Sentences Worth Keeping: Melody Nixon Interviews Sara Freeman

Sara Freeman's headshot: woman standing on a balcony against the background of apartment buildings

SARA FREEMAN‘s arresting, lyrically economical Tides has been generating buzz from the likes of Time Magazine, The New York Times, and Lit Hub since it was released last year. The Guardian calls this fragmentary, feminist novel “an experimental study in grief.” But what does it mean to write a feminist novel, these days, and to dwell in your characters’ grief? And how do experimental writing forms intersect with feminism?

MELODY NIXON sat down with Freeman, her graduate-school colleague, to discuss Tides; its liminal setting; what it’s like when we hear our characters’ voices in our heads; the ways that novels might ruin our lives; and the anxiety “of near-constant potential narrative collapse” that Freeman navigated while writing this extraordinary debut.

Melody Nixon: Since we’re here chatting for The Common, let’s start with place. To set Tides you conjure a mainland coastal area that is somehow everywhere, every and any place, in the way that Mara, the protagonist, is a sort of contemporary everywoman: complicated, failing under the weight of expectations, and self-sabotaging. The place is a rich seaside town with a class of seasonal and indigent workers, like Mara, who is both privileged and utterly destitute, a vagrant from a reasonably secure white background trying to escape trauma.

Why place Mara here, in this wealthy coastal town? You write that the sea was a space of imagined possibility for Mara; can you speak more about her pull toward it?

Sara Freeman: In asking about place, you bring up one of the major tensions at play in Tides, the push and pull between its allegorical nature (that everyplace/everywoman quality), and my commitment to a certain kind of realism (the depiction of a white woman of a certain class in a wealthy seaside town during the off-season). This tension represented one of the central engines and obstacles of this narrative, a problem I was stubbornly interested in writing into.

MN: Did this setting arise instinctively in the writing of the novel, or did you place her there by conscious design?

SF: It strikes me that this dance (or is it a battle?) between what happens instinctively and what happens by design in a work of fiction becomes, retrospectively, easy to narrativize, but difficult to truthfully untangle.

What I can say about Tides is that from the beginning, I wanted to write a very interior story, a narrative motivated by internal forces, by a character’s very specific consciousness and psychological situation, and that everything, including place, must be, for better or worse, at the service of this interiority.

I began to write, and very quickly heard a voice—not my own—that had a strangely suspended, liminal quality. As this voice began to take shape, I thought: this woman is in a room, an attic maybe, in the aftermath of an intimate rupture. I explored the room further, both the room of her mind, and the physical room in which it was housed. I looked out the window of this imagined place and thought there would certainly be the sea nearby, the sea not in summer, but in fall or winter—that this would be the chilly backdrop, the atmospheric reality of this retelling.

I began to write, and very quickly heard a voice—not my own—that had a strangely suspended, liminal quality.

At first, I was mostly tuned into this psychic space: the unheated storeroom hovering above the sea in winter from which this character is piecing herself together again. I began to see that it was necessary to imagine more consciously the character’s day-to-day in this new place, and so the town became less crudely drawn in my mind. This place, I sensed, or perhaps decided, was not unlike the prosperous New England seaside towns where I had been a visitor. These towns had always struck me as eerily idyllic—locus both of escape and American extremes. Here were spaces of apparent ease, and yet reliant on the hard, often invisible labor of others.

This slow coming-into-focus of the locale maps onto Mara’s own increasing familiarity with this place over the course of the narrative. In the beginning of the story, she is a kind of cipher, an “everywoman” as you put it, and the place, its landscape and inhabitants bear the broad strokes of her dislocated self. And yet, as she inevitably encounters others—the migrant workers in the hostel, the man at the bar, the young hostel workers, her boss at the wine store—she lets more and more of the world in, and in turn more and more of herself emerges. The world, its unavoidable relationality, imposes itself.

MN: Can you talk about the liminality of this place (both as a border between land and ocean, and also as a site of seasonal workers and migrants passing through)?  

SF: I was certainly interested in exploring the liminal spaces Mara inhabits (the seaside setting, the bar, hostel, and marina) and its workers and inhabitants, while also staying true to the protagonist’s more internal preoccupations: the recursive, often claustrophobic space of her mind. One of Mara’s major flaws as a character is the tightness of her range of vision—this is situational in that she has just experienced a traumatizing event, but I’d argue it’s also foundational to her being, the particular slant of her mind. This isn’t a narrative of heroic change, or even of a radically transformed consciousness—in fact, it’s just the opposite; it’s precisely about what does not change, the repetitions, the patterns that entrench us in our most intimate failures. And yet, within this framework, we can still have moments of intense insight, of deep connection.

MN: The prose you craft to construct Mara, the coastal settlement, and the interactions between them is stunningly sparse. In its economy and lyricism your prose is poetic, often stunningly so. Can you talk about your process of crafting the short fragments that make up this work?

