When I had the idea for my novel The Last Wave, I imagined an elderly man, standing on a cliff, looking out to sea. I hadn’t imagined in that initial moment of conception, that the novel I would write would end up being a love letter to the sea. But when I realised the man on the cliff was looking out to sea, searching for his wife, I knew that she would be a swimmer.
I brought a lot of long-held ideas of what a swimmer was, of how such a person could be described, because I’m a swimmer too.
I thought about Martha’s body: her shoulders would be broad. She would struggle against the confines of women’s blouses cut smaller in the shoulders and unforgiving to those of us who pull ourselves through the water. Her hair would be short because it’s more practical – I thought back to my younger self, leaving the pool where I practised back in my native Canada, in the dark winter mornings, long hair dripping wet as I walked the few blocks to school. It would be frozen by the time I got to my first class and all morning my hair would defrost, and by lunchtime it was approaching that halfway state where it no longer dripped, but was still damp. That dampness is tangible to me, and something I associate with being a swimmer – ears a bit drippy, socks a tiny bit wet, not quite dry, yet towels all over the place.
When I was writing The Last Wave, I was living in London and swimming at the London Fields Lido. The thrill of swimming outdoors all through the winter never went away, no matter how cold or miserable the weather was. I was delighted when I noticed that my tan lines – which would normally have faded – were still strong. The outline of my Speedo always visible on my body. Those tan lines made me feel that I was part of a special and unique club: a club of water people, those of us who know the singular pleasure that the water brings.
When you write fiction, you have to give your characters challenges to overcome. They need conflict, something dramatic should happen. So I did something cruel to Martha: I made her come out of the water. And I made her stay on dry land for ten years.
Those tan lines made me feel that I was part of a special and unique club: a club of water people, those of us who know the singular pleasure that the water brings.
That was difficult to imagine. The longest I had been out of the water was a year and a half. I was young, first year at university, so there were other things to think about, and after swimming five or six times a week, it was – in a way – nice to be on dry land for a bit.
But ten years? How would you react?
I knew Martha would be driven half mad by it. I knew she couldn’t tolerate it for much longer. That she would feel drawn back to the sea, that she would notice it when no one else would. Smell it in the air, hear it in the distance, or even just think about it, knowing it was only just there, just down the road, waiting for her. She was drying up.
Eventually, Martha can’t hold out any longer and she sets off to the water’s edge one cold spring morning. Rashly, she throws herself into the water. I imagined that this must be what ending a fast feels like – the impetus is to gorge yourself, make up for lost time. I felt that even though the water was the burning cold that she wouldn’t mind. I knew it would feel like coming home to her.
She is obsessed, but I don’t think obsession is quite the right word. It’s not enough, because it’s also about how she relates to it: for Martha, the sea isn’t just a body of water, it’s alive.
It was when I let Martha go back in the sea, and nearly drowned her, that I understood a bit more of how she feels about the water. It’s home to her, but it’s more than that. When she goes back in, after ten years on land, the waves pummel her. She’s tossed about in the shore break, but instead of being frightened, upset, or put off, she loves it. She felt the sea was coming to play with her, that she was getting tossed around because she hadn’t been in the water for so long, the water punishing her for having stayed away. So, part of what attracts her to the water is what you might be drawn to in a lover – that feeling of being unable to stay away.
The way Martha feels about the water doesn’t come only from her mind, something inside her spirit, her soul, is crying out for it.
Which is something I think all swimmers have.