The Discipline of Running, the Discipline of Writing: An Interview With Jaclyn Gilbert

A bit about working in a bookstore, let me explain . . . People take it to mean, oh, you must be well-read, or that you read a ton, when in my case I only read about 6 to 7 books a year. Some of those are comics. But also, keeping to the idea of a kind of diet. Because, they say, you need fats, cholesterol, in addition to vegetables. And not just comfort foods! The idea that some free-range variety can in fact change the way you view your own world, your own life and relationships. In ways that feel explosive. Unexpected. From a guy like me who gets breakfast at the nearby 7-11. No, seriously. That much, to explain my end-of-last-year toe-dip into full-bodied, non-GMO, mainstream, literary fiction.

Late Air is the story of a marriage. Murray is an elite-level women’s running coach, pushing his athletes at Yale to the absolute brink. A freak training accident involving his star runner, Becky Sanders, sends Murray spiraling back to his long-ago marriage to Nancy, a situation also abruptly marred by tragedy. Told from dueling perspectives, both Murray and Nancy painfully relive the dissolution of their relationship. Unexpectedly, more than a decade later, Nancy begins running to find herself. While what begins as a mystery, may in fact be gnawing psychological decline, as Murray continues to question the circumstances of the accident, looking for answers. A couple of horrific twists in this one that really turn your stomach. Also, I should mention, this is a love story! By the way, I first met Jaclyn Gilbert at a reading series in Brooklyn. (More on that.*) I made enough fevered notes to myself reading her book, I figured I might as well hit up Jaclyn via email, exchange pleasantries, do a quick interview…

I’m leaning on this diet-metaphor thing. In terms of your reading list, what are some of your comfort foods? Give me an idea where you’re coming from . . .

I like the idea of books as a diet.  Imagine how productive we would be if they could literally feed us! I regret to say I don’t have a lot of mac ‘n cheese on my reading list, but that probably has something to do with my severe pain and pleasure complex as a writer and runner.  Although growing up that was different. I loved Roald Dahl—particularly James and the Giant Peach—and Jerri Spinelli’s Maniac Magee was another favorite.  I saw a kid reading it on the subway the other day, a copy with a much flashier jacket than the hardcover I kept by my bedside in elementary school.  I loved that Maniac was always on the run, that the shoes on the cover of that book transported and defined him, made him mythical in a way. So maybe this book was an inspiration for Murray’s character.  But in high school, through college, I became more serious, more academic, for better or worse, in my reading interests. I was obsessed with the Bell Jar as a junior, and then in college, I read everything by JM Coetzee.  Disgrace was one book that made me think about objectification through the male gaze, and Murray was my first attempt to interrogate those implications in and outside of my body, as a woman and a runner. I love John O’Hara, the great Pennsyvania writer (my roots!), too, and Marilynne Robinson, and Maggie Nelson and Sharon Olds and Sarah Manguso.  Right now I’m reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries and Practicalities by Marguerite Duras.  I have plans to re-read The Lover soon along with Destroy, She Said and her Wartime Notebooks.

Oh. Just remembered what I wanted to start off with. A pal recently told me that I’m wrong, hilariously wrong, like 90 percent of the time when I synopsize people’s books. In your case, I’m definitely trying not to bust the plot too wide open since there’s the kind of thriller aspect to it. But for the record, was I at least fair-seeming, in my rundown? Anything crucial you’d want to add?

You are definitely not wrong about what happens! I guess I might also add that Late Air is also about falling in love with the idea of love—especially when it allows for the union of opposites.

I didn’t actually think about that aspect, but you mention it now and it makes a lot of sense . . .

Yeah, I think marriage is about working through those differences, a true test of the romantic ideal that first attracts us, and tragedy only exaggerates those differences—especially when it taps into gender norms around grief and recovery.  I wanted to look at those binaries through Murray and Nancy’s opposite journeys, and so a lot of what happens revolves around the elusive nature of grief—a journey that can’t be boiled down clearly into stages or steps—but rather must be survived individually day by day.  And so Murray’s breakdown is really a result of his runner’s mind wanting to control his perception of loss, when the truth of that experience never goes away, slowly erupting out of Murray’s suppression.

This is actually not at all the book I expected from the jacket copy. Nor did it end up being the book I thought it would be after reading the first third. Not to give it away, but Nancy in particular, seems like an almost completely different character by the end. How much of this was intentional, you toying with the readers expectations? Also was it something you specifically discussed with your editor/editors?

