A Conversation with Marisa Reichardt, author of UNDERWATER
Intro stolen from another post I wrote: I’ve gotten to know and really respect Marisa Reichardt in the last couple of months. We share a similar writing style and approach to writing. Her novel, which you can find HERE, deals with a school shooting, specifically the after effects to one witness who hasn’t left her house since the tragedy. It’s an honest, thought-provoking, and funny novel that I’m certain will find a strong audience. Below is a conversation I had with with Marisa a few weeks ago once I finished the novel.
Kurt: Okay, so it’s probably best to let your readers know something about you, so give us the lowdown in 50 words, and 50 words only.
Marisa: I’m SoCal born and raised. I help students write college application essays. I prefer my coffee iced. I’m deathly afraid of snakes. And most importantly, I’ve always wanted to be a professional writer and now I am lucky enough to be one. Look! Less than fifty words!
Kurt: Errr…awkward…but the directions say “50 words only.”
Marisa: Ha! Already messed up question number one. Awesome.
[7 days later.]
Kurt: Out of the kindness of my heart, I will offer you a second chance, but only because I enjoyed UNDERWATER so damn much.
Your novel deals with the fallout of a school shooting, but focuses on its impact on one person, Morgan, who’s become agoraphobic after the incident. How did the novel come about in your mind — did it begin as a “I want to write about a school shooting” or did it start with Morgan and her debilitating condition?
Marisa: So. Okay. For sure my idea started with Morgan’s debilitating condition and then spun out from there. I knew I wanted to write about a teen with a high level of anxiety and I needed to figure out the “who what why” of it all.
Another jumping off point was that I was working on edits for a novel I’d written (it shall remain nameless and in the drawer, or perhaps the shredder). I was really hunkered down for a couple of months, working long stretches with no noise and my curtains closed to try to block out all distraction, and that’s where the idea started formulating about a character that doesn’t leave their house.
Put the two together, figure out what would’ve been the impetus for that—a school shooting—and Underwaterstarted taking shape pretty quickly.
Kurt: School shootings are such a hot button issue. Was there any reluctance on your part of using that as the impetus for her self-imposed exile?
Marisa: It terrified me. I didn’t want it to be seen as a plot device. But I also knew the idea came from a very real and personal and honest place for me.
Kurt: Well, from my point of view, I certainly didn’t see it as a plot device, and I think it’s handled perfectly. It really it just the jumping off point for the novel, and no one would ever describe the novel as a school shooting novel, just like no one in their right mind would ever describe To Kill a Mockingbird as a novel about a kid breaking his arm. Your novel has a lot of what I would call “difficult” scenes that I know will affect the reader; they certainly did me. How do you approach writing scenes like this? Does it affect you and your mood, or are you good at compartmentalizing your writing from your life?
Marisa: Okay. I’m thinking about someone pitching To Kill a Mockingbird as a book about a kid breaking his arm now and wondering how that would go…
When it comes to my writing, I try to compartmentalize but it doesn’t always work. I will admit the headspace it took to write Underwater was rough at times but I think it’s a better book because I allowed myself to feel so deeply while I was writing it. But when I found myself feeling too hard, I’d take a break. Even if I had to take a couple weeks off, I did it. And while I’m mostly a pantser, I knew when those difficult scenes were coming so I’d prepare myself by always having a plan for something fun, like a reward, afterward. Lunch with a friend or a movie or something. A trip to the Bahamas. You know, the usual. (I’ve actually never been to the Bahamas).
Kurt: Wait, you’re a pantser?! As a complete and total outliner, I have to ask–How in the world do you survive without an outline?! Don’t you ever get stuck?! Don’t you ever have to backtrack?! What is wrong with you?
Marisa: Yes. And yes. And I must have many things wrong with me to write this way. But let me say I’m a pantser in that I don’t outline my books on paper. But I do know, in my head, a beginning, middle, and end. I definitely knew specific scenes and movement in Underwater and then wrote toward them.
Kurt: My thought of pantsers is you’re getting in a car and just seeing where the road takes you instead of vice versa. So if you had specific scenes in mind as you started, I’m wondering if the book is what you initially thought it would be when you began? Any drastic changes you ended up making along the way?
Marisa: I love that car analogy. That is pretty accurate. While I did “travel” that way while writing Underwater,the story really didn’t take any drastic detours. But I think that’s because the scenes I had in mind were very specific plot points. I had probably five of them and all but one made it through the editorial process with my FSG editor to make it into the final draft of the book.
Kurt: What, if anything, are you hoping the reader takes away from your book? Were you writing with any messages in mind?
