>an emotionally charged second person novel set in South Africa that chronicles a woman’s vigil over her father’s deathbed, her look back at his life as a doctor and father, and his life before he had children. She crafts impeccable figurative imagery and puts words together with a seemingly incongruous grittiness that simultaneously elevates and robs it of any trace of the literary pretension that can occasionally accompany those metaphors and similes. The Rowing Lesson is a challenging novel, one that begs multiple readings and we had the privilege of asking Landsman a few questions about it. Read our correspondence after the jump.
Flavorwire: Why did you choose South Africa as the setting of The Rowing Lesson, and why did you decide to focus on the relationship between father and daughter?
Anne Landsman: I grew up in South Africa and left there when I was in my early twenties and have written and thought about the country and its people ever since. Like Betsy, the narrator in The Rowing Lesson, my own father was a country doctor who sometimes treated four generations of the same family. And, like Betsy, my father died quite unexpectedly (following surgery for a broken arm), not long after I learned I was pregnant with my second child. Unlike Betsy, I decided not to go back to South Africa to be at his bed-side, or to attend his funeral because I was afraid of miscarrying. So the writing of The Rowing Lesson became the funeral I missed, and will always miss.
FW: Why did you choose the fairly rare, and tricky point of view of 2nd person? What effect do you think this style has on your story?
AL: Since the novel is written in the form of an address, as Betsy talks to her father who is in a coma in the ICU, it made sense for it to be mostly in the second person. It’s often been described as an elegy, which I think is accurate. Also, the idea for the novel grew out of a letter I wrote to my own father as he was dying which was then read at his funeral. Only after the book was published, did I realize the importance of that letter, and how it impacted the writing of The Rowing Lesson.
One of the great benefits of writing in the second person is that the back story is right there, in the present, which helped me to capture the intensity of the last hours of Harry Klein’s life as it was slipping away from him.
FW: We found it disorienting when you directly address the reader. Was this part of your desired effect, and if yes, why?
AL: Although I did not intend it to be an address to the reader – it was really Betsy talking to her father – I think the discomfort the “you” engenders in the reader underscores the mortality we all share, and what a difficult feeling that is to come to terms with. Also, once the mechanism of the narrative becomes clear, the plot is less complicated to understand. It’s the story of a woman reflecting on her father’s life as he dies in front of her, broken down into five sections – a) his coming of age as a young man, b) his coming of age as a doctor, c) marriage and its complications, d) the disappointments and frustrations of mid-life, e) the difficulty of old age. Four trips up and down the same river capture Harry Klein’s life at these different moments. The river stays the same, but the man changes.
FW: Are we to imagine his daughter Betsy as the narrator of the whole novel, acting as an unlikely, all-knowing narrator?
AL: I think all children imagine what their parents’ lives were like before they were born. Coming to terms with one’s own identity involves knowing who your parents are, and were. So many of us look at photos of our parents when they were young, hungry for information about them. In The Rowing Lesson, Betsy, the narrator, looks at Harry Klein’s life as if flipping through a photo album, trying to fill in the gaps to make the narrative of his life complete. Also, since he’s be reduced to a body in a bed in the ICU, it’s her way of giving him a “good death,” by giving him his identity back.
FW: Why did you decide to organize the novel in this way, with sections alternating between Harold’s experience before children and his time in the hospital?
AL: I wanted to capture Harry Klein’s last day as one long, protracted dying breath. Often people who have had near-death experiences say “My whole life flashed before me.” Well, I wanted Harry’s whole life to flash before Betsy, his daughter, because her father was in a coma and could no longer remember anything. She became his memory, and what he lived through tumbled out of her, in more or less chronological order. I had to begin in Harry’s hospital room, because that’s where they were. The story cycled back and forth between the present and the past, as Betsy’s ‘elegy’ was interrupted by other family members, and by doctors and nurses coming in and out of Harry’s room.
FW: Tell us about your use of figurative language. We were struck by how conspicuous it could be without being over the top.
AL: I try to attend to the music of the language as well as the authenticity of the characters’ emotions. When I write fiction, I write slowly and carefully, in a state of fairly intense concentration. It feels as if I take an elevator several levels down, to a place that’s hard to drop in and out of. For better or worse, there’s nothing casual about the process.
FW: Your novel was very visceral and word-oriented, but the story could be hard to follow. Once we began to focus more on your writing rather than the plot, we found it to be a greatly fulfilling experience of reading, entirely different than our experiences with most books.
AL: I’m glad you found it to be rewarding! I’m the kind of reader who likes to work at what I’m reading, and really get transported by the time, place and voice so I suppose I write for the kind of reader I am. Language for me is such a joy and I love to play with it, bend it, stretch it as far as it can go.
FW: What does the act of “rowing” mean to your novel? Why did you choose to call it The Rowing Lesson?
AL: When you row, you move forward by looking backwards, which describes Betsy’s death-bed summation of her father’s life. In order for her to move on with her own life, she’s looking backwards at his. The title also works on a fairly literal level – Harry teaches Betsy how to row. And then later, the tables are turned, and rowing becomes synonymous with breathing, as Betsy coaches her father through death.