In Episode 285 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Peter Rock, author of The Night Swimmers. Discover if your writing is commercial enough and how to master “point of view” in your writing. We also have 3x copies of AWC alumna Kaneana May’s debut novel The One to giveaway.
Writers in Residence
Peter Rock was born and raised in Salt Lake City. His most recent novel is The Night Swimmers, which involves open water swimming, fatherhood, psychic photography and the use of isolation tanks as a means to inhabit the past.
Rock attended Deep Springs College, received a BA in English from Yale University, and held a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. He has taught fiction at the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Deep Springs College, and in the MFA program at San Francisco State University. His stories and freelance writing have both appeared and been anthologized widely, and his books published in various countries and languages. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, an Alex Award and others, he currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is a Professor in the English Department of Reed College. Leave No Trace, the film adaptation of My Abandonment, directed by Debra Granik, premiered at Sundance and Cannes and was released to critical acclaim in 2018.
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Peter Rock is the award-winning author of ten works of fiction, including My Abandonment, which won the Alex Award and was adapted into the film Leave No Trace. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and is a professor of creative writing at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. His latest autobiographical novel is The Night Swimmers, out now with Soho Press. He was also randomly my Year 11 classmate at Nowra High School. Welcome to the program, Peter.
Thank you so much. I don’t think it was random at all.
It was pretty random. Like the fact that you were there.
It was destiny, I think.
Destined. I like that. That’s good. All right. Let’s go all the way back to the beginning. Your first novel, This is the Place, was published in 1997. Can you tell me how that came to be about? How that came to be.
How I wrote it or how it came to be published?
Both. Give me the whole kit and kaboodle.
Oh, it would be a long story, but I would say This is the Place is probably the seventh novel that I wrote. And so when I’m advising young writers now when I’m teaching, I think I had so many advantages and one of them was I was just really delusional. I had parents who didn’t put a lot of pressure on me, or who gave me free rein to do as I liked.
So I had a number of different jobs, but after I got out of college, after I got out of school, I was just travelling around trying to write. And I was writing terrible, terrible books. And I was working different jobs. I was working as a security guard in an art museum.
And my girlfriend and I at the time went our separate ways and so I had no home. I had a truck and I had a lot of books. And I was able to live in a little adobe house which was about ten by 15 feet that was owned by a friend’s mother. And I decided, I’m going to try to figure out what kind of book I could write that would play to my strengths. So it was a very voice-driven book. It’s a novel told by a 75 year old blackjack dealer who was trying to create miracles for a young Mormon girl. And I grew up surrounded up by Mormons in Salt Lake City, Utah. So I was sort of writing with this hook that Mormon girls were dissatisfied and that someone like me might have answers. although I was quite young at the time.
So it was quite a long process. And I was fortunate that I got a fellowship and I went to Stanford University right after that. And I was able to get an agent who was just starting out, and also an editor who was just starting out. And it was a very small book deal. And the book came out in paperback. And I think maybe it did okay.
But it was such a different world back then. I’ve been so aware of it now over 20 years later that there was no Amazon, there was really no internet. There was so much more money, really, in publishing, to be honest. I was going on book tours. And I was being paid for different promotional things I was doing. Whereas now, the money is so much less. Or the amount of pressure on the author to do the promotion, to be writing things for free, and to be online, and to be out front, that’s been a real change.
But back then, I also felt that I deserved attention in some way that I’m not quite sure how I feel now. I felt very entitled and I wasn’t even aware of it, as entitled people aren’t aware. And so I sort of felt like I would write something to the best of my ability and that people would be interested in it because I was interested in it. And I’m not sure I believe that anymore.
But I think, when I tell the story, I always say, once upon a time I thought that I was just incredibly talented and worked very hard. And then I started to recognise that I had been lucky at different times and I had met different people who had helped me. But then I realise that a lot of it has to do with privilege. You know, I managed to get through school without having any debt. I had a family that supported me and allowed me to wander around saying I was a writer for a period of time. I was 30 years old or so before I published a book, so it was fortunate that I was able to continue on in that way because not everyone can. And fortunate that I could be persistent.
