The Story Behind the Story: The Art of Floating by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe
When the idea for The Art of Floating bowled me over in 2005, I was in a café in Haverhill, Massachusetts. I’d ordered a sandwich—turkey and provolone—and while waiting for the sandwich to be made, I stumbled upon an article in the New York Times about a mute, unresponsive guy who’d been found soaking wet on a beach in Europe. Germany, I think. The folks who found him had no idea where he’d come from or who he was. For all they knew, he was from Finland or the United States or South Africa. And although I can no longer distinguish between what was in the article and what I’ve made up since (an affliction common in novelists), I believe they stuck him in a hospital almost immediately. Once ensconced, they tried to figure out his origins in various ways—speaking to him in different languages, trying to get him to read newspapers and letters, food, music, etc. It was a real-life mystery that captivated many…and made it into the New York Times.
As I waited for the café clerk to call out “Turkey and provolone!” the possibilities of a story about a guy discovered on a beach, who, it seems, just walked out of the sea, blossomed in my head. I grabbed a pen and wrote a list of questions on my palm: Who is he? Where did he come from? Did he really just walk out of the sea? Why is he here? Who finds him? What’s her story?
I left the café that day with much more in hand than the turkey and provolone sandwich I’d ordered (which, by the way, was delicious). For months, I’d been looking high and low for the nub of story I needed to start my second novel, but despite several promising glimmers, I hadn’t been struck in the way that I need to be struck in order to commit to several hundred pages and almost as many years of work (slight exaggeration).
I needed lightning. I needed boom. I needed magic and possibility.
I needed this story about a guy who, it seems, just walked out of the sea.
While I set to work on the first scene straight away, I really didn’t dig into the writing until 2006 when I moved to Shanghai, China, with my new husband. There was something about living in a country in which I couldn’t speak the language and wasn’t culturally fluent that freed me up and inspired me to dive deep.
In the first couple of drafts of The Art of Floating, I believed I was telling the story of Toad, the man who was found on the beach. But once I created (or maybe discovered) Odyssia Dane—the woman who finds Toad and takes him under her wing—it didn’t take me long to figure out that while his story was an integral part of the whole, I was really telling her tale. When I got that, it all cracked open—the disappearance of Odyssia’s husband Jackson, her devastating heartbreak, her delightfully passionate mother, her best pal Jilly, the Dogcatcher, and so much more.
For the next four and a half years, I lived with this story. I toted it with me on walks with my daughter; I got lost in it as I wandered Buddhist temples throughout China and beaches in Borneo, Bali, and Thailand; at night, I dreamed it. Much of the writing got done on the second floor of Jamaica Blue, a Shanghai coffee shop on Wulumuqi Road. It was, all in all, a pretty amazing journey. And now, so many miles from that spot in the world where I put pen to paper every day, I stand with the story as a book in my hands. Pretty damn cool
Kristin Bair O’Keeffe is the author of the novels THE ART OF FLOATING (Penguin/Berkley, April 2014) and THIRSTY (Swallow Press, 2009). Her work has been published in numerous magazines and journals, including Poets & Writers Magazine, The Gettysburg Review, The Baltimore Review, The Christian Science Monitor, HYPERtext, and Bluestem. She has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago and has been teaching writing for the past twenty years. In late 2010, after nearly five years in Shanghai, China, she repatriated to the United States and now lives north of Boston with her husband and daughter. To learn more, visit her website at www.kristinbairokeeffe.com, say hi on Twitter (@kbairokeeffe), and like her Facebook author page.
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