I recently had the good fortune of reading Waiting to Surface by Emily Listfield. Waiting to Surface is the story of Sarah, a born and bred New Yorker recently separated from her husband, a sculptor struggling with artistic inertia and alcoholism. The book opens with Sarah trying to adjust to life on her own as a single mother of her 6-year-old daughter — all while holding down a high profile, high pressure job at a women’s magazine. One day she receives a phone call that changes her life in ways she could never imagine: her husband has vanished. He’s presumed to have drowned, a Florida detective tells her. Suicide? An accident? No one knows.
Sarah is left with questions but no answers.
In fact, Emily Listfield lived Sarah’s story and drew upon her experiences to write a haunting and compassionate tale of the first year after her husband’s disappearance. I don’t want to sound like a cliche, but once I started reading Waiting to Surface I couldn’t put it down.
I wrote to Emily and she was kind enough to answer my questions about what it was like to write this book and to live through such a tragedy that left her with so little closure:
Susan: Why did you decide to write the story as fiction rather than as a memoir?
Emily: I have always used fiction as a way to make sense of experience and explore my feelings. I did consider writing Waiting to Surface as a memoir, but when I tried, the novelist in me kept asserting herself. Turning what happened into fiction allowed me the bit of distance I needed to go deeper emotionally without worrying about the precise timing and accuracy of quotes. It also allowed me to condense events and create composites, particularly of the characters in the magazine world. Still, though Waiting to Surface is a novel, it portrays the emotional and psychological truth of the year following my husband’s mysterious disappearance and death.
Susan: You paint an intriguing – and somewhat frightening – picture of what it’s like to work in the women’s magazine publishing biz. Is it really as cutthroat and catty as you wrote – a la Ugly Betty and The Devil Wears Prada?! Do you think Sarah’s (your) work environment/situation hurt or helped her during such a traumatic personal time?
Emily: The magazine business, like many others, can be political and cut-throat. Because it is media-driven (and the media is obsessed with itself!) and fashionable, it is easy to scapegoat and make fun of. But I hope that along with presenting the silliness and the superficial side of it I give an indication in Waiting to Surface that there are also a lot of smart, witty, creative, loyal and wonderful women in the magazine business. There were many things I really loved about the business – and the women I met and befriended were responsible for that. (And my daughter loved the free beauty products!)
Susan: As a single mother, I could relate to Sarah’s struggle to balance the desire to be left alone to cry, with the needs of her daughter, with taking care of tasks and assuming roles that had once been her husband’s. One line in particular struck me: “Which traditions do you cling to, which do you alter, which do you let go?” How did you and your daughter find and define new traditions after your loss?
Emily: It’s a cliche but the first year is the hardest as you don’t yet have any new traditions to take the place of the older ones and the differences, the loss is so glaring. I think it’s just on a case by case basis. I do believe ritual/traditions are important especially for children. But I also think children are more adaptable than we sometimes give them credit for. While I have found the holidays difficult, for example, my daughter told me that she doesn’t miss her father as much on holidays because she’s so busy doing fun things…which is fabulous. Basically I think in all things it’s important to honor the past but you must move on – find friends in similar situations to celebrate with, create a new kind of family – and hire someone for all the husband-y things you can’t do!
Susan: Waiting to Surface is about coming to grips with uncertainty — about a husband’s disappearance and who he was; a child’s ability to cope with the loss of a parent; the promise and risks of a new relationship; and staying afloat in a crazy workplace. Having lived all of these things, what advice would you give someone facing loss and/or the unknown?
Emily: Though Waiting to Surface is a very personal story everyone has to deal with uncertainty in their lives to some degree. Every time we send a child out into the world or kiss a husband or wife goodbye we don’t know what will happen. Learning to live and be happy despite that is a theme everyone has to come to terms with. This sounds really corny but I think all we can do is treasure the moment in front of us, the person in front of us in the present. It’s scary to risk truly loving – the potential for loss is always there – but what choice do we have, really? The only other option is a closed off life – and that’s no option at all.
Susan: What’s next for you?
Emily: The trade paperback to one of my previous novels, Acts of Love, is coming out March 5th. And I’m am finishing up a new novel, Best Intentions. It is about four friends from college on the eve of their fortieth birthdays all facing the question: What happens when you assume you know what the person you love best is thinking – and you are totally wrong?
For more about Emily and her books, check out her website. I’m a new fan of Emily Listfield’s and really enjoyed this book; I hope you’ll read it, too… so, to round out my month of love and giveaways, I’ll give away a copy of Waiting to Surface to a lucky reader. Just leave your name in the comments section by Friday, February 29th and I’ll randomly pick one person!