A CRYING CHEERLEADER: That's what comes to mind when I think of Dryland, the debut novel from New Herring Press co-editor and former Erase Errata guitarist Sara Jaffe, out now from Tin House. In the pilot episode of the too-short '90s TV series My So-Called Life, there's a hasty shot of a crying cheerleader. We don't find out why she's crying, or even who she is, but that singular image is an entire story in itself.
The same contained, slightly closed-off sense of narrative and emotional stakes can be found in Dryland's Julie Winter, a teenager from Portland in 1992, who swims in the slowest lane at swim practice, has a fuzzily absent brother, and is probably gay, but doesn't know it yet—Julie, in fact, knows less about herself than the reader knows, a delicate balance Jaffe keeps in check. Here's what the writer told me about swim technique, Portland as setting, and writing the story of a gay teenager whose life isn't going to be ruined by being gay.
MERCURY: You're not from Portland. What made you decide to set this story in Portland?
SARA JAFFE: I wanted the idea of Portland at that time and its insularity. I wanted the flatness of [the] weather. It just seemed to suit the direction that the story was going in. I lived in Portland briefly in the late '90s. I took a semester off of college and lived out here for a semester and a summer... 1997 Portland was more like 1992 Portland than 2015 is like 1997 Portland. I got some sense of what Portland in the '90s was like.
Are you a swimmer?
I am a lifelong mediocre swimmer. I've always enjoyed swimming, but I've also always been really bad at it and also never felt motivated to get better, so I was like, what is that, that being okay with doing something badly? One ironic outcome is that... I'm not a big researcher, but I did spend a bunch of time reading this swimming exercise science textbook called Swimming Even Faster. So I did learn some things from that textbook that I have then taken to my own swimming and I think have actually probably made me a somewhat better swimmer.
So in writing about someone who's a mediocre swimmer—
Yeah—I mean, I say better like [makes universal gesture for teeny-tiny] this much better. But you know, I think one of the reasons that I've really remained at my own stasis with swimming is that I really see it as more meditative than rigorous, and I think a lot when I'm swimming.
Julie also has this relationship with another girl on the swim team, and there's some discussion about how her brother is gay, and she seems interested in that, but she doesn't want to acknowledge it.
Yeah, and there was some discussion at the last minute about whether it was gonna be a sticking point for readers that there's not this moment where she's like, "Am I gay?" And I added a few very light touches, but it was really important to me not to have that moment. I've been thinking about it a lot, and actually it's funny, just yesterday I saw the first other mention of [that] as sort of a criticism, and in my mind it's not as if this character Julie never thought that, had that question. But to me that's really not the most interesting question. So that's why I didn't put it on the page.
There are a lot of traditional coming-out narratives, and this doesn't read like one.
Right. Also, in my own experience of [coming out], yes, of course there was the moment where I was like, "What if I'm gay?" But really, I was like, "How do I get to make out with a girl?" And that speaks to the fact that I knew somewhere in me that my parents would be cool with it, it didn't feel threatening. I was privileged enough not to be in a position where being gay would mean the end of me, and I think the same is the case for Julie.
I hope it doesn't sound pretentious to say this—it feels like a political choice to me not to centralize that traditional coming-out narrative. And I think also that the conventional coming-out narrative puts the focus on the audience who receives this news, it makes it actually about [whether] this person will be accepted or not be accepted. But if that's not where the interest is, then why have that be the central question?