Saturday, August 13, 2022

Q&A with Rebecca Rukeyser


Photo by Janine Kuehn



Rebecca Rukeyser is the author of the new novel The Seaplane on Final Approach. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Massachusetts Review. She teaches fiction writing in Berlin, Germany.


Q: What inspired you to write The Seaplane on Final Approach, and how did you create your character Mira?


A: The project got its start, originally, during a summer where I ploughed through just a ton of Westerns, both classics (Shane) and revisionist Westerns (Butcher’s Crossing).


And I realized that one element of the genre is that the protagonist is often a wide-eyed, idealistic young man or boy, one who’s preoccupied with the purity of the American West, with untouched landscapes and what he sees as an uncompromised cowboy spirit.


And that started me thinking about another kind of protagonist, another kind of person entranced by the wilds of the American West. This character would be a young woman. And she would be drawn, not to the purity of crystalline lakes and wild forests, but to the sordid, human drama unfolding at the edge of the wilderness.


Q: The novel is set at a wilderness lodge in Alaska--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Extremely! I’ve spent a lot of my life moving around: working as an English as a foreign language teacher in various countries after college, living in a variety of locations in the United States, relocating to my current home in Berlin, Germany.


And I think all that relocating underscored how crucial setting is, how, even before you contend with cultural differences, minute variations in weather and flora and fauna and landscape shape your days and therefore the  trajectory and narrative of your life. Alaska is an extreme example of this (because Alaska is extreme!) but I’ve contended with this everywhere I’ve been.


I’m fascinated, as well, in how people construct imagined futures for themselves in new landscapes, how they imagine how much better/richer/more productive they would become if they just moved to a new location.


Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The title refers to the final image of the novel. The protagonist Mira, a character who spends an inordinate amount of time daydreaming and recollecting, thinks back to her first encounter with a man who later becomes a fixture in her erotic fantasies. When she first met him, he arrived in a seaplane.


When she recalls her encounter with him, she starts her fantasy remembering, in detail, the way the seaplane moved across the Alaskan landscape.


But beyond that, seaplanes are emblematic of coastal Alaska. They’re everywhere; the hum of seaplane propellers is part of the aural landscape.  


Q: Without giving anything away, did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I think it’s not a spoiler to say that this is a novel about disintegration, about a summer where everything goes wrong.


I always knew the novel would end in violence, and it was important to me that the violence was the opposite of the kind of violence you’d expect in Alaska.


Rather than something bombastic and wild—a bear attack! a barroom brawl! freezing to death!— it would occur indoors, in the domestic sphere. It would be the sad, accidental kind of violence that’s the result of unraveling dreams and climbing tensions.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Two projects! One is lyrical nonfiction, a kind of mashup of reportage and family memoir. And the other is historical fiction concerning a political sex scandal that rocked colonial America.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I worked in Alaska: as a commercial fisherman, in a salmon cannery, washing dishes at North America’s northernmost truck stop above the Arctic circle, and in hospitality. The hospitality job was definitely the weirdest. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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