And when did you actually… At what point did you write your first novel? You said that This is the Place was your seventh. How old were you when you wrote your first novel?
I think I was in college, or what you would call university. And I was about to graduate. So I was about 22. But I had written a lot of stories and I thought it was about time for me to write my first novel. And it didn’t go very well. Nor did the successive novels go very well.
I mean, even the ones now which are published, as you know, they’re so dissatisfying. In some way, there’s always something about a book that you finish that you recognise is problematic or that you’re unhappy with. It’s cause enough to try again. And so that fortunately is what happened with me over and over again.
And had you always known that you wanted to be a writer? You said it was time for you to write a novel at 22. That sounds to me like someone who’d been thinking about it for a while.
Yeah. I think the answer is no. I think that I liked the idea of being a writer. I really love to read. And I think, especially when I was in high school, a lot of the writers that I was reading, whether it was Jack Kerouac or Richard Brautigan, their lifestyle kind of appealed to me. And I could see myself as a sort of whimsical and romantic young man who played a lot of billiards with women in sundresses and drove back and forth across America.
I just liked the idea of being a writer as an identity, which isn’t really something I think exists. And I followed my education in such a way that I was sort of unqualified to do anything else. So I eventually had to start writing things. And then I found that I really loved it.
But to back up a little bit more, I think when I went to Australia I was thinking about going into medicine. I really did like to read, but it was really our teacher in common, Mark Miller, who really pushed me and said, you could be a writer. You should be writing. And I would always say, we’re not writing stories now, that was two weeks ago. And he said, no you should be writing all the time.
And that made me… I think a lot about that, I think a lot of it as a teacher of writing, I think the advice that I can give is rarely right or wrong. But the attention you give to someone or the encouragement you give can really make a difference. So that for me was the first push that I had.
But again, I really liked to read and I really liked the idea of being a writer. And it caused this momentum in me to keep after it.
So I think it’s interesting because you have taken, as you said, quite an academic approach to becoming a writer. You’ve taken yourself down that road, studying the craft at various universities, and now you teach it yourself. Was it deliberate to do that? Or just the way it turned out? Did you feel like you needed to go and study all of the things before you started writing yourself? Or just the way it turned out?
It seems like it’s the way it turned out. But I think there’s also a narrative of my career where I was much more of a desperado. And I did not… I don’t really have the degrees I should have to teach the way that I teach. And it’s because I never really went to graduate school, as we call it in the US.
And it was because I often was around people or I was dating people who were writers, who were in programs. And so I was sort of suspicious of what could be learned in a writing program, or what could be learned from a teacher. But I still reaped the benefits of being in touch with other people who were writing and being in touch with people at magazines.
And so eventually I backed into teaching I think because someone was hit by a car, actually.
It wasn’t you, was it?
No. I had a book published. And at San Francisco State that was the requirement. And so I began teaching in a graduate program but I didn’t have the degree. And that I think is maybe a sign about graduate school, or was to me, that it’s harder to publish a book than it is to get a degree. And so once I started teaching in that way, I couldn’t really go back.
But I try to have it both ways. I clearly am a professor at this point. And I’m very suspicious of the idea that certain things can be taught.
Okay. So what’s your process for writing a novel? Where do you begin?
It always changes. Every one is so different. But I think one thing, looking back, that they have in common, is I’m drawn to some thing, I’m drawn to something outside of me that I don’t understand.
So in the case of my book My Abandonment, I read a newspaper article about a father and his young daughter, who is eleven, living in the wilderness who had been discovered and then they were relocated and then they disappeared again. And so I wanted to find out, because it was close to where I lived, I wanted to find out exactly where they lived and I wanted to find out what had happened to them. And I couldn’t find that out. So I started to make it up.
Similarly, I worked on a ranch in Montana. And in Montana there was a church that believed the world was going to end in the early 90s. And I lived as a neighbour to them. And they built underground shelters and they prepared for the end of the world. And then, as far as we know, the world didn’t end. And I became really interested in them so I started studying their beliefs.
So usually what I’m trying to do, it hearkens back also to when I was a security guard, I would make up stories for the art I was guarding as a way to pass the time. So the book I published before The Night Swimmers was a collaboration with photographers which is called Spells. And I was very directly choosing a photograph without having any context for that image and trying to figure out what I thought could have happened there, what might happen.
So often what I’m doing is I’m allowing my curiosity to draw me into a situation and then I’m hoping that something comes out of me that is surprising to me. And so when I talk to my students I say, if there is something out in the world that seems like it’s calling to you, it’s because there’s something inside of you that is resonating with that thing.
So a lot of it is following my curiosity. And I think being both inevitably getting older, having children, and having written a series of books, I’m much more open and I’m much more comfortable in chaos. And so early on, I tend to have a lot of notes that have no connection to anything and I don’t know what’s going to happen to the book or who the characters are. I tend to have maybe a couple hundred pages of notes before I start organising them. And then I eventually type them into a computer.
And then I do a lot of writing longhand. So down in my office, I don’t have any machines. And so I will print out all my notes and then I’ll be organising them and then I’ll write everything longhand, then I’ll type it again. And it’s back and forth during the day to different parts of my house to try to sort that out.
And then I would say, with most novels, it’s probably about 50% preparation and then about 10% actual writing time, of getting that draft together. And then maybe 40% or more just revision, and that can take years to figure out what’s going on. So most books I write tend to end up being about 230 pages. And at some point, some of them have been over 1000 pages. Just trying to figure out what belongs to something is really the crucial question. And it’s such an intuitive feeling that it takes a period of time for me to sort that out.
Okay. So The Night Swimmers is described as an autobiographical novel. So does that just mean it’s you and it’s not you? I mean, is there a line where the reality of your story ends and the story of the novel begins?
There probably are a lot of lines, but they’re very blurry. It’s not my term, autobiographical novel. But I will say this, it certainly is a different book to read if you know me in real life than it is for a stranger. Because there are pictures of my children in the book. There are references to people who I know.
I always sort of assumed that I would change everyone’s name once I published the book. But at the last minute, I decided I would just leave everyone’s name in. And it felt kind of wrong but it felt kind of right for the process.
And I guess, a couple of things I would say is – and you probably have this experience too – when you write enough books, you can forget what happens in them. And when I look at, say, This is the Place, I recognise that even the sentences are not sentences I remember writing. They are not written in a way that I would write them now. It’s like another person wrote them.
That said, when I look at books that I wrote before, I can remember that period of time in my life. And if I actually read the books, I can see in a way that I didn’t know then what I was dealing with, what I was processing, what were the big questions for me.
And I think we also have the experience, when we’re writing something, that our day to day life starts to infuse that project. And also starts to echo in eerie ways. And so I sometimes keep track of this.
With this book, The Night Swimmers, I started writing it because… There’s a scene in the book where I’m in this little shack where I used to live, and I find myself surrounded by rejection letters from magazines and different things that I’ve hung up on the wall in 1994. And also being there with my children and feeling like these were the artefacts of someone who I had been, but I no longer was that person. And I couldn’t remember a lot of things from that time. And so I started reacting, instead of reacting to photographs of a news story, I started reacting to pieces of my past that I couldn’t really account for.
And so as I was writing the book, I started keeping track of conversations that I was having with my daughters which seemed similar in some ways to questions I was investigating in the book. And at some point I thought, what if I included these things? And then I decided I would start doing that. And then it seemed almost as if people from that period of my life could feel that I was thinking about it and started to contact me in various ways. And so I started to include that also. And it started to get very messy. So I started seeing that it wasn’t that they were similar things to the story I was telling, but they were the same thing. That they were all connected in a way, and I was curious about that.
And I was curious too about the distinction that we make between our internal life and our external life. So when we talk about dreams or when we talk about daydreams or when we talk about fiction even, we often append ‘just’ fiction, or ‘just’ a dream. When I think that the things that didn’t happen, or our daydreams, or our fantasies, are things that are very much who we are. And I decided to not make that distinction in this book. To not, you know, say, what if this happened? Or if I imagined a story based on what I didn’t understand at that time, this is what it would be. But rather let everything have the same truth value. And never interrupt myself.
