With summer’s heat now fully upon us, it’s fitting that our July web-exclusive story, by Randi Ewing, is titled “The Swimmers.” But this is not your typical summertime tale of sunbathing and beaches. No, “The Swimmers” tackles something more magical even than that. Rendered in language that’s both intimate and vivid, “The Swimmers” is a story about our relationship with the landscapes around us, the secrets they hold within, and the larger-than-life wonders of the natural world. More than anything, “The Swimmers” is a mystery, one that reveals itself in a way that’s every bit as pleasing as a dip in the icy blue ocean.
Enjoy the story on the ASF website, and read our interview with Randi, below.
1. Tell us about the genesis of “The Swimmers.” Where did the idea for the story come from?
A writer friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook of a hand sculpture in the Chilean desert. (Don’t all things come from Facebook these days?) I sent her a picture of the Uruguayan hand. There are actually several of these hand sculptures in South America. I’m not sure why, but the Uruguayan one has always been my favorite. It is right on the beach, and with the sea behind it, it gives the eerie impression that the hand is going down, not coming up. My friend sent back a message saying that I should write a story about that hand, and another friend and I agreed to each write a giant hand story by a certain date. This is mine. I suppose because of the original image of the hand being on the beach, I always associated it with water, but it actually took several starts to realize that the bodies were swimming.
2. In a sense this is a story about the human reaction to a strange geologic event. At the same time, by the end of the story, I found myself quite drawn to the Swimmers themselves, who (though perhaps once living) are inanimate. It’s an interesting dynamic you’ve created, in which humans and the natural world both demand our attention and compassion. Can you talk a little bit about how you accomplished this and/or what you were trying to achieve?
From the beginning, I was interested in the tension between the size of the Swimmers and the size of everyone else, particularly in how the Swimmers’ enormity changed the way people felt about themselves. I recently found an early draft of the story that deals much more with the general human reaction to that event—media coverage, religious fanatics, society-wide behavior changes. It’s more comic, but also much more sarcastic and less personal. By the end of that draft, a narrator had emerged with her own questions, and the story became her story and her responses to the Swimmers over time. The Swimmers are enormous, but what surfaces of them are single, individual body parts. I tried to describe the bodies as intimately as I could, because I wanted them to be more than just their unassembled parts. Even though they lack individual personalities, I wanted them to suggest certain ordinary movements like grabbing something or stretching or breathing. It was important to me to have the narrator see something of herself in the Swimmers and, ultimately, understand something about them, and herself, that she didn’t before. I was very interested in the idea that the natural world in the form of the Swimmers would give the narrator the sense of awe that comes with realizing that there are things bigger than us, even if those things are simply the events of our lives.
3. Creating landscapes that are as compelling as any human characters, as you’ve done in “The Swimmers,” is one of the hallmarks of great travel or place-focused writing, it seems to me. Who are some of your favorite authors who write about place? What fictional landscapes have you found inspiring as a writer?
I’m in Argentina right now and in addition to reading Borges, I’ve been reading a couple Argentine fiction writers who have been able to capture two versions of Buenos Aires—the actual city and one where unusual, fantastic things happen. To do this as a writer, I think you have to not only inhabit a place, but let a place inhabit you. Then the place becomes as subjective as any person and just as pliable. For me, place can mean a city or a house or a kitchen table. It’s not just the place itself I’m interested in, but the possibilities of that place, what mystery or secret lies at its heart. I love stories that mine places not just for physical beauty or location, but also for their hidden potential to show the reader something marvelous or fantastic. I like writers who don’t see a place or the history of that place as static. I’m thinking of people like Lewis Nordan, who used the history of the South to find new ways to write about the South, especially in Wolf Whistle. And Rick Bass, whose descriptions of the natural world allow for such strange and interesting turns.
4. “The Swimmers” has us traveling all over the world—Uruguay, Russia, Kentucky, Australia. Have you visited any of the places named in the story? How is it different to write about places you’ve been versus those you’ve never seen?
When I’m not traveling or visiting family, I live in Kentucky. The scene in the story with the woodworker is based on a friend’s home in western Kentucky, and his house is the closest I’ve been to any of the places in the story. I have been to Uruguay on a day trip from Buenos Aires, but I’ve never seen the hand sculpture in Punta del Este. For me, though, this whole story takes place in the narrator’s kitchen on the day that she finally sees the Russian Swimmer. So in that sense, it was easy to describe these places I’ve never been to, because I was thinking of them as images on TV, as places that are known and unknown at the same time. I felt comfortable writing about them in that way, because the place from which the character was viewing them was very familiar to me. It also didn’t hurt that most of the landscapes in this story are of the human body. But in general, I think the most important aspect for me is to understand not just the layout or boundaries of a place, but to know the feel of it, even if that knowledge is individual and would likely vary from person to person. It’s that feeling a place gives me that guides my descriptions.
5. This is that wonderful sort of story that holds out on the reader, that cracks open only at the very end. Can you talk a little bit about the pleasures and/or challenges of writing a piece with this particular structure?
This is my favorite type of story. I like a story that builds toward something and reveals something. I like what it does to me as a reader and as a writer, because I’m forced to adapt along with the story and recognize that what I thought was going on maybe wasn’t. The challenge of writing a story where something is withheld is making sure you hold the right thing back and for the right reasons. It’s tempting to want to keep too much from the reader, to hide some piece of information for hiding’s sake, not in the service of the story.
6. What are you working on now? What’s up next for you?
I am just finishing up a year in South America, most recently Argentina, and I’m headed back to Kentucky this month. This is my fifth visit to Argentina and it has provided plenty of fodder, both for stories and, it seems, a novel. I’ll be tackling those as well as the job market as soon as I get home.