Interview: Jaclyn Gilbert
Jaclyn Gilbert’s debut novel, Late Air, published in November with Little A. Booklist describes it as “[e]motional but never melodramatic, [and] difficult to put down, despite the heartbreaking subject matter.” We were lucky to speak with Gilbert via email 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. In fact, Gilbert was so generous with her time and the scope of her responses, we originally published this interview in two parts, beginning on the eve of Gilbert’s pub day, to allow our craft-hungry readers to savor each detail. Here it is in its entirety. —CRAFT
CRAFT: In the Acknowledgments, you indicate that Late Air, your debut novel, grew out of a short story. Can you talk a little bit about that process? How did you know that this short story would be able to be extended into a novel? What qualities of the story made you think this might work?
Jaclyn Gilbert: Early into my MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, I went running along the Bronx River Parkway, and I had this terrible thought of what could have happened to me as a college cross country runner. I used to train on the golf course with my team, and I realized that at the time, getting hit with a stray golf ball had never felt like a threat, mostly because I was too focused on surviving our grueling running practices on the course. And something about the suddenness of the fear I felt while running in graduate school, and the constancy of the pressure I’ve felt to achieve as a distance runner since I was young, compelled me to sit down and write a short story about this larger What if I had been hit? And this other question: Who would I be if I wasn’t a runner? What would my life be like if I’d never run Division I in the Ivy League? These questions found their way through the point-of-view of Coach Murray. It took writing the aftermath of the accident that his star runner undergoes in the opening chapter as a short story to realize that the scope of this story needed a much larger canvas for exploring all of its themes.
The psychology of Coach Murray’s character required that space. My first readers of the short story felt he was very complex. Their questions led me to dig into that complexity to discern the different life experiences that might have shaped him. I think I also realized that so much of Coach Murray’s body was the story—what he’d been through as a former Olympic athlete himself, and then all the ways his dreams had been shattered by an unfathomable tragedy that dissolved his marriage, and the cycle of injury, denial, and loss that continues around his inability to give his pain a voice, a truth that might allow him to heal. The way the fragility of life seemed contained in Murray’s body also forced me to look at my own life, my own history of injury as a distance runner, and the many losses I’ve tried to escape by pushing my mind and body to its absolute limits. So maybe that’s another reason why this story couldn’t fit within the confines of a shorter work; looking back, its evolution was embedded in my own continued journey for self-forgiveness and recovery as I try to make peace with my wounds, particularly the ones that circle a history of addiction in my family, and the unspeakable grief I felt had fractured my self-understanding. The space of the novel enabled me to come to terms with my own dangerous relationship to perfectionism and pain, and the silence that I needed to let breathe, speak, if I was ever going to accept my past—to let go of my idea of the future that could have been, or the past I wish I could have changed, and say: this is who I am; this is what I’ve survived. My characters taught me that…that my body has gotten me this far, and that I should be kind to it, not constantly judge or try to fix what I can’t control…and for that I am grateful, that the experience of writing these characters allowed me to see myself again.
C: Many first-time novelists talk about the difficulty of moving from the short story to a novel. What challenges did you face? How did you figure out how to write a novel?
Jaclyn Gilbert: That’s a very good question. I had to make it up! I really had no idea what I was doing. But one thing I can be certain of was that I needed to work my way up, slowly, to the expanse of a novel. When I finished Late Air as a short story titled “Murray,” my first step was to shape it into the novella that would be my MFA thesis. Through that process, I discovered Nancy, Murray’s ex-wife, as someone who had access not only to his past, but to a side of the story he didn’t have access to himself as a man, a coach, a father, and a husband. In the novella, Nancy’s chapters trace her fears of becoming a mother in vivid detail, the changes in her body, her fears of imperfection and failure, her obsession with order. It was a process that required a ton of research, especially since I’d never had a child myself. That process of unpacking her world through excavating the most telling and specific details led me down a variety of different paths and experiences I couldn’t predict.
