Breaking the Surface: Leanne Shapton’s Life Aquatic

We usually return to our favorite authors seeking out more of the same. But those familiar with author, illustrator, and editor Leanne Shapton’s creations know that, apart from luminous illustration and a penchant for cataloging, they share simply a thrilling singularity.

Shapton’s first mainstream book, Was She Pretty?, explores romantic jealousy through text and sketches both intimate, hilarious, and formidable. Her next work, the stunning Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, is a wonderfully puzzle-like text on the etymology of a breakup told through an annotated series of the couple’s former possessions. A current book, The Native Trees of Canada, is a brilliant watercolor reimagining of her home country’s conifers.

Now, in Swimming Studies, which grew out of essays on heat, night-cooking, and an illustrated series of Friday swims for The New York Times, Shapton explores her adolescent rise to the Olympic trials, leading the author to delve not into training but into her relationships with her parents, her brother Derek, her husband James, her coaches, and, most slyly, herself. In narrative sketches coupled with luminous watercolor series (and, in one instance, the photographic lineage of her bathing gear), Shapton tells the story of moving from athlete to artist, and we learn that endurance, discipline, and a love for the process can produce — at least occasionally — something remarkable.

I spoke with the author about swimming, painting, sharks, and her unclassifiable work via email. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. — Lizzie Skurnick

The Barnes & Noble Review: I’ll begin at the beginning — where did the idea for this book come from?

Leanne Shapton: The book actually began as a rough screenplay in 2005, but I wanted to develop the imagery of the book further, so I took a step back and tried to describe, in longer-form writing, the very vivid memories I had of my swimming days. I still think it would make a good screenplay, though.

BNR: Though the book is ostensibly a study of you and your life with swimming, this is quickly joined by the story of your family, your marriage, your career, your taste in bathing suits — and most important, your personality. Were you surprised where swimming took the book?

LS: I was, yes. I realized how much I framed the world by swimming, how I looked at things in relation to practice, to shallows and depth, to the body. To paraphrase Carver and now Murakami, what I thought about when I thought about swimming went beyond what I imagined the book would be. I loved that it developed into other studies — that if a master’s team was not the right place to be an adult swimmer, then I could follow the sport I loved into less athletic realms.

BNR: You have such a respect for detail in your book, whether it’s the chocolate bar you ate on the way to the swimming meet or your recollection of a brief crush on a stranger at the beach. That adds up to what would be a terrifying level of exposure for many, but it’s also so friendly to the reader — quite like when you write about swimming in a pool with a transparent bottom, wishing a stranger would look up so you could wave. Are you self-conscious about what you reveal? What don’t we see about you in your narratives?

LS: I am self-conscious about what I reveal, sure, but it’s that level of friendliness you describe that I want to achieve. I tried to avoid platitudes and talk honestly about my experiences. I hope that what’s most interesting to me might be interesting to a reader, or to a conversation about relationships, about sports, about chocolate bars. I try to counter that exposure by not revealing everything and by not drawing conclusions. I struggled with this book being seen as memoir because as much as I reveal, what I delivered is only on relation to my experience as a swimmer. I had no intention of giving a whole picture of my family, my marriage, my career. So what you don’t see about me is a mapped out, linear story. You know when you score a piece of paper to make a clean fold, I tried to do that in places where I expose — I needed to make a clean, sharp joint where a reader might understand something through a limited amount of information.

BNR: Your narratives are never linear, but they always cohere wonderfully, and it’s difficult to do this in a book of brief, meditative bursts. (Heats! Laps!) Is your organization a matter of intuition as you go, or do you explicitly choose an order later?

LS: The narrative and structure stumped me for a while. I was not sure how to organize the pieces (past/present/life/work/visual/literal) until I was in a kayak last summer and reached into the water to grab at a stalk of something below the surface. I lost sight of it when I plunged my hand in and stopped to think about that image. How something looks so perfectly clear until you break the surface. It illustrated how I was feeling about all of the sliding, slippery pieces that hadn’t arranged themselves into a clear picture. So I decided not to worry about the clear picture but have the structure be inspired by that brief moment of ripples and kaleidoscopic layers. It had an element of time that I liked, and of magnification and overlap that was true to nature, and so I hoped might be true to the book. I describe the clear/blurry water moment at the beginning of the book as a bit of a clue. Once I had that “non-structure” in mind, I decided to build the book more or less chronologically. The pacing of the chapters and visuals came intuitively, with experimenting and checking in with patient readers.

