Excerpted from Swim to Me by Betsy Carter. Copyright © 2008 by Betsy Carter. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Discovery, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Q&A with author Betsy Carter on her new book, Swim to Me
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about having a book published?
I write alone either in my living room or at the library. Sometimes I play music and always, when I write at home, I talk to Lucy, my dog. I find it remarkable that what happens in those hours gets turned into books that people actually read.
Which came first: the characters, or the storyline?
My characters always come first. I do tons of research before I begin a book so I feel comfortable in the time and place in which I’m writing. I let my characters act out and say whatever comes to mind. Even though I delete a lot at the end of the day, often a surprising twist presents itself and carries the story to a place I hadn’t anticipated. My advice is to allow yourself the opposite of writer’s block: even if you think you have nothing to say, just write to write–let your characters talk, describe a detail, play two characters against one another. It could surprise you. If not, erase it.
Is there something in your Bantam Discovery Novel that you are particularly proud, or happy, about?
Most of the characters in Swim to Me, start out in tough situations. They are broke, unhappy and in some cases, desperate. By the end, each has found his or her redemption–no matter how bizarre or unexpected.
Can you tell us about the book you are working on now?
It’s an historical novel called The Puzzle King, that’s based on a small nugget of family mythology. The novel takes place between 1880 and 1936 and goes back and forth between New York and a small town and Germany. The events lead up to World War 11 and the main character is based on a great uncle of mine who earned his fortune during the depression by figuring out how to make inexpensive jigsaw puzzles out of paper and cardboard instead of wood. He gave these away as premiums with things like toothpaste and soap, and eventually put out a puzzle a week for $.05. That’s how he became known as America’s Puzzle King.
When you finish writing your answers to this Q&A, what will you do next?
Go for a swim.
Some notes on Swim to Me by Betsy Carter
You know that moment when a song or a forgotten scrap of paper turns up out of nowhere and suddenly transports you to another time and place so vivid you can feel the air on your skin and remember exactly what shoes you were wearing?
That’s what happened to me on the morning of August 12, 2003. I’d picked up The New York Times, and on the front page, bottom left, was the headline: “Sad Days for Mermaids of the Sequined Sort,” and a slightly out of focus photograph of three mermaids underwater at Weeki Wachee Springs. In the instant that it took me to read that headline, I went back more than 30-years to my own version of Weeki Wachee. My family had taken its first, and only vacation: a car trip from Miami up to Winter Haven, the site of the famous water ski show at Cypress Gardens. I remembered the winding brick paths lined with giant cypress trees and how the electric-pink azaleas lit up the pathways. But mostly I remembered the show: the water skiers in dazzling tiaras and long gloves who stood on one another’s shoulders to form a human pyramid and did crazy ramp jumps and backward slaloms. As someone who was always more comfortable in the water than on land, I felt I had found my calling. “That’s what I’m going to do,” I announced to my family after the show.
This was the beginning of my adolescence. I hated my school, my hair, my house, and mostly my father. He was sarcastic and had a blistering temper. I had a big mouth and knew exactly how to provoke him. The air was uneasy between us. Becoming a water-skier suited all my fantasies of escaping who I was, where I lived, and the people to whom I was related. I spent the next four years learning how to cut the wake, drop a ski, and spin around on a disk. At the camp I went to, I even earned the trophy for best water-skier.
I never did make it to Cypress Gardens, but as long as the park was there, there was always the possibility that I could. When I read that piece in the Times, I went back to that adolescent fantasy. What if things had worked out differently, I wondered. What if, by some miracle, I’d been able to leave home and actually become a water skier? What if I made it really big? What if? What if?
That’s when I started to write, Swim to Me.
Instead of Cypress Gardens, I decided to place my story in Weeki Wachee Springs. The book begins when Delores Walker is thirteen and she and her family take the only vacation they’ve ever had. They drive from their home in the Bronx to see the famous live mermaid show in Florida. Delores is so moved by the spectacle that she swears some day, somehow, she will become a mermaid. Three years later, after her parents’ marriage ends convulsively and her father disappears, Delores is forced to help her mother earn money to support her and her baby brother. She auditions to be a mermaid at Weeki Wachee. Miracle of miracles, she gets the job, and that is where the journey begins.