By the time I finished the MFA, I felt I had just hit the tip of the iceberg, since the novella ended with a tragedy involving Murray and Nancy’s first child, Jean, that the novel would have to substantiate in a much fuller way. Knowing this, I had to go back to the beginning, to look at the first scene on the golf course with Murray and his star runner, a projection of who his first daughter might have become, and explore all the implications. Then revision was about sharpening each chapter to refer back to the duality of these two traumas past and present. I think the novel taught me how to write itself in this sense, because I knew there were these inescapable kernels of truth that Murray needed to repress, and in doing so, his past ruptured out of him to fill in all the blanks. Nancy’s story had to run counter to his in confronting all of the pain her husband had denied, slowly, as the novel works toward it end. In that sense, the novel was also about setting the right boundaries of the work, to decide the core themes and messages I was trying to communicate through the lived experiences of my characters and chiseling away every beat of excess so that I could realize the truth of their marriage, their shared grief, as fully as possible within a finite space.
C: The novel alternatives POVs between Murray and Nancy. How did you decide that alternating chapters between the two characters was the best way to tell this story? Did you write the novel in other ways before you determined this was the best structure?
Jaclyn Gilbert: It all goes back to Murray’s psyche, in knowing what he couldn’t know or acknowledge about his past—this otherness in himself. This consideration opened up a whole other point-of-view. But because I had started the novel as a short story told from Murray’s point-of-view. I felt I had no other choice but to draft Nancy’s pages individually, to get a sense of her character entirely as her own, and that led to this idea of their experiences being separate, too. She took shape as someone so unlike Murray but like him at the same time. On the one hand she is literary and intellectual, while on the other, he is physical and action-oriented, a source of conflict in their marriage, regardless of the loss that divides them later. Their two narratives provided me a conflict I was always trying to reconcile through steady revision: how were these two stories connected in time despite their different timelines, and their different journeys of grief around the same event? And as that conflict really sustained my attentions for the years it took to write the novel, I never really considered doing it any other way. I also enjoyed the process, because if I felt claustrophobic about one character on a given day, I could jump into the head of the other—although they are both pretty anxiety-producing—and I was glad when I found a way out of that rigidity, for Nancy, especially, to counterbalance the perfectionism inherent to both point-of-views and find a way out of a binary structure. For instance, the novel’s exploration of time asked me to break down certain borders within the novel so that I could feel more free with Nancy and take a breath between my alternations across their characters in the last third of the book.
C: Did you know how the novel was going to end when you began the project? Or did the ending evolve as you wrote? How much, in general, did you plan or outline the novel, versus allowing the novel to shape itself as it took form?
Jaclyn Gilbert: When I started Late Air as a short story, I had no idea how it would end. But when I’d finished the novella, I began to see an ending that would reconcile Murray and Nancy’s point-of-views. It came to me while running in Glen Island Park in New Rochelle, where I often saw seagulls over the water. And something about the birds in the distance, over the ocean, reminded me of growing up and visiting my father, when I still had a relationship with him, in Ocean City, New Jersey, where I used to watch the gulls from the boardwalk. The image of the gulls over the ocean for me carried the same sense of loss, and peace, this vast ocean of silence in the water marked by specks of grey squawking overhead. It was a vague image that felt right, enough for me to work toward with these two disparate points-of-view and timelines coming together. It was like a unifying energy, a feeling I had to earn, though I had no idea how I would get there. But as I revised, I realized that my subconscious was focused on images of water, and also the color blue and gray, as images of trauma on the one side, and images of love and healing and acceptance on the other. So I could trust those images and let them guide me toward the final image I kept at the back of my mind like a lantern, one I could go back to whenever I got stuck, or unsure of whether I could finish the novel. There was always this part of me that wanted to know what it would feel like to reach that image of the birds over the water, Nancy and Murray sitting next to one another and looking out.
