Night Swimming by Doreen Finn
Book 2 was actually Book 1. Night Swimming, out this month, was the first proper, finished, fully formed novel that I wrote. My Buried Life, which celebrates its fourth revolution around the sun this month, was published first, but Night Swimming came before it. In its first genesis, it was overlong, overwritten and not quite good enough, but it gave me the impetus to keep going, and for me that was enough.
It started with an idea, which became a thread, which unspooled in my mind. There was a mother. And a daughter. Just those two at first, and I thought about them, and how they would be together, and the kind of relationship they would have. I wanted it to be good relationship, but with obstacles. I was more interested in the mother’s obstacles, because that would allow me to present her in a realistic light, flaws and all, and endear her to me. And I figured that if she endeared herself to me, she would hopefully do so to anyone who read about her. So I batted these two, the mother and the daughter, around inside my head for a while, and I thought of things that they would do and say, and where they would live, and the kind of lives they’d lead. From the start, there was no father. I had no idea where he was, or what had happened for him to absent himself from the lives of these two females, but I knew that he would reveal himself to me over the course of the story, and I didn’t worry too much about him.
I chose to set the book in 1976 for two reasons: the heat and the Olympics. These were two good, factually correct starting points, and writing about the summer suited both me and the story that was germinating. It meant that I had to finish the story itself by summer’s end, and not leave myself wandering through the following winter as the storyline dried up and fizzled out. A definite beginning and end are good things to have, particularly as a novice writer.
I named my characters before I committed either of them to paper. Gemma and Megan. I added a third female, Sarah, Gemma’s mother, grandmother of Megan. Now I had my bones, and I could start adding flesh, building upon this most basic structure. I added other people. The friend next door, his tiresome brother, their pious mother. I invited newcomers into the house where my three females lived, an American family comprised of mother, father and daughter. And then I thought about what they would do, this cast of characters who I carried everywhere with me, and scribbled notes about, and spoke about as though they were real people. They were real, to me, and I knew what they looked like, the cadences of their speech, the clothes they chose to wear, the music they listened to. And I named them all. There was Judith, Mark, Beth, my Americans. There was David next door, his brother Stevie, and their mother who would always be addressed as Mrs Sullivan. Referring back to my own childhood, everyone’s mother was addressed thus. No first name terms for the children of the 1970s. The setting could only be one place: Sandford Road in Ranelagh, my mother’s childhood home, the house I still turn every time I start a story. I cannot explain why this must be so, but it must. My Buried Life took place there too, and Book 3 will certainly revolve around this Victorian terrace, which in memory is a dustier, different place to its present incarnation. I had my characters, my narrator – Megan, my timeline and the setting.
I wrote this story in a fevered rush of inspiration. Waking at dawn, I sat at my second-hand laptop and knocked out hundreds of words every day before racing off to school. I made vats of Thai noodle soup (which I still cannot eat without being transported back fifteen years to that bizarre frenzy of writing) so I could eat in front of the computer and not have to think about what I would cook. I wrote like a person possessed, which I suppose I was. I’d read somewhere that a novel should be between 100,000 and 120,000 words, and so I aimed for the upper reaches of that limit. (Novice writers, please note: don’t even consider it. I was misinformed, and I no longer remember where I’d read those figures). One day, while listening to Automatic For The People, my favourite REM album, the song Nightswimming came on. I had my title. So much of the narrative was unfolding at night, with comings and goings out of the reach of adult surveillance, that this song made perfect sense in the context of my novel. By the time I finished writing, I had almost 120,000 words. My book was written. I was emptied out, my ideas sprawled all over this document I had carefully saved on the laptop.
Nothing of any significance happened with the book. It was too long, too overwritten. Descriptions took pages. Self-indulgence oozed off every page. My characters spoke like mini-adults, their perspectives and understanding of their world far too advanced, even for the most precocious of kids. But it was a start. I had written a book. I had written and – most importantly – I had finished a book, and because of that simple fact, I knew I could do it again and again. I did do it again and again, and I kept at it. It was a long journey, filled with peaks of possibility, and the abyss of rejection and doubt.
Fifteen years on, Night Swimming is a shorter, tighter novel. Three years ago, I dusted it off, cut most of it out, and got back down to those bones again. Some things had to change. I had since married a Mark and become mother to a David, so those names had to be altered. I observed my own two children, watched out for the ways in which they related to their surroundings, the experiences they brought to me to decipher. Megan’s father was still absent, but I added a new, hopefully plausible, reason for his disappearance. I added a swimming pool, drew new aspects to the characters of the American parents. My mother was a font of information about Ranelagh, and I was able to weave pieces of this throughout the narrative. In many ways, Night Swimming is a second novel. I am a far more confident writer. I understand how story works, how structure is laid down. A novel is as individual as a thumbprint, and for each writer the process is different, and will vary from book to book.
For now, I am happy to release Night Swimming out into the world. After years of rumination, deliberation, and rewrites, it is time to let it go.
(c) Doreen Finn
About Night Swimming:
The truth has a funny way of outing itself, especially when families go to extraordinary lengths to hide it even from themselves. It is summer 1976 and a heatwave is gripping Ireland. Nine-year-old Megan thinks her life with her mother and grandmother is almost perfect. But when an American family moves into the flat downstairs, things quickly begin to unravel. Through her friendship with the rebellious Beth, Megan begins to question the real reasons behind her father s absence, as well as the growing closeness between her mother and Beth s father. The truth finally emerges, pressing itself on a complex family dynamic and demanding attention, until a devastating tragedy means it can no longer be ignored. Meghan s life will change in ways she could never predict.
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