C. E. Poverman’s first book of stories, The Black Velvet Girl, won the Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction. His second, Skin, was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His stories have appeared in the O’Henry, Pushcart, and other anthologies. His previous novels are Susan, Solomon’s Daughter, My Father in Dreams, and On the Edge.
Love by Drowning: Q&A with C.E. Poverman.
The following Q&A was provided by the publisher, El Leon Literary Arts,
Q. How did this story come to you?
A. I think it began with my reading a story in a boating magazine about a guy being pulled overboard in an incident much like the one I describe in the opening of Love by Drowning. One minute, he is handling the wire leader of a smallish marlin, and the next minute he’s over the side and gone in maybe 20 or 30 seconds. I sat up in my chair and was freaked. I cut out the article with absolutely no idea how or if I could use it. And that’s just writer’s work, writer’s routine. Stuff going by you all the time, catching your interest. What is it? What does it mean? It’s also a seismograph which registers activity inside you of which you are unaware; it can lead you places. When I had the reaction to the story, I had no idea it might turn into a novel. No idea who the characters might be. Or what would happen to them.
(I believe Herman Melville must have experienced a moment like this when he heard about a whale attacking a whaler, the Essex, ramming her so hard that she sank. Out of this came Moby Dick.)
Q. Why do you think the story had such an effect on you?
A. I’d grown up on boats; my father always had boats and handling them, working on them, smelling them, getting tossed around in them were second nature. I was always comfortable—pretty at ease—but implicit in your being on a boat is that you can get knocked overboard, injured, run over. For years, boats ran through my dreams; right in there with all the standard anxiety dreams—late to take a test, can’t find the classroom, the one where you’re teaching a class but you’re naked, or you’ve lost something and can’t find it and the race/game starts in one minute, etc.—were boat dreams: the boat is filling with water, the boat’s going down, something huge and monstrous is coming up from below, you are under a black sky heading into a huge storm, etc. So that article landed in the middle of my fears; when I’m on a boat, I keep a deck knife with me; hopefully you can reach it quickly if something snags you and pulls you over; maybe, just maybe, you can cut yourself free. A friend of mine, a very experienced sailor, sailing his huge catamaran, went to slacken a jib sheet which was carrying a huge load. When he released it from the winch, the line encircled his leg, and broke it so badly he almost lost the leg. Time elapsed: one heartbeat. So I was finely attuned to that kind of accident.
Q. After you read the article, did the story just evolve from there? How long did it take you to write the book?
A. I wish. There was no story as yet. I read the article and put it away. Maybe a year went by. Within that time, my father died over the winter. The summer after, we are in a beach house in Madison, Connecticut. My mother and my family are there—wife, kids. Two of my sister’s three boys are there. My sister had been in a terrible motorcycle accident in her late twenties—sudden catastrophe—had not died, but couldn’t carry on by herself. My parents raised her three boys from the time they were young children. So, in a sense they were like half-brothers. Now here we are all in this house, father gone, a sense of absence, maybe regret and missed opportunities; these two brothers are now in their mid-twenties and in the midst of their male/brother rivalries—jiving and teasing, one very charming and funny and impossible and pretty dyslexic in his growing up, very competitive and athletic—you know the drill; we are two blocks from the water and I’m not so much thinking about water and ocean as breathing it in—water, the ocean, boats, which for me, is my father, and all the time spent on boats and a sense of loss and the way my first growing up family had been shattered by my sister’s accident, always the elephant in the room—and here am I caught up in the chemistry of the brothers and my own kids there and my grief for my father. I just started writing something. I didn’t know what it was or what it would be. The book took me five years to write.
Q. Not having a brother yourself, where do the family dynamics between your characters Val and Davis derive from?
A. My sister’s three sons were like half-brothers in some respects. But even if I didn’t have brothers, it’s a writer’s job to be a shape shifter, to be Protean, and to be able to write from all points of view. Hemingway in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber has a passage where he writes from the lion’s point of view. I’m not a woman, but I write from Lee Anne’s point of view in several sections of Love by Drowning.
Q. Your character, Lee Anne, is quite complex with a combination of interesting female traits about her. How did her character come to you?
A. In retrospect I believe that Lee Anne, for the most part, came out of several elements: a woman I knew who had beautiful eyes—you were just held by her gaze. You never knew when she was lying and when she was telling the truth; the combination was hellish and combustible.
And now I’m thinking of a friend; somehow in the way she was living her life, she seemed to draw bizarre situations out of the air; for example, her hair caught fire in a bar she was working in—too much hair spray? Who knew? But this was her life.
And when I was growing up, there was a girl whose father had been murdered; the girl was both magnetic and beautiful. They were girls who brought an edge, an immediacy to the present—and in fact all you could feel was a kind of incandescent streaming of their unconscious, that you were on the brink of something. You could never really be sure what was true or not.
But and I came to realize, slowly and painfully, that there was something in that behavior—shall we call it mythomania? Lies? Delusion? And that I needed or sought it out. And at the same time, I knew it was destructive. Now, if I’m not ascribing too much, it seems to me that we see variations of the consequences of this kind of behavior in public figures, lies and illusions and self-deception. Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky; Elliot Spitzer/his call girl; the former governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford; John Edwards/wife/mistress. The parade is endless. Men who didn’t know themselves well enough to understand how one step-at-a-time they were weaving themselves and those around them into a nightmare of lies and deception and self-deception, and who destroyed themselves and lost everything—and usually it all unraveled in moments, days, weeks.
Q. Throughout the book, what do you feel continues to draw your characters Val and Lee Anne together? At the same time, what repels them?
A. Val can’t help himself with Lee Anne—the first time he sees her, he knows there’s a lie in her. He can sense it in her gaze, something about the way her face doesn’t quite fit together. He keeps looking at her with the feeling that if he can see her just one more time he’ll be able to figure it out. He’s both attracted and repelled by this quality.
And it’s the same quality which pulls him back to her after Davis’ accident. He’s drawn to her because they share Davis. By being together, they can keep Davis—Davis can live within them. And for that same reason, he’s anguished being around her.
Q. What are you currently working on? Are there other projects in the works?
A. A lot of things. I’ve just finished a novel entitled, Grace within Her Mother’s Silence. I need to make some small, but important adjustments on that.
I have the title story from my first book of stories, The Black Velvet Girl. Years ago a screenwriter and producer took an interest in it and has been trying to turn it into a screenplay. Now I’m working on that with her.
I’ve finished a novel entitled Degree of Difficulty which is about competitive diving—my daughter was a diver for 12 years. I’ve written another story set in this world, Baby R, which was published in Ploughshares; I later turned it into a screenplay. And now there still seems to be something left in that world, something more I’m going to write.
And other new work. Really, there aren’t enough hours in the day.
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