Alexandra Teague, The Principles Behind Flotation
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
2017, 328 pages, hardcover, $24.95
YOU HAVE TO dive in.
From the first page of Alexandra Teague’s debut novel, The Principles Behind Flotation, the reader is immersed in A.Z. McKinney’s reality. The Sea of Santiago appeared mysteriously in a cow pasture in northwestern Arkansas in 1955. In 1989, 14-year-old A.Z. is determined to be the inland saltwater sea’s first oceanographer but she has one problem: she doesn’t have a boat. The quirky, specific details in this coming-of-age novel build the world, but A.Z. is a one-of-a-kind character and her struggles with her future, friendships, family, and romance are at the novel’s core.
ML: You did this same sort of thing in The Wise and Foolish Builders, taking aspects of reality to build the foundation of your world and then filling in the walls and rooms with specific details. How did that process translate from poetry to fiction?
AT: That’s a great question, which no one has phrased yet in quite that way, although I’ve gotten good responses to the world building in both books. In The Wise and Foolish Builders, I created Sarah Winchester’s persona and tried to inhabit her house and 19th-century world largely by drawing on historical details for the imagery and metaphors—e.g. “ghosts disappearing into walls / like pocket doors on invisible rails” or “the plums decked out like bridesmaids for the sky” (a comparison that seemed natural to her since she ran large orchards) or the lists in “The General Store Proprietor”—“Moreen. Serge. Saxony”—which I found by researching 19th-century fabrics. While The Principles Behind Flotation takes place in a world that is more familiar to me, I knew nothing about saline levels and boat repair (and very little about sailing and chicken processing and alligators), so a lot of the details are again drawn from research. A.Z.’s obsession with the Sea and boats is, I think, much more convincing if she’s talking about “sistering the strakes” than if she’s talking about “fastening some boards.” I worked to find resonant details of the 1980s and the Ozarks and Compolodo that would help give the reader a sense of the world being inhabited and having a particular character—for instance, most of the names of businesses in Compolodo revolving around the Sea (e.g. “Salty Pines” and “The Ark Park”) or references to 1980s songs or fashions (e.g. “hair flowers,” as we used to call the poofed-up hair-sprayed bangs). I originally overwrote, by several hundred pages, so much of my revising work was winnowing down to hopefully the most resonant of the details that can act as markers for a broader world.
Teague is a poet and that’s evident in the rhythm of the prose and the specific, delightful details. Every aspect of A.Z.’s world interacts with another. A.Z. has a summer job at a Chinese buffet and the outside air “doesn’t feel much different than the rice-cooker humidity inside.” Her own experiences with Kristoff remind her of her mother’s first love and the stories she’s heard secondhand, over and over again. Everything resonates.
ML: You mentioned, in the Acknowledgements section, that The Principles Behind Flotation took you nine years to write. By my calculations, A.Z. existed while you were writing The Mortal Geography and The Wise and Foolish Builders. How did A.Z. benefit from your poetry collections?
AT: You would think that being a poet I would be good at concision. In reality, a one-page poem usually takes me about 14 pages of drafting: not all different words, but recombinations of words and countless images and metaphors and ideas that never appear in the final version. I wrote The Principles Behind Flotation similarly—not to a strict outline, but exploring connections and trusting that if my mind came up with an alligator at the Ark Park, I should explore where that led, or trusting my characters to surprise me with what they said (which they often did). So I would say that my willingness to explore and not be plot-bound—and not only my willingness to revise but my belief that the real work of discovering what I want to say happens during revision—came from my poetry and benefited the book, though that also explains why it took me almost a decade to write.
ML: You mention revision and how the real work, for you, comes from revising. Was there a part of The Principles Behind Flotation that was hardest to revise? The book seems to flow so naturally (excuse my water pun) and it’s hard to believe that you would’ve had to do much as far as plot structure goes, but it’s a question I find myself wondering about most novels. How do you land on a structure? How do you decide?
