Interview: Laura Spence-Ash
In this new interview, Editor in Chief Courtney Harler corresponds with Laura Spence-Ash, author of one of this year’s most-anticipated debut novels, Beyond That, the Sea. Spence-Ash is also a former editor and cofounder of CRAFT, and we’re thrilled to celebrate her debut with her. Harler and Spence-Ash discuss the particular challenges of writing about home, grief, and lies. We hope you enjoy this “full circle moment” with our very first and our current editor in chief.
Courtney Harler: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Laura. It’s an honor to talk with you. Let me first congratulate you on the publication of your debut novel, Beyond That, the Sea! Your novel is about a long journey—toward and/or away from home, with “home” as a relative term. Please tell us more about your journey as a debut novelist, and by extension, your debut novel’s journey in the literary world.
Laura Spence-Ash: Thank you for this opportunity to talk to you! I like how you frame the novel with its focus on a journey and on home—I think that’s just right, and I think that many novels have a search for home at their heart.
My journey as a writer has been a long one. I wrote in college, many years ago, and always thought I would return to it, but somehow, between work and kids and the stuff of life, it never became a priority. But then my parents died within five years of each other, in 2007 and 2012, and that prompted me to think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I began attending summer writing conferences and taking a class here and there. In 2013, I attended the One Story Summer Writers’ Conference, and they decided to publish the story that I workshopped. That was my first publication and an enormous confidence boost. It gave me the courage to apply to and attend an MFA program—which I had long wanted to do—and after graduation, I was asked to be one of the founding editors of a new journal, which ultimately became CRAFT. So this interview feels like a wonderful full circle moment.
I first read about children being sent to the States during World War II in 1998, and I was fascinated. I had no idea that children were sent so far afield and often alone. My children were young then, and I couldn’t imagine making the impossible choice to send them away. I kept thinking about it, and I read everything I could find on the topic. But when I read a memoir by a man who had been sent to a town south of Boston with his brother, a story began to form in my mind. It turned out, completely coincidentally, that he and I had lived in the same town, and we attended the same school. I knew that place well, so I had a setting and everything else grew out of that sense of place.
It took me years, though, to figure out the right way to tell the story. I tried again and again and again. But then, in 2018-2019, I took a yearlong novel generator class with Lynn Steger Strong and that’s when the story became a novel. Lynn is a marvelous teacher; one of the things that I learned from her was the importance of creating a container for your book. When do you start? When do you leave? What is the shape of the thing? Those questions were incredibly helpful for me and really helped the book become what it is now.
After that class I began querying agents, and it took me almost a year and a half to get an agent. But then things moved very quickly—the book was sold six weeks after I signed with my agent. I never imagined that would happen, and I feel very grateful to both my agent (Gail Hochman at Brandt & Hochman) and my editor (Deb Futter at Celadon Books) for this amazing experience. It is such a thrill to see the book in the world. It seems to have resonated with many readers, and it’s a joy to talk to them about it, to share these characters and this story with them.
CH: Your novel spans decades, and an ocean. That ocean, metaphorically, seems a vast reservoir of loss. Could you speak, without giving too much away, to grief as an engine of the narrative?
LS-A: I suspect that everything I write has grief at its core. As I mentioned earlier, the death of my parents was a wake-up call for me, but their deaths and my grief at losing them are on every page. A number of people die in this book, but there’s other grief as well—the grief of losing a child, the grief of falling out of love, the grief of separation. The inciting incident of the novel happens before the book begins—the decision to send a young girl to America to keep her safe during the war—and the rest of the book is really the aftermath of that decision. I am always interested in the before and in the after, rarely in the big moments. And, of course, that’s what grief is—it’s the thing that’s left, it’s the thing we live with when someone or something is gone.
I like your idea of the ocean as this vast reservoir. The American family in the book spends summers on an island in Maine, and I absolutely designed that place with the ocean in mind. I wanted them to go to a place that was very different from the city life that the girl had known, but I also liked the idea, metaphorically, of this family on a small island, with the ocean always surrounding them.
