Visceral, haunting, and immersive, Tracy O’Neill‘s novel The Hopeful was one of the most impressive debut novels I read this year. Alivopro, the novel’s protagonist, is a competitive figure skater grappling with both a potentially career-ending injury and her own family’s slow unraveling. (Also of note: we also published one of O’Neill’s short stories in 2013.) It’s an illuminating, gripping novel, and I talked with O’Neill about it earlier this month.
Something I noticed looking back at a lot of novels that impressed me this year – I’m thinking of yours, Matt Bell’s Scrapper, Mairead Case’s See You in the Morning, and Sara Jaffe’s Dryland – is this sense of the physical, in terms of conveying the ways in which your characters interact with the world. How, for you, did you find a way to translate Ali’s athletic ability into prose?
It seems to me that we experience the world physically first and foremost but are so inundated with sensation that we often forget we’re feeling every second. In writing this book, I wanted to capture physical modes of being that remind us of our enormous capacity to feel. For Ali, it is experienced in fleeting moments of air cutting across the skin, quick windows free from gravity. For me, it was a way to gesture toward the very regular and extraordinary ways that we are always alive, even if we’re not attuned to how receptive the body is to pleasure.
What initially drew you to figure skating as one of the elements at the center of the novel?
Figure skating was a way for me to dramatize some of the themes that were important to me as I wrote the book. It’s a world where young people’s careers expire very quickly, which allowed me to convey what is so frightening about aging, even for a very young person. It also combines aspects of sport and art, so that I could delve into issues of where the self resides: the rational mind, the subconscious, or the body. Finally, it existed to me as a potential love object for Ali. I wanted my protagonist to be in thwarted love not with a person, as in a traditional courtship narrative, but with a doing. It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with romantic love, but I, personally, crave stories about female desires and ambitions beyond romantic love.
There’s plenty going on over the course of the novel beyond the figure skating: the fissures in Ali’s parents’ marriage, Ali’s questions about her adoption, and the questions of addiction that fuel parts of the novel. Did any one of those come first as you were writing on the book?
Addiction definitely came first. In some ways, I knew that the heart of the book lay in troubling desire, obsession, love, and addiction. I’m not entirely I can delineate between the four, nor can I trace them back to their origins. That we don’t know where they come from, their very mysteriousness, is part of their power. I wanted to capture what it feels like to be gripped rather than to grip, what it feels like not to know how to get a grip when life seems to be moving through you instead of following your lead.
Did you find that you had to do anything to get yourself into a particular headspace to write something that dealt with that sensation?
Not really. I’m naturally obsessive and often feel aware of the ways that I am not fully control. I feel aware of time passing, of how I’m seen as a woman even though I never chose to be born female, of rubbing up against the limitations of my own abilities as I write or try to understand tax documents or hit high notes. So when I was writing, I simply amplified these feelings of impotence.
One detail from the novel that I’m curious about is the origin of Ali’s name, which is both unexpected and which speaks volumes about her parents. Where did the idea for that come from?
A while ago my brother said that he wanted to get a tattoo. He knew he wanted it to be a series of words but wasn’t sure what the meaning should be. I was making a list of possibilities for him. I liked “Alis Volat Propiis,” which wasn’t right for him, but which I thought might be right for somebody. When I started working on the novel, I looked through old notebooks, and it seemed that I’d chosen the name before I even had a textual repository for it.
It was also a wink at my dear friend Ali Emir Tapan.
In an interview you did with The Believer, you mentioned that the novel began as a short story. When did it become apparent to you that there was a larger story there?
The initial short story came from the first chapter, where Ali is just trying to convince herself to get out of bed. I felt that that alone was a full story. But I kept returning to that character as I was attempting to hone the voices of characters in other stories. I realized she had more to live. Her story needed to be about what happens when day to day a person struggles to ascertain the reasons to get out of bed and engage with the world.
Have you started work on something new?
Yes, I’m working on a new novel. Because The Hopeful was told in the first person and quite internal, I set myself the task of writing in the third person this time with shifting points of view.
Was there anything else that you’ve applied to the writing of the new novel that you learned from the process of writing The Hopeful?
When I was writing The Hopeful, I found myself sometimes too caught up in characterizing Ali. There were pages upon pages of brooding. Then I realized that she could brood and plot at once. Even if she didn’t actualize her plans, the planning itself gave her more of a sense of movement. So there is some of that happening in this book.
I guess that’s a lesson any heist movie could teach you as well.