AT: Oh, there were so many parts that were hard to revise—sections that I would repeatedly think that I’d “gotten” and then re-read a day later and realize were still mis-paced. I’m very glad to hear you say the book flows naturally. That’s partly the keen eye of my editor, Chelsey Emmelhainz, who really helped me in the last six months by pushing me to speed some of the pacing and more poignantly or suspensefully end chapters, and otherwise look for opportunities to keep the tension and focus clearer. For the last few drafts (once A.Z. wanted to become an oceanographer, rather than a sailor, as she’d wanted in my initial drafts), the basic order of the story didn’t change too much. But I definitely combined scenes, and some of them—such as her epiphany at the New Ark Church about the sails—moved around a bit. I also had to really work on pacing Kristoff’s strange behavior and choices, so each thing he did was a little odder or more problematic than the last. By the end, as you know, there are several people having their own versions of breakdowns, and it turns out that it’s hard to juggle multiple breakdown threads!
Teague spent her teenage years in Arkansas, the setting for The Principles Behind Flotation. The novel is set in the late 80s which gives it a nostalgic feeling and an added element to the plot: A.Z. has to figure things out, mostly on her own or from books.
ML: There’s something wonderful about A.Z. having to navigate her world without the internet and a certain amount of her innocence is preserved solely because of the time period. How do you think fiction, especially fiction aimed towards young adults, has changed due to technology, namely the internet, social media, and cell phones?
AT: I didn’t actually write The Principles Behind Flotation as YA (though it’s being marketed as adult with YA crossover), so I’m not very steeped in contemporary YA trends, but I definitely think that fiction and our understanding of the young-adult experience (and the actual experiences of the current teen generation) are radically being shaped by technological changes. A recent article from The Atlantic that has been getting a lot of attention on social media details the ways in which the current generation, brought up with iphones, is less likely to seek physical independence (e.g. getting drivers’ licenses) and intimacy (e.g. hanging out with friends or having sex) as early as teenagers in the 80s and 90s. I’m imagining that leads to different sorts of characters in contemporary YA, and certainly readers who would never have many of A.Z.’s anxieties and experiences of worrying if her parents are going to be upset that she hasn’t shown up somewhere (and having no way to call because there aren’t payphones in the woods) or waiting in her room for nights for Kristoff to call her (and then hoping her parents don’t pick up the landline first).
Like you said, A.Z. has a certain innocence because she cannot just look up the Sea on the internet or read people’s speculations on blogs. She feels isolated (but also mentally freed to imagine what the Sea is) in some key ways (as does Kristoff with his understanding of art from books at the library and his own strange thinking). From what I’ve seen, teenagers now may be more savvy about dating and not falling for everything a person they like says (even my 13-year-old niece was able to see how quickly A.Z. adapts her thinking to Kristoff’s—e.g. “Sculptures were kind of dumb”—in ways that I don’t think many older teens in the 80s would have had the self-reflectiveness to see). But on the other hand, self-reflectiveness and distance are easier to have if one isn’t as deeply enmeshed in actual relationships as teenagers were then—meaning they had no virtual world (other than art and music and reading and TV) to escape to. And if they wanted to mark themselves as different from their parents or town, or create space, that couldn’t be done online; they had to go build an actual boat or ride their bikes somewhere.
ML: I think that’s a great observation, that in order to create space, teenagers couldn’t do that online in the 80s (or, really, until the mid 2000s when I was graduating high school). A.Z. seems to feel stifled by her mother’s traumatic life, and a lot of things in her life seem to remind her of her mother’s stories. I think this book does an incredible job of showing the relationship between A.Z. and her mother, allowing the reader to empathize with her parents while still being on A.Z.’s “side.” This is one of those books that I wish I’d read as a teenager and then again as an adult so I could see how my reading differs, which characters I line up with more. Which books, coming-of-age or not, have changed for you when you read them again? What were you reading while you were writing this first draft?
AT: A.Z. definitely lives in the shadow of her mother’s stories, which is a theme that I can personally relate to—having had a mother who was an inveterate and lengthy storyteller. I’m glad that you liked the relationship between A.Z. and her mother, and I’ve heard from other people that they really appreciated being able to relate to both of them.
