I’m thrilled to talk with Jaimee Wriston Colbert again. In this Indie Corner, we explore her new novel How Not to Drown (written as Jaimee Wriston). We’ve chatted before at Dragonfly about her books Wild Things and Vanishing Acts. So when I found a talk she gave at Binghampton University in late March, I joined in and was excited that she has a new book coming out this May. See Penguin Random House for more.
Jaimee is the author of six previous books of fiction, which won the Willa Cather Fiction Prize, Zephyr Prize, International Book Award in Fiction-Short Stories, IPPY Gold Medal, CNY Book Award in Fiction, and others. She’s been a finalist for the American Fiction Prize, Foreword Indies Book of the Year, and the International Book Award in Literary Fiction. Her stories have been published in numerous literary journals. Originally from Hawai’i, she is Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at SUNY, Binghamton University.
Mary: Tell us about yourself–your life so far and how you got started in writing and more about your previous books.
Jaimee: Oh my, it seems I’ve been writing forever—starting with plumeria tree poems in our Kailua, Oahu backyard! I’d come home from elementary school and climb up into our big beautiful plumeria tree and write about bees and butterflies; the tree was my sanctuary, and I was even then a nature-lover. In my junior and senior years of high school, my writing ability was encouraged by a creative writing teacher, and I thought hmmm, maybe I can do this thing. I was lucky to have that teacher influence continue into my undergrad years at the University of Washington, with my wonderful poetry professor, Nelson Bentley. Oh, the stories he used to regale us with, about Theodore Roethke, my favorite poet in those days (still in my Top Five), who taught at the U.W. for a while, before my time there. I took a couple of years after my B.A. to “experience life” cocktail waitressing and bartending in the San Francisco bars, which over my journey as a writer formed the basis of some of my stories. I recommend to my own students not to immediately jump from undergrad into grad school, take some time to live. Otherwise, what will you write about? College drinking stories can get pretty redundant after a while. Eventually, I grew tired of the bar life, speaking of redundant drinking, and was accepted into Brown University’s grad school, in creative writing. There I worked with John Hawkes. He too was encouraging, but sadly in the years after I graduated, we had a falling out, and he died unexpectedly without our little snit ever getting resolved. How Not to Drown is my seventh book, fourth novel. Of course, I’m no spring chicken so it’s not like I’m channeling Joyce Carol Oates with a book a year. After struggling for years to first write a book then get it published, I got lucky when my first story collection won a national competition. I was in my mid-forties.
Mary: Tell us something about your newest novel, How Not to Drown. Who is the intended audience, and what’s going on in the story?
Jaimee: I pictured a literary audience, the same as for all my books; women in particular I suppose, as there are some strong, complex women characters ranging from Heaven, a middle-schooler dealing with being bullied in her own unique way; her mother Cassie, a drug addict, in prison for manslaughter; and Amelia her grandmother, a seventy-year-old former celebrity model who while concerned about aging flat out refuses to let anybody make her “invisible.” But the publisher sells their books commercially, so it’s listed in a number of online venues under categories such as: “Women’s Fiction” and “Domestic Fiction.” Both categories sound slightly demeaning; I mean is there a category called “Men’s Fiction?” Two highly respected male authors blurbed the novel and they both loved it, so I’m pretty sure it doesn’t turn away male readers. Of course. It’s a known fact that women buy most of the books nationwide, in the USA anyway, so I should probably keep my mouth shut about that category! As for what it’s about: How Not to Drown explores generations of the MacQueen family living in coastal Massachusetts, whose ancestors were forced to emigrate due to the “The Clearances” in 1850s Isle of Skye. This was a particularly violent movement that happened in the Scottish Highlands, where wealthy landlords forced crofters renting homes and farming their land (essentially share-croppers) off their land to graze more profitable sheep.
The novel begins in the 21st century after Amelia MacQueen loses beloved son Gavin to a suspicious drowning (for which daughter-in-law Cassie is convicted) and is awarded custody of their kid, Heaven, whose name and rowdy behavior irritates Amelia. Heaven doesn’t appreciate her grandmother’s nagging, and the two quickly butt heads. She bonds instead with Daniel, Amelia’s agoraphobic son. Through the wall between their rooms, Uncle Daniel spins Celtic tales for Heaven from the Isle of Skye, stories his grandfather had told him while pining for Mercy, the diner waitress next door. This 21st-century story alternates with chapters from the perspective of their Scottish ancestor, fifteen-year-old Maggie, telling her story about losing their home in The Clearances, then drowning in a shipwreck while emigrating to the “New World.” Ah, but then how can she tell her story, you might ask? Well here’s where I borrowed from the Celtic myths Daniel regales Heaven with and the final quarter of the novel becomes fantastical as the tale of the selkies, seal-women, come to life. How Not to Drown is about inheritance, the transformative power of storytelling, and how the present bears the weight of its violent, fantastical past.
Mary: What sorts of ecological themes does your novel have, and how were you inspired to write about them?
Climate change is the most universally pressing problem of our time. It affects life on Earth as we know it, and not just human life but every living creature, every plant, the health of our entire ecosystem is at stake. According to the UN Environment Program, the Earth is in the middle of a mass extinction, estimating that 150-200 species go extinct every twenty-four hours. Imagine looking at your calendar and noting every single day: there goes another 175, disappeared from the earth forever. It’s monumental, and I would be remiss not to address it in some way, in every book I write. In How Not to Drown, the drowning theme is introduced immediately in the first chapter, with a human drowning, Gavin. As the book goes on we learn Daniel, brother of Gavin, experienced a near-drowning as a twelve-year-old that changed his behavior and sense of self from then on. We are also told Celtic tales about sirens, singing sailors into the deep where they drown, of course, and Heaven decides this might be a way to deal with bullying in school and on the swim team. Meanwhile, throughout the novel and culminating in a climactic storm close to the end, there is a climate change parallel: the coast on the South Shore of Massachusetts where the MacQueen family lives is also drowning. Beach erosion grows worse every year, and the increasing severity of nor’easters due to climate change is not only taking away the beach but destroying flood walls and the houses and neighborhoods they were meant to protect. My story is set in a fictional “satellite town” of Scituate, Massachusetts—called Seahaven—but the ferocity of these storms, and what is happening to the town of Scituate’s beaches and neighborhoods, is real. This is, of course, happening all up and down the eastern seaboard and in many other places all over the globe. Glaciers melting, sea levels rising, coral dying because of the warming, acidic seas; and of course, this affects not only the polar bears, who are endangered but many other sea animals. Daniel, who at one point Amelia calls “the male Cassandra,” makes note of these environmental disasters throughout the novel. When a nor’easter upgraded to a hurricane pummels the coast later in the book, we see the resulting disaster as it’s occurring. It’s really unfortunate that people seem to need these reminders: dangerous storms, wildfires out of control, droughts, glaciers melting, climate migration, to think oh…I wonder if we should start doing something about climate change.
Mary: I’m so excited about this book! It hits all my interest areas. And I’m thrilled I reconnected, as I’m interested in the history of Skye and am amazed you keep writing about some of my favorite places. Are you planning on any book fairs or talks?
Jaimee: SUNY Binghamton University, where I’m Creative Writing faculty, had a May 4th How Not to Drown book launch event on Zoom.
Mary: Are you working on anything else right now, and do you want to add other thoughts about your book?
Jaimee: I began a new novel last summer, worked on it throughout the fall during my sabbatical, but since returning for spring semester and not having time to write, I’ve lost steam on it and will have to revisit this summer. But I would love to talk about my inspiration for How Not to Drown, a deeply personal book for me, which I mention in my “Author’s Note” at the end of the novel, but bears repeating here. Inspiration for this novel came from two occurrences. The first was discovering that my great grandmother’s family (MacAulay) had been part of the Highland Clearances on the Isle of Skye. They lost their home, forcing them to emigrate to the “New World” of Prince Edward Island, where two generations later my great grandmother was born. I knew she was Scottish but somehow managed to go through a lot of my adulthood not knowing what had happened to her family and hundreds of other families, who’d been evicted (often violently) by wealthy landlords so that the more profitable sheep could graze the land. Maggie in my novel is not her, although the reference to her sister Abigail does touch upon my great grandmother’s amazing life’s journey. She was part of a big farm family in PEI, with too many mouths to feed. So, along with her sister, she trained as a nurse, then traveled to San Francisco where she landed a job as an ailing William Randall Hearst’s private nurse to help him make the voyage by ship to Honolulu. There she met my great grandfather, Dr. John Pratt of Honolulu, and the rest is, as they say . . . history! After researching The Clearances on the Isle of Skye, I originally thought the timing was right for her family to have been part of the clearings of the two villages depicted in this novel, Suisnish and Boreraig. When I was on the Isle of Skye doing physical research for my novel, I felt I needed to find the sites of these villages. We parked as close as we could, but it was a ten-mile trek to get to the ruins. I did it alone, in the misty rain so prevalent on the Isle of Skye. When I finally got there I had to climb over a big cattle fence to get in. Wandering around I stopped inside the rocky perimeter of one of the ruins and suddenly had an overwhelming sense that this was it, what was left of my ancestors’ former croft. I stood there in the rain, staring out toward the ocean that bore them to the New World, and wept. Later, I learned from my son-in-law’s impeccable genealogic research that my ancestors would’ve already been in PEI at the time of those particular notorious “clearings,” though perhaps at one time they’d lived there. Or, maybe I was feeling the collective grief of all who’d lost their homes, their land, and their livelihoods.
The other thing that inspired How Not to Drown is I suffered a near-drowning off Goat Island, Oahu, as depicted in my novel. I grew up there and was as confident and comfortable in the ocean as one could be, yet this occurred while swimming alone and getting caught in a strong current. I wasn’t rescued by a mythical creature; however, I was rescued by three “angels,” two young men in a canoe and a strong swimmer who saw from the beach that I was in trouble. Having been rushed to the hospital by ambulance, I never had a chance to thank them, or the woman who helped me on the beach then notified my family. Perhaps they will read my novel! I owe my life to them. Incredibly, my great, great, great grandfather Captain Angus MacAulay, a ship’s captain who helped ferry emigrant families from the Isle of Skye to PEI during The Clearances, drowned after falling overboard from a small sloop in Charlottetown Harbor, Prince Edward Island.
Mary: I get chills reading your description of your visit to the Isle of Skye. I’m reminded of a trip to Ireland, with my husband and mom—whose relatives come from there. Mom and I both also felt a strange sense of connection to the place and still talk about it five years later. It’s as if the memory is in our DNA. But I had to laugh a little about the cattle fence. I ran into one as well as I trekked up to start a run along the trail above the Cliffs of Moher, and on one side was a bull pen and the other a fence, which I had to climb under, giving me a skin rash because of the nettles.
I’m glad you were saved in the near-drowning, so frightening! Thanks for giving me another wonderful interview, and I hope we keep in touch.