I have mentioned before that Swimming with Maya is one of my favorite memoirs ever, so I was ecstatic when Eleanor Vincent agreed to be interviewed. Thank you, Ms. Vincent!
As I lift May’s still warm and pliable fingers in mine, the instinctive mother’s recognition of her child’s body takes over. I slide my right hand under her shoulder and gaze down at her serene young face.
Reverend Margaret leans over her. “Maya, this is your graduation from life on earth. You are going on to a school far greater than U.C.L.A. We release you with all of our love and blessings.” She looks at me from across the white mound of sheets covering Maya’s body. “Can you let her go, Mom?”
–-excerpt from Swimming with Maya, Published by Dream of Things.
Swimming with Maya is a beautiful account of the loss of your daughter, as well as the long path towards healing which was aided by meeting the recipients of her donated organs. How did you know when the right time was for you to begin writing this story?
In this instance, I had no choice. I had to begin immediately. Maya’s death was such a shock that I needed to write about it to make it real, and begin to process the loss. What I wrote in the two to three years after her death became the foundation for the book, but I used very little of the actual writing. It took me 10 years to create a story that would be a compelling read.
How did you come up with the title Swimming with Maya?
It only came to me at the very end when I was writing the dream about swimming with Maya – it seemed like a perfect metaphor for how we continue to weave into each other’s lives in a very fluid way. I think Maya’s message to me in the dream was that what we think of as “the other side” is actually very close to us, and that those we love can communicate with us even when they are no longer in physical bodies. So water had special meaning and is a thematic element throughout the book.
Writing a memoir can become an unfortunate info dump. Not everyone can survive what you have and detach enough to write scenes as though they were occurring in real-time. Do you have tips for writers who don’t share your gift?
Writing memoir is a learned skill, and one that requires you to detach enough to be a character in your own story, as well as a narrator. It is essential that the narrator knows and understands more than the character. I learned a lot from Vivian Gornick’s book The Situation and The Story. After I read it during the final years of drafting the book, I was able to go back and revise accordingly. As the author, it’s vital to no longer be shocked or astonished by your own story. It took me many years to reach that point. I guess my advice to others would be patience and studying the craft of writing.
What was the greatest help while writing this story? Did you have a critiquing group or editor or another source of support and inspiration that was key in your success?
I was working on an MFA in creative writing at the time Maya died, so that program at Mills College was very instrumental in giving me the support and the craft knowledge (and practice) I needed to succeed. I also had a wonderful writing group in the last years of the writing, and reader critique was essential to the process. In addition, I had a writing partner, Sarah Scott Davis to whom the book is dedicated. I emailed Sarah chapters as I completed them and every Saturday morning we’d talk by phone and she’d give me her feedback and offer support. As I was completing the final revisions, Sarah spent a few afternoons with me and we spread the manuscript out on the floor, chapter by chapter, and worked on the final polishing.
Was there ever a time when you were writing this book that the writing stalled, or did it flow pretty easily once you were able to begin the process?
I stalled out countless times. I had to stop and grieve. I was raising my younger daughter Meghan at the time, and working at a full-time corporate editing job, so my time was very limited. Once Meghan left for college, I was able to focus more, and buckle down and get it done – but it still took several more years to complete.
Swimming with Maya has been a New York Times e-book bestseller twice! Congratulations! What has been the most effective way that you’ve found to market your memoir?
My publisher Mike O’Mary at Dream of Things is very savvy about using newsletters targeted to e-reader users. So Mike placed ads with those publications and I supported his efforts with a Facebook author page, my website, and a blog tour. Most of our sales have been in the e-book format.
I heard in a podcast that you finally got your book published, and the publisher went belly up. Please tell us a bit about that, and how you proceeded to keep your story alive.
Capital Books, the original publisher, brought out a beautiful hardback edition of the book in 2004. They kept the book in print until they went out of business early in 2011. At that point, I looked at several options. The Author’s Guild has a “back in print” program but formatting is very limited. I considered self-publishing but felt I’d rather focus my energies on writing and that I needed technical and marketing support. A dear friend, Madeline Sharples, had recently published her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, with Dream of Things. She introduced me to Mike and he was very enthusiastic about Swimming with Maya. We brought out an updated edition in paperback and e-book early in 2013. I was very lucky to find a publisher with Mike’s level of commitment and skill to reissue the book.
What are you working on currently?
I’m currently working on a treatment for a screenplay of Swimming with Maya. I’d like to see the book adapted and made into a movie. Writing for film is very different from narrative nonfiction writing, so I’ve taken several classes and am now working with a screenwriting consultant to polish the draft. I also have a completed draft of a book about my time living in a co-housing community – a hilarious and poignant disaster – that I’m currently working on turning into a novel. Fictionalizing it will give me more freedom to amp up the drama. So I’m in a learning curve with that project, too. I like to learn new things and challenge myself to expand my skills. I’ve been writing professionally for four decades and I feel like there is so much more to learn.
Swimming with Maya can be purchased on Amazon or at Dream of Things.