Friday, May 26, 2023

Q&A with Beth Ann Mathews


Photo by Star Dewar



Beth Ann Mathews is the author of the new book Deep Waters: A Memoir of Loss, Alaska Adventure, and Love Rekindled. She taught at the University of Alaska Southeast for 20 years, and she lives on an island in Puget Sound, Washington.


Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir about your family's experiences following your husband's stroke, and how long did it take to write the book?


A: I didn’t set out to write a book, but a blog site called CaringBridge, designed to help families communicate during a health crisis, catalyzed that journey. I’m a marine biologist and I’d published scientific papers, but before a simple household chore triggered a rare type of stroke in my healthy, fit husband, I’d never shared personal writing beyond our families.


After being medivacked from Juneau, Alaska, to a medical center in Seattle, Washington, I needed to notify our families—and my boss and colleagues at the university where I was expected to show up for work that day—about what had happened. 


Sharing that first emotional description of that alarming day so broadly at first made me feel too vulnerable. But I didn’t have time to write a second, less personal version and so I pressed the SEND button.


Supportive responses to my writing poured in and shored me up—as much as my husband, Jim. Finding the CaringBridge website was a communication godsend. Feedback inspired me to keep writing.


Later, in critique groups, I discovered classmates were engaged by my stories of how Jim’s determination to walk, swallow without choking, and ride a bike—bolstered and strained by our family’s sailing expeditions in Alaska—pushed me to eventually choose a more adventurous, connected path over a safer, more secure life.


After I had a full draft, I realized Deep Waters was not simply a stroke recovery story, but a tale of relationship resilience. Exploring Alaska’s Inside Passage, sailing and fishing with our son, facing my issues with workaholism, and navigating threatening situations at sea, are all part of the book. The hurdles we overcame had the potential to help other couples and families navigate a health or other relationship crisis.


Writing Deep Waters took nine years, depending on when I start the clock. I consider that moment the day I joined my first critique group in La Paz, Mexico.


My husband, son, and I were living and traveling on our sailboat when a fellow boater invited me to join the Sea of Cortez Writing Group, hosted by George and Roz Potvin. Roz had been a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and The Vancouver Sun. George was also a writer, and the couple generously hosted six or seven writers in their historic home.


During my first session, insecurities about reading in front of skilled writers built. Fortunately, I overcame self-doubt and read that day, and every week until we left to continue our expedition. Seated at the Potvins’ dining room table was when the idea of writing a book gathered steam, but for years I kept that aspiration to myself.


Q: The writer Lynn Schooler said of the book, “Mathews has penned a deeply personal love story with the careful rigor of the scientist she is, free of any giddy prose or rainbows. Instead, Deep Waters comes at the reader with the gloves off and goes a full twelve rounds, documenting in granular detail the fears and conflicts attending a life-altering event that can drive even a strong relationship onto the ropes, and the endurance, commitment, and deep love that can save it.” What do you think of that description, and what impact did your experience as a scientist have on your writing of this book?


A: When I received Lynn Schooler’s endorsement of Deep Waters, the power of it almost knocked me off my chair. He’s an accomplished author of critically acclaimed books, including The Blue Bear and Walking Home. His words made me feel as if he had lived that year with us—a profound sensation.

What he wrote captured so much—that even strong relationships have highs and lows, and people who love each other don’t always see eye to eye, and that working through disagreements is hard but if the underlying connections prevail, the debate can create a new, fulfilling path forward. Schooler’s review might lead prospective readers to assume that my husband and I had physical clashes which is not the case, but I think it’s clear he’s using the fighters’ ring as a metaphor.


Being a scientist influences my creative writing in many ways. Mostly positive, I think, but I’ll mention two, one positive and the other a limitation I had to overcome.


While doing field research and when I go boating with my family, I keep journals. As a field biologist, recording unusual events is in my blood. Soon after my husband’s stroke, the compulsion to document what was happening, as well as my emotional turmoil, began and those entries provided rich material for my writing.


But it’s not simply the words that rekindle memories so vivid they burn. Seeing my hand writing and sketches, or a spaghetti-sauce stain on a page, can open a trapdoor to what I was feeling, smelling, and experiencing in that moment. Was I in awe of a killer whale that zipped in close to our boat, turned on its side, and stared at me looking back at him?  Or, was I heart-pounding fearful during a night storm when our sailboat home was about to go aground?


As a scientist, I came to the essay-writing table with a reasonable understanding of grammar and sentence structure. During a memoir-writing class, after I read an early chapter, the instructor, Steve Boga, nodded, cleared his throat, and said, “Well. Now we know you can write,” which was his standard response to most new students.


He went on to say, however, that I needed to learn to incorporate more dialogue into my writing. That recommendation helped me enliven my creative nonfiction more than any other.


Q: What impact did it have on you to write the book, and what do your family members think of it?


A: Learning how to write a book that strangers might want to read has been challenging but also fulfilling. I’ve taken classes, read books on writing, participated in critique groups, attended workshops and conferences, and worked with gifted editors. Telling the story of how our lives were jolted and redirected by my husband’s medical situation has given me insights to who I am and helped me make sense of some of my reactions to our circumstances.


My husband has been remarkably supportive of my writing a book that shares our close, vulnerable moments, and moments in which we each, at times, are not at our best. Even though he has encouraged me, reading certain chapters of Deep Waters triggers him to re-live that difficult year.


If he did, however, read those chapters without an emotional response, I would question the quality of my writing. His support stems from his belief that our experiences and what we struggled with and learned can inspire readers to live more full and engaged lives.


Our son has been a steady champion of my writing endeavors, and he’s provided helpful feedback on a handful of scenes. Still, while he was young, I did not ask him to review chapters about harrowing events the three of us experienced. Now, in his 20s, he’s let me know he’s proud of how I’ve persevered and of my creativity, and that he’s excited to read my book.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from your story?


A: I hope Deep Waters inspires readers to invest more in worthwhile, but neglected, relationships. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve completed the manuscript for my second book, which I’ve set aside to work with my publicist to get the word out about Deep Waters. I had my first radio interview, which was with Suzanne M. Lang on KRCB/NPR’s  “A Novel Idea.” My book tour began a week ago in California and I’m now in Juneau, Alaska, where we lived for 20 years. My next author events are in Washington, Indiana, and Ohio and I’d love to meet readers at one of these events


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: To learn more about Deep Waters: A Memoir of Loss, Alaska Adventure, and Love Rekindled, I invite readers to visit my website and Facebook author site To schedule a virtual Book Club Reading, Q&A, or Discussion of Deep Waters send me an email.


Thank you, Deborah!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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