MS: Do you think this book had to take place in Florida? Is there a particular understanding of Florida in America, 2014, that makes it useful for what you’re doing here? Is Florida still a place of leisure and escape, like it was throughout the 20th century, or has it become something wild and untamed and adventurous, something we’re questing for, like it was for the conquistadors all those centuries ago?
DP: I went back and forth on this—I nearly set it in Oak Island, North Carolina, another beach I know well—but to half-answer your question, it had to take place in a beach town. I grant you that Florida seems to occupy a certain place in the American psyche, but I also think that there’s something common at least to beach towns of the southeast, or beach towns of the southern American Atlantic—something plasticized, something that’s a little inebriated, something that’s chasing its own tail—
MS: But why Florida, specifically?
DP: Because my family’s vacationed in Crescent Beach for 30+ years, and I know the lay of the land.
MS: And why beach towns?
DP: Because they show us who we are in a kind of funhoused way, and because they carry on them several different kinds of desperation, all useful for the novelist. Plus the landscape’s good. And the sandwich shops, and the bars. There is also the notion of the ocean itself, of seeing the horizon, the curve of the earth, of feeling, standing there on the beach, that you could just hop a boat and sail away forever. That idea turned out to be pretty fertile ground. Or water.
MS: There are parts of this novel that are just zany and silly and over-the-top, but it never feels “funny” in a laugh-out-loud kind of way to me. The work is very serious—not austere, not without humor, but about something serious, and presented in a serious way. Mid’s silliness and wacky schemes somehow reflect and intensify his sadness, while Walter’s reactions to them help him to overcome, or at least begin to come through, his melancholy. How would you explain the connection between the humorous and the tragic, something as old as literature itself, and what you were trying to do with that connection in this novel?
DP: That’s exactly what I’m chasing—the idea that humor can deepen and complicate sadness and unease, and that tragedy has pinned always beneath it something of the absurd. We humans—we beasts who get to be conscious, or are saddled with consciousness—we must have invented humor as a way to deal with the inherent melancholy of knowing, at least in part, who we are. Plus injury is often hilarious—right up until the point where it’s not, or where point of view shifts, or where something gets a little too undone. And here’s a less academic answer: I view the world through exactly this lens, which is to say, I think the world is often deeply painful and thrillingly funny at the same time.
MS: With all due respect to Alice, Delton seems to me to be the most emotionally mature character in the novel. This, despite her being 15, running around with a boy way too old for her, and generally trying out all the forms of “rebellious teenager” she can. Do you think Delton is aware that she’s playing a stock character—the moody, precociously-mature-but-still-a-scared-kid spunky teenage girl—and is that a part of what makes her mature? Do you find her to be more mature than the adults in the novel?
DP: I do think she’s aware. I think she remains damaged and young, and not as wise as the performance she’s giving, but I also think she becomes the moral compass of the novel, and, like you say, the most grown-up. But yes: I think she knows she’s playing a half-faked role, and the fun of it to her is to make sure she’s winking—at her fellow characters; not at us—all the way through her time on stage. She knows the world’s broken. She knows she’s pretending to understand how.
MS: The novel is full of unstable names, of names shifting constantly. Why? What are you trying to do there?
DP: That arrived from a game my wife and I were playing about the name of our own first child—a lot of the stray details in my work are stolen from my own experience. But then the whole thing just took on a life of its own, became something the novel could play with—that’s how I know when the work is becoming live: when it’s no longer functioning the way I originally intended. Once I’m just trying to keep up at the desk, as opposed to doing the heavy lifting, then I know enough is happening to carry the idea of story. And, my god, the idea of naming someone else, of being the person who hands the kid her first true piece of identity—that freaked me the hell out, as it does Walter, and I just wanted to keep going back to that as something that could stand in for all the million things parents can never know.
MS: Do you think Walter will be a good father? Are his anxieties, his melancholy, are these things that will aid or suppress his ability to be a good father?
DP: Well, I hope so, because though I wish he wasn’t me, and in fact he’s not me, he’s got a lot of me in him. I think what he’s learning at the end of the book is this: That there isn’t any getting comfortable any more once a kid is on the way, or once they’re here. That there’s never again going to be any knowing anything for sure, except that you love her. Which one might also say about a sibling, or a marriage—Walter’s coming to grips, in this novel, with the notion that one has to find a way to build a life without ever knowing for sure which parts of it might unravel next.
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