Nancy’s character was a difficult—if not the most difficult—aspect of writing this book.  Largely because she began conceptually as Murray’s “other half”. In other words, though Nancy shares Murray’s perfectionist anxieties, when I first began creating her character, she was too simply someone who represented everything Murray was not—someone who grew up privileged, was learned and literary—and whose physical and emotional self is tested by the trials of motherhood.  But midway through the novel, after Murray and Nancy’s marriage is shattered by tragedy, I had to really dig into who she was as a person, and that meant not just focusing on her surface anxieties, but empathizing with her grief. My own journey to sit with her grief became a deeply personal one. I realized my own inability to confront certain losses in my life, particularly as they related to my father’s emotional abuse, particularly as it related to my body and his need to quantify me in a material way.  Through Nancy’s denial, I came to recognize all the ways in which running had provided me a means of escape. And not just running, literature and intellectualism, too—as a means of distancing myself from feeling bruises from my past. So I guess in this way, Nancy’s unexpected need for running—not as something that is results driven and external, but as something that is spiritual and allows her to be present in her body—paralleled my own search to rediscover running as a means of liberating my mind, not keeping it trapped within the confines of my body.  I did a lot of running while finishing the book, and in the process, I learned to step back and see things from Nancy’s POV, to notice things my more controlling self might have ignored; I began to appreciate all the courses I had endured in my life, all the views from different peaks and summits, all the bridges I’d crossed, and the sounds and smells that punctuated each path. So the chapter that compresses time—when Nancy truly begins to heal—arrived subconsciously through the process of revision. It was the most cathartic and enjoyable experience of writing this book.

To answer your questions about editors—I wrote this chapter before the book went out on submission—so if anything, the editorial process with agent and editor became about elaborating on different realizations Nancy had while running.  I worked with my editor to think about how Nancy learned to empathize with Murray each time she runs, making space for his own narrative around the events that led to their breakup, so that when they are reunited in the end there is that much more opportunity for love and hope.

Let’s talk about the time-split thing. One defining aspect or “tick” of Murray’s is that he’s always obsessively making lists, writing, working out so-called “time-splits”. I’ve never run competitively, but I thought a lot about the way some of the movies and themes I’ve liked involve characters obsessed with time; Michael Mann/Time is Luck, the dude from Inception, etc. First of all what is a time-split? And what, if any, is the larger significance in the book? I mean I assume I got the gist, but tell me how you were thinking about it.

A time split is usually just shortened to “split,” which refers to the time it takes to complete a rep in a workout.  In running, you want to improve your split times in the hope of improving your overall time. So in the opening of the book, for example, Becky is running mile splits on the golf course to get her 5K (3 mi) race time down.  Murray is obsessed with splits because they are small incremental times he feels he can control, even if he can’t . . . It’s up to the athlete to perform. He can only try to optimize those times. But you raise an interesting point about the larger structure of the book through your wording, “time-split,” which could also be read as split time.  Murray and Nancy are metaphorically split in time and memory.  They are no longer married—one story is operating in the present, while the other is in the past, slowly catching up to the present.  These different timeframes comment on the question of grief and recovery. Trauma split, or fragmented, Murray and Nancy’s narrative, and the repression of that pain—or all the ways in which it shapes Murray and Nancy, separately and together—creates a void that Nancy and Murray are moving toward, chapter by chapter, as if to fill that hole with the truth of their shared experience, a kind of reconciliation between present and past in the novel’s final pages.

Just saying the word “dichotomy”, I know, makes me sound like a dick. So let me try this, I’ll describe the conflict the way it seemed between Murray and Nancy, and you tell me if it sounds half-way accurate: Murray obsessing over running and time, pushing his athletes, literally destroying their bodies. Nancy obsessing over Murray, over his moods and the minutiae of his psychological state, to the point that it actually destroys their marriage? Obviously there are a few other factors. But like two schizophrenics locked in silent combat. Not with each other though!

Skipping this one.

No you’re right. Too glib on my part. And probably too easy to just break it down that way. Too neat . . .


(Night hustle/More disclosure)

By the way, this is how I first met Jaclyn. Ditmas reading series, Brooklyn. Lights in the window. Low hiss, from still-wet streets on a Tuesday. I love being out, but the catch is, there’s gotta be a game to it. Of some sort. A hustle. Chop it up, you shake hands, keep it going. Plus drinks. Also a lot of it is people-watching. Sitting with my friend Janna. And I remember thinking, even asking myself; ok, who’s this muscular, intense-looking jaguar of a person? Maybe even a bit too serious for the occasion. Of course we met. I can’t resist in those situations. I found out about her book. I’m sure we talked about running some. But it would end up being months, months and months later, that I’d hear her get up and read some of the evocative, driving passages from Late Air describing the evolution of Nancy’s running habit. The idea of pushing physically, passing through pain, to open the mind. To find oneself. See the unseen. A language of struggle and epiphany, nicely tied to the idea of a city. And I thought: well that’s a lot like how I feel about writing . . .


