On writing | January 11, 2017 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - January 11, 2017

On writing

Boredom can be a friend to imagination, Portola Valley novelist says

by Dave Boyce

Portola Valley resident Mary Waters-Sayer, author of "The Blue Bath," a well-received first novel recently published by St. Martin's Press, says in an interview that she sees boredom as an opportunity for interesting thoughts and feelings, and that the absence of such moments is undesirable in the long run, particularly for children.

Childhood today "is really profoundly different in terms of distraction and the lack of boredom," Ms. Waters-Sayer, who is 49, says. "I'm a big believer in having that empty space to fill in with your imagination." Her novel "is almost entirely a product of my imagination, which is great fun," she says. "It's a writer's playground."

"I think the way I write owes a lot to (the fact that) much of my childhood was spent without TV," she says, including summers with her family on an island with no TV and no phone. Rain was not uncommon, which presented an opportunity to stay inside and read, she says, including works by Willa Cather and John Updike.

Both her parents were "very, very avid" readers, she says. "It was what they did to relax. It was what they did for enjoyment. I grew up in a house surrounded by books."

Ms. Waters-Sayer's novel opens with an American woman living in London with her entrepreneur husband and young son. She learns of an exhibit showcasing the works of an artist with whom she once had an affair in Paris. She visits the crowded gallery and is astonished and disconcerted to see her younger self on the walls in paintings she once posed for.

"She finds herself drawn back into the sins and solace of her past," Ms. Waters-Sayer says. "The book explores the intersection of life and art, the subjective nature of perception and the lingering light and shadow of young love."

The story is not from her own experience, she says, though she lived in London for 12 years and had a child there. The novel's characters walk the same London and Paris streets that she walked, in locations that do reflect her memories, she says.

"Paris is not the kind of place you have to try hard to remember," she says. Her first day there she spent simply walking, she says. "It was so overwhelming. It had a huge impression on me and it still does."

On writing

"The Blue Bath" is remarkable for its capture of the moment. Early in the book, protagonist Kat Lind is walking around Paris in April, recording what she sees with a film camera as the sky darkens with the threat of a storm.

"Alone, she savored the cool, smooth feel of the machinery in her hands and the deliberate, metallic blink of the camera. ... Following the low line of linden trees that led to the river, her lens caught on a tall figure with wide shoulders, standing very still in the middle of a path, hands in his pockets. What little light remained was behind him, having the effect of making him appear in her lens as a dark angular tear in the fabric of the Tuileries. As she brought his face into focus, she was surprised to find that he was looking directly at her."

A long way, it seems, from the press releases she used to write for the Securities and Exchange Commission on corporate filings and mergers and acquisitions. She did some creative writing in college and to amuse herself, but the Wall Street-oriented work helped her develop confidence, she says. "It's almost like working different muscles. I think it gave me a thicker skin," she says.

She worked with an editor, but says she edits herself by reading her writing out loud. "It's almost like music," she says. "There's a rhythm and it helps carry a story along."

Poet Robert Frost had a notion he called the sound of sense, something experienced when hearing a sentence spoken from behind a closed door so that the words are inaudible. Ms. Waters-Sayer says she is unfamiliar with this notion, but that she "absolutely agrees" with it.

Most people "do not write with their hearing," Mr. Frost wrote in a letter to a friend. "Ask yourself," he wrote, "how these sentences would sound without the words in which they are embodied:"

"One, two, three, go!"

"No good! Come back — come back."

"Haslam go down there and make those kids get out of the track."

Ms. Waters-Sayer comments: "When Mr. Frost speaks of 'the ear being the only true writer and the only true reader,' I think that my childhood summers without television may have made me more focused on the auditory world, which helped shaped me into an auditory reader and writer."

"The Blue Bath," published by St. Martin's Press (2016). 310 pages. $25.99. Available in hardcover, e-book and audiobook formats, at local bookstores, including Kepler's and Books Inc., and online at Amazon.com and IndieBound.org.


Posted by Janet Nopes, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 11, 2017 at 12:23 pm

Fascinating interview.

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