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Tom McNeal
What inspired you to write TO BE SUNG UNDERWATER?
Well, to begin with, there was an old pal of mine. The short version is this: he was deeply smitten by a woman who abandoned him, then he had successful career and drank himself to death. I knew him through his entire life, beginning at about age 12. The last time I saw him, we met in a restaurant overlooking the ocean in Huntington Beach. He was with his nurse and ate nothing, but neither of us wanted the meal to end. Finally when I was leaving, I looked back from the front of the restaurant. He was smiling at me in this beaming, almost exalted-seeming way. Anyhow, the death of that friend led to a consideration of what makes a good life and what makes a good marriage, two questions that I’ve noticed often become one. And somewhere in the writing of the book, I realized that the strangely exalted look I’d seen on my friend’s face would be the look Judith would see the last time she saw Willy.
We see the story through the eyes of the main protagonist, Judith. Did you find it difficult to write from the point of view of a woman? Were you concerned about getting it right?
Honestly, this didn’t worry me too much. I figured that anything I got terribly wrong, my wife, Laura, would put right. And because Judith was the more active participant in the drama—the one who had left Willy behind, and the one who, years later, tries to track him down—it seemed natural that I would stick with her. I was comfortable operating within her p.o.v., especially when limited to a 3rd person p.o.v. 1st person would have been a step too far, for me anyway.
You write very evocatively about Nebraska – about the beauty of its wilderness as well as about the character of the people who inhabit it. What made you choose to set the most emotional part of the story there?
If I write evocatively about Nebraska, it’s because the place evokes a pleasant dilation of the senses for me. I love the austere landscape and wide skies, and I admire the sturdiness of the people who make a life there. In this book, both the lay of the land and the temperament of the people provide an alternative to Judith’s less sustaining life in Los Angeles.
To what extent would you say TO BE SUNG UNDERWATER is a cautionary tale?
Not more than most stages of almost any life might later, in one way or another, be used to pose questions about ongoing behavior. With facebook and all that, a lot of people are tracking down old friends and lovers. My guess is that the usual result is an understanding of how keenly we’ve romanticized the unchosen options. In Judith’s case, though, following her chosen path toward a career and leaving Willy behind was a tough call. If she’s persistently ambivalent in the book, it’s because I was persistently ambivalent on her behalf. She built a life according to her own plans, and that’s hard to second-guess. Would life with Willy have been an escape or a retreat? Still, at some point Judith begins to realize that the act of self-invention, however far it might take you, still has its limitations.
Markus Zusak says of the novel that “’s the courage of this book that sets it apart. It’s the bravest, most beautiful book I’ve read in a long time.” Did it take courage to write it?
Bless Mr. Zusak for saying so, and I’d like to agree, but can’t. At least not unless perseverance is some low-grade form of courage. I think there were easier courses that I might have chosen for the characters and their outcomes. Judith, for example, is not the easiest person to warm up, too, but what I hope saves her is her self-awareness. She’s aware of her shortcomings, and in the case of her mistreatment of Willy, she makes a real attempt to make amends. A happy ending would also have pleased most readers, but I was interested in watching these lives play out in a way that more realistically accorded with their temperaments and circumstances.
Who are your inspirations, literary or otherwise?
As for literary inspiration, I grew up on British writers like Dickens, the Brontes, Austen and George Eliot (and still reliably enjoy Brits like Paul Scott, Jane Gardham, and John Banville). As for the “otherwise,” when it comes to day-to-day bearing, it has to be said that everything good that has happened in my life as it relates to writing (and really to all the other important aspects as well) has occurred after I met Laura. This, I guarantee, is no mere coincidence.
Tom McNeal

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