Anna Kate Blair talks to author Sara Jaffe about why Dryland is an anti-coming-out novel, writers who have influenced her work, being published by the Queer UK-based Independent publisher Cipher Press, leaning into the awkwardness of writing about adolescence, music and much more.
I thought I’d start by asking how you see Dryland, or what you were trying to do in writing it, as often the way a book is marketed or received by readers is very different from the way in which the author sees it.
The book was first published in 2015, in the US, so it’s been interesting, having the Cipher edition come out much more recently, to think back to that time, and to think about the differences between my experiences publishing with Tin House in the US and Cipher in the UK. I think of Dryland as, on a most basic level, a queer coming-of-age novel, but one that I hope pushes against and subverts some of the tropes of coming-of-age literature. For me, it was a book definitely written with adult readers in mind. If younger readers are drawn to it, that’s great, but, in writing it and in setting it in 1992 and such, I felt as if the novel was totally informed by the fact that I was writing with a retrospective lens. I don’t mind if the reader feels the presence of an author looking back, even though that’s not explicit in the book at all. To me, that’s partly where the connection to other readers who might be of a similar age to me, or might be adults, happens. I think, or I hope, that there’s a little bit of that subtle tension that you feel looking back on that time.
As a reader, I definitely felt that. You mention the differences between publishing with Tin House and with Cipher. What sort of differences did you encounter?
I’ll start by saying that publishing with Cipher has just been a total dream. It’s just been so awesome to publish with an expressly queer press and to have queer language be a way of talking about and promoting Dryland, from my conversations with the publishers to the way that they’re promoting it out in the world. I think the UK cover is beautiful; it’s my perfect cover. Because of who Cipher’s audience is, the book’s getting to the readers that I want it to get to. With Tin House, it was really amazing to have the opportunity to publish with a publisher that has the reputation and the history that they have, and to be with a publisher in Portland. I worked with an amazing editor there. But I do think that Tin House doesn’t have as defined an identity as a press, and I think that was evident in the way that the book was promoted. I come out of, like, DIY, punk rock, subcultures. It makes a lot of sense to me to speak from subculture to subculture and then, like, maybe there’s ripple effects beyond that, so I think it was harder for me, personally, to understand what it meant to toss the book into the literary mainstream. I’m sure that there are readers I got through that that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, but just in terms of what’s familiar and ultimately aligns just more closely with the aesthetic and values I’m used to, I think Cipher really checked all those boxes for me.
I was also curious about your research and writing process for Dryland, particularly given it’s set in 1992 in Portland and you didn’t grow up in Portland. How did you go about research and writing?
In general, I’m not a huge researcher. I’ll dip in and out of sources, but I don’t do a deep dive to get historical accuracy. I am the same age as Julie, though I did not grow up in Portland. I grew up on the East Coast, outside New York City, but I lived in Portland briefly, in 1997 and 1998, so I had some sense of what Portland was like before it became, like, the ‘Portlandia’ Portland that people think of today, when it was a little more bedraggled and less gentrified. My partner grew up in Portland, also, so some of the details just came from hearing her stories about growing up. I think it was those two things layered on each other. I think the most research I did for the book was that I got this exercise science textbook, called Swimming Even Faster, and I would just read about the mechanics of swimming. I’m a lifelong swimmer, and I love swimming, but I’m also a lifelong mediocre swimmer. I’ve never tried to be a good swimmer, so it was interesting to read about what you have to do to improve your stroke, and that kind of thing, and it was cool to try to bring some of those bodily details into the writing.
I’m also a mediocre swimmer, so I liked that aspect of it. Another thing that I liked about Dryland was how mood-heavy it is, and I think part of that comes from all the different sensual details – rain, chlorine, different types of water, for example, are quite significant in terms of the impact that the book has. I read somewhere that Dryland started as a short story. Which aspects were there from the beginning and which came later?
The short story included the full arc of the novel, weirdly enough; it wasn’t like the short story was the first ten pages of the novel. It encompassed the whole thing, but I wasn’t able to develop it as much as it needed in that smaller frame. But the things that were in it from the beginning were, I think, swimming, failing at swimming, what it means to pursue, or not pursue, something that you aren’t good at, the presence or the absence of a brother who had been a strong swimmer, and, I think, also, what became the character of Ben, who was the brother’s former best friend. And probably the character that became Alexis, the girl on the swim team that Julie has a crush on. Some elements of all those things were still there. There was probably rain because it was set in Portland! Although, actually, now that I think about it, I wonder if I thought of it as Portland from the beginning. The story definitely didn’t have as fleshed out a setting. Wherever it was in my mind, it was not on the page as much.
I think it was a failed short story. I think I was trying to set too much in motion in too restricted a space, but its failure is what made me try to transform it into a novel.