And so I think, hopefully that’s not the primary pleasure of reading the book. But I think there was a time when I thought I didn’t want anyone asking that question. But I think that’s impossible, especially the way that the publisher talks about it. But when I started being more open to that, or even putting photographs in, or referencing real parts of my life in a more direct way, and following it too… You know, just being open to new experiences.
So there’s a part in the book where an ex-girlfriend of mine contacts me and says that she’s been floating in an isolation tank and had these visions of me from a previous time. And I decided to take that as a cue that I should start floating in isolation tanks also. And it’s a book about water. It’s a book about swimming in open water. And it made sense to spend all this time floating in this black water. And to allow that as a way for the story to begin to coalesce. And so much of this book came together as I was floating there imagining different possible connections.
Yeah, the description of you floating in the isolation tank is actually incredibly powerful. I felt like I was there. And the way you described that almost out of body experience of your body melding into the water was quite extraordinary.
But there’s an awful lot, the process of this that you’re describing, there’s an awful lot of deep diving, self-reflection, examinations of a time and place and people. Was that, as a writer, was that interesting in a looking at it all under a microscope kind of way? Or was it painful? Or was it… I think diving into ourselves is actually one of the places that a lot of us won’t go, let alone embrace it in the kind of way that you have. I just think… What was the process? Did you feel like you were looking at yourself from the outside? Or were you deep diving on the inside?
I think it was a little bit of both. It was very… I think I’ve always prided myself on not being an autobiographical writer. When I had friends who wrote books that were based on their lives or their parents’ lives, I thought it was sort of… It just demonstrated a lack of imagination in some way. Not to judge anyone.
So I was always writing stories about people who were quite different than I was. That said, when I look at books that I’ve written before, they’re very personal books. They’re very much taking up the things, as I said, that I was struggling with at that time. And I think I’ve always been a better writer at writing characters who are further from my experience because when I do that I have to convince myself that I know that person well enough. I have to convince myself of what’s important to that person and how their voice works and how their life is playing out. And in convincing myself, I’m also convincing the reader.
So when I teach nonfiction writing, I find often that the facts of the life are interesting, but the writer just assumes that everyone feels them the same way that they themselves do. So they don’t do that work to convince themselves, convince the reader. And I think I’ve always failed at writing characters who are closer to me because I had that sense that everyone understood how it was to be me. But I also had so much information. I had too much information about myself.
So those were some of the struggles. And then it’s a very, I hate to say it, but it’s a very kind of middle aged book. In the sense that I was looking back at a time when I was younger and I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me. And what was motivating me and why I felt so estranged from this person who was me.
So it was painful. But it was also very funny. Because a lot of what I was doing was, I wouldn’t say repairing, but I was going back to relationships that had ended in a very immature way or ended in an inarticulate way. And being able to be open with people from my past and to appreciate that time with them. And to appreciate them as people and to let them know how much I appreciate and care about them, which I wasn’t able to do before.
So I think that a lot of what I do as a writer is almost that the writing of the book is an excuse to explore something. And that thing can be just something that… I’ve often found myself trespassing somewhere and someone has asked me what I’m doing and I’ve said, well, I’m actually writing a novel about this so I was just trying to find something out. And in this case I was sort of trespassing on parts of my life.
And I was counting in large part on the patience of and the affection of people from my past. But also certainly the patience of my wife and my family to… There were certainly times when I was writing the book that I felt like… It wasn’t painful, but I sort of wondered, am I engaging in this conversation with an old girlfriend in order to write my book or to find the story? Or I’m just allowing the book to excuse bad behaviour on my part?
So that’s one question I had. So it wasn’t… I kind of went back with a sense of bemusement and curiosity and maybe a fair amount of shame for some things that I had done in the past. But just trying to own them and trying to not be overly embarrassed. It’s sort of a really positive experience. And just about everything that I did with this book that interacted with my real life scared me a lot. And I learned that that fear was a little bit paranoid. That people were ready to have those conversations. So it was really… I thought I was growing up as I was writing it, in some ways.