So what came first for you, writing or running? And now, at this point in your life, what’s the connection, if any?

That’s a good question. Looking back, I think the two have always existed as one for me.  While I might not have been running seriously as a child, I was always running. My mom has stories of my first grade soccer coach commenting that I was more interested running up and down the field than I was in actually getting the ball.  And I know this was true. I also know how much I loved to run back and forth between my yard and my friend’s house a few blocks away, and running along the sand in the beach, in Ocean City, New Jersey, where my family vacationed in the summers when my parents were still together.  I remember doing relay races with my dad and sister at the edge of the ocean, and that the few times I felt validated by my father as a child was while running.

But this is also true of my writing.  Early on, I felt I needed language—specifically as story—to express myself.  I began writing around the age of six or seven, and about a year, later, in third grade, I got really into writing nature poetry.  I was obsessed with Jane Yolen’s bird poems and all of Shel Silverstein’s books. I used to write in the basement after my mom remarried and we moved two houses down from the house I grew up in with my dad on Butter Road, (of all names), and I think writing allowed me to process that transition—to know that certain aspects of my landscape had stayed the same, but that a larger part of me had changed. At an early age, I had to realize some difficult truths about marriage—particularly the idea that love could be illusory, conditional. Love could cause a family a lot of pain.

In middle school, I started running.  After my dad remarried and moved from Lancaster to Ocean City to start another family, I only really saw him in the summers.  And days he spent on the golf course, during those visits I started running on the boardwalk. Five miles there and back. During this time, running became a salve for me—something holy, maybe—in the sense that for forty minutes on the road, just me and my breath and the sound of my feet falling, I could escape my troubles, my fear and sadness. I saw changes in my body, too, tangible evidence of my hard work—and it was addicting.  I began running competitively in eighth grade and made varsity track as a freshman. My distance running helped me get into Yale. I felt it defined me those four years, and it has taken me triple that amount of time, almost 12 years to recover, to begin to allow myself the compassion and space to be someone whose worth is not defined by a running time. Writing has made that possible for me. For this, you could say I am eternally grateful—that my writing and running selves can be interwoven in a way that allows me to change, grow. Heal.

One of the interesting plot aspects is this glimpse into the world of competitive women’s running. There’s a lot of detail about different injuries. From the athletes on his team to our first glimpse of Murray, laboring to get in and out of the car with artificial hips. It seems clear the sport has ruined his body. Nancy begins running late in life and is also faced with effects of her body breaking down. The weird, circular debate going through my mind was, although Murray is viewed by certain other characters in the book as being abusive, as more or less responsible for over-training his athletes and their subsequent injuries, it also seems like this is the inescapable plight of the athlete. The more you are able to push and achieve with your body, the more you pay for it on the back end. In other words, a sacrifice, and a choice. You choose to perform at a high level, if you can even make the cut, and there’s actually no real way to escape the long-term structural damage. From that perspective, and as a runner yourself, how did you view Murray’s training methods and treatment of his athletes? Is Murray a bad coach?

I never saw him as a bad coach per se, just someone who has lost his grip on reality.  Someone whose need for control to suppress emotional pain had closed him off from others, from the ability to empathize or fully feel.  This reality is complicated by the fact that college running is intense, no matter which way you look at it. As a young female athlete, I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to succeed at the cost of injury.  It wasn’t something that my coach put on me necessarily, but the workouts were excruciating, and the top girls could handle it. I never wanted to be seen as weak, or worse, as a poor investment on my coach’s part, so I often ran more miles than I should have.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that Murray’s character is more a symptom of the extreme situation of distance running—before coaches knew as much as they do now about the specific health requirements of a young female runner. Studies had just started circulating more widely about the Female Athlete Triad when I was an undergrad at Yale in the early 2000’s. And there weren’t as many women coaches as there are now.

Just googled The Female Athlete Triad. Which I’d never heard of. Wow. This is insane . . .

When you think about it, the reality of Title IX allowing women to compete in college alongside men, isn’t all that old of a concept.  Now we have more women coaches able to understand the specific needs of a young woman, beginning college at the age of 17, enduring hormone changes and in need of higher levels of fats and iron to thrive all four years.  When I was in college, we didn’t know as much. There was a lot of burnout, a lot of competition to be thin, which in turn bred eating disorders and stress fractures. Late Air sheds light on that reality—the reality of brokenness and the repression of the individual needs of the self—which Murray is part of through the losses that have marked him.  But I never meant for the story to punish him and the idea of male coaching in women’s running.