BNR: At the same time, do you resist the linear narrative? A visual artist works in “studies,” an artist in drills, neither of which lend themselves to a straightforward story line. What is your process as you write and then edit when there’s no “plot”?

LS: My process is similar to how I edit images in my capacity as a publisher of art and photography books, at J&L Books. Images are read more intuitively than words. There is a pace and a cadence and timing. I would not compare myself to a poet, but Jason Fulford and I always invoke books of poetry when we talk about  the way we edit books at J&L. A friend once described a book of mine as making “emotional sense,” which made me really happy. I think a loose grasp of narrative but a strong focus on sensibility is a part of how I see the world.

BNR: Your books are often catalogs. (So much so that this question is a roundabout way of blaming you for a two-hour swimming-suit shopping binge on eBay.) Where do you think this urge to organize, catalog, and annotate everything from a swimming suit to a pool comes from? Your father’s email to you about his cars was a mini-catalog, too — is it from him?

LS: Ha! That binge sounds fun. It definitely comes from my father (which is one reason I kept his list/image-heavy email intact). He is a collector who appreciates history, lineage, the stories behind things. Spending my childhood summers at Studebaker swap meets, seeing all of those car parts and dinky cars and paraphernalia spread out on tabletops must have made an impression. My urge to catalog and annotate is probably also related to laps, to repetition, the accumulation of mileage first, followed by meaning. I like to count things, to see grids. I went to a Hans-Peter Feldmann show at the Serpentine recently and saw his piece One Pound of Strawberries, 2004, which consists of thirty-four 4×4 photos of individual strawberries. Lovely. I like deconstructed, oblique views of familiar things, and a catalog view or grid can isolate objects, which then enables an uninflected contemplation. When something is presented so objectively, your subjectivity cuts loose.
BNR: Speaking of taxonomies, I would like your next book to be a meditation on your midnight cooking, including recipes. What are the chances of this happening?

LS: I would love to do a something with food and recipes someday. And midnight cooking has always seemed so magical to me. Two of my favorite books as a kid were The Sugar Mouse Cake and In the Night Kitchen.
BNR: Let’s talk about the paintings. Did you do the art for this book as you wrote? Or did that your work occur first, or after? In the edition, it is bundled in lovely annotated series — did you deliberately choose to keep the artwork together rather than scatter it throughout the text? And how did you choose where your art went? What art was left out of the book?

LS: I did all of the art as I was working on the book. The earliest pieces were the “Swimming Studies,” which first appeared in The New York Times as part of a monthly series I was doing for the Opinion section. I kept the artwork in their own chapters for two reasons: 1) Because I didn’t want the text to be directly illustrated, and 2) Because I wanted the visual sections to be “read” as chapters with a tone and progression of their own. I wanted them to be little sinkholes of another experience. My favorite chapter, however is “Size,” where three layers of information are woven together. I worried about piling it on, but I didn’t think it was too much to ask of the reader, and in the end I think it works.
BNR: Your husband James is such an interesting foil for many of your traits: Your impulsiveness, your desire for control (or, as you say, a search for a coach to control you), your worries about your productivity and discipline. It’s bracing to see a marriage described apart from romance and sex, and it gives us a chance to know about your particular marriage, not so-called universals. But we never hear what James does for a living! Is that left out on purpose? And what did he think of his depiction in the book? Is he still more interested in your art than in your swimming?

LS: I left a lot of James out on purpose. To go back to question 3, I like to expose enough to establish trust and be honest, but not so much it becomes a family tree of details. The part of my marriage that pertains to my history as a swimmer is interesting to me, but I felt like sharing those awkward parts, not the reassuring ones. I don’t entirely buy stories about blissful marriages. I think all happy marriages, partnerships, friendships are happy despite something, and it’s that something that I wish we’d hear more of, and be more honest about. James wasn’t crazy about all of his depictions, but I tried to make sure, in those parts, that I was the one who came off worse.

