NER staff reader Megan Howell talks to Susan Heeger about her story “Houseboat” from NER 42.2, its place in a tradition of boating literature, and the metaphorical significance of the story’s title.
MH: “Houseboat” is ostensibly about a father taking his three children on a vacation. However, as the narrative progresses, a second, unspoken story comes through, which is that of his divorce. Readers only catch allusions to this trauma, mostly through tense fights over boating and a fish’s capacity to feel pain. We can feel the true sense of tension within the family, the divorce, without knowing any of the intimate details.
What made you decide not to tell the story of the divorce outright? Why mimic the parents’ tendency to talk “around and past each other” when conveying their hurt?
SH: Marital strife is such familiar ground in fiction that writing about it risks evoking familiar assumptions and responses in readers. At the same time, like the rest of human experience, its particular details and circumstances vary widely, so there are infinite ways to come at it. The parents in this story are certainly headed for divorce, but the vacation is set during their separation, as part of the father’s effort to win back his wife, who, their children sense, may have already moved on. It’s a time of uncertainty and transition—for the family, of course, and for the girls, who are in the midst of adolescence—and it seemed logical to me to put them in a boat and send them off into unknown waters. I meant for the family’s trauma to haunt the story. It recedes somewhat as the immediate adventure—with all its challenges—asserts itself, but it’s never really out of the picture. What will happen to them as individuals and as a group? Who will their parents be if they’re not a unit? Who will they be to their parents in this potentially rearranged world, not to mention as maturing people with their own concerns and inner lives?
MH: Boating expeditions have a long literary history as metaphors for the dramatic emotional journeys of heros, mostly men. From The Odyssey to Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to R. Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, travel by boat is arguably one of the more masculine-coded motifs. “Houseboat” makes ample use of boats and water as both intertext (e.g., the father’s love of Mark Twain, specifically his infatuation with Mississippi River and the steamboats from his childhood) and metaphor (e.g., the houseboat crashing, the death of the bluegill). Why use a historically macho literary device to tell the story of a divorced, emasculated “doll of a man”?
SH: My choice of a boating expedition relates as much to my lifelong preoccupation with water and boats as to other narratives about the sea, though of course I’ve read many. I can’t get enough of them! The sea is irresistible to the imagination. Historically, it’s been a route to discovery, both external and internal. It’s alien and forbidding—not at all our natural element—and at the same time, we came from it and carry a version of it inside ourselves. It’s also wild, ungovernable, enormous, and alive in ways that inspire us to take it on. The fishing expedition can be a rite of passage for fathers and sons, as I envisioned it here, albeit one the father in my story has put off until he thinks he needs it to save his marriage. The trip’s challenges reveal new dimensions of him to his children. On the water, he’s less competent, less dominant and self-assured than he was at home, where the dynamics of power have also begun to shift. Parents naturally shrink from godlike to mere-mortal size as their children transition toward adulthood, but divorced parents tend to get there faster.
MH: Though “Houseboat” is in the third-person limited voice, it doesn’t immediately reveal that it inhabits Shelley’s mind. Her perceptions of others are so subtle and pointed that they feel like the objective view of an omniscient narrator. At the same time, she’s not entirely precocious for most of the story; she still finds the divorce confounding, has trouble trying to connect to others, and is unable to articulate her emotions as well as the third-person narrator. Should readers assume that she’s become as enlightened as the narrator by the end of the journey? Or is her understanding of adult issues and her own trauma still underdeveloped?
SH: I’m not sure I know how to answer this. Shelley’s voice crept into my own head early and took over the production. By the end of the story, she’s been through a lot, but she’s still only thirteen!
MH: Even after I realized that I was viewing the world through Shelley’s eyes, I still wondered who the true protagonist of the story was. At first I thought that it was all of the children, then just Shelley, then the father. Does the story belong to any one particular character/group of characters?
SH: This is an interesting question and one I’ve often wondered about, in a more general way, since I learned what a protagonist is. Now it seems to me a much fuzzier, or maybe a more elastic, concept than it did then, and one it’s sometimes left to the reader to decide. Whose struggle, whose piece of the story stays most indelibly in your mind after you’ve read it? It can depend on who you are, what experiences you bring to the story, and therefore which character speaks to you most particularly. For me, it’s Shelley’s story. I got it from her.
MH: One of my favorite elements of the story is the title. It’s so simple, just one word, but it conveys so much. Like the story itself, houseboats are an oxymoron that signify both rest and motion; houses are static whereas boats can only function in bodies of water, liminal spaces. Similarly, the characters are moving even when they’re resting, trying to fix their fractured family in their dad’s houseboat. Even when the children return to their mom’s, their more permanent home, the houseboat’s liminality haunts them when a wildfire threatens to unmoor them yet again. Why have a titular setting that reflects the characters’ emotional tumult? Why not have them in a more stable environment that juxtaposes their feelings?
SH: Besides water and boats, another obsession of mine is houses, being housed, being homeless, what I could live in if I had to, a question children often think about and one that preoccupied me as a child, since my family moved a lot. In the story, the boat offers a temporary, provisional home at a point when the family itself is in flux. It gave me a convenient way to physically embody an emotional “journey,” for lack of a better word, and to echo certain inner states in external dramas while also exploring ideas of home. I did travel the Sacramento River on a houseboat once, and the memory of it has stayed with me—the pared-down self-sufficiency you can achieve in a wild setting with few amenities. I’ve always wanted to write about the experience, to go back and reinhabit it. A little homework led me to discover other writers with the same impulse, maybe most famously Perry Mason’s creator Erle Stanley Gardner, who owned several houseboats and during the 1960s captured his days afloat in books like Drifting Down the Delta.
MH: “Houseboat” has a structure that’s mostly linear save for the very end. We jump from the bluegill’s asphyxiation to the drive home, leaving behind a lacuna whose missing piece hides in an inaccessible part of Shelley’s memory until she returns to her mom. What is the emotional significance of this misordering? Is her brain struggling to process some repressed, unspoken trauma that we don’t know about?
SH: When constructing a narrative, I think there are some decisions you make by instinct. There’s a point at which something feels as if it’s over. You won’t gain anything more by extending a scene or section, and you might lose your reader if you continue to stir the brew. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t more to say; it just needs to be presented differently, the details saved for later, when they might resonate more. Experience takes time to process, both in life and on the page.
Megan Howell is a fiction reader for NER and a DC-based freelance writer. After graduating from Vassar College, she earned her MFA in fiction from the University of Maryland in College Park, winning both the Jack Salamanca Thesis Award and the Kwiatek Fellowship. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Nashville Review and The Establishment among other publications.