh wow. Thank you, Amy, for this incredible interview.
Amy: Thanks so much for asking me these terrific questions and giving me the opportunity to examine the role of setting/landscape in fiction. I enjoyed it immensely!
This interview was originally posted at smithwright.blogspot.com where you can read the interview with accompanying visual images of the Maine landscape. Interview reproduced with the permission of Tamara Ellis Smith. All rights reserved.