SF: The style in Tides arose out of a radical writing and revision process, a process at once very intuitive and highly designed. I began writing this novel knowing only a few facts about it: that this story would follow a pair of too-close adult siblings and the rupture that takes place between them, and that I wanted, as I mentioned earlier, to write an interior novel. I wrote a very rough first draft of this story, in a more conventional and conversational mode, and when I was finished, I put it aside for several months. When I returned to it, I was nonplussed about what I had written, the lack of cohesion, the absence of narrative tension, something very inelegant and unresolved about the prose. What I had found compelling about the story hadn’t made its way up to the surface of the text. I identified about a dozen sentences—and I’m not exaggerating here—that had a strange, disarming quality, twelve sentences that seemed worth keeping.

I identified about a dozen sentences—and I’m not exaggerating here—twelve sentences that seemed worth keeping.

I waited a few miserable days and then looked again at those few sentences that had struck a chord during my rereading. I opened a new document and began again, keeping those few sentences in mind. I wrote following their sound, their tenor, with a certain desperation and determination. And then I found that I’d written three or four more of these peculiar sentences. I knew, too, as I imagine poets do with a line or a stanza, just when the paragraph should end. With plenty of blank space left over, I turned the page and started a new paragraph. It makes perfect sense, in retrospect, given the extent of this character’s loss, that these spare shards of language should be precisely the right unit of thought to convey her psychic state, but at the time I didn’t make this connection consciously. That first day, I wrote maybe four or five pages in this manner. I was not certain I liked them, but I knew that for the first time, I had found something at the precise limit of my capacities as a writer. The sentences were pointing the way, they were imposing their order, rather than me imposing my order on them. From then on, the process was at once effortless and highly charged. 

MN: Tides, like the best of fragmentary works, shows that a fast-paced, page-turning narrative is completely possible in this form, even more possible perhaps, because of the unique way that short snippets of prose and white space on the page give us more time as readers to mentally process narrative and feeling. I’m not sure the writing process flows so quickly and easily with these fragmentary works, though. Was there much flow, for you, or was this all sweat & tears & uphill climbing?

SF: Having found a particular psychic note, and a very tight formal constraint from which to tell this story, I was able to write the first fifty pages with some ease. And yet, because of the economy and the amount of white space this method produced, each word, each sentence, each paragraph became very pressured at the level of sound and meaning.

In addition, alongside the self-containment and resolution of the individual pages, I wanted to maintain a sense of suspense or narrative tension, a shape for the whole, beyond a mere accumulation of pages. The narrative relied heavily on repetitions, ebbs and flows, and so in order to create this forward motion, the text had to be constantly re-calibrated at the level of the sentence, the paragraph, the scene, the section. Sometimes, in moving or removing one or two sentences, a single paragraph, I sensed the entire fragile edifice of the thing threatening to fall apart. I do think this formal challenge electrified the process for me, and hopefully the novel itself.

MN: There’s so much emphasis on “voice” in creative writing pedagogy. Is this your voice? Will we continue to see more of this economy from Sara Freeman?

SF: To be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever write a book in quite this way again. I’m not sure I could survive the anxiety, that feeling of being on a knife’s edge, of near-constant potential narrative collapse. 

I don’t think I’ll ever write a book in quite this way again. I’m not sure I could survive the anxiety, that feeling of being on a knife’s edge, of near-constant potential narrative collapse. 

MN: Let’s situate this work in dialogue with others. A short story by Lauren Groff, from her collection Florida, came immediately to mind for me; in “Above and Below” the young protagonist reckons with the reality of her life as opposed to the way it should have been, the failures, and abuses, that fairytales don’t prepare women for. I find a lot of resonances with Groff’s work here, which most often shows cis women pushing back on the narrative that they must be flawless, perfect, to take up space in this world.

 Are you a reader of Groff, and if so, what do you think of this comparison? If not, are there any other fiction writers you see your work in dialogue with?

SF: I’m glad you mention this story of Groff’s, which I read when it first came out in The New Yorker while I was in graduate school, and which I found very haunting. I re-read it recently and was struck by its echoes in Tides. Groff’s story (and my novel) adopts, as you mention, a familiar trope: the cisgender woman leaving, disappearing herself from her own life, shedding the trappings of a conventional—you might even call it domesticatedexistence as a way of shedding the constraints of the self. I am thinking here of stories like “To Room 19” by Doris Lessing, the novels Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler and The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, or Agnes Varda’s movie Vagabond, to name just a few.

What I particularly admired about Groff’s story, or at least the impression it left on me, was that it creates a sense of consequence without explicit causality. Although we might have access to some of the concrete reasons why the character is forced to leave her life as a graduate student, the story refuses to explain away her deeper, more mysterious impulse to disappear; the character becomes a psychological knot that cannot be neatly untied.

