Nicola Keegan is a unique talent and an amazing person. Her debut novel Swimming was featured by Time as one of the top 10 novels the year it was published. I have been rereading Nicola's novel this summer with absolute astonishment at the brilliance, humor and humanity of her prose. Swimming is one of those works of art that only gets better with rereading. Interview with Nicola Keegan from 2009.
LZ In reading Swimming I was struck by the narrator’s powerful and unique voice. Judy Bloom said “It’s the most original novel I’ve read all year. I can’t get Pip’s voice out of my mind.” Where does PIP’s voice come from?
NK Writing is not living but sometimes living annoys me so deeply, I pretend writing is living which injects a certain type of energy into my work because everything becomes essential, necessary, important, and real.
LZ You claim that you started to write “bad poetry” because you couldn’t find a writers group in Paris that would take you and finally ended up with a bunch of poets. One of the most remarkable things about Swimming is the language, which I have to suspect is influenced by your intense exposure to poets and poetry. What is the relation between prose and poetry in your writing? Should we all hang out with poets?
NK People talk about that a lot; prose and poetry, poetry and prose. I don’t know what the relationship is honestly—perhaps how you hear the words in your head and hanging around with poets does affect the way one hears. It affected me anyway. Poets help you listen which makes you think which makes you pay attention which helps you see—so yes, we should all hang out with them…but something tells me they have other things they’d rather be doing. On another note, I didn’t think anyone like Alice Notley existed until I actually met her so that was a surprise. I think poets should have their own special house and they shouldn't have to pay for anything and they should be revered and taken care of and read they should be read. They are the opposite of what is wrong with the world right now.
NK The snow. I must have been about 18 years old. I was reading in bed. Christmas had just passed and I had a couple of days before going back to school. It was late, way after midnight and I kept reading although I was tired. My bedroom had a long rectangular window that overlooked an empty swimming pool and the dense forest beyond. I was reading smoothly, you know when you read with interest but a certain sense of detachment--like that. The story took over my senses in a wave felt even more intently due to the silence of the house, the insulation of winter, the visibility of the sky, sharp winter stars, a low moon. I had a physical reaction; my heart beat faster and my mind quickened, I looked out the window--the snow was falling slowly, I went back to the story, the dinner table was breaking up, the wife was weeping, the husband was realizing something about the human heart. Both worlds, the real one, my pillow, the central heating purring in the background, and the James Joyce world sort of muted together. Falling gently gently falling. It was the first moment in my life I felt consciously connected to the whole of the human race. I think of James Joyce often, whenever I see a tall thin man, whenever light flashes off someone's spectacles, whenever it snows, when I'm in Ireland. Sometimes I write what he wrote just to see what it feels like.
LZ The humor in Swimming is little short of ferocious. God, death, sibling love and hatred, priests and even nuns—nothing is spared. Is there any subject we can’t laugh at?
NK Oh there are subjects I cannot laugh at, but you have to admit being human is often funny. And the Irish are the WORST by the way. Poor old Michael Jackson's body wasn't even cool yet and the jokes were flying. Horrible awful jokes; something about turning his body into legos so children could play with him for once. See? Awful stuff. Does that mean that they don't give a damn about poor old M. Jackson. No, they care. When they finished laughing they said “poor old sod.” Humor is just a way of dealing with things, a form of decompression and an expression of the meaningless misery and ridiculousness of being human. It often gets misinterpreted as a type of hardness, but it’s the contrary. I once sat on the steps outside a funeral and laughed myself into cramps. I couldn't go in. It was horrible. How many terrible moments of high drama did I catch my sister's eye and just lose it. More than I can count. I know it's awful. A curse. Very black etc. But I just cannot help it.
LZ Why an Olympic swimmer? What is it about high level sport that attracted you?
NK An elite athlete begins as a child who loves something and I think that kind of love is good. I’ve always admired people who try really hard and swimmers try really hard every day for years and years and years. When I started to study water I loved the language that scientists used to describe it. There’s a lot of water in SWIMMING in all its forms; it rains for months, it snows in spirals, people sprout like fountains, feelings evaporate. I like the fact that in water people are unburdened by gravity. I like the image of swimmers flinging themselves into water and pulling as hard as they can. I like the idea of beating the clock, being your own principal adversary, human velocity. And there is a solitary lonesomeness about spending so many hours in an element in which you cannot breathe that I found deliciously melancholic. I love female locker room talk, any sort of ridiculous chatter about body parts, the fact that success is a temporary flame. Also, and I might as well admit it--when I started studying swimmers, I grew very attached to them, and when I continued to follow them, I fell in love. That's what happens I guess.
LZ An admirer of yours told me that, in early drafts, you wrote “like an animal”. How did you manage to channel this intensity into story? By what process did you make your themes, which are rooted in profoundly personal events, comprehensible to the reader?
NK Yipes—the Big Questions. Yes, I wrote like an animal. The intensity is there naturally so I didn't have to conjure it--it just sort of channeled itself into the work. I had some hard knocks while I was writing this novel and it is at these moments that one must decide what is important. It’s easy to have a good philosophy when things are fine, but when you get your mettle tested and things are a mess, it’s a bit more problematic. I had to choose. Writing anchored me—I felt like giving my best. That's the job of a writer I think--to make deeply personal feelings accessible to people. If they are incomprehensible then I'm not doing my job. I spent a lot of my life being incomprehensible, even to myself, so I know. Actually, when you meet someone one-on-one and talk to them, you can make anything comprehensible—even your most craziest story because bottom line; we are all human and understand human things so I talk to people. And I listen. And, not to sound like a dork, I care, so empathy seems a prerequisite.
LZ What role did your agent play in your writing?
NK My agent, Bill Clegg, is the first person who connected to my creative mind in a way I'd always wished for. He sort of obliterated this intellectual loneliness that one can accidentally find themselves locked in. The mind is a vast complicated affair that to find someone with whom you can work in such an effortless funny respectful loving way, honestly, is the biggest gift this whole process has brought me. I love working with him.
LZ You have a husband, three beautiful children and are president of the PTA. Isn’t this enough? Why write?
NK I don't think writing is about getting or having--I think writing is about giving essentially and I don't know what you mean about enough. The time I spend with my children has to be about who I am as a person and who I am as a person is all about what I do with my time (sorry that seems like a riddle.) I don't want to live in this world, eat ice cream, drink a couple of beers, admire the beauty and grace of my children, fight with my husband, battle with existentialism—lose, grow old, get saggy boobs, complain, then pop off and die toodle do. I want to try to give something back. That’s exceedingly important to me.
Nicola Keegan is currently working on her second novel.
What book reviewers wrote about Swimming when it was published:
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