Which particular books influenced you, or do you see Dryland as sitting amongst?
If it’s okay with you, I’m just going to share some other books that I think exist in a similar coming-of-age space, but honestly, at this point, I’m not sure if I read them before or after I wrote Dryland.
One of them is Haunted Houses, by Lynne Tillman, who is one of my favourite contemporary fiction writers. It’s the narratives of these three girls, and, eventually, women, sort of moving through their coming of age, but in a way that is really unsentimental, really attendant to the psychology of how these young girls move through the world without adhering to any of the signposts of development one might look for in a more conventional coming-of-age narrative.
Another book which I recently reread is the novel Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks. As far as I know, it’s the only novel she wrote. I’d only known her poetry before. It’s, again, the story of the protagonist’s life from young girl to when she’s a mother, herself, at the end of the novel. It’s almost told in fragments, in these bursts of really lyrical, really gorgeous prose. Again, I think it’s moving to me because it moves through this character’s life but the details that get included are so specific to what matters to this character, like the smell of the flowers in her schoolyard are more important than what happened on her first day of school. Those signposts that are meant to shape how we understand coming of age, or adolescence or whatever, are not what she’s focusing on.
I think a third book would be one by the British writer Denton Welch, who was writing in the thirties and forties. He wrote a book called In Youth is Pleasure, which I loved so much. It’s very queer, if not explicitly so, and about this young boy going on holiday with his family at a hotel in the countryside. It’s so… the character, and the articulation of the character, is just so defiant of expectation, at every turn. There’s this scene that I love where he’s having lunch with his father and he’s eating spinach with toast and the colour of it reminds him of a time he stepped in cowshit and saw the grass beneath it. You read that line and you think, oh, he’s going to push the plate away, but instead he’s like “I’m eating cowpat! I’m eating cowpat!” and he takes another forkful. He’s actually delighted by the aesthetic of it. There are just so many moments like that throughout, where there’s this sort of perverse, very queer sensibility in this young character who’s not explicitly queer in any way. It just informs the whole narrative.
I’ll have to read those. One thing I wondered was whether you read Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies?
I did read it. I think you’re the first person who’s ever brought it up to me, though.
I love Swimming Studies, too, and I sort of thought of them as twinned in some sort of way.
Although, maybe I’m belabouring the point, but I do think that there’s a difference, in that Leanne Shapton is a good swimmer, a person who knows about swimming. I love that book, also, so that’s not to devalue it at all, but there’s a way it’s being written from a place of confidence and expertise in swimming, which are definitely not elements that I brought to Dryland.
I’m trying to remember if I expected Julie to be good at swimming when I first read Dryland. I do remember that I loved the passage where she starts swimming and feels as if she’s doing wonderfully and then someone taps her foot to pass her. I loved that I started that passage accepting Julie’s view of it and then that perception is interrupted for the reader, too, just as Julie’s interrupted. I think you’re subverting the expectations of swimming in that passage in the same way that you mentioned, earlier, subverting queer coming-of-age tropes, and I liked the way you used swimming in that way throughout the book, the way Julie hides swimming from her parents, that sort of thing. I also wanted to ask you about the title, Dryland?
It had, the whole time I was working on it and when it was accepted at Tin House, a different, much more boring title. I think I just started looking up different swimming terms and then I found ‘dryland.’ Maybe you know this, but I didn’t; it’s the training exercises that you do outside the pool. It seemed to capture the tensions that I wanted to bring out in the book so well. It really felt like the right title. When I first chose the title, I think there was one other book that I saw that had that name, which was about exercise or something, but fairly soon before it came out, a play opened, I think off Broadway, called Dryland which was about teen swimmers. I was like oh no! But then it never seemed to matter; no one confused one with the other. And you know, you can’t copyright titles, so it wasn’t an issue, but it was funny.
I think it’s quite rare to see books directed to an adult audience that focus on adolescence, or at least that do so with the kind of quiet realism that Dryland has. I think most books for adults that focus on adolescence focus on something more explicit or sensationalising. I wonder if you have any thoughts on why this is? Or if it was a difficult thing to navigate with Dryland?
I want to posit that that’s the case for books by women, or non-cis-straight men, because I think it is easier for a man to write a book about adolescence and target it to an adult audience. I’m thinking about Salinger, for example. Though teenagers read Catcher in the Rye now, I don’t believe it was written for young people. I do think there’s a way that books by women, or queers or whatever, might be somehow looked upon as less relevant to adults. I don’t have much to back up that theory, just my general sense of books in the world.
