Barrett Bowlin

An Interview with Jaimee Wriston Colbert

One of the most fascinating things about talking with writers is learning how and when they map out their projects and their work. What prompted them to write this piece, or how they knew a particular work was ready to send out into the world. When I sat down with Jaimee Wriston Colbert, author of the new novel, Vanishing Acts (Fomite Press), we talked about how the idea for her latest work was built, and about the characters within this world slowly developing the spaces they would come to inhabit and, ultimately, destroy. Like Gwen, one of the three protagonists, who has moved back home to Hawai’i after having an affair in Maine and separating from her husband there. Or Buddy, her teenage son, who’s run away to another of the islands with one of his classmates. Or Gwen’s mother, Madge, who first found success as a businesswoman once her husband, Jody, decided to surf into a towering wave one day and disappear without a trace.


What was the image or the initial story that gave rise to the rest of Vanishing Acts?

 I have to confess: the original idea for the book was actually three books ago, and the first character that came to mind was Buddy. At the time, I had a teenage son who inspired this ‘Buddy’ character. I wanted to write about a young kid who was very smart and, as a result, out of touch with teenage life. He (Buddy) was very much into insects. He wanted to be an entomologist. But in fiction, there always has to be trouble for the characters, so I gave this character migraines, which I have, and which my son, alas, also had. So once this character came into mind, the other characters came into focus. I knew I wanted to include a mother-son conflict, and a tough-talking, hot girlfriend who’d get Buddy into more trouble, and then the grandmother (Madge) came in with her own issues. So I’d say that the book grew out of these characters. That, and the monarch butterfly. Metamorphosis: now there’s an image to write a novel on!


What was the first part of the manuscript that needed to be written?

 I knew I needed to get them from Maine to Hawai’i, because this was going to be a three-generations conflict, between Madge and Gwen and her son. I decided Gwen was going to have an affair—her marriage was in trouble, anyway—and I needed to get them to Hawai’i before I could reveal that. At first, I thought I needed to start in Maine and begin with the affair, but I wound up starting in Hawai’i and then revealing all that through memory and backstory. So my first chapter in the original draft was this trip out to Hawai’i, just days after Rob, Gwen’s husband, finds out about the affair. The journey is fraught with conflict: Buddy not speaking to Gwen over the course of this 14-hour trip, and with Gwen fretting all the while. But I wound up cutting most of that out since chapters involving plane trips (especially that long where they don’t talk!) don’t make for a thrilling read.


Like you mentioned, Buddy is really into entomology. What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching the entomology you describe in the novel?

 Truth be told, I was an entomologist wannabe, but I knew I was never going to actually pursue it because of the advanced math and science abilities needed. However, I’ve always been fascinated with insects, and I think one of the things that’s most fascinating in that world is the monarch butterfly’s metamorphosis, which is depicted physically and symbolically in various chapters of my novel. As a child I used to collect them in jars, watch them cocoon, hatch, then I’d set the butterfly free. Doing the research about the different stages, after loving them for so long, and learning how endangered they are now was an eye opener.

Another surprise was when I researched the Empididae family of flies, where the male will present a gift—a juicy young midge, perhaps—to the female during courtship. It’s all wrapped up in a white silk package he spins for her. What was really interesting, though, was learning how, about half the time, he doesn’t actually put anything into the package, or maybe it’s in there but he sucked it dry first, and the female will still hook-up with him. Buddy reveals this in the book, tying it into his girlfriend’s behavior, but I just found that fact so fascinating to learn. Maybe she just likes to make him spin the package for her! Or maybe she’s into the glitz.


Along those lines, too, what was the most interesting bit of research you found on either Houdini or magic and illusions?

 Houdini’s death was interesting, and his stunt in the underwater coffin was amazing. He practiced for weeks to regulate his breathing before getting into that thing for 90 minutes! I didn’t know very much about Houdini, but I knew I wanted Jody to be fascinated with magic and illusions, so I had to learn a lot about that. For Jody, it was the whole thing about ‘escape’ in general. He was trying to engineer the ultimate escape—you know, to disappear by becoming invisible. And once he thought he figured that out, he believed he could one-up Houdini. But Jody, as a big-wave surfer who was going to use the velocity of these waves to “disappear,” had to learn how to hold his breath underwater for just as long as Houdini could, and so I had him practice in a koi pond, which freaked poor Madge out. Koi are very popular in Hawai’i.


As the primary setting of the book, Hawai’i is so richly detailed and essential to the characters’ lives, but I like it how you’ve made the island (and this idea of ‘paradise’) push back against the characters. (For example, Jody is presumably lost to a five-story wave; there’s always a danger of Madge falling into a rift zone running along the back of her yard; Buddy working endlessly on the pineapple farm; etc.) What do you wish your audience knew explicitly about Hawai’i (versus what they’ve been led to believe otherwise)?

 This rift zone is very much a real thing. We had one at the back of my grandparents’ house. Every time we would go out to play, we were told, “Keep away from the rift or you will fall in and you will never be seen again.” It’s a fault zone, and with the nearby volcanic activity there, it’s a hazard. I used that image a lot in Vanishing Acts because, with Madge becoming so unhinged, if she starts wandering—which she does at several points—it’s perilous. It’s one of the reasons I set the book where I did in Volcano, Hawai’i: a magnificent area, my favorite place in the world, but it’s filled with so many dangers. You can fall down on a trail leading out to the erupting volcano, or there could be an earthquake because of all the seismic activity that’s been happening; on the coast where the volcano is flowing into the sea, pieces of the coastal ridge that the new lava is creating can suddenly break off, and if you’re standing too close you can tumble into a boiling ocean! The volcano has been erupting non-stop since 1983. Even the sulfuric gas that comes from it, vog, which sometimes blows over the whole island, is poisonous to breathe.

Hawai’i is an incredibly unique, gorgeous, amazing place, and I want people to appreciate that, but it’s also culturally unique, having such a variety of cultural backgrounds and ethnicities on one small island chain. It’s the only place in the country where over 50% of the children born are of mixed race—or “hapa haole,” as we call it. But I’d also like my readers to respect it as a place where people live, not just a tourist destination. These stunning islands are where people have families and history, where they live out their lives. Looking back at the book, I hope my own family doesn’t think I’m saying bad things about Hawai’i, but it’s a place where, like everywhere else, there is poverty, and drug problems, and all the other kinds of struggles that every state has; it’s just a really special, friendly and uniquely beautiful place to have them in!


Back to Buddy for just a moment. Similar to Ginger, one of the characters in a piece you published with Solstice, “This Is a Success Story,” he suffers from migraines. In your fiction, how would you say they work for you as a character trait?

 I use it as a device for poor Buddy, especially late in the book, where it becomes a plot twist. That’s how painful a really bad migraine can be. I think they add another layer of empathy that we as writers can use—a painful affliction, one which, as a fellow sufferer, I feel sorry for giving to my characters. I feel sorry that I gave this poor kid this problem! For Buddy, it goes hand in hand with his intelligence and with not feeling part of his peer group. Not only is he more intelligent and oriented differently, but this affliction and even the fear of getting a migraine would make him avoid many social situations. I also wanted to find out what kind of trouble I could put him in if he ran away and didn’t have his migraine meds with him. So I guess I use them as a motivational force in Buddy’s role as a major character in Vanishing Acts.


What’s your own experience with migraines? How do they affect you individually?

 They make everything stop, life on hold, until the pain goes away. I’ve tried to function with them, but you really can’t. They make you hop off the Type-A multi-tasking train. They say, “Nope. No, you have to stop. You have to go to bed until the medicine kicks in.” And you have to make certain that you take the medicine on time; otherwise, it’ll be too late to halt it and you’ll have to ride it through. A migraine can set you back and remind you of physical vulnerabilities that will derail everything you think is so important. No email, no writing—you’re done for the day.

And I know they’re also a stress regulator for me. I know that when I’m getting a lot of them that I need to slow down and reexamine what’s going on in my life.


You use third-person point of view throughout most of the novel, but the ‘Interludes’—the sections where we learn more about Jodyare delivered sometimes in second-person. What made the switch over essential for you? What does the second-person POV deliver in the novel that third-person POV doesn’t?

 Originally, Jody was a character who came into play a lot later in the book. Like I said, I started this book three books ago, and it went through all these different incarnations of characters, but Buddy, Madge, and Gwen were always the constant, principal players. I originally tried to do their characters in first person, but it was too disconcerting for the reader to differentiate these voices, so they became third person, but close enough in their heads where the third-person narrator takes on qualities of their actual voices.

All the interludes have to do with Jody, and Jody, of course, appears to be missing at the beginning of the book. Up until page 77, he’s only talked about in past tense: as Gwen’s disappeared father, as Madge’s lost husband, et cetera. So once Jody is in the book, I needed a different kind of voice with the interludes to show that these entries are something else.

It was always the goal to have Jody be “disappeared.” In Jody’s world, he was invisible, so I had to have that different voice and sensibility in the interlude sections. Almost to where he’s an out-of-body force moving into the book, all without having him interrupt the principal voices, and chronological movement forward. And it was a way to have his personal history and his story included but without having it come in too early in the book. It took a while to figure out how to do this. Vanishing Acts is not any one particular character’s story. It’s a muddle of generational dysfunction, so with them all being principal characters in each other’s stories, I needed a consistent, third-person voice. But I needed a different type of voice with Jody since he’s not physically present through most of their chapters.


I was curious about this, too: since Marnie (Buddy’s love interest and fellow runaway) is so well detailed and serves as such a strong narrator of her own experiences, why didn’t she have her own chapters?

 I really like Marnie, but the reason for not having her perspective is that Buddy is attempting, throughout most of the novel, to read her, to understand her, but she is so enigmatic. And she’s obviously keeping secrets from Buddy. I was afraid that giving Marnie her own sections would allow these secrets to come out before I wanted them to. I really wanted it to be Buddy’s story, how he deals with Marnie. While he’s incredibly smitten with her, she’s extremely manipulative. Case in point: her “bedtime stories” where she reveals her past sexual escapades to Buddy, yet she works to control Buddy through the withholding of sex with him. So I wanted the reader to see Marnie as Buddy sees her: smitten, but with enough detail for the reader (and eventually Buddy) to realize how toxic this relationship is.


What did you find was the most difficult part to get right or nuanced correctly in Vanishing Acts?

It was Madge. Once I finally got her voice right in the third-person, I needed to indicate that she was suffering with dementia from these shower strokes afflicting her, so I had to show that she wasn’t always getting the right language she needed to communicate. She’s filled with guilt and regret over what she believes is her part in causing Jody to walk into the giant waves, but there’s also her pride and anger, and her insistence that he didn’t drown but rather is hiding out somewhere. It was a challenge to find some not-quite-right language for all of this, that the reader could also understand! The other thing I struggled with was making Gwen interesting enough. She’s an addict; she’s addicted to anti-anxiety pills and to her wine, and I worried that her behavior of running to a bottle in her distress was becoming predictable. And I didn’t want that for her. I wanted to make certain she came across as a real person and not just a prototype of an unhappy wife. That’s why it was important that she was the one who has the affair and derails the marriage: so that she wouldn’t come across as a victim. Then of course there’s her obsession with Jesus and her belief the apocalypse is imminent—so there’s that, too!


Both Gwen and Buddy see themselves as stretched out between lives—one in Hawai’i and one in Maine—and caught in the tension between the two geographies. As someone who’s lived in both places, what effect has this tension had on you and your work?

 It’s interesting that Maine and Hawai’i together appear in three of my books. Perhaps because the physical distance is so imposing. In Maine, you can’t get farther away from Hawai’i and still be in this country. When I lived there, it very much captivated me in similar ways to Hawai’i. Where Hawai’i is physically isolated, Maine is isolated by its big size and where it’s located, at the top of New England, bordering Canada. It’s a very rural state, and not a lot of places there are super developed. As a nature-lover first and foremost, that’s a big draw. For me to write about a place, something about it has to captivate me, and truly I would move back to either state in a heartbeat. Thematically, I think this tension is just something that keeps coming up, maybe as a result of my own longing and homesickness. My agent once gave me the challenge to write a book without Hawai’i or Maine in it. Ha ha, hasn’t happened yet!

While we’re talking about it, years ago I lived for a time on the south shore in Massachusetts, which is very beautiful, but, aside from the book that I’m working on now, I’ve never written about it. I once tried to write a short story set in that location, but I could never get it to work. I guess I just needed some distance in this case.


Tell us about this new project!

 I am working on a new novel, and it’s quite a departure from my other books in that a large part of it is historical. Really historical, as in 1850. (I get a kick out of my novel Shark Girls, largely set in 1960’s Hawai’i, being classified as “historical.” I mean I was alive and driving my poor parents crazy in 1960’s Hawai’i!) Then there’s another part of the new novel that’s contemporary and set in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, the 1850s section focuses on the Isle of Skye and immigration from Scotland. The family that I’m writing about were people who were forced out of their home during the Clearances. A large part of the narrative focuses on their time on the ship, a shipwreck, and the survivors’ immigration to North America.

There’s a theme of climate change in there, too, which I’ve found is something that’s constantly on my mind. Heck, it should be one everyone’s mind right now.


I was curious, as well: is there a novel/project/story collection that intimidates you, or that you’re anxious to work on?

So here’s the thing that happens to me: I can’t seem to even conceive of a future writing project while I’m writing something else. It’s bad. For instance, I wouldn’t even know how to begin a short story right now while I’m involved in this novel project. This novel that I’m working on and that I’m intending to complete this summer—once I do that, I really want to be working on stories again. But when I do one genre, such as the novel, other genres, like short stories, just don’t exist. I don’t know why that is, but it’s always been the case. I know authors who can take a break from a novel to work on stories, but I know I have to be out and done with a novel before I can work on a single story. Before I can even remember how to write a short story! And I’ve published three story collections. Go figure.


Jaimee Wriston Colbert is the author of six books of fiction: Vanishing Acts, her new novel; Wild Things, linked stories, winner of the CNY 2017 Book Award in Fiction, finalist for the American Book Fest Best Books of 2017, and longlisted for the Chautauqua Prize; the novel Shark Girls, finalist for the USABookNews Best Books of 2010 and ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year; Dream Lives of Butterflies, winner of the IPPY Gold Medal Award for story collections; Climbing the God Tree, winner of the Willa Cather Fiction Prize, and Sex, Salvation, and the Automobile, winner of the Zephyr Prize. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including The Gettysburg Review, New Letters, and Prairie Schooner, and broadcast on “Selected Shorts.” She was the 2012 recipient of the Ian MacMillan Fiction Prize for “Things Blow Up,” a story in Wild Things. Other stories won the Jane’s Stories Award and the Isotope Editor’s Fiction Prize. She is Professor of Creative Writing at SUNY, Binghamton University.


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