canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Marianne Apostolides

Marianne Apostolides is a writer and critic whose novel, Swim (BookThug, 2009), explores the eroticism of language and family. 

Her first book was published by W.W. Norton and translated into Spanish and Swedish. 

Her current writing explores the ‘contact zone’ between genres — poetry vs. prose, fiction vs. non-fiction, creative vs. critical; it has appeared in The Walrus, Room, and Magazine, among other publications. 

She lives in Toronto with her two children.

Interview by Alex Boyd, 2009


AB: It was always pounded into my head in school that water means rebirth, but your central character here appears to be immersed in her own experience as she swims, which is interesting. Is that fair to say, and how did you hit on the premise for the book?

The ‘meaning’ of the water — its metaphor — changed as the book progressed. That meaning wasn’t imposed from the outset; I think the book would’ve failed if I’d entered with that kind of intent. Instead, I was merely attempting to follow a woman’s thoughts as she swims; as I did so, the rhythm of the language followed naturally. And, for a long time, that’s all I really had: this insistent rhythm, this long-arced cadence. I didn’t have a plot or a series of scenes; I didn’t know how I was going to turn this situation into a narrative.

But as I kept writing, the water — as a substance and as a metaphor — began to assert itself. I could play with the intensely physical ‘phenomenology’ of the body as it swims: the way the medium changes aural and visual perception, the tangible sense of the body as it breathes and moves. But I could also allow the water to become a linguistic medium: the swimming as the writing; the water as the language of this novel. By the time I finished the book, I viewed the narrative voice not as Kat herself; instead, the voice was language as moved through by Kat.

This is also why the writing radically changes during the ‘interludes’: when Kat stops swimming, the narrative medium of the book — the water as moved through by her — ceases. And so we get very straight-forward prose.

As for the premise of the book… well, it began two years ago, when I was writing a bunch of short prose. I needed to build my writing chops at that point, especially since my writing was undergoing a huge transformation. Anyway, I’d written two pieces in which the language was very tight, in-knitted almost. I was worried that I’d get stuck inside that narrative voice; I wanted to break from that and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure that I could…. I made the attempt after reading Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. These guys are irreverent and brilliant and exceedingly joyous. I craved that joy; I wanted that joy through ideas and language, the process of writing.

The story became a novel three months later, during the summer when I was swimming a lot. Every time I got in the water, I’d return to these characters. By then, I felt strong enough to take on a book-length narrative.

I wonder if you feel a duality in most things – there’s an interesting use of punctuation throughout the book that appears almost hesitant yet finally progressive, with more than one word choice separated by dashes.

Well, Kat certainly feels a duality! As she swims, she’s contemplating all these ideas — about desire, metaphor, motherhood, myth. And as she contemplates, each idea moves forward: it becomes more precise or assumes another facet, even as she swims. And so the odd punctuation serves several purposes: to depict the movement of her thoughts — a movement that duplicates the movement of her body as she swims; to sustain the rhythm of the narrative (the M-dashes were particularly helpful here); and to pull the logic of syntax into its extreme, to the point where it ruptures

That’s what I love: that constraint into release; that moment when logic ceases to function according to its own laws, and it becomes its own inversion.

There’s also a playful scattering of word definitions throughout the book, is that meant to be connected to a character attempting to define anything, or just a device you wanted to include?

As I tried to examine what, exactly, Kat was thinking, I needed to look deeper inside certain words; I needed to uncover their origins, understand what yields their meaning. Through clarity in language came clarity of thought.

So, for example, in an early draft, I’d written that the husband was ‘the force of absence.’ And a friend, who gave me feedback, wrote, ‘That’s a pretty big claim: he is the entire force of absence in the whole world? What do you mean?’ And I thought: yeah, what the hell do I mean?!? So I looked it up. And the word ‘absence’ comes from esse (to be) plus ab (away): to be away. And that led me deeper into the idea: in their marriage — their relationship — who is away. And from what….

Also, there are certainly precedents for this kind of etymological examination in fiction, Kundera being the most well-known practitioner. But philosophers do that all the time. So I can’t claim any originality here!!

This is an extremely concise novel, are you drawn to poetry and using only the most essential forms?

Yes, poetry has been a huge influence on me. Poetry and philosophy: both grapple with language in a beautiful, futile attempt to create meaning.

With Swim, specifically, the idea of constraint was essential. The chosen constraints weren’t arbitrary; they came naturally from Kat herself, since she struggles between abstraction and sensuality — between ‘meaning’ and ‘being’ (if you want to get into psychoanalytic theory). It made sense that Kat would place constraints upon herself; therefore it made sense that the narrative would have constraints placed upon it.

You’ll notice that each lap is approximately 450 words, and that the laps are indicated in the text by a bracketed number; in addition, Kat decides to swim 39 laps, since she’s 39 years old. That gives her the structure required to make her decision (i.e., whether she’s going to leave her husband). And every 13 laps (one-third of 39), she takes a break; here is where the writing changes, as I mentioned earlier.

So yes: poetry gave me a model for those kinds of constraints. And the character made them feel honest.

Have any writers been a particular influence on you, and what can we expect next from you?

Oh gosh. So many writers! Margaret Christakos’ poetry was a revelation, as was Lyn Hejinian’s (in a different way). Cees Nooteboom and WG Sebald have given me unending sorrow and joy with their prose. Mostly what I’m reading right now, though, is philosophy: Levinas, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Baudrillard. And Plato, especially his early Socratic dialogues. (I gotta have some Greeks in there….!)

What’s next? Well, I just submitted a collection of creative non-fiction called Voluptuous Pleasure. The title comes from Roland Barthes, who wrote, "It is the misfortune (but also perhaps the voluptuous pleasure) of language not to be able to authenticate itself…. language is, by nature, fictional."

So I’ve writing a book of non-fiction whose title states that non-fiction doesn’t exist….

Also, I’m gearing up to begin a new novel. Greece will be in there, as will belly-dancing. But that’s all I’m gonna say for now….

Alex Boyd interviewed Marianne Apostolides by email in February, 2009.




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