It’s interesting, too, though, because it’s such a personal, as you say, trespassing adventure wandering around through your own past. It’s quite a personal thing. And then you’re going to put it in a book form and put it out there for people to read. Did you have any anxiety around that at all? In the sense of, here I am in written form. How do you like me so far? Did you have any anxiety about that?
I think there’s some anxiety there. I think as I was talking about revising a book, this is a book where I sort of assumed with a lot of things that are in the book now I would take out. I thought it was necessary to engage with this work, with people in my life, and to engage with these interruptions of my writing as a way to get deeper into the book. But I sort of assumed they would be taken out. And when I realised that maybe it would be interesting this time to leave them in, it was kind of late.
I think there’s… I guess I have a lot of friends who are memoir writers. And sometimes they’ve written things that are about their families that are personal and then they publish them. And for a long time, I just couldn’t really understand that impulse. I had a real problem with that. I felt like telling a story that involves someone else is such an exposure. And I think I was… I don’t know why I made this turn, but in writing this book I started feeling like, who cares? We’re all people. We all have our experience of other people. And we can express that however we can.
And so I think it’s uncomfortable in some ways. But I think discomfort is the way that we grow. So I sort of welcomed it. I think there are other questions though that I just don’t even know how to answer. What is it to write about people and your experience of them and to recount experiences you’ve had with them? I think that is okay. But it can be thorny. But then to take actual people and to make them do things and say things that they never said in their lives and have them interact with people who are largely fictional in a book that you write, even if you call it a novel, I think there’s something profoundly wrong with that. And that’s exactly what I’ve done. And I just find it so… I don’t know. I kind of can’t believe that I did that. But I’m glad that I did it. I kind of liked the feeling of it. So far, no one has gotten really angry or litigious with me.
Well, that’s a good start.
Mostly it has been people who feel like they should be in the book and they’re not in the book enough, that they feel like they were really important to me but it’s not evident in the book. And so I have to say to them, you are important to me! But whenever I had a question that’s serving a person’s importance in my life, or serving the actual recollection of what happened, versus trying to tell the best story I could, I always went with the story.
And so, I am a fiction writer. And I did feel like calling it a novel from the outset creates a fair amount of latitude.
Yep. Well, it is absolutely beautifully written. Which didn’t surprise me in the slightest.
The thing I find really interesting about your writing is it’s kind of sparse and rich at the same time. And I wonder how long it takes you to craft sentences to get… Do they just come out like that? Or is it something that you go back over and over and are like, I don’t need that, I don’t need that, I don’t need that.
I wish you could see what it looks like in my office now. I’m on the fourth or fifth draft of this book and I just looked at these four pages and there was about one sentence that was left.
Everything else was crossed out. And it can take a long time. I think a really hard to understand idea in writing and overused one is voice. And what a voice is. And I think that most authors have a natural voice they fall into. But most books have a different voice. And trying to figure that out takes a long time.
So it’s sort of, for me, revision, a lot is just trying to figure out what belongs. And a lot of what belongs is dictated by who’s telling the story. And even if it’s not a first person narrator, there’s an intelligence telling the story that isn’t me, exactly. And figuring out the logic of that is part of it.
But on the sentence level, so much of it has to do with context. The sentences that are around it. I think I’ve always had this desire for the language to disappear. I used to get a lot of rejection letters that said, you write beautifully. It’s too bad the story doesn’t work. And I felt like that was such a backhanded compliment. Because when you’re wearing a really bright red shirt or something, a pink shirt, and everywhere you go people say, that’s a beautiful shirt, or nice shirt. They don’t really know what to say. So language that is really trying too hard or being really beautiful often has that effect on a reader or on a critic. It’s showing off, but it has to be in the service of whatever you’re doing.
And so I think there are… Different books I have written have different sentences. Say, with My Abandonment, I looked back over the books I had written before. And I knew that that voice, which was the voice of a young girl, had to be really different than my voice. And I had to watch out for my tendencies. And I realised early on that the semicolon – you have semicolons in Australia, correct?
Yeah, we do. Correct.