I think it’s a thing that many, if not most, queers are obsessed with teenagers and teenage experiences and so much of that is because, especially if we weren’t out either to ourselves or to the people in our lives as teens, there’s some sense of a thwarted adolescence, so it makes sense that we return to that and play it out differently. So I never had any pause about writing this book with a teenage protagonist for an adult audience. It made sense to me that it would feel relevant and, in fact, that some people automatically wanted to put it in the YA category just because it had a young narrator made less sense to me than what I was doing.
It’s interesting that a lot of what you’re saying is focused on how other people perceive novels about adolescence, but one thing that struck me – and this might be more about my own teenage experience than anything else – reading it, emotionally, was that it must be very hard to write anything about a teenager because it would be hard to revisit adolescence. For me, the idea of returning to or concentrating on a period like that seems quite difficult. I wondered if you felt this.
You know, I’m so interested, creatively and temperamentally, in pushing into spaces of awkwardness and ambivalence, so maybe, in part, that overrides discomfort, but I also think there is some playing-out-of-a-fantasy aspect to it. I didn’t get to kiss any girls in high school, so what if I write a character who gets to, even if things are totally a mess later? I didn’t have an awesome gay surrogate big brother; what if the character gets to have this person? It is, in a way, like a reclamation, or a rewriting, and I guess that supersedes the return to the more difficult feelings of that time.
Something else I read, preparing for this interview, noted the idea of a song influencing the structure, and that phrase, which is also your twitter handle, of all hook no chorus. I was also curious about how you conceive of a book in relation to the structure of an album, as opposed to a song?
It’s so rare these days that I experience albums as albums, as sad and depressing as that is, so it’s a little harder for me to bring forth. I just finished a manuscript for a collection of short stories and definitely when I’m thinking about ordering stories, that feels akin to ordering a mixtape, or whatever it is, but with a novel it doesn’t. If this was an album, it would be a song, like one side would be the whole song. I don’t think that I’m able to conceive of its separateness in that way.
That makes sense. In some ways, I feel less equipped to discuss the music aspects of Dryland, because I don’t have a background in music, but I have a background in visual art, and one thing that I’m interested in is novels as a form of art writing. I wonder if you have any thoughts on the connection between the novel and music writing, like novels as a way of writing about music in a broader sense than criticism?
I love writing about music, in general, both in and outside of fiction. I really love the challenge of trying to figure out how to bring language to the experience of listening to music or playing music. I just wrote this essay about Gang of Four for a website and that was, like, straight-up music writing, and so I’m trying to think about the difference between writing about music in that context and writing about music in my fiction. In Dryland, Julie doesn’t know that much about music, either. She’s coming into listening to some of these new bands she’s being exposed to, but doesn’t really have the language to describe what they sound like or what effects they’re producing for her. I do tend to think it’s more interesting to write characters who are writing from a place of ignorance, or less knowledge, rather than writing from a place of expertise. It’s always more interesting to me to write about what a character doesn’t know rather than what they do know. I’m bringing my maybe-more-experienced music knowledge to the writing, obviously, but I’m trying to articulate it through the language of somebody who doesn’t have that language accessible to them.
I think that’s also true in relation to other aspects of the novel, as well, in that all the characters have different levels of knowledge about what’s going on, particularly with Julie’s brother. I was wondering to what degree you had a clear sense of what’s going on versus whether you left those questions open in your own mind?
I think I knew most things. I think, in general, even though this book is written in the first person, I was really interested in thinking… I’ve never figured out exactly how to articulate this, but I feel, I felt, like I wanted to be writing from outside of Julie, like it’s the first person, but it’s the first person as a construction. It’s almost as if there’s like a layered-on omniscient narrator, like under or over the surface, that does know everything and is moving Julie through this world, knowing the things that she doesn’t know, and the way that the character is formed and the way that the scenes are formed and everything like that, the way that language is working, has to do with this acknowledgement that there is another hand at play that knows more than Julie does. In order for the reader to feel the defined accents of what Julie doesn’t know, there needs to be some presence on the page that is pointing to the fact that there are things that she doesn’t know. Because she doesn’t even know, necessarily, what she doesn’t know, you know? I thought a lot about how to bring that out.
In terms of readers’ responses to that, have you ever been surprised by the presumptions that readers make about questions that are left unanswered?
I think some people feel like the ending is inconclusive, to which I would say: yes, it is! But, I can’t think of anything right off the top of my head, except, again, to go back to the amazing Cipher readers, who totally just speak right to the things that I was attempting to do, like the thing that you brought up about Julie keeping swimming a secret from her parents and the parallels between that and keeping her queerness a secret. That is absolutely something that I was hoping to do and it wasn’t until recently that anyone brought that out.
In the blurb for the Cipher version, they describe it as ‘an anti-coming-out novel.’ How do you feel about this phrase?
