by Sheri Boggs
Her writing schedule is an enviable one. Seattle author Carole Glickfeld usually wakes up by mid-afternoon, then dresses and heads over to her neighborhood Starbucks with a handful of pages to edit. She works on her prose with the hiss of steam and the burble of chatter in the background for a few hours, and then it's back home or maybe over to the University of Washington to teach a creative writing class. And then, while most of us are getting ready for bed, Glickfeld is sitting down to write, which she will do until the wee hours of the morning.
It's not surprising, then, that Glickfeld writes about the kinds of things that keep most of us up at night: financial troubles, despair, infidelity, loss. Her latest effort, Swimming toward the Ocean, opens at a point where another book might end: a woman in her late 40s, having discovered that she is pregnant, walks out into the Atlantic with the intention of killing herself. The woman -- a Russian Jewish immigrant named Chenia -- saves herself at the last moment and ends up back on the terra firma of Coney Island, where she meets a shoe salesman in a green fedora who will become not only the love of her life but the catalyst for her unfolding sense of self.
Chenia emerges from the novel as a stunning literary creation: an unschooled woman who craves the fine arts, a middle-aged Jewish immigrant who looks more like Betty Grable than a babushka, a wife in a loveless marriage who nevertheless finds both passion and enduring love. But even though Chenia reads on the page as if based on a living human being, Glickfeld remembers that she materialized from mid-air.
"I have no idea where she came from. I had this image of a woman going up to the roof," she says. "Suddenly I knew why she was going up to the roof, and I started writing right there, right at that moment. And it was Chenia. It was the beginning of the book. But where she came from I can't tell you."
Chenia speaks a pastiche of English and Yiddish, and she keeps some Old World Jewish customs. Not surprisingly, Glickfeld grew up in a Jewish home, in a neighborhood similar to the one Chenia inhabits. But she doesn't remember her upbringing being Jewish in a strongly religious sense, aside from the fact that her mother observed kosher. In spite of her knack for capturing Chenia's Yiddish dialogue, surprisingly, Glickfeld didn't grow up hearing any Yiddish around the house at all. Both her parents were deaf.
"A man came to my reading here and said, 'That was my mother. How did you know what she sounded like?' " she recalls. "I told him, 'I don't know.' But I think that's what being a writer is. It's listening and looking and eavesdropping, all the time."
Glickfeld used her experience with two deaf parents in her first novel Useful Gifts, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for short fiction in 1989. But Swimming toward the Ocean marks her moment of arrival as a writer. The book was published by the highly respected publishing firm, Knopf, and reviews of Swimming have been almost overwhelmingly positive. But this is no ordinary book. It's narrated by Chenia's youngest daughter, the one she tries to abort in the very first chapter. Devorah's sharp intuition and eye-rolling affection for this assortment of mismatched lovers and troubled adults informs every page. It's a testament to Glickfeld's devotion to her craft that the device works as well as it does. She admits that writing first drafts often makes her incredibly anxious, but she loves the editing and revision process.
"Some people -- including some of my students -- hate revision. But I love seeing things get better. Or at least, I assume they get better," she laughs.
Glickfeld was at one time so shy that she dropped out of a Ph.D program because her fear of public speaking was so great. After moving to Seattle several decades ago, she got involved in local politics and lost her shyness. Her writing these days has a certain fearlessness, and she doesn't seem to be afraid to discuss even such difficult topics as infidelity, suicidal tendencies or hospital commitment.
"It's an East/West thing," she explains. "On the East Coast, everybody thinks of suicide or maybe has tried to kill themselves. But on the West Coast, it doesn't exist, and in fact, people look at you like you're a lunatic if you even bring it up. It's just a given back East."
In addition to keeping an East Coast mentality, Glickfeld's love for the neighborhoods of her childhood continues to shape her work.
"I think where you're from shapes who you are and how you look at things, how creative you are, what you like to do and where you're headed," she says. "That neighborhood had a very powerful effect on my psyche. There was just something about it."