I know you have them. I didn’t know what you call them. I realised that was my weakness. I used it all the time. And so I decided in that book I would just not use them at all. And I didn’t recognise… I couldn’t have guessed what a big difference that made in terms of how momentum gathered, how logic worked, how thinking worked in that book was different just because of that syntactical decision.
And with a book like The Night Swimmers, it’s sort of closer to my own voice, I think. Closer to the way that I am as the book is closer to my day to day life. And I think one lesson I learned in the book was that I was taking… This ex-girlfriend of mine sent me all of the letters that I wrote to her over about eight years. And those letters were so much better than anything that I wrote during that time in terms of fiction. And I think the reason was was that I didn’t think anyone else was going to read them except for her. I was trying to do a very specific thing and I was trying to be honest and I was trying to describe things in my life in a compelling way to her. But I wasn’t too… I wasn’t looking too wide. I wasn’t seeing myself as outside of the story I was telling. It was part of my life. And I think that that sort of directness and that sort of intimacy is something that a language should have within a story. And that writing a letter, when you’re just trying to communicate with one person, is an aspirational way to think about writing fiction for me at this point.
Well, I have to say, it has been a fascinating conversation with you today Mr Rock. And I’m going to end it with our usual infamous three top tips for aspiring writers. So if you could tell us all what we need to know, that would be great.
Okay. I wish that I had listened to them all so I would know what people say. So I don’t want to say the same things that everyone says.
I would start with reading. I think reading a lot and reading a lot of different things. I think everyone who wants to be a writer, who wants to write, is looking all the time for guideposts. And I think we tend to attach ourselves to writers and feel like that’s the kind of writer I want to be. And I teach so many students now who have such a narrow vision of what they like and what they don’t like. And I think as you get older and as you write more, you recognise that you can learn so much from writers who are unlike the kind of writing that you want to do.
I learned so much from reading Alice Munro, and I don’t have a desire to write the kind of thing that she does. So I’d say just reading and reading widely and enjoying it. It reminds you why it is that you’re interested in telling stories.
The second thing I would say is to listen hard to the kind of critiques that you get on your writing. If people keep telling you the same thing over and over again, to be careful about changing that thing. I think often the things that people pick on in conversations about writing are the things that are specific to you. And they’re the things that you haven’t fixed yet.
When I say you haven’t fixed them yet, you haven’t figured out how to demonstrate to people that what you’re doing is not a mistake. That what you’re doing is what you do. So honing things… Rather than trying to fit in, or rather than trying to satisfy people, stick to your guns. I’m always so happy when I’m critical with someone, and I think they’re so wrong and they ignore me. I think being stubborn is really crucial. But also taking time with the things you struggle with and trying not to look for answers. There are so many questions. Trying to see in the things that you write the way forward into the next thing. That’s a lot of advice for my second point. I recognise that.
It was good though. I’m with you. Number three.
Number three. I think I would go back to what I was just saying. There’s an essay by Julio Cortázar called On the Environs of a Short Story [sic – correct title is On the Short Story and Its Environs]. And in the opening he quotes Horacio Quiroga. And these names are unimportant. Really, they’re great writers. He says, you should tell the story as if it is of interest only to the small circle of its characters. There’s no other way to put life into the story.
And I think there’s a tendency when we write, especially now when we’re so used to seeking likes or being online and doing different things, there’s a tendency to be thinking ahead of an audience. And to think of yourself as an author, a writer outside of your story, when the best way to make your world believable is to try to shut that out as much as you can and try to tell the story from inside the story.
So that’s something I’m always struggling with and I struggle with in this book too. What was the inside and what was the outside? Were they the same thing? But for me, I think just living inside of another world and believing in it, conveying that world as truly as possible, that’s the goal.
And that is fantastic advice. Thank you so much for your time today, Peter. I really, really appreciate it. The Night Swimmers is available obviously in the US. We have a lot of US listeners so go out and get yourselves a copy. It is also available in Australia through Booktopia, because I have bought myself a copy. So Australians, have a go. And best of luck with the current project as well.
Oh, thank you so much.