C: Murray likes being in control, and yet part of his journey—not to reveal too much—is that he starts to fall apart. It must have been difficult to write this character: someone who is so in control, starting to lose control, but also in fully developing a character, who holds so much close to the vest. What were the challenges you faced in writing Murray as well as you did?
Jaclyn Gilbert: Writing Murray as a controlling character actually came most easily to me. I could relate to his obsession with times and other measures of achievement as something less demanding to focus on than the intangible questions of human existence—love, death, grief. I could also relate to his need not to talk about his loss, the story that had to be pushed down so that he could survive his career. When I was in college, my relationship with my father ended because of his gambling addiction and the conditional nature of his love, his expectations of me as his daughter. I felt alone, especially in the perfectionistic world of Ivy League sports and academics, and it was easier to focus on pushing myself than it was on the memories I didn’t want to recall for fear of being paralyzed by them. In my first drafts of Murray’s character, though, I had to realize that it wasn’t enough for him to be an athletic robot, that there would be memories that would haunt him, even as he tries to suppress them, because the accident of his star runner triggered a repetition of an earlier trauma, and as a coach, he’d have no other choice but to respond to this accident to protect his career.
The most challenging aspect was to decide the kinds of moments that would seep out of him, and how those would run parallel or counter to Nancy’s experience of the same events. I also had to consider Murray’s larger past as a runner who’d grown up in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania, where he’d found running as his first means of salvation, and how those formative years had shaped his coping mechanisms in his marriage and after its dissolution. Even though Murray didn’t want to remember his past, I had to remember it for him, and this often involved sitting in my own painful memories of an absent father, and the influence of gambling in my life, and realizing that my running had always been a part of that gambling. I gambled with my body every time I raced, testing its pain boundaries, and I gambled with my emotions, desperate for my father’s affirmation, but uncertain if I’d ever get it. Realizing my own unhealthy relationship to running as a means of not thinking or feeling was painful, and it still is, to accept that something I’ve always loved and needed can also be harmful to my emotional health, and if it’s not managed, will lead inevitably to accidents, in the form of unforeseeable injuries. Yet, because I could identify with Murray’s journey, his conflicted relationship to the body as a source of pain and escape, I could go more deeply into his character. The body, I realized, is the story—the history of life is printed there, and it reverberates into the psyche, those traumas our stories need to circle around.
C: Nancy, on the other hand, is always more in touch with her emotional self. (Although she has control issues too!) What was it like writing two such different characters? Did you find that your sympathies lay more strongly with one character over the other?
Jaclyn Gilbert: That is true…I could identify with Nancy, in the sense that she is acutely aware of her emotions and what is not being said, especially in her interactions with Murray early in their marriage. As focused as I have always been on controlling my body through sports, I’ve also, like Nancy, been an overly sensitive person, easily offended, averse to conflict, and constantly worried that I might have hurt someone else’s feelings. I could relate to Nancy’s need to please others, but though that might require a certain awareness and sensitivity, this mindset also requires a certain degree of blindness. Nancy is so focused on perfection, consumed by her need to intellectualize her emotions, that she, like Murray, has a hard time accepting reality as it is. Her journey became about combatting this form of blindness, in taking ownership of her emotions, her life and voice. And in that way, I felt my sympathies really begin to align with hers, because I saw that her journey offered a way out of the entrapment I’ve always felt as a high achiever, and someone who’s prone to build a life out of ideals. Nancy’s journey to forgive herself over what she couldn’t control, in redefining her relationship to her body and the past—ironically through running—showed me that I could view my own running similarly. That is, not as something for controlling every aspect my life, but as an opportunity to observe myself, moment by moment, on a run. I saw that Nancy offered a counter way of living, a direction for steering my life so that perfectionism no longer had to be ruler. I could let go of the pain and losses that want to define me. This helped me let go of the ideal of my father too, this dream of him being someone he couldn’t ever be. It was a decision that required compassion for myself and faith in my story, and a courage that I would be okay no matter how terrifying it was to tell that story openly and not judge myself for doing so.
C: 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.