Jessica Keener has had a rich and varied literary life, including stints as a freelance journalist for the Boston Globe, a literature and writing teacher, and author of numerous short stories that have appeared in such publications as Wilderness House Literary Review and Night Train. Her debut novel, Night Swim (Fiction Studio Books), comes after a nearly two-decade-long gestation. Over that period, several excerpts were published as stories, to critical acclaim.
Set in 1970, Night Swim is the story of a privileged but fractured suburban Boston family, set against the backdrop of a nation in political, racial, and generational upheaval. Keener will read from her novel tonight at a reception at Brookline Booksmith.
Like Night Swim’s narrator, 16-year-old Sarah Kunitz, Keener (CAS’79) came of age in a well-heeled Jewish family with a live-in black maid. Inspired in part by the unexplained suicide of the mother of a close high school friend, the book depicts the struggles of the egotistical but well-intentioned husband and three very different children of a depressed alcoholic who infuriates and captivates those she loves most.
Keener’s many passions and accomplishments over the years have been fueled in part, she says, by something that happened as she graduated from BU with a degree in English. Just weeks after collecting her diploma, Keener was in a Boston hospital, seriously ill with aplastic anemia. She underwent a bone marrow transplant, with marrow donated by her younger brother, and endured months in a sterile room, followed by a year under doctor’s orders to avoid crowds at a time when youth and crowds were synonymous. This past November marked 32 years since the then-experimental procedure, which gave the young Keener (then Jessica Brilliant) at best a 50 percent chance of survival. She beat the odds to enjoy a healthy life, which includes a husband and a son, now 18. Not surprisingly, the transplant was life-changing, influencing the rest of her life, she says, attesting to living in the present, with eternal gratitude.
BU Today spoke with Keener recently about Night Swim, the writing life, and what she’s learned along the way.
BU Today: When did you begin working on Night Swim?
Keener: I started it 18 years ago when my son was born and worked on it on and off all through that time. I’d work on it, put it back in the drawer, take it out, make the rounds with agents. I was working on other stuff, and started another novel. But I never wanted to give up on it. I got a lot of nos, but with good feedback. I pulled out about five excerpts and got them published. The frustration was getting someone to take the whole thing.
Night Swim is set in 1970. Was that a particularly powerful time for you?
I definitely was drawing from personal experience in part. I did grow up in a suburb outside of Boston and had a very strong memory of that time. Part of what initially inspired me was, when I was a teenager my close friend’s mother took her life, and it just haunted me. Nobody talked about it, and it fed into my ambivalent feelings about my own family and parents.
In what ways is the Kunitz family a product of its time?
They’re an upper middle-class suburban Jewish family living this nouveau riche, country club kind of life, with their black maids, part of that sort of ’60s, living the postwar high life, baby boomer kid culture that I grew up with.
You write with such nuance about race. What was your relationship with your black housekeeper like?
Definitely, as a child I felt very mixed about it. Frankly, there were many live-in housekeepers. They were in and out; they didn’t stay very long. I wanted to address that in the book. I wanted to address this sort of disconnect—a black maid in a white household in the North. When I was very young, I remember feeling attached to one of the maids, and she suddenly had to leave. I was around four, and she seemed to really care about me, and I remember feeling really sad. I’d also feel bad because I’d think: don’t they ever go home? Don’t they need a day off? My mother said it was none of my business.
Your novel has a kind of soundtrack. Tell us about the role of music in your fiction.
In this book, music is really important because Sarah is a singer. I love music. I used to sing with a BU choir and gospel chorus, and I grew up with a lot of music. Also, anyone who goes back to their teenage years remembers the seminal tunes from that time, and music was just so enmeshed in the culture of the ’70s. Music then was really alive and speaking the power of poetry and social change, and celebrating life. I wanted to convey some of that. I had this little wish—that the Kindle version of the book would have links to songs. But as I learned just getting permissions to reprint lyrics in the book, it would have been really expensive.
Your characters all evoke sympathy in spite of the mistakes they make. Is this important to you?
I totally wanted to convey the sense that people can behave badly, but it doesn’t mean that they are bad people. I wanted to show that you can love someone who is difficult and hard to reach and also feel that there are good parts, and that’s what makes these relationships complex. People aren’t bad or good. The father was often impossible, but I wanted to make sure that people reading it would see that he had lots of other sides to him.
Was it your intent from the start to frame the story as a flashback?
That was a later touch. One bit of feedback I received was that the narrator, Sarah, is 16 and she sounds so wise and mature. It felt right to me to offer a brief glimpse that she was older and she was returning, to allow her to have that extra layer of maturity and wisdom.
How did having a serious illness at such a young age change you?
It totally changed and informed my life. The experience isn’t fresh any more, but knowing I could die way too young, I made a lot of promises to myself when I was in that germ-proof room. I wasn’t going to waste time with people who didn’t make me feel good. And also, life to me is short; I’m very aware of the end point; I live in the present. Material things come and go, but it’s relationships that are key. And I have a pretty deep spiritual sense. I’m grateful for the experience.
Who are the novelists that inspire you?
I really have come out of the classic tradition, having been an English Lit major at BU, being influenced by Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Conrad. I love Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor I adore, and Colette, Jean Rhys, Edna O’Brien, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy. O’Connor in particular is an inspiration because she had an illness; that’s something about her that resonates pretty deeply.
Did your nonfiction writing—journalism, corporate communications—influence you as a novelist, either in approach or in discipline?
I liked the satisfaction of writing something and seeing it get published, whereas in fiction that could take years, and I wanted that immediate recognition. I had to work with deadlines, and I’m happy with deadlines. Some of the freelance writing I’ve done is happy—home design, that sort of thing. Fiction goes to deeper, darker places; it’s just harder. It’s a nice counterpoint for me.
Are you working on something new?
I have another novel that’s in revision and a short story collection.
Jessica Keener will read and sign copies of Night Swim at 7 p.m. tonight, January 10, at Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard St., Coolidge Corner, Brookline. More information is available here, or by calling 617-566-6660. By MBTA, take the Green Line C trolley to Harvard Street.