CH: Beyond That, the Sea is lush, delicious historical fiction, but also, as reviewed in The New York Times, “a timeless exploration of what it means to create a family.” You use eight distinct points of view to tell the story of Beatrix Thompson, your intelligent, empathetic protagonist. How did you negotiate the intricate crafting of these different perspectives, especially given the historical context and transnational cultural complexities?
LS-A: When I first started thinking about the book, many years ago, I thought that Beatrix would be the only narrator, that this was her story to tell. But after I worked on it for a long time, I began to realize that it really was a story about family, and to do it justice I needed to include the points of view of everyone in both families. After I decided to write a polyphonic novel—and also that in order to write multiple POV’s over a large swath of time, I needed to write very small chapters—I began writing the novel chronologically, just moving forward in time. My focus really was on the characters and not on the history—I did do research, to ground myself in a particular historical moment, to consider the context—but I wanted the characters to occupy the foreground. Of course, after I had finished a draft, I needed to go back and adjust for what I now knew about the characters by the end. That, I think, is the difficult thing about writing a novel—the characters change over time, and the writer changes as well. So by the time the end is reached, the beginning and middle need to be tweaked. And that process of circling back can continue for a very long time!
CH: Last question, which you may need to answer in a mysterious manner. Secrets and lies also function as a powerful impetus for the novel’s narrative. They create tension, intrigue, interest, but they are also wholly human and organic to each character’s particular lived experience. I am thinking as well about one of this summer’s buzziest movies, Nicole Holofcener’s You Hurt My Feelings, which also explores the fraught function of complete honesty in close relationships. And, this line from The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese: “But in their revealing, as in their keeping, secrets can tear a family apart.” Perhaps we don’t want to reveal too many plot points here, so generally speaking, what considerations guided your choices regarding the secrets and/or lies we inevitably encounter in Beyond That, the Sea?
LS-A: I love this question and those two wonderful examples; I feel honored to be in their company. I think secrets and lies are often the key to a good work of fiction. They can be a way of bringing the reader into the work—sometimes a secret is shared with the reader, but not with all the characters, so the reader becomes somewhat complicit. Or the logic behind a secret or a lie is not shared with the reader, causing them to consider why a character would have behaved in a certain way. That happens in Beyond That, the Sea, for sure. There are secrets and lies throughout; often the characters are doing what they think best, and sometimes that may mean not telling the whole truth. One of my great interests in fiction is thinking about the truth and where it lies. When a character thinks back in time, are they remembering the moment accurately? Does their memory match up with another’s? These questions are one of the reasons I often have multiple points of view in the fiction I write. Whose truth is really the truth? Every character (every person!) has a different understanding of the past and of the present, and I love exploring those differences.
LAURA SPENCE-ASH’s debut novel, Beyond That, the Sea, was published by Celadon Books in March 2023. The novel received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, was named a GMA Buzz Pick, and was an Indie Next List pick for April 2023. Her short fiction has appeared in One Story, New England Review, Crazyhorse (now swamp pink), and elsewhere. She was a cofounding editor of CRAFT, and her critical essays and book reviews appear regularly in the Ploughshares blog. She received her MFA in fiction from Rutgers-Newark, and she lives in New Jersey. Find her on Instagram @laura_spence_ash.
COURTNEY HARLER (she/her) is an LGBTQIA+ freelance writer, editor, and educator based in Las Vegas, Nevada. She holds an MFA from University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe (2017) and an MA from Eastern Washington University (2013). Courtney is currently editor in chief of CRAFT and editorial director for Discover New Art, and has read and/or written for UNT Press’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize, The Masters Review, Funicular Magazine, Reflex Fiction, and Chicago Literati in recent years. She also hosts the literary podcast PWN’s Debut Review, as well as instructs and edits for Project Write Now. For her creative work, Courtney has been honored by fellowships and/or grants from Key West Literary Seminar, Writing By Writers, Community of Writers, Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and Nevada Arts Council. Courtney’s work has been published in multiple genres in literary magazines around the world. Find her on Instagram @CourtneyHarler.