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An interview with Float author JoeAnn Hart
by Shelby Harris
Q: I love the multiplicity of the title, Float. Can you give a little background on how you developed the title? Did you decided on “float” as a title before, after, or somewhere in the middle of writing the novel?
A: No matter what I write, whether a short story or a novel, it seems the title comes to me before anything else. A few years ago a friend was going through a rough patch, and her therapist told her to imagine herself floating with her problems instead of fighting them so hard, or else she would exhaust herself and sink. Every time she got stressed out, she repeated the word “float” to herself and felt better. It seemed like good advice for anyone, so I created a Float document. For two years I added other meanings, such as to float through life without direction, or to float a loan. As a physical object, a float is used in fishing to keep the nets or line buoyant, and a float is part of a pier. I learned about plastics that float along in the oceans from Flotsametrics and the Floating World, by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano, and plastic’s environmental impact on not just sea life, but all life. Then one day I came across the Alan Watts quote — “To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float” — and I was ready to start the novel.
Q: There were parts of the novel where I couldn’t help but laugh aloud to myself. I really enjoy how you’ve seamlessly woven together comedy and more serious topics such as pollution and environmental sustainability; it makes the novel very accessible. Was this your intention while writing Float, or did the humor naturally develop from the characters?
A: Humor is as fragile as a jellyfish; if you try to dissect it, it dissolves right into the sand. When I write I never think, oh, I’ve got to make this funny, because that would kill it. I just write about characters with contradictory aspects, the way people are in real life. Or at least in my life. The mother in Float obsesses about sailing, yet won’t go out on the water; Slocum is a chef who imagines himself on the cutting edge of cuisine, and can’t cook. As W. Somerset Maugham, a writer I slavishly admire, said, “A sense of humor leads you to take pleasure in the discrepancies of human nature.”
Q: There is such a variety in your characters, which is very refreshing to read. While there is no doubt that the characters are entertaining, they also have a complexity to them. For instance, even though Duncan’s mother is hilariously entertaining, I also found her to be wise and resilient. Her quote “you have to look for answers in the problem itself” struck me as very true, even poetic. How did you create such wonderful variety in your characters? Was there a lot of inspiration from people in your own personal life?
A: I’ve been told that I have a high tolerance for odd ducks. I don’t like to think about what that says about my upbringing and my core definition of “normal.” Be that as it may, when I write, I don’t think in terms of real people when creating characters, but real traits. I keep a document called Characters, which may or may not pertain to characters I’m working with, in which I record words and actions I find interesting. For me, characters evolve slowly as I play around with these aspects, but I try never to have identifiable traits or words that can lead back to a single person. I don’t want people to clam up around me because I’m a writer. I need the material! I’m not above stealing traits from fictional characters either. To that end, I like Updike, Cheever, and Flannery O’Connor, who were great students of the human experiment.
Q: Has the ocean and the environmental issues surrounding it always been a passion for you?
A: I remember chastising other kids in grade school for throwing candy wrappers in the street. I probably wasn’t very popular. I remember the first Earth Day in 1970, when I was entering high school, how exciting it was that people were finally paying attention. In those days it was still mostly about air and fresh water pollution, and we’ve made strides there, but plastics in the ocean weren’t in the conversation yet. The plastic soda bottle wasn’t even invented until 1977, so we had no idea how insidious it was, how it would never break down into its components but just become smaller and smaller until it was the size of sea plankton and join the food chain. Regardless, I was a stranger to the ocean when I was young. This, in spite of the fact that our planet shouldn’t even be called Earth, it should be called Ocean, because it is more water than land. But I grew up in the Bronx — which in theory is on the coast, but in actuality might as well be in Ohio — and then the northern suburbs, so the only body of water I knew was the municipal pool. Then in 1979 I moved to Gloucester, Massachusetts, which is thoroughly integrated with the sea, in spirit and in trade. When my children were young, I was at the beach by demand, but it wasn’t love at first sight. It was hot, and sand got in their ears and diapers, and I thought waves would snatch their precious bodies from my arms. When they got older, I took up rowing, and that’s when I really learned to love the water. Unfortunately, along with tremendous beauty, to be on the water is to have a world of plastic in your face. Plastic bottles float around the harbor, lost fishing line tangles up in balls and traps seabirds, and giant sheets of ghostly shrink-wrap (used to winterize pleasure boats) bob along on the surface like manta rays, only more deadly. The ocean is so unfamiliar to most people that these problems are invisible, so we need raise awareness. What we need is Ocean Day.
Q: Can you speak a bit about the writing process for Float? How long did the novel take you to complete? Also, how long was Float an idea before you began to write it?
A: I am a disciplined writer and work almost every day, but I have to write in the morning or not at all. My habits came from years of going to school while my three kids were still at home, when I had to guard my writing time like a troll under a bridge. I bargained away everything to avoid doing morning carpool so I could work. Once I leave the house, something is lost for me, a dreaminess, that I can’t get back. Even going to the barn to do morning animal chores can break it, so my husband does them. I don’t take calls when I write, I don’t book appointments, and I tell my family to go away. Novels are such a big undertaking, you really have to be such a mean troll. Float was two years of writing, not including the two years of research that came before it and the months of editing with Ashland Creek that came after.
Q: Eco-fiction is still a relatively new genre. Do you think there will be a rise of eco-fiction the more educated the public becomes about environmental sustainability?
A: I think there will be a rise in it because environment devastation will become such a predominant force in our lives. I didn’t start out to write eco-fiction, but the first chapter in Float takes place on a beach. My protagonist, Duncan, comes to the water to look at some words in the sand and finds a seagull caught in a plastic six-pack holder. Saving the bird jump-started the plot, then plastics took on a growing role throughout the book, and the next thing I know, every time I sat down to write, I’m thinking: Humans put the plastic there — they are going to have to remove it, or at the least, figure out a way from adding to the problem. For me, writing about the water meant writing about the plastics in it, because that’s the reality.
Q: Do you have any tips for your readers on how they can help keep our oceans (and in turn, ourselves) clean and healthy?
A: It is easy to feel overwhelmed and give up altogether. But I still pick up the plastic on the beach, and I try to restrict my use of plastic in the first place. That’s almost impossible these days. The computer I’m writing on right now is plastic, and I couldn’t get along without it. So I eliminate plastics for disposable products, like grocery bags, while tolerating it in durables, like my manure cart and garden hose, more items I can’t live without. I won’t buy coffee at places that use Styrofoam cups, and I buy milk in cardboard. That’s just palliative. The cure will be in finding natural plastic substitutes. We have to encourage private and public funding of these projects. We must learn to love science. In Float, the promise is in jellyfish, but in real life, scientists all over the world are working to develop natural polymers using all sorts of unlikely things, such as beetle shells, algae, and yes, even jellyfish, that can be broken down with enzymes and used again. Human creativity can save humanity, but the impetus and funding has got to be there.
Shelby Harris is a student at Southern Oregon University. She plans to graduate in the spring of 2013 with a B.S. in professional writing and a minor in business administration. After her undergraduate studies are complete, she hopes to attend graduate school in Oregon to further her knowledge of professional writing. With all her schooling complete, she eventually aspires to own and operate a publishing company that specializes in helping publish young authors.