There’s a lot happening in Dryland, Sara Jaffe’s debut novel. It follows several months in the life of Julie, a high school student in the early 1990s, as she struggles with the legacy of her absent brother, an acclaimed competitive swimmer; becomes increasingly aware of her own sexuality; and takes up swimming herself. It’s an impressive work, and one that moves well from the naturalistic to the dreamlike and back again. I spoke with Jaffe about the novel, her writing process, and how her background as a musician has impacted her prose. She’ll be reading in Brooklyn on November 21 at Unnameable Books with Alexandra Kleeman.
Dryland has plenty of different elements: a coming-of-age story, a period piece, a look at competitive swimming, and a narrative of a quietly estranged family. Which element came to you first as you were writing it?
I’d been vaguely thinking of writing something about swimming for a long time. Or maybe more accurately: I’d been thinking about writing while swimming for a long time. I’ve loved swimming since I was a kid, but I’ve always taken it very slow and meditative-like. I’m not a sports- or exercise-oriented person, but I’m interested in the physicality of swimming, its spaces and accessories. And at a certain point, that seemed like an interesting tension/question to explore: Why might someone be interested in an athletic activity but not for athletic reasons? Why might someone pursue a form of physical activity and persist at doing it relatively badly, with no real aspiration toward improvement? That led to the idea of a character who has a family member who was successful at swimming, so the relationship with swimming also becomes the relationship with the family member, and the rest of the family.
What provided your initial impetus to start writing?
Like, start start? At the very beginning? I grew up in a household that really fostered a fascination with language: my dad was a professional copywriter and a non-professional songwriter and otherwise “creative” writer, my mom loves crosswords, everyone was constantly punning. Plus I was always really stuck in my head, imagining characters and their lives, some taken from TV or other books, some invented. The first writing I remember doing was a book of stories in second grade. It was called Sara Jaffe’s World of Stories.
I was born in late 1976, so the music mentioned in your novel brought back a lot of memories. How did you settle on R.E.M.’s “Country Feedback” as a song that would have such a large role in the book?
I really saw Julie as being on the cusp of getting into more underground music, and for me, as a proto-indie-rock-kid, I was always fascinated with the most obscure song on a popular album, the one that would never get played on the radio (Wham!’s “Heartbeat,” anyone)? And “Country Feedback” was definitely that song for me on Out of Time. It’s this dark sprawl of a song, a jumbled collection of objects and moods. My decision to make it so prominent int he book was, in a way, a pragmatic one–I wanted to be able to choose one song, establish its significance, and then keep coming back to it in a kind of shorthand. It was a similar choice to having Julie and her family always be eating chicken for dinner. Just sort of establishing “this is the food” or “this is the song” and then not have to spend a lot of time fleshing out new detail or describing a new thing.
What was the process of revising Dryland like?
There were some basic character relationships and plot points I knew about early on, but I spent a long time trying out different entry points. It took me a long time to figure out that it needed to start a little further back in time than I had originally been aiming for. And I had written many, many pages before I really hit Julie’s “voice,” which I would say, in this case, is the same as how I decided to use language, establish a style. Once I had a draft of the novel and was working with Tin House, revising looked like my editor saying “I don’t think this part is quite working, what if you do X?” and my saying “You’re totally right, it’s not working, but I think what I need to do is Y.” It was really great.
My first exposure to any of your creative work came via your time in Erase Errata. Do you feel like making music has had effect on the way that you write fiction?
For sure. In a way I think my musical aesthetic is not that far off from my writing aesthetic–I want some hooks, some engagement with conventions, but I also want to mess with structure, get some noise in there. I’m really drawn to repetition and using a fairly minimal palette. I want friction high up in the mix.
Dryland is one of the few novels I’ve read that has extensive scenes of competitive swimming. Did these sequences pose a specific challenge to you as a writer?
They did. I saw lots of pitfalls in terms of the swimming scenes being super cliche (rah rah high school team!) or boring (stroke stroke stroke). Also, while swimming does have some metaphorical significance in the book, I really wanted the swimming scenes themselves to hew literal, close to the body. I read a bunch in this exercise science textbook called Swimming Even Faster to get a good sense of how swimming really works, how the body can propel itself through water successfully or unsuccessfully. That reading helped me to defamiliarize swimming (to myself, and hopefully to the reader, to an extent) by breaking it down to its elements, separating one part of a stroke from another, making it both more and less fluid.
Given that the novel is set in the early 90s, I’m curious: do you have a sense of where Julie would be now?
You know, I don’t. I can project a few years out–she gets more queer, she gets more indie, she leaves home for college and doesn’t come back–but ultimately she exists in the writing itself. I’d have to write more of her to discover where ends up.