Marisa: Of course I hope readers will take away that they read a book they enjoyed for one reason or another. Or many reasons. Who knows? But writing a book with purposeful messages in mind sounds vaguely like a cautionary tale, which I wouldn’t want to do. That being said, I do think Underwater is family-positive and therapy-positive and human-positive so I’d be happy if readers took those things away from the book.
Kurt: It’s definitely therapy-positive, which I think is a good message for kids. There’s also a good deal of empathy in the novel, as well, which we all definitely need more of.
One of the things I really liked about the novel was your writing style, probably because I found it similar to mine in a lot of ways, but mostly because I’d call it “clean.” I think a lot of novels these days are overwritten, cluttered with a lot of needless internal dialogue or even–ack!–description. When you sat down to write, did you have a particular way you wanted the book to read? Or, and maybe this is the bigger question, how did you develop your own personal style?
Marisa: Thanks for saying that about empathy. I did try to put myself in everyone’s shoes so to speak.
And oh, man. Writing style. I tend to be a sparse writer, which is probably why my first drafts come in waaaay under word count. And then I go back and fill in. And I’m a fan of one-word sentences so that leads to not a lot of words too. I think, in my mind, much of the style of Underwater, particularly in the beginning, lent itself to Morgan’s anxiety. There was sort of a staccato rhythm, a quickness, a pop pop to it, that in my mind, reflected Morgan’s panic, if that makes sense.
As far as developing my writing style, I majored in creative writing as an undergrad and I went through a grad school writing program so I think all of that helped me to develop my voice. And while I’ve always written sparsely and I’ve always loved poetry in language, Underwater was definitely the book where I kind of let it all fly.
Kurt: Was this your first book, or are there trunk novels? I ask because I’m curious to know if all of your books are written this way? I actually emailed my agent to ask if I was allowed to write my next book in a similar, sparse style. (Yeah, I ask dumb questions sometimes and feel like a dope immediately after sending.)
Marisa: I love that. I’m sure her response didn’t make you feel dumb. Right?
I have two books in the trunk. The style is there for sure. You could probably find elements of that style in things I wrote as far back as high school. I think it’s constantly been developing and Underwater was the place where it finally all clicked. But trust me, I understand why the other two books are in the trunk.
Kurt: Which begs the obvious question–Looking at them now that you’ve sold a novel, what was wrong with those novels that made them not publishable? What did you learn from those novels that helped make UNDERWATER “the one”?
Marisa: Oh, how long do you have? Plot and plot movement. Tension. Character development. Originality. All of it. I worked hard to do them better from Book One to Book Two and then from Book Two to Underwater. And here we are.
Kurt: Well, I have high hopes for Underwater. Honestly, of all of the 2016 debuts I’ve read, it’s easily one of my favorites. I wish you nothing but the best, and hope it finds a broad audience.
Marisa: Kurt! You are the nicest. Thank you. Really. I’m equally excited about Don’t Get Caught.The cover is definitely among one of the most intriguing I’ve seen.
Kurt: Now, for the lightning round. 5 questions, 5 quick answers. Think of it as a chance for your readers to learn things about you they otherwise wouldn’t. Explain your answers, or don’t. It’s up to you. Here we go:
Time warp! You’re 17 again, and find yourself living in an apartment suffering from agoraphobia. What hunky actor from when your high school years are you hoping moves in next door?
Marisa: River Phoenix
Kurt: Great news! A reclusive billionaire has chosen you as her heir, but only if you can beat her in a board game of your choosing. What game are you picking and why?
Marisa: Trivial Pursuit because even if I lose, I still get to play my favorite board game.
Kurt: Terrible news! Donald Trump has been elected Eternal President, and his first act is to bring back the Miss Universe Pageant. His second act is to name you California’s representative. The whole world’s watching…what’s your plan for the talent portion of the evening?
Marisa: Write a synopsis for a novel. This will probably leave only one contestant standing.
Kurt: TV Transmogrifier! A new technology will zap you into any TV show of your choosing. What world are you zapping into?
Marisa: My So-Called Life. No contest.
Kurt: Dinner party! Besides friends and family, you can invite one rocker, writer, actor/actress, and, one miscellaneous person, all living, of course. Who are you inviting?
Marisa: Rocker, Dave Alvin; writer: Curtis Sittenfeld; Actor: John Cusack; Actress: Amy Schumer; Miscellaneous Person: Shannon M. Parker because I can’t do anything without her.
Kurt: Great answers! And now, I’ll give you the final word.