Water is everything to me,” says Lidia Yuknavitch via Zoom from her home in Portland, Ore. “My world was submerged pretty early on.” Yuknavitch, 58, was swimming competitively by the time she was five or six years old. She had a swimming scholarship at Texas Tech and dreamed of competing in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. That dream, however, was dashed when the U.S. boycotted the games after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
As a child, Yuknavitch says, “I believed I could breathe underwater.” The belief drove her to do things others found uncomfortable. “Before I was a competitive swimmer, I would just walk off the edge of docks, or if there was a hotel pool, I would just get in it. They were afraid I was going to drown because nothing would stop me.”
It’s a characteristic Yuknavitch has in common with the protagonist of her new novel, Thrust (Riverhead, June). Readers first meet Laisve˙ in the year 2079, after the collapse of civilization and “the great water rise.” Laisve˙ is a young, motherless girl traveling with her father and baby brother aboard a ferry taking people to visit “a drowning statue”—a figure that is, and is not, a partially submerged Statue of Liberty—in a place called the Brook. When she climbs over the rungs of the ferry railing and jumps into the waves, she sets the story in motion. Her father hands her brother to another man and jumps in after her, losing the baby; the girl swims, inexplicably, toward the sinking statue; and the “water girl” becomes a nameless legend.
But there are many characters and stories in Thrust: a French sculptor and his beloved cousin, who correspond with one another by letter in the late 19th century; a dictator’s daughter who hopes to save a boy accused of murder in the 1990s; a group of immigrant laborers working together on a national monument much like the Statue of Liberty in an unstated time. As a “carrier” who harnesses the power of objects to slip through decades and centuries, Laisve˙ connects these characters, all of whom are in danger and must be saved in order to build a better society.
Yuknavitch’s novel takes on a watery flow in itself, not only weaving back and forth through time but also replacing a strict sense of plot with movement based on word and object associations, “kind of the way poetry does,” she says. “Only I’m insisting prose can move that way, too. Regular plot falls away a little bit, because other kinds of plot emerged that moved from the color blue to the color red, to the word red. I was also trying to take the elements of fairy tale and surrealism and speculative fiction that might have made a certain kind of book, but represented as realism. Like this girl really breathes under water. It’s not a metaphor. Every rule there is of a conventional novel has no meaning here.”
Yuknavitch won an Oregon Book Award for her 2016 bestseller, The Small Backs of Children, and another for her 2011 memoir, The Chronology of Water, in which she describes growing up with an abusive father and alcoholic mother. She’s also the author of the bestselling novel The Book of Joan (2017), the novel Dora: A Headcase (2012), and Allegories of Violence (2001), a book of criticism on war and narrative. She’s been a finalist for the Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize and the PEN Center USA Creative Nonfiction Award.
Doing what she wanted with Thrust was a particular challenge, Yuknavitch says. She spent more than a year on research, studying everything from the building of the Statue of Liberty to the properties of mycelium to the murder of a 19th century New York City prostitute. (All these things ended up in the book).
“While I’m researching, I’m cutting out pictures, I’m taking notes—but not the kind of notes where you write long essays to yourself,” she explains. “Just like words and phrases that touch other words and phrases, and images of coins and images of ropes, to keep the associated thing alive.”
Yuknavitch tacked these story fragments, along with photographs and sticks and thistles and hair, onto a wall in her office. It’s part of her process, she says, “Every new book gets a new wall.” But with this novel, the wall offered too wide a view—“I was getting too cosmically out of orbit.” Eventually, her husband talked her into using a whiteboard instead. “I was very angry. But in the end, he was correct. I needed to take that and distill it so that I could look at it and see how to tease these threads apart. I needed a smaller snapshot version.”
Then there was the editing process. “I could see what I wanted the story to do,” Yuknavitch recalls. “And then there was a giant cavern between me and my editor. I could see his love for the story I was trying to tell, but I couldn’t figure out how to communicate. He would send pages of notes of what he thought the story was, and I’d be like, ‘No, it’s not that.’ In that back and forth, which was a real dialogue, we started telling the same story. [Riverhead editor] Calvert Morgan is a phenomenal being from another planet, apparently.”
Yuknavitch, who received a doctorate in literature from the University of Oregon, feels that being a writer is her calling. “My storytelling is all I got,” she says. “I was going to be a swimmer; that didn’t work out exactly. Then I wanted to be a painter, but I detoured myself through drugs and drinking and sex and flunking out. So that didn’t happen.” Then, in 1986, her daughter was born and died on the same day. That was when she became a writer.
“She’s kind of in everything I ever write forever,” Yuknavitch says of her daughter. “In the most basic primal sense, trauma is what brought me to writing, because I was trying to heal from and come out of trauma, and writing things down helped me.”
Around that time, Yuknavitch’s friend, a grad student in the MFA program at the University of Oregon, snuck her into a creative writing class taught by Ken Kesey. “I would definitely count him as a pivotal figure in my little trajectory, because after that I guess it wouldn’t be a lie to say I was addicted,” she says. Kesey had also had a child who died, and they’d talk about storytelling as medicine, as something one could have for oneself, she recalls, but also that could be shared with others. “And that wouldn’t be the worst way to live a life.”
With Thrust—“my tiny, tiny little contribution in the river of storytelling”—Yuknavitch says she hopes to “write open a space between binaries, like man and woman or pleasure, pain or good, bad, or all of them. I’m trying to write a space open to say, ‘What if.’ ”
Yuknavitch believes in the power of nature to help us heal. “This little heart wish I have is that people would listen to trees and water and animals more often,” she says. In writing this novel, she adds, “I delighted in the idea that at any moment we could change our own story or that of the person next to us. I believe in that. We don’t have to live the stories we’ve been told.”
Jen Doll is the author of the YA novel Unclaimed Baggage and the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest.