Writer in Residence · 10/22/2012

Interview and Excerpt from JoeAnn Hart's Forthcoming Novel Float

First — thank you for writing Float. It is all of these things: joyful and troubling, hilarious and somber, evocative and introspective. Where did the inspiration for Float come from and how did you pull this multi-layered and hilarious novel together? What can you tell me about the evolution of Float?

Stefanie, thank you for liking Float! As with my first novel, Addled, the title came to me before anything else. I loved all the meanings of the word. We think first of floating on water, or floating on air, but it’s used in the financial world too. To float a loan is to borrow money and to float a check is to use money that isn’t in your account yet. Flotsam, debris in the water, is from French flotter, to float, and there’s lots of floating garbage in the book. A float can be a glass ball used to suspend a fishing net, and a float can be the flat, wooden part of a dock. I wanted to explore float in a psychological sense too, as in to float through the day like a jellyfish — to have no direction in life. But most of all, I wanted to use float in a positive sense, the ability to float over stress in order to survive. Even the novel’s epigraph is about floating. From Alan Watts: “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.”

Once I was finished exploring all those meanings of float, I had a novel.

Your characters are wonderfully well-rounded. For instance, Slocum, the optimistic advice-giving chef who thrives on experimenting with potentially dangerous and often odd ingredients: “He had an ancient-mariner gleam in his eyes and a full, squared-off beard and walrus mustache, probably in violation of the health code. It made him look like an Old Testament prophet, which made people trust him more than they should.” Where did these deliriously-wacky-yet -realist characters come from and how did you develop them? For instance -The mother who has sequestered herself in her octagon house, relegated to spouting sea-phrases and studying her sailing-log; Annuncia who is the champion of all things green, Josefa who dedicates her life to saving seagulls.

Others have often said that I am highly accepting of people who are different, even strange. The thing is, I usually don’t even see that there’s something odd about a person until it’s pointed out to me. If I were a character in Float, someone might come up to me and say, “Wow, Josefa sure takes in a lot of birds, doesn’t she?” I guess she does. “Annuncia obsesses too much about clean fishing practices.” Good on her! “Slocum sent someone to the ER again today to have his stomach pumped.” Yeah, you don’t want to order anything other than a fry plate in his restaurant. Everyone’s a package. In fiction, you want to stress the one odd thing about a character, because that’s where the passion usually is. Same as in real life. As far as crazy moms go, they’re my specialty. I gave one to our hero, Duncan, because he has lost his passion. His mom might be nuts, but at least she knows what she wants.

Duncan, the endearing down-trodden protagonist struggles (as many of us do)with the debate of “whether it was right to bring children into the world at all, a world so overcrowded and polluted it sat on the brink of ecological extinction.” Where do you stand on the population and “the meaning of life itself.”?

Speaking as a woman who has had three children, it doesn’t sound as if I gave that much consideration to over-population in my own life, but in fact, I did. I struggled. I believe that many, if not all, of our environmental problems can be sourced back to too many humans and too few resources. You don’t hear much about Zero Population Growth anymore, and it used to be what we all preached. We need to get back to that, if it’s not too late to take control. We may have triggered our own birth-rate apocalypse with all the plastics in the ocean exuding pseudo-estrogens and causing fertility problems in everything from oysters to humans. Having said all that, I meant to have just two children. I was committed to just replacing myself and my husband on the planet, but somehow the third kid just slipped through the net. So much for the best laid plans. As far as the meaning of life goes, we spend so much time and psychic energy worrying the question to death, when right in front of us there is a world of love. How much more do you need than that?

Duncan describes himself and Slocum as “They saw life from the same perspective, above the fray and into the future, full of hope.” Despite what we hear about global change, overpopulation, pollution etc. After your experience and research for Float, what do you feel hopeful about?

That quote refers to when they were both young. Slocum goes on to retain his vision of the future because he loves what he does, while Duncan loses his because he can’t find the joy in his life. We have to find a way to feed the creative spirit in each other, both artistic and scientific, because human ingenuity is the only thing that can possibly get us out of the mess we’ve made of Earth. Let’s hope.

As is throughout the novel, your descriptions are consistently vivid and often shocking. A horrifying “massive object” rolls to shore after a storm: “…a killer ball of plastic crap the size of a whale“  consisting of nets and “…lobster traps, polyethylene bottles, flip-flops, Mylar balloons, disposable diapers, and Tide detergent jugs, woven into the mess were fish of all nations, dead seagulls, other sea birds, and worst of all, a harbor seal….“  What can or should the individual do about this problem of plastic? What does our future look like?

The amazing thing is that plastics have been with us for such a short period of time. The plastic soda bottle wasn’t even invented until the 1970’s. Now look. There’s really no way of putting the toothpaste back in the tube. The plastics we have now will always be with us, even if we can’t see them. When they talk about the Great Pacific Garbage Gyre, yes, there’s millions of tons of plastic detergent bottles floating around, but most of it has broken down to the size of plankton. The fish eat it, we eat the fish, and the whole system is poisoned. That’s the present. The future is going to get more and more toxic until it can’t support life at all. Meaning us. Since we can’t turn back the clock, we have to, as they say, reduce, reuse, and recycle, but even that won’t save us. Only finding safe alternatives to plastic will do that, and that will require all that human ingenuity I spoke about before.

What are you working on now? And (or) what do you do when you aren’t writing?

Right at this very moment I’m taking a class called Writing a Ten Minute Play. I wanted to stretch and do something different, forgetting how very difficult it is to learn something new. All this formatting! But I love it. I might not ever produce a watch-able play, but I’m learning so many things about the economy of words and the power of dialogue. When I feel I’ve learned quite enough, I’ll get back to short stories for a while, maybe even do a series that has one piece of plastic in every story that turns the plot.

When I’m not at my computer, I’m in the garden or tending to a few chickens, a pig, and a couple of goats. I love to cook, but I don’t mix the two. They are all rescue animals whom we have promised not to eat. Even our two donkeys are from a rescue farm called Save Your Ass. If I put that in a novel, readers would think I was making it up.


Excerpt from Float (Ashland Creek Press):

Duncan pressed his glasses hard against his face, as if that could block out the words. No matter which way he turned these days, his business problems lay in wait for him. This particular problem was Kendrie Ottejnstein, captain of a 100-ton South African vessel fishing out of Port Ellery for the herring season, and there he sat, trapped by Annuncia whose physique was as solid as if she’d been poured in a foundry. Kendrie was a fish she’d been trying to land for a long time and all she had to do to block his exit from his booth was pull up a chair. Aside from her job managing Seacrest’s, she was an organizer for Green Fish, a group that promoted ecologically caught seafood. She was constantly haranguing captains like Kendrie — a paying Seacrest’s client — about conforming to practices that respected the fisheries, such as proper net size to limit bycatch, the inadvertent capture of one species while trying to fish for another. By law, the bycatch — which was almost always dead, and if not dead, dying — had to be thrown back into the sea. It couldn’t even be given to him to dehydrate, which was a truly sinful waste of an already depleted resource. Duncan understood the long-term consequences of dirty fishing, but with Seacrest’s on such shaky legs at the moment this was hardly the time to alienate clients because of it.


posted by Stefanie Freele