Interview: Jaclyn Gilbert Part II
This is Part II of our CRAFT interview with Jaclyn Gilbert about Late Air, the myriad craft decisions that grew this novel from its seeds as a short story, including POV choices, the making of characters Murray and Nancy, running, and so much more…
Part I is available here
The interview is now published in full here
CRAFT: The way you move between backstory and the present moment is seamless, showing the reader how much the characters live in the past in their minds. Did you run into balance issues as you were writing, wanting to stay with the characters in their thoughts but feeling the need to keep the story moving forward in the present moment?
Jaclyn Gilbert: Most definitely. I feel grateful for the MFA for pointing to the ills of indulging my own whims through my characters. I remember getting lost in doing research on a particular flower or coffee bean, or the history of a bridge or restaurant I might have landed upon on a scene, and wanting to show that research on the page, spending hours on getting this information right—only to discover it had nothing to do with the emotional journeys of the characters, and the core events that pointed to that thematic arc. David Ryan, my thesis advisor at Sarah Lawrence, was particularly helpful in teaching me a technique called distributive looping, in which you pull in small fragments of backstory any time you want to add a description, so that the story keeps moving. He taught me about kernels and satellites, which I fear I can’t fully dissect here, but basically it involves deciding out the core moments, feelings, or ideas your story is after, and thinking of every shard of the story as a kind of arrow pointing back to that core. This was an invaluable tool for me, in terms of making decisions about what was worth preserving or deepening and what I had to let go of.
I really enjoyed the challenge of weaving in backstory as a momentary thread tied to the forward moving action, but it also posed the challenge of keeping track of those threads, because they were scattered throughout the text. I didn’t have huge graphs of text to go back to in order to remember what I had already said about a particular memory or scene. I had to create endless timelines and continually search the document using key terms to double-check for repetition or moments that still needed to be unpacked further, but at a different point in the story. I feel particularly bad for the copyeditors I worked with—because though Late Air is obsessed with linear time, it is non-linear in its treatment of emotion and memory—and reaching agreement on the timelines took many months leading up to publication!
C: I know that you ran for a Division I school, so the world of collegiate athletics and track, specifically, is very familiar to you. What was it like to write about a world that you know so well? Did you worry about how to explain this world to outsiders? Conversely, did you worry about how people you know in this world would react to the novel?
Jaclyn Gilbert: At first, it felt like I had no other choice but to write about this world. The story of running cross country at Yale has been so formative to who I am today. But at the same time, I knew this identity was confining me, forcing a certain narrative on my experience that failed to give voice to all the other pieces of myself that make me whole. And this experience was so full of vivid sensations in my memory. Running day in and out on the golf course, through all seasons, and the rigid timetable I was on, between early morning practices in the pool and weight training, allowed for a point-of-entry for me to commit to. All the scenes were there, not to mention the Yale landscape promises endless fodder for fiction through its rich history and embodiment of an idealized college experience. My experience running there made it easy for me to draft scenes, but the harder part was leaving enough room for the unknown to unfold, to imagine them through Murray’s eyes in light of the specific moment of his runner’s accident. In revising, I often had to cut out pieces that were just my own experience training and dig up the details that carried charge for Murray’s psyche—triggers into his past and reminders of the present conflict he would stop at nothing to avoid—to the point that it breaks him.
Along with that, it wasn’t easy to create a vivid, realistic landscape that seemed so natural to me that could read as foreign to someone else, especially a non-runner. A lot of my early readers didn’t understand why Murray was a man coaching women, for instance, and I had to explain that male coaches were common in women’s distance—that I’d only ever had a male coach since I started running in middle school. I also had to explain different running terms that I thought were common knowledge without creating a tone of over-explaining or apologizing for that specific knowledge. My fear that others wouldn’t be able relate to the story if I wasn’t clear enough, though, was a constant source of writing block. That, and my fear I was doing wrong by my Yale coach and former teammates, who I’ve always looked up to. I had to remind myself I was writing was fiction. I had to let go of my fear if I wanted to go as deep as I needed to for the art. I am still afraid that I have offended those I love in the process, but I also know that I’m not alone in that, especially given that almost every artist out there is pulling from something concrete or known to build an unknown “other” structure or story that requires its own choices and evolution to be made true. And I’ve found that the more confident I am in owning my process, the less reason I have to be afraid, because people respond to that confidence. I’ve actually become closer to my coach in the process of telling him about the book and sharing my work with my teammates, and continually feeling blown away by their support and encouragement.
C: Your prose is often so lovely. I found, in particular, the sections about running, which really explore and explain the beauty in the sport, to be quite beautiful. What is your writing process? Is each sentence perfect before you move on to the next, or do you work on the language in revision?
Jaclyn Gilbert: I wish my writing could be perfect the first time around! I started off thinking that I could only move to the next sentence once I perfected the first, but then I became too focused on the small picture, unable to access the real emotional pulse. I had to overcome my need for perfectionism by writing very messy drafts on legal pads. If I wrote on the computer, I would become too distracted by imperfection to move to a new chapter. And legal pad pages were something I could see, and eventually add up tangibly into a set of pages to be typed at once. When I typed up these chunks of pages I could then see larger patterns beginning to evolve, and then in subsequent drafts, I could indulge my obsession with the rhythm of each and every sentence. It was really only toward the very last stages of finishing the manuscript, in working with my agent, and then my editor, that I could commit to exacting every word, every mark of punctuation, to the degree where I felt satisfied, knowing that the emotions were in place, that these characters had changed, that the conflict had been navigated fully enough to warrant such incessant, endless polishing.
Varying the type of texts that I read helped me along the way. My reading list fluctuated to encompass experimental novels, memoir, and non-fiction across the areas of my research, to allow my style different forms of breathing room, to consider new possibilities at the sentence level, especially as Murray’s psyche becomes more fragmented, and Nancy—as a literary curator, especially—has to let go of her ideas about art as a perfect process for discovering any kind of truth about the human experience. I often took notes from my reading, copying passages and words I liked, to feel in conversation with the work, and also to feel my pen make contact during my reading, since that contact often inspired me to stop procrastinating and get back to my work.
C: What did you learn from writing your first novel that you’ve been able to use as you work on new material? Is there anything that you wish you had done differently?
Jaclyn Gilbert: I learned that time is illusory. That a strictly linear timeline is exhausting, particularly when it is meant to span a couple of months, in the case of Murray. Yielding his controlled time over the narrative often felt incredibly stifling and untrue, because I realized that the past was always seeping in, emotional memory operating along a cyclical timeline that defied my every attempt at narrative order. This experience has definitely influenced my decision not to open my next novel within an inciting incident that requires the same degree of meticulous accounting. It’s also led me to rebel in the form of writing across a wide variety of point-of-views that I know in my heart are related, but I am not sure how. In other words, these perspectives aren’t married to one another, but rather refer to shared experience of the Pennsylvanian landscape—Amish country, in particular—where I am from. I feel liberated to follow language more freely the moment I sit down to draft, to trust in my own intuition to draw connections within the consciousness of the characters, while still keeping with a shared experience of time and space, since the story refers to a traumatic event in the Amish community that has left its mark on the countryside, both along the Amish farmland and on its suburban surrounds.
But I should be clear: this is not to say that I regret my choices in telling Late Air the way that I did. I’ve come to fully embrace its challenges. I made it out of a very long, dark tunnel with no foreseeable end, much like running a marathon after you’ve peaked at mile thirteen—at least that’s how I felt by the time I hit the middle of the novel. I guess if there is one thing I could change, I would be more forgiving of myself through all the ebb and flows that were bound to occur in writing this story. This book has taught me that I need to trust myself more, to believe in my own voice, that I can only try my best to carve out time and space to allow the work to unfold, and that above all, to never look back.
C: I also know that you still run regularly. Can you talk about the ways in which running and writing co-exist in your life? Do you believe that your writing life benefits from your running life? When you run, do you use the time to work out issues in your fiction?
Jaclyn Gilbert: I could answer this question for years—for as long as I could run, it seems! But in short: running and writing have always coexisted within me, whether I was aware of it or not as a younger person. When I was I child, I loved to run, I know that much. I could always be seen running around my yard in all kinds of weather, and I was often writing, too. I mostly wrote nature poetry, and still have whole stacks of my poems at home. And maybe that’s the common theme, running and writing have always allowed me a chance to be in nature, to absorb all of its sense impressions in a concrete way—on the page, or through my body moving in space. Both writing and running, too, have always been a part of my deep need for affirmation—something I am still working on, for sure—but running got my father’s attention, for one, and so did writing, or at least it did in my mind, this idea that I was writing a story that he might one day be proud of. For as much as this might be woven into my blood, in my need to do both in some form, I also know that if both become too focused on outside affirmation, they suffer. I have to set the limits of affirmation within the confines presented by own life and body.
Writing a novel about running has forced me to look at the duality of these two activities, and all the choices they present me for living, or not living, in the moment. Together, writing and running allow me to establish a viable habit for getting the work done, which is more than half the battle: sticking to a routine and doing it for as long as your mind and body will allow. My experience as an endurance athlete has definitely helped with my writerly endurance. Knowing that I can push through tremendous pain and uncertainty to finish a race goes hand in hand with devoting every bit of myself to my writing. There was nothing I didn’t say or try to say in realizing my work as a final object for the world to read and experience independent of my own imagining of it.
There is a certain thing I need to feel when I run, and I know I will always need to feel it, a very particular space for my mind and body to try to work in unison, and it is the same in writing—I need to try to get all the parts of myself working together on the page, fail as I might every time I sit down to do it. But there is always another day to try, another experience to be had, and eventually you get lucky when it all clicks, and you can detach from your fear enough times to let the work breathe and take shape on its own. It is the same on a run or race—if I can disassociate from my own fear—I can discover what is possible within myself and emerge changed, altered, in how I see the world by that work.
But all said, I rarely process a story while I am running. I see running as my time to not think, to empty out my mind to make space for new observations and ideas. Once in a while, a thought will flit through me that I’ll latch onto long enough for it to make it into my fiction, but more often than not, it is my running that seeps back into my writing. As I’m writing, a sound or sense impression will attach to language and guide the writing in a new direction. Running and writing are less two means to the same end, and more two processes for achieving a deeper question or purpose within myself as I try to discover what lives inside of me, the impossibility of language to ever fully concretize that space, or miles to give essence to that journey, which is just so elusive, so momentary—so endless.