The book takes place in the early 1970’s, while the country is still reverberating from the social and cultural upheavals of the sixties. Suddenly everything seems possible, and each of the characters seeks out the “what ifs” of their own lives. Delores Walker, unhappy schoolgirl from the Bronx, meet Delores Taurus, Florida’s favorite mermaid.
Before I started, Swim to Me I spent some time in Weeki Wachee. There are live mermaids there, just as there were sixty years ago when the park first opened, though the amphitheater in which they perform smells a little musty now. The day I went to the show, parents with little kids filled the wooden benches in front of the theater. I looked for a family that might have been mine, but just then the lights were dimmed.
The music came up and as the curtain rose, two mermaids swam by, honest-to-God mermaids with their hair floating like clouds around their heads and their tails flapping in time to the current. The sun shown down on the water in such a way as to make the bubbles they breathed look like diamonds. The mermaids came right up to the acrylic window that separates the Springs from the amphitheater, and were so close you could almost touch them. The little girl behind me gasped and jumped onto her father’s lap to get a closer look. My heart was pounding the way it did the first time I saw the water-skiers in Cypress Gardens. Time peeled away, and for the next twenty minutes, I was 11 again. There was mystery and magic and the dizzying possibility that all of it was real.
Had things gone in another direction, maybe I would have become Florida’s most beloved mermaid. But as they went, I spent my own 1970’s working as a reporter for Newsweek. My parents are gone now, and most of the grudges that I held so dear as an adolescent have faded. But I still swim nearly every day and on good days, when the sun hits the water at a particular angle and there’s no one around except for me and my daydreams, I get an inkling of what it might have been like had I turned out to be Delores Taurus.
This essay, called “A Mermaid’s Life,” was originally published in the literary magazine, The Algonkian, © 2007 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
1. What did the novel’s opening scene mean to Delores? How did the reality of her grown-up world compare to the memory of that trip?
2. How did the novel’s two distinct settings—New York versus Florida—reflect two distinct parts of Delores’s identity? What did she discover about finding a true home, and her true self?
3. What were your first impressions of the Walkers’ marriage? What was at the heart of their quarrels? Despite the hardships it caused, did Roy’s departure strengthen his family?
4. What makes the early 1970s an ideal time period for this storyline? How did the details in Swim to Me match your memories or impressions of this era? How did the novel’s “soundtrack” of song references affect your reading?
5. How did Gail’s early life influence her approach to adulthood and mothering? What did Avalon teach her about being a confident woman?
6. Is Thelma a good surrogate mother to the girls she supervises? Is her personal legacy a story of shame or triumph, or both?
7. Discuss the varied personalities of the girls of Weeki Wachee. Who are the most powerful members of Thelma’s circle? What do all of them, including Delores, have in common?
8. How does Delores respond to attention from men? Is her role in the weather segment on television very different from the roles she performs at Weeki Wachee? What is the difference between a woman whose sex appeal is exploited and a woman whose beauty is admired?
9. What does Roy discover about himself after he is reunited with Delores? How are they transformed by their jobs in Florida?
10. Delores was worried that Thelma and the others would discover that she had lied about aspects of her family. What did Delores’s image of her family, both the fantasy and the reality, say about her hopes and fears? In what ways have you reinvented yourself in your lifetime?
11. Swim to Me is populated by many characters who are pursuing their dreams, ranging from Delores’s and Gail’s career pursuits to Dave Hanratty’s vision of an Aqua Zoo. What is the boldest goal you have ever envisioned? How far did you pursue it?
12. How does the novel’s title echo the dilemmas of trust and learning faced by the characters? What makes the world of water—by turns alluring, tranquil, and perilous—a good metaphor for the process of becoming an adult?
13. What does the future hold for Delores and Westie? What do you predict for their family?
14. How do this novel’s themes of survival and determination, enhanced by a whimsical spirit, also shape Betsy Carter’s debut novel, The Orange Blossom Special?