KATYA APEKINA’S CAPTIVATING DEBUT, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, is a family excavation so compulsively readable, one might not notice its meticulously crafted structure. The novel is the story of two girls from Louisiana, Edie and Mae, who are sent to Manhattan to live with their estranged father, a famous novelist, after their mother — a poet better known as the forever-muse of her ex-husband — is institutionalized following a suicide attempt. Through first-person accounts from the girls, both parents, and the people who orbit their fractured family, Apekina explores the ways in which art can both feed and destroy.
Since I just went through the process myself of writing a novel, Coldwater Canyon, which is out this month, I spoke to Katya about finding the right form, and the addictive experience of writing.
ANNE-MARIE KINNEY: When I was reading this book, I kept thinking about the craft essay “Where’s Iago?” by Susan Neville, about paying attention to who is the antagonist — who is provoking the other characters at any given time? In your book, each of the characters takes a turn as the antagonist, taking actions with devastating ramifications for everyone around them. Was this a deliberate choice you made, or something that unfolded organically?
KATYA APEKINA: I’m so glad you asked this, because I hadn’t read the essay before, and I just finished it, and it talks so well about a lot of the things I’ve been thinking about having to do with the nature of evil.
When I started writing my novel, I’d been reading a lot of oral histories and I was thinking about how everyone is the hero of their own story, everyone has reasons for doing what they do, and those actions can have really terrible consequences for other people, even if the intentions aren’t malicious. But, I think the Neville essay talks so well about how one definition of evil is an inability to see outside of yourself, and this is something most people are guilty of to varying degrees. In my book, people can justify almost every terrible thing they do, and say it was for survival, or even claim some noble purpose, like, for example, the creation of art. To me the creation of art, specifically writing, feels like it both requires a lot of empathy, but also a lot of selfishness. Writing this book in particular was pretty intense and addictive and scary for me. I had to tap into a lot of very unpleasant things in myself, and poke them, in order to access why people do the bad things that they do.
The narrative in the story shifts so seamlessly from one first-person narration to the next. Was there one character whose voice felt easiest for you to channel, one who was your “home base”? And, going back to what you said about the addictive/scary experience of writing this book, were there times when the “easiest” character to get into became the hardest and vice versa?
I’m not sure. Probably Edie was the easiest to channel, because it was in present tense and the action was happening to her and she was processing it as it was happening, so I felt like I could step inside her and follow her lead. Mae was difficult, partly because the things that happen to her are so terrible and I really wanted to withdraw emotionally because it was so painful to face it head on — it felt like she didn’t really want to go there, and I didn’t either, and I had to force it to happen. But, also all the peripheral characters were really fun for me to write. Those flowed very easily. I had been reading Bolaño and sort of getting into a trance reading him, and then using that trance to write. I wrote the whole book in order, switching characters as I wrote, and I wonder how different it would have been if I wrote one character at a time, all the way through. Typing that last sentence just made me feel anxious, so it probably wouldn’t have been possible. The plotting felt so intricate, I don’t know how I would have done that if I did one voice at a time. It would have ended up being a very different book.
While Mae and Edie are the nucleus of the family story, it’s their famous novelist father and lesser-known poet mother whose dynamic opens the door to larger issues about art and artists. One thing I noticed was that the reader doesn’t see much in the way of Dennis’s actual writing. We are to understand by the devotion of his fans and the attention society pays him that he’s a Great Artist. Meanwhile, Marianne’s artistic voice is more immediate on the page, both in the poetry we see and in her journal entries — though she is known as Dennis’s muse and barely recognized as a writer at all. Can you speak more about that?
It’s a little bit like in movies when they talk about a brilliant artist, they never show his (usually his) paintings, because it would be a distraction. The viewer would be like, that’s not even that good! I could paint that! So, with Dennis it’s the same thing. We get some journal entries, some letters, and there’s a scattering of quotes from his novels, to give the reader a general gist, but to include large sections of his writing didn’t really interest me. I wouldn’t have been able to sustain that voice over many pages without it coming off as satire. Even if I could though, I wouldn’t. Dennis is charming and, if given the opportunity, he would take over the book, it would become all about him, about his feelings of guilt or remorse, and everyone else would fade to the background. Writing it would be like being back in my early 20s again, being cornered in a bar, getting talked at by older men. Popular culture loves to tell Dennis’s story. That’s fine. It wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. He interested me insofar as he affected his daughters. Marianne is also a secondary character in that way. I included some of her poems so that she could have some of her own voice in there, so the reader could have some sense of her. There are also plot reasons why I included her poems, though I can’t really get into them without giving too much away.
Yeah, the consequences of Dennis’s art and fame are more interesting than his art itself. A lot of the damage the characters — not only Dennis — inflict is either in service of art or is used as inspiration for art. You said before that the characters can justify every terrible thing they do by claiming a noble purpose, e.g., the creation of art. Do you think it’s an excuse, or can the pursuit of art actually warp a person’s morality?
Oh, that is such a good question. I don’t know! I guess it depends how broadly you define “pursuit of art.” Maybe it is coming instead from the impulse to pursue glory, done via the pursuit of art? But maybe I am just saying that because I want to think of pursuing art as this sort of pure, good thing, and maybe that’s arbitrary. Making art often requires a departure from reality, and ceding control to some greater force, and it can be kind of addictive. People talk about this force as being positive, but I don’t know if it is. A force is a force, I guess, and it’s what you do with it. I don’t know if pursuing art has warped my morality, but when I’m writing I’m more withdrawn and distracted, and kind of a dick to be around.
Haha. At your reading at Skylight Books, you mentioned that you always start with form, and the content follows. I find that fascinating, because I always think of it as the other way around, like the story dictates how it needs to be told. Can you elaborate on that? Because this book is so — almost deceptively — structured. I was just gobbling up the story and it was only in looking back that I could see the precision in the way information was doled out.
I love constraints and unusual forms. I think if I can find the right container, then a story will fill it. Like a gas. I mean, I think my mind will catch on things, images, feelings, moments, and I store them away and they often can be pulverized and used.
So, you started with the idea of an oral history. Once the characters and story line started to solidify in your mind, did you do any experimentation with other forms, or did the multiple first-person narration always seem essential?
The multiple first-person narration was always essential. When it started off it was more like an oral history, and all the points of view were in the past tense, with the same point of telling. Then I changed it so that Edie was in the present and what was happening to her was more immediate. It started off as a device, to differentiate Edie and Mae for myself as I was writing and discovering who they were. Kathryn Davis, who taught me at Washington University where I did my MFA, actually suggested it, and then it evolved from there. One thing I was never interested in was making a book that was a fake document that one of the daughters was compiling in the future, and so I wanted the book structure to be like an oral history, but not so much so that this would be the expectation.
I think the book draws the reader in as an oral history — we’re going to learn what happened to and around these people through their own accounts — but then it spirals out into something larger, darker, and less easily contained. Like the gas you mentioned — filling the vessel and then starting to leak in a way that surprises and compels. What are you working on now, and did it begin in the same way, with a form?
After finishing the novel I wrote a script for a feature film, which we will hopefully be shooting soon, and then a short story (out now with Territory). I started a second novel, but it is still too early for me to talk about it. I haven’t found the form yet.