Jaclyn Gilbert is the author of the new novel Late Air. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Tin House and Post Road Magazine, and she lives in Brooklyn.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Late Air, and for your characters Murray and Nancy?
A: One afternoon in graduate school, I was running along the Bronx River Parkway past a local golf course when I wondered what would happen if a stray golf ball hit me. All through my time as a runner at Yale I had trained for cross country on a golf course, and suddenly the threat of this accident seemed terrifyingly plausible.
I spent the next five years researching this hypothetical accident and writing draft after draft to refract its ghosts as fragments and ruptures through the point-of-view of Murray, a running coach obsessed with training his star athletes as a means of escape from a deep trauma from his past.
Developing the question of Murray’s past gave birth to his wife Nancy, someone who appeared so unlike him on the surface, but inside she was just as hyper focused and perfectionistic in her pursuits.
When I tried to imagine a plausible scenario for their falling in love, my mind circled back to my own experience studying in Paris during college, when I felt particularly torn about my dual impulses as an academic and athlete; on the one hand, I was studying French and English literature at Yale, and on the other, I was an athlete consumed by my training schedule; every morning I used to get up early to train around the Luxembourg gardens in Paris’s Latin quarter before my French classes and hours spent writing or researching in my dorm.
In this way, I guess I have always been an obsessive reader and note-taker and thus could easily relate to Nancy’s curatorial interests—that is someone who could appreciate every detail that went into the process or larger story of life and art that made a work of literature complete.
All goes to say, the narrative of Murray and Nancy’s love story was no easy task; at every turn, it seemed I had to confront conflicts inherent to their marriage.
For as focused on Murray was on the body, Nancy was on the mind, and I began to realize that while a marriage might have been born out of hopes and dreams, especially in falling in love with the idea of one’s opposite (and “better”) half, making a life with that other half was something different entirely.
The storytelling of their marriage thus became about a discourse about Murray and Nancy’s shared hopes and dreams torn apart by loss, since their journeys to grieve took opposite shapes through time.
Out of these two opposing emotional arcs, I could begin to envision a structure for the story that allowed its own kind of suspense and conflict, chapter by chapter, in constantly wondering what it might mean for two sides of the same story to one day reunite in an ending.
About three-quarters of the way through the first draft of the novel, I happened upon an image of Nancy and Murray in their 60s looking out over gray waters and watching gulls circle that void, and restlessly I started to write my way to that final image.
It required a ton of rewriting to build in all of the layers I’d need to substantiate it, but it was a vision that filled me with hope and purpose as I went along.
Q: Why did you decide to focus the book around a running coach?
A: I suppose I decided to tell the story through Murray’s voice because it was one layer removed from my own experience as a college runner; I wanted to be able to observe my experience from the outside rather than become trapped by my own biases.
Murray also provided me a point of entry into the story because I could identify with his obsessions. Being a competitive college runner, particularly at the Division I level, involves constant training, a condition to which Murray’s past as a professional athlete already naturally spoke, and one with which I was still wrestling myself nearly a decade out of college.
Daily running has always defined me, and the threat of that habit being taken away is terrifying; running has always been a means for me to cope with uncertainty, so to not have that outlet often feels unfathomable.
When I was a freshman at Yale, I experienced an inexplicable loss that turned my running from something I loved to something I needed to fulfill in a compulsive, constant way; running provided a means for me not to feel the hurt, sadness, and grief that threatened to disrupt my life in a highly competitive academic and athletic space.
Like Murray, my primary means of channeling the suppression of this pain surfaced as the need to out-perform or out-run it through grueling workouts, long training runs, and the self-obliterating moment of a cross country or track race.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: No, I didn’t know how the novel would end when I began—I think largely because Late Air first arrived to me as a short story told solely from Murray’s point of view.
But after workshopping this short story my first semester of graduate school, questions about who Murray had been before his star athlete Becky’s accident grew too pervasive to ignore.
Nancy’s character came to life the summer after the first semester of my MFA, and in documenting her own account of their past in separate chapters, I started to see that despite my initial conviction that I was writing about a singular accident set in the contemporary present, I was really writing about the story of a marriage in conversation, two traumas, past and present, competing at all times.
My process shifted into becoming about letting the simultaneity of these two traumas ripple into every scene, in the form of colors, or objects, or remembered dialogues that could create a currency between these two different time zones. The more past and present collided and converged into one, the closer I could feel myself inching toward an ending.
In the process, I also realized that grief was not only about surviving a loss too painful to bear, but it was about finding a way to accept it and self-forgive as a means of transcending that loss and making room to love again.
Nancy’s journey to grieve independently of what she’d initially needed to believe and blame Murray for as the reason their marriage couldn’t survive, eventually leads her to find running as an ironic means of recovering the truth and finding the compassion she couldn’t find room for in the beginning—running through New York City allows for a meditative experiences that opens her hear to other possibilities for her story; she can accept the ways that Murray had needed to grieve as separate from her own, and it is this empathy that lets her be there for him in the end.
Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The novel’s title came out of re-imagining the much simpler and more direct working title: The Course. But my agent wasn’t a huge fan of it; she felt the story needed something more nuanced to capture the deeper reality of Nancy and Murray’s love and marriage.
It was extremely difficult for me to land on something that could capture the complexity of their shared human condition, while not seeming too abstract or elusive to a lay reader.
To get over this “title block,” I resolved to read my poetry books and made endless lists of lines and titles I liked from them. I then tried to articulate why I liked them so much, or what I thought they might signify for the story I’d written.
Eventually, I happened upon Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Late Air,” and after reading it dozens of times and piecing together its relation to the novel, it seemed right.
The poem is about the elusive nature of love, translated through the moment of the poem as bits of radio or sound wave, and though the narrative of Bishop’s writing wasn’t exactly as mine, the atmosphere and texture filled me with the same feeling the ending of my novel did.
It helped that my agent was a huge fan of Late Air too--and so we went with it!
I should also add that working with my editor at Little A to revise the story into a finished book became about identifying opportunities for substantiating that title in the text.
At this stage, it became more than evident that air played a key role in the story: there’s the lack of air the novel opens with—the humidity and heat around Becky’s accident, and her rasping breath before the ambulance comes; there’s Murray’s own struggle for breath as he tries to block out images of Becky and move forward with his cross country season but can’t, the hauntings of his past too great to physically contain them in his body; there’s the way he and Nancy lose their first child Jean midway through the novel after she takes her last breath too late; and then there’s Nancy searching to recover her breath out of years of suffocating grief—after she loses Jean, her breath turns shallow; she smokes cigarettes and wants nothing to do with exercise, but when she first tries running with her friend in Central Park, she is surprised to find that struggling toward breath in cold winter air brings her closer to her pain and her child in a way that she realizes she can transcend if she keeps at it.
The last third of the novel is about Nancy’s and Murray’s search for air late in life—but not too late. Though they realized that breath much later than they might have hoped, there is still a chance for further recovery if they can continue to grow together, in acknowledging their shared experience of love and loss in the future.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am currently working on a second novel based on my experience growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, along the thin border that divides suburbia from Amish country.
Throughout my childhood, I was fascinated by the Amish lifestyle: the perfect farms and clotheslines hanging with solid colored garments, men tilling fields, women gardening, and barefooted children behind push-mowers that I used to run past in high school.
These backcountry roads weaved and curved endlessly through my impressionistic adolescent imagination—but in 2006, while I was a junior at Yale and removed from the immediacy of this landscape, I learned of a horrific shooting that had happened not far from where I’d grown up: in an Amish one-room school house in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.
I was devastated by the tragedy, and when I read about how instantly the Amish had publicly forgiven the killer as an act of ultimate compassion and sacrifice celebrated in the news and national media, I couldn’t stop thinking about the survivors.
The killer had taken only young women hostage in the school house, shooting some hundreds of times while leaving others unscathed and left to bear witness to these unfathomable wounds.
I began to wonder how these women coped; if they were forced to forgive and silence their traumas automatically, how could they find the space to fully and most individually grieve?
Shortly after Late Air found representation, I began write a draft of a novel set 12 years after the Nickel Mines shooting. It is told from the point-of-view of a survivor named Emma whose chapters interweave with five others alternating between insiders and outsiders of the Amish community.
In this way, I hope to look at the trauma of Nickel Mines from a variety of angles to most fully explore the question of forgiveness in our society.
I am looking at the Amish as a conservative religious community in need of repressing the individual’s experience of trauma in the interest of preserving communal sameness; I am also particularly focused on what it means be a woman bound by the ideals of this society; that is, if the Amish woman is limited to the role of wife, mother, and homemaker, she is someone who must sacrifice her individual needs and desires to survive in this world.
But when tragedy or loss strikes, I think it is important to try to understand how such a narrow definition of the female self and identity must be revised so that she can free herself from this past enough to heal and find her own way. It is my hope that writing a novel, or tracing the landscape of her personal story, can allow for this path.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: In the abyss of a writer’s imagination, I feel there is always a desire to pinpoint something else, but I fear I can’t think of anything specific at the moment.
All goes to say that I am very thankful for all of the thoughtful questions you have crafted here and am so thrilled that Late Air might reach your readership!
I hope it is a story that can remind us all that for as much as we might desire to control or order our lives, we simply can’t, and while it might be devastating to have to realize this each day, I hope we can find solace in doing our best to be kind to ourselves and others, to take each moment as an opportunity to live, love, and let go in the process.
If this book taught me anything in writing in it—or at least anything I could distill into a single line—it was that, and I hope it can be a truth for readers to take into the world with them long after reading Late Air too.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb