Your three previous novels have all been historical in nature. Why the switch to a contemporary setting and situation in The Road to Atlantis?
I never set out to be a writer of historical fiction. It was an accident of habit. I love history. I love to write. The two desires—to research and to write—just came happily together. But they aren’t conjoined. I can extricate myself from either to pursue the other. As it happens, the events of Atlantis, were dredged up from a frightening personal experience. The occurrence in question happened almost a decade ago while my family and I were vacationing on the East Coast of the United States. At the time, it was so horrific in its possibilities (though fortunately, for me, ultimately innocuous) that I couldn’t write about it immediately. It was only after much reflection that I could bring myself to imagine the fates of Anne and David Henry soberly and accurately—so as not to trivialize or sensationalize their experience.
Given that frightening personal events were the catalyst for the novel, was this the kind of project that you had to dip into, bit by bit over time, or was it more of a case of when you were ready to start, you were able to draft the book in more or less a solid go?
I wrote the opening scene from the novel many years ago, and not that long after the event in question. I did not want to forget the visceral quality of what I had experienced. However, I only toyed with the plotting for a long time afterwards. During that time, I worked much more avidly on two other novels I have since abandoned. However, the story was never far from my mind. I thought about it a lot. One evening, more or less out-of-the-blue, I sat down at a coffee shop and began plotting in earnest. This was about two years ago. The writing did not take long. I had a very rough draft in less than two months.
Tragedy-driven family dynamic narratives are receiving more attention than ever in popular media. Television shows such as Netflix’s Bloodlines are gaining critical praise, award nominations, and viewership. How do you think Atlantis fits in with all this?
On reviewer called the book “earnest,” and I take that as one of the highest compliments paid to my writing. The book is sincere and it is intense. It may even be claustrophobic at times; however, against all odds, there is levity and hope, as well. Family is such a difficult thing to handle with accuracy. Television shows from the 1950s painted a too-perfect ideal for North Americans to aspire to. This Jungian construct of the perfect family is probably what causes David and Anne such crippling guilt and shame. As such, readers and viewers, being equally imperfect, turn to these new narratives to find catharsis.
Both David and Anne are terrible at “keeping it together,” but rally and redeem themselves at different stages. Do you have an opinion on who carries less guilt and shame between the two?
Anne is definitely more obvious in her feelings of guilt. They manifest themselves physically and mentally even as she tries to suppress them. This is part of who she is as well. She desires control over any situation. That desired control is sometimes impossible. She is scrambling to stay above water. I also believe that she makes subconscious decisions which punish her. David, too, experiences guilt, but I think it is his shame which defines him more. This is reflected in his withdrawal from the world, and in particular his later fascination with the solitary world of model railroading in his basement—though this could also be interpreted as his own desire to exert control.
For centuries, “tragic family secrets” were—and still are—a tried and true literary device propelling character motivation and plotlines forward. Why were you “up front” with the terrible heartbreak in Atlantis? Why not leave it as a revelation later in the narrative for readers to discover the reason why the characters behave in the manner they do?
I think it has to do with what I said about catharsis. I was much more interested in having the characters (and the readers) find their way out of tragedy—realistically and through suffering—so as not to minimize the calamity with a sitcom’s neatly tied bow. It is not a novel about unearthing; it is a book about surfacing.
The incident effects several generations. Why is it important to bring Larry into the mix?
In truth, Larry was an important secondary character from the beginning, but it was my editor, Michelle Berry, who convinced me that he should have a narrative viewpoint. This happened very late in the game. I suppose his inclusion has something to do with the nature vs nurture argument. Knowing Larry helps the reader better understand David. Part of David’s motivation as a character is his abandonment as a teenager; part of it is simply the way he is. And he is like his father. Neither of them are bad people. They are just weak. They choose flight over fight. But this doesn’t condemn them to any one fate. People can overcome themselves. People can redeem themselves. Even Larry, who is in the later stages of his life. But the inclusion of Larry is also valuable as a subplot. Characters can’t live in the vacuum of the main conflict. Good characters, like real people, carry their baggage into the fray. David’s life has experienced tragedy, and at times that tragedy was all-encompassing. It defined him. But life is chaotic. Past issues come back to haunt him. New issues arise. And David must deal them. In fact, the receding importance of his tragedy over time is one of the book’s truths. This, as much as anything else, helps David (and Anne) in their grief.
David Henry is a failed teacher. How does his fall from teaching grace compare to that of Pat Peoples in Silver Linings Playbook? Do you think there’s hope for him to ever teach again?
Pat, although it is never labeled as such in the novel, probably suffers from bi-polar disorder. This disease, and his initial refusal to accept the disease, is what make him fail. So in that respect, David and Pat are similar. David, for his part, suffers from situational depression and perhaps even a brush with alcoholism. However, in my mind, David’s failure comes closer to being a choice. At times I feel that he is just waiting for an excuse to throw in the towel and justify his withdrawal from the world. He is a near mirror image of his father in that way. And while David has certainly changed and grown by novel’s end, I do not foresee his return to teaching. Heraclitus says it best: “You can’t step into the same river twice.”
If The Road to Atlantis was made into a film and you had to cast Atlantis, who would star in your dream cast?
Hmm. I think Mark Ruffalo would do a great job with David. Anne is tougher. Laura Linney, perhaps. Logan Lerman would play Matty, and Cara Delevingne would play Kim. Larry would have to be Jeff Bridges.