On April 27th at our Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating nine of our authors who have recently published their debut books. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.
Today, we’re talking to Laura Spence-Ash, author of One Story Issue #188, “The Remains,” and the novel Beyond That, the Sea (Celadon Books).
In London in 1940, Millie and Reginald Thompson decide to send their 11-year-old daughter Beatrix to America to keep her safe for the duration of the war. In Boston with the Gregory family, Bea feels awkward as an evacuee navigating the class and cultural differences, but the Gregorys absorb Bea into their family, and soon they can’t imagine their family without her. Beyond That, the Sea follows Bea and the Gregorys through loss, love, grief, forgiveness, and grace. Above all, it captures how others leave their imprint on us long after they’re gone.
Tara Lindis: Where were you when you found out Beyond that, the Sea was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
Laura Spence-Ash: I was at home, eating lunch, when my agent called to say that she had a preemptive offer for the book. She had sent the book out on submission less than a week earlier (with a lovely blurb by Hannah Tinti!), and I never expected that the book would sell so quickly. It took me over a year to find an agent, so I thought that finding a publisher would follow the same timeline. As my agent was talking, I was writing everything down on a sheet of paper to show my husband, and he was running around the room in celebration! By the end of the day, the book was sold. I’m not sure we did much to celebrate beyond that—I was in shock!
TL: Beyond That, the Sea covers three distinct time periods, yet the historical events never overshadow the characters’ emotional arcs, and I suspect it’s because the historical details are so well curated while the characters’ inner lives are so thoroughly developed. How did you choose which historical details or moments to weave into the characters’ lives? Did these details arise naturally once you knew each of the characters?
LSA: Yes, I think it was a pretty organic process. I wrote the book in its current format from start to finish, and I simply moved forward in time—although I had been thinking about these characters for over ten years and had tried to tell their story in other ways. It was quite fun to have multiple points-of-view because I was always challenged to inhabit a new perspective, and it was exciting to think about who I would be with next and where they would be. I do find recurring details to be very helpful in both developing character and creating forward momentum—in Beyond That, the Sea, there are many of these, including postal chess postcards and paintings and Mickey Mantle bobbleheads. In terms of the balance between historical events and characters, I never really thought I was writing historical fiction—for me, the characters come first and the historical events are in the background.
TL: In your acknowledgements, you mention Michael Henderson’s memoir, See You After the Duration as a helpful resource, along with The Imperial War Museum in London and the BBC’s story archive. Did you research before writing your first draft or were you on an as-you-needed-it-basis? What was your favorite part about the research, or the most challenging part?
LSA: I did a fair bit of research early on, mostly about the war years, but I began to wonder if I would ever write the book if I kept doing research. So in the year that I wrote the book in this format, I told myself that I had to focus on the writing and not on the research. I did some research as I reached new time periods and that was very helpful in grounding the characters, and I did more after the book was completed, too, to make sure everything was as accurate as possible. I love learning about the past and finding wonderful details that help to develop characters and the world they live in.
TL: “The Remains,” your story in One Story, utilizes five points of view (a lot for a short story, but here it’s successful!). Likewise, Beyond That, the Sea, rotates between eight points of view with the center being Bea’s time as an evacuee with the Gregorys. When did you realize you would use multiple points of view for your novel or that multiple points of view allowed you to tell the story you wanted to tell? Did your experience in writing “The Remains” help shape this decision?
LSA: I find it difficult to write from only one point of view—I always want to know what someone else is thinking. (And I think this is true in my life as well as in my fiction!) For this book, I initially thought that Bea would be the narrator, but somehow I couldn’t make that work—it didn’t feel like the right way to tell this story. Then I thought that Bea should share the narration with William and Gerald, the two American boys she lives with, but that also didn’t work. It was when I realized the novel, although centered on Bea, was really about the two families, that I decided to include all eight points-of-view. My original impulse for this book came in 1998(!) when I learned that children had been sent to the States during the war. My children were young then, and so my initial perspective had been from that of a parent. So I think it makes sense that I returned to that in the book’s final iteration: to hear from everyone in both families.
There are definitely similarities with “The Remains.” For that story, the main character is dead, so we only learn about her through the other perspectives. And in Beyond That, the Sea, Bea is clearly the main character, but I think the story is richer because we also see her through others, and we learn about their experience as well.
TL: Now that you’ve successfully written a novel and short stories, do you feel more suited for writing one form over the other? What challenges did you face in writing Beyond That, the Sea that you did not encounter previously in writing short stories?
LSA: I love short stories. I love how you can hold a short story in your hand and in your mind, something that I find very difficult to do with a novel, which seems so amorphous and huge. The project that I’m working on now was actually built from three short stories and three characters that were not originally connected. I think breaking it down into these smaller bits—be it multiple point-of-view characters or shorter chapters, as in Beyond That, the Sea—is very helpful for me. I can trick myself into believing that I’m working on something smaller, and it doesn’t feel quite so overwhelming.
TL: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?
LSA: I have been attending the Deb Ball since 2014, when One Story published my debut story. I’m not sure I ever really believed I would one day be a Deb, so I am thrilled beyond words. I don’t think I would be here without the support of One Story, and I can’t wait to celebrate with everyone. It is such a joy to be part of the One Story family.
Tara Lindis is a writer and freelance editor. Her work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. Originally from Portland, Oregon, she now lives in Brooklyn, New York with her family.