As for re-reading, I actually don’t re-read novels very often (though I’d like to and have some on my mind I’d love to return to that I loved as a teenager or adult in my 20s). But I re-read poetry a lot and have certainly come to relate to different themes in some of my long-time favorite poets such as Anne Sexton and Larry Levis. And I’ve gotten much more interested in hearing women’s experiences as authors and main characters than I was when I was young, and am much more attuned to how gender and sexuality and race are presented. I don’t remember what all I was reading early in writing Principles. I feel as if the influences on this book are pretty diverse, and also include visual art (obviously) and film. I’ve been influenced by Miranda July’s short stories, which I love for their weirdness and humor; I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism (and Kevin Brockmeier’s—who is a fellow Arkansan and friend). I remember reading Marguerite Duras’ The Lover in my 20s and the presentation of the mother-daughter relationship having a big impact on me. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia came out while I was revising the first full draft of the book, and I was scared to read it at first for fear it’d be too close to what I was doing. But I did read it and really liked it and the ways it developed its world, with humor and complex characters and some incredible tension. Daniel Handler’s Adverbs and its humor had an impact right at the start: I do remember that I was reading that the first winter that I was writing this.
ML: The Principles Behind Flotation is funny. I’ve read your poetry, and while you are always witty, I don’t know that I’ve ever laughed out loud at a poem like I did at lines like A.Z. asking Larsley, “Remember that time Big Bob said that peeing inside a woman after sex meant she wouldn’t get pregnant?” I’ve had the honor of taking a poetry class from you at University of Idaho and I know that you’re very funny in person. How does humor play into your fiction? Is it more for characterization or is it how you insert a part of yourself into your story?
AT: Thank you so much for saying you found the book so funny; the humor is honestly a huge part of what kept me going through years of writing and rewriting. I stayed amused by—and worked hard to play up the pacing of—the humor of A.Z.’s teen mindset (her melodramatic behavior and tendency to hear things the way she wants to, mixed with her being smart and extremely well-read), and the strangeness of the town and its characters. I love absurdity in life and film and literature, and that balance between the really absurd and the moving–e.g. the girl in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom who runs away to the woods with a portable phonograph, batteries, a suitcase full of books, cat food, and her cat. That’s simultaneously ludicrous and so real to the way that kids (and, really, humans) think. Much of my poetry actually comes from things that I find absurd in their juxtapositions, though you’re right that that doesn’t usually play out as humor so much as a sort of strangeness.
I grew up in a small town in the Ozarks that was known as an extremely liberal, hippie center for the arts, but was also economically sustained largely by busloads of Christian tourists coming to see The Great Passion Play and the giant Christ of the Ozarks statue. As I started inventing a world that bore some resemblances to that world, and tried to capture the strange cross-currents of that small-town life, it was natural for humor to be one of the main aspects of the narrative perspective and the voices. So I think humor does both—it characterizes A.Z. and others and it’s central to the narrative perspective (which as you know is 3rd-person limited to A.Z., but also works as free indirect discourse—her voice bleeding into the narrator’s voice, which also maintains some distance and sees humor A.Z. doesn’t).
And writing dialogue gave me a chance to run, farther and differently than I can in persona poems, with voices other than my own. I had the space to set up context for the humor: if we know that Big Bob is this guy who lives in caves and wears sweatsuits and a coonskin cap, but is also maybe a genius computer programmer, then I don’t have to set up his whole voice through his words like I would in a persona poem—but can let his dialogue work in relation to who he is, and also to the rest of this odd world and its characters’ perspectives. It was really fun to write about characters and themes that are very much a part of my background and experience, but which haven’t made their way into my poetry as much.
Alexandra Teague was born in Fort Worth, Texas, grew up in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and has since lived in Missouri, Montana, Florida (where she earned her MFA at the University of Florida in 1998), Hawaii, California, and Idaho. Her first book of poetry, Mortal Geography, (Persea 2010) won the 2009 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize and the 2010 California Book Award. Her second book, The Wise and Foolish Builders, was written and researched in part thanks to a 2011 NEA fellowship, and published by Persea in 2015. Her first novel, The Principles Behind Flotation, is newly out from Skyhorse. She is also, with Brian Clements and Dean Rader, an editor of the forthcoming anthology Bullets into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence in the U.S. (Beacon, December 2017).
Alexandra’s poetry has also appeared in anthologies including Best American Poetry 2009 and New California Writing 2012 and 2013, as well as journals including The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, New England Review, Threepenny Review, and The Southern Review.
A 2006-2008 Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, and winner of the 2014 Jeffrey E. Smith Missouri Review Editors’ Prize, she is an Associate Professor in University of Idaho’s MFA program, faculty advisor for Fugue, and an editor for Broadsided Press. She is also a founding member of the BASK Collective. She lives in Moscow, Idaho, with her husband, the musician and composer Dylan Champagne.