…[Groff’s story] creates a sense of consequence without explicit causality.

In fact, all the stories I mentioned have this same quality, in one way or another. Although they are all deeply psychological and naturalistic, they refuse to diagnose their characters and resist the temptation to explain away these women’s respective disavowals. In this sense, these writers lend their characters, who might seem on the surface slightly passive—living out some kind of entrenched idea of the feminine—real agency.

MN: Fiction aside, this work also feels in dialogue with autofiction and nonfiction works. There’s Offill’s autofiction Department of Speculation, which Tides sits alongside form-wise but differs from in its close adherence to narrative. There’s Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Lia Pupura’s lyric essays, Maggie Nelson’s investigations of sexuality and color; but going back further, there’s Nathalie Sarraute’s Childhood, Anne Ernaux’s The Years, and works by Helene Cixous and Marguerite Duras among many other contributions to Francophone literature and foundational feminist writings that center female bodies and subjects using fragmentary forms.

Are you shaped by French literatures and by nonfiction? Do you rebel or rub up against the distinction between fiction and non-, in the way that French literature appears to find these categories more arbitrary and inconsequential?

I’m so glad you mention these writers—and the French writers in particular. French is my mother tongue, and I went to school in the French Lycée system, which meant that Sarraute and Duras were part of the curriculum, and crucial parts of my own sentimental and literary education. Ernaux and Cixous were later encounters but no less transformative. I have no doubt that the particular cadences, formal qualities, and underlying politics of these works have made their way into my writerly DNA.

I certainly have sensed that the French care less about genre distinctions and don’t believe that story and thought and feeling belong as independent modes to be shelved in separate aisles of the bookstore. I can’t help but think that these distinctions are market-driven, born out of a desire to categorize books and their writers so as to better sell them. In retrospect, I think I must have read, as a teenager, what might be called “autofiction” simply as “fiction.” I assumed that a novel, particularly a woman’s novel, would necessarily stem from one’s life, from one’s affective life in particular.

I can’t help but think that these distinctions are market-driven, born out of a desire to categorize books and their writers so as to better sell them.

Regardless of genre distinctions, what I love about the writers in this French tradition is their unapologetic interiority, their minute, sometimes painstaking attention to intimate detail. The work that appeals to me most bears the bitemarks of real life, a life that is deeply felt, deeply sensed, and deeply interrogated. I don’t think you can fake this kind of quality, and yet it comes to us in so many forms, from the highly stylized (Rachel Cusk, Katie Kitamura, and Garth Greenwell come to mind) to the formally inventive (Yiyun Li and Ali Smith), to the searching and discursive (Elif Batuman or Sheila Heti), to the near-mythic (Elena Ferrante).

MN: Earlier you mentioned feeling like you were on the knife-edge of near potential narrative collapse while writing Tides. What direction do you think your prose will move to next? Do you feel any calling to other genres, other modes, to give yourself time-out from that narrative anxiety?

SF: It’s hard for me to imagine writing anything that isn’t somehow the manifestation of or antidote to a certain kind of existential and formal anxiety. I don’t think this is genre specific. In my experience, this has meant precision at the level of the sentence met by pressure at the level of the narrative. As a reader, I love this effortful act on the part of the writer, which can, in turn, make the reading feel effortless. How to create this sense of ease without sacrificing complexity and psychological verisimilitude? How to find an elegant shape that doesn’t impose meaning or value but somehow permits it? These are the kinds of questions or paradoxes that continue to excite me. I don’t think I’m ready to move on from them. 

This is not to say writing a novel will necessarily ruin your life, but I think it’s more likely to than a short story.

These days, I’ve been finding myself drawn to writing short stories again. As the mother of an infant, I am making some pretty practical calculations about time, where I can find it, and what I can realistically do with it.

There’s something of the puzzle in the short story, a meditative, delicate piecing together one can engage in without ruining one’s life. This is not to say writing a novel will necessarily ruin your life, but I think it’s more likely to than a short story. And since it seems that at least for the foreseeable future, I will be working in short spurts of concerted effort, stolen moments, the novel feels like a distant island I might not reach again very soon, short stories a more realistic waystation, a more appropriate shape to suit the current shape of my life.

 

Sara Freeman is a British Canadian writer based in the United States. She holds an MFA degree in creative writing from Columbia University, where she received the Henfield Prize. Tides, her debut novel, is out now in the U.S. through Grove Atlantic.

 

Melody Nixon is a Kiwi-American writer, artist, and academic. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University, where she advises creative writing students. She is also a PhD Candidate in History of Consciousness at the University of California—Santa Cruz. From 2013-2020 Melody served as the Interviews Editor of The Common.

 

Sentences Worth Keeping: Melody Nixon Interviews Sara Freeman

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