BNR: Past and present tense intermingle in this novel in a fascinating manner — in one example, you actually place yourself in the present tense as a teen and then speak in the past about your adulthood in successive paragraphs. It’s almost as if time stands in for point of view. How did you think about time as you worked?

LS: As the chapters shifted and elided I tried to depict how fluid tense is in our memories. I like the immediacy (and sloppiness) of the inner monologue. I don’t always think in past and present tense, or punctuation for that matter; these are written conventions that, truthfully, I don’t have much experience with, and so I tried to hew as close to how I thought/saw a memory in my head.
BNR: We know from Swimming Studies that you and your brother were fond of acting out death throes from movies while playing in the pools together. But did you build anything as a child, either alone or apart? I picture you among a heap of dioramas and sketchbooks, but the book suggests this urge came later.

LS: Yes, there were always piles of sketchbooks, blanket forts, puppet theaters, treasure hunts, obstacle courses, haunted houses. We were both pretty shy and stuck together until high school. I still have all of my sketchbooks and notebooks. Derek does too.  
BNR: As the book concludes, you move toward more explicit connections between the athlete and the artist — how day-to-day discipline yields a brief opportunity for something great, how both are simultaneously dulling and miraculous. Was this connection something you thought about before you began, or something writing the book helped you discover?

LS: I had always thought about it. For the last twenty years I’ve been trying to find the same level of focus and absorption I had when I swam. A sort of no-questions-asked, turn-tempting-invitations-down, miss-important-milestones dedication and discipline. I’ve honestly only been able to get back into that zone in the last six years. Writing the book, in a way, helped articulate all of that, but as it was an experiment (until I wrote the first swimming/ baking pieces for The New York Times, I’d never written anything longer than captions) it was helpful to understand that the rewriting was like the accumulated pages, like the laps, like the numbers. It does not come easily, but I love the work that goes into trying to open a writing vein.

BNR: Your deconstruction of the novel Jaws — that the shark represents infidelity; Spielberg’s loaded tables and counters the disgorged elements of the characters’ stomachs — was one of the most brilliant parts of the book. (It was also welcome, since I’m the only other person I know who seems to like to deconstruct Jaws and is also haunted by the image of shaking talcum powder into one’s bra — we have to figure that out sometime.) When did you first see Jaws? And when did you begin to deconstruct it? Were you watching swimming movies particularly for the book?

LS: Jaws, the movie, came out when I was two, so I probably saw it in 1982 or so, when I was nine, probably at a sleepover. I was horrified. I remember seeing a video of Jaws 2 soon thereafter, and Jaws 3-D in the theater with my brother, around 1983. I can’t believe my parents let us watch, but they did. I’ve been thinking of sharks ever since.

In 2007 I picked Jaws, the novel, for my book club. The differences really struck me. It was interesting that the book, which was more about infidelity, was a big hit before the movie. It was also interesting how many Discovery Channel shark week episodes and series there were. In 2008, when I was at the Times, I kept bringing sharks up in idea meetings. I wanted someone like Yann Martel to write an op-ed about our fascination with sharks.

James was always amused by the hours I’d spend watching Shark Week and would always ask me: What is it about sharks? He thought it was a girl thing. So I began to really think about it: how violent and physical a shark attack is, and how we talk about love and sex and deal so badly with its darker aspects. How so much of sharks and love exists in our imagination.

BNR: I was also quite struck by the notion that professional swimmers don’t like open water, and then how you likened that to your marriage. Do you think that applies to anything else in your work, and life? Have you learned to embrace open water?

LS: I think open water is a good analogy for adulthood in general. You are less protected, there is more adventure, invisibility and autonomy, you could be swallowed up by any number of physical or psychological things. I’ve learned to embrace open water by dealing with fear, trying not to be as afraid, or nervous, of things and people and situations. I can’t say I’ve been successful at this, but living with fear is a heavy thing. It’s more interesting to wade right in and rely on yourself and your wits and guts.

BNR: What are you working on now?

LS: More dark matter — a collection of ghost stories. But also a series of larger paintings, another book for Drawn + Quarterly, and some new J&L titles.