Yeah, to be honest, there were parts where I felt you really begin to view Murray as a kind of villain in the story. But then you can’t go all the way there because he also really seems to believe in most of the girls, particularly Sarah, then Becky, his “first-chair” runners.

Do you think it’s more about a great coach pushing you to new heights or about a coach being able to discover and field true “running talent”? Do you think it’s the same or different from artistic talent?

Skipping this one too.

Why? If I can ask . . .

Well, largely because I felt the answer might be too repetitive. But as I sit with this a little longer, I guess there’s room to explore more than I thought. I have never coached any one, but I do believe that success is a mixture of talent and hard work, that you make your own luck.  I also don’t think that too much of either is good. What I mean is I don’t think being inflated about your own talent will get you very far.  It’s likely to block you from the necessity of hard work. And I also think that if you don’t believe in your own talent and are convinced that you will have to use sheer force through hard, tireless work to achieve your goal, you are likely to overdo it, to block yourself from listening to your subconscious mind, that voice that is capable of taking you out of your body, to get you not to think too hard about the movements you’ve practiced over and over again, to reach your fullest potential on the track or otherwise.  I think that this is also true for writing. A good writing teacher, or mentor, will know how to help you see what gifts you possess, singularly, will know how to prime you for your subconscious, but it is going to take practice and repetition. It is going to take a lot of revision and ruining stories to discover the heart that lived there all along, so that over time you can access that part of yourself more easily, more quickly, and spend the later parts of revision sharpening that vision. So it takes a certain amount of talent to start off, or maybe it’s just a propensity for language, a need to use it to say something that hasn’t been said before that is true to a very particular human experience while still being universally relatable . . . No easy task, but for the writer who has that love and the gift of recognizing the life within, she can develop a faith in herself by continuing to work to clarify the voice and become her own coach, her own teacher, dedicated to the practice for no other reason but because she loves and needs to do it every day.

Would you ever coach a running team? Better yet, if you end up having a daughter are you gonna take her out and train her?

I would love the chance to coach a running team.  But I have to admit, for as focused as I am out there on the course, I am not the most spatially organized.  I can’t imagine juggling a half-dozen stopwatches like most coaches have to, while tracking a dozen runners and simultaneously calculating individual splits.  But I do love the idea of mentoring young women through running as a kind of lens for understanding the world. It would be the same if I have a daughter. If she is interested in running and wants to try it, I would be excited to help her see the world through her senses, through enjoying the process of running more than anything else.  If she can be most present in her body and breath while running—along with every runner I might coach as part of a team—I truly think she can accomplish anything. Running teaches a young person patience and resilience and being thankful that your body can sustain itself even when your legs and lungs are burning, when you aren’t sure when the pain will end.  But if you take the pressure off trying to control time and turn back to the breath, going inside your breath as if it were this other place, separate from yourself but always part of you, you can reach that flow state that we all long for. When time stops entirely. When there is just the sound of your feet on the track, your steady uninterrupted breath, the distant chant of a crowd.  You have to be willing to leave yourself to get there.

Ok, this last one’s personal. Because my dad still plays soccer once or twice a week, and he’s about seventy now! I feel like he’s going to keep going until he literally dies with cleats on. And my thought is, you know, why not? But in your case, which one would be easier for you to quit for good, writing or running?

Well, this question isn’t so hard for me, at least not as hard as it might have been ten years ago.  It would definitely be easier for me to quit running than it would writing, largely because of the injuries that are a given with running.  It’s expensive, too . . . trying to stay loose and mobile and strong. If you want to run through middle age, I truly think you have to be willing to put in an extra two or more hours a week, stretching and strength training.  You need a gym membership, basically, and maybe some PT or massage therapy along the way. Whereas with writing it can be as free as writing on the back of anything that has space for a cheap pencil or pen, and your injuries will never take you out . . . there will be injuries, don’t get me wrong, the kind that come from over-revising, not to mention inevitable self-torture and the agony of countless rejection, but that can’t stop you from getting back in the chair, not if you’re serious about seeing your work through.  And every time you get back in the chair, you are made stronger. Which isn’t to say that running related injuries won’t make you stronger. I definitely think they do, but there’s a long-term arc that just gets really hard from all the pounding running requires. I can imagine being hunched over my desk into my eighties, while I can’t imagine slipping on a pair of running shoes and making it a full loop around the park, at least in a way that would be enjoyable. I can imagine walking, though. And I can imagine sitting on a bench or looking out the window and soaking up all the ambient sound and light in tandem with my thoughts.  I can imagine these pleasures that seem so specific to me as a runner slowed down, but still there all the same, asking me to listen even more closely for what I might have missed.


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