I like it. I don’t even know if this is really still a trope, because I feel like ways in which people are living queerness have shifted so much in the last decade or so, but, you know, definitely there is a tradition of coming out novels where it’s building to this moment of disclosure and then you disclose and then everyone knows and it’s either great or it’s terrible and whatever. And it’s more interesting to me to think that you come out many times, you have failed coming outs and successful comings out. You come out through your actions; you come out through your words. All these things. It was interesting to me to situate the novel in a place where Julie’s not even really grappling with her identity yet. She’s not thinking about that yet. She’s just thinking I want to hang out with this girl more, you know. I’m not saying that from a place of, like, labels don’t matter; it’s just that that’s not where she is yet. I wanted to think about queerness in a really close and experiential way that precedes a coming-out moment.
I think that’s why, for me, that phrase didn’t quite seem to fit, because it was still locating the narrative in relation to the idea of coming out as opposed to locating it in experience. But I do enjoy the process of thinking with, or thinking through, the phrase. One thing that occurred to me, later, stemmed from an article by Shoshana Rosenberg, who suggests the idea of ‘coming in’ as an alternative to ‘coming out,’ and how what’s often really significant isn’t so much disclosure but finding other queer people to connect with. I think this is also key to Dryland, in that what’s significant isn’t necessarily what Julie’s telling her family but rather that relationship she’s developing with Ben.
I don’t know that article, but it sounds super interesting and definitely really relevant. I think, to me, that relationship is really, in certain ways, the central relationship of the book. Especially in a time that predates media representation of queer people or whatever, it is true that it’s through those relationships, that feel like they happen really randomly, or intentionally, that we come to understand what it means to be queer, and that felt really important to me to draw out.
You mentioned earlier that you’ve just completed the manuscript for a short story collection. I’d like to hear more about this. Do you feel there’s kind of a thru-line between Dryland and this collection or do you feel you’re exploring a new set of ideas?
The collection’s working title is Hurricane Envy and I’d say about half the stories were written quite a while ago and about half were written in the last three or four years… which is also a while ago! It took me a really long time to write it. The stories continue to think through queer identity and its articulation, in many cases in relation to various forms of the political, and ways that both marginalisation and privilege can collide or conflict, like, through the articulation of a queer white cis-ish identity. Those do feel like some of the things that I thought about in Dryland. I think, also, really talking about the language and talking about craft and form, I learned so much in writing Dryland, about what I was talking about earlier, about being interested in what a character doesn’t know and figuring out how to articulate that on the page. I think all the characters I write now are applying that, to some extent, so that definitely is a thru-line. But I do think, even though there are plenty of details and feelings here and there in Dryland that I could tie to my own experience, more of the stories in the collection are closer to things I have experienced, to the extent that I might even call some of them autofiction, if I felt like doing that. That would be another difference.
Dryland by Sara Jaffe is published by Cipher Press and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now. Click on the links to follow Cipher Press and Sara Jaffe on Twitter, and read Anna’s review of Dryland here.
This interview was commissioned as part of Frankie Dytor’s series, BAROQUE
The ‘baroque’ is an intemperate aesthetic. Once a period term to describe the visual arts produced in the seventeenth century, its use and significance has exploded over the last fifty years. No longer restricted to the fine arts, the baroque has fallen into pop culture and become an icon.
Inspired by the work of Shola von Reinhold, this series takes ephemera and excess as its starting point for a new exploration of the b a r o q u e. It wants to look back at the past and queerly experiment with it, to rip it up and reclaim a new space for the future – or, in von Reinhold’s words, ‘to crave a paradise knit out of visions of the past’. The b a r o q u e is present in moments of sheer maximalism, in ornament, frill and artifice. It celebrates the seemingly bizarre and the unintelligible, the redundant and fantastical. Disorienting and overwhelming, it offers a decadent way of experiencing present and past worlds.
In von Reinhold’s debut novel, the forgotten black modernist poet Hermia Druitt is rediscovered one day in the archives. As Mathilda goes on a hunt to find out more about this elusive figure, a kaleidoscope of aesthetic joy ensues. Mathilda, we are told, is one of the Arcadian types: those with an “inclination towards historicised fragments”, but not one infected with the more insidious forms of history-worship. Instead, as she explains, “I would not get thrown off track: I could rove over the past and seek out that lost detail to contribute to the great constitution: exhume a dead beautiful feeling, discover a wisp of radical attitude pickled since antiquity, revive revolutionary but lustrous sensibilities long perished”. This series likewise wants to use the past in new and unexpected ways, that trans the archive and queer the record.
Join us to celebrate the dazzle of the b a r o q u e!
Submissions for this editorial are now closed. Read the series so far here.