Zoë writes occasional online pieces about literature and the process of becoming a writer.
Drowning in Literature
In The Night of the Flood, I write about a catastrophic storm surge which led to terrible flooding along the East Anglian coast in January 1953. This is a real event, although not a hugely well-known one. In the flood, 307 people died in England in various horrific ways – being swept away by a wave, old people dying of hypothermia in cold water, babies being pulled from their parents’ arms. These were real deaths, but the more I researched the flood, and wove the raw material into my novel, the more interested I became in how floods and drowning, or more generally, death by water are portrayed in literature. Read the article.
Drowning in Literature
In The Night of the Flood, I write about a catastrophic storm surge which led to terrible flooding along the East Anglian coast in January 1953. This is a real event, although not a hugely well-known one. In the flood, 307 people died in England in various horrific ways – being swept away by a wave, old people dying of hypothermia in cold water, babies being pulled from their parents’ arms. These were real deaths, but the more I researched the flood, and wove the raw material into my novel, the more interested I became in how floods and drowning, or more generally, death by water are portrayed in literature.
It seemed to me that there were four main themes at play in using drowning in fiction: a natural disaster as a reset moment in a society; for an individual – the elemental sense of water as escape; as a form of justice; and finally, the smallness of human beings at the mercy of (depending on the writer) of fortune or God.
I’ve been afraid of drowning for a long time. My grandmother told a story of nearly drowning off the Welsh coast when she was young and my father, who is a great swimmer, told me of the time he had to negotiate a riptide off the Norfolk coast to avoid being drawn out to sea. I’m a terrible swimmer and had to be fished out of the deep end of the local pool as I flailed around aged about ten and swore that would the end of swimming lessons for me. As an adult, I’ve come back to the water – I swim in rivers and pools and the sea – but I am always careful of deep water, currents and tides.
In my own novel, the real storm surge of 1953 is a cataclysmic point for all the characters, leading to the death of one and changing the lives of the others.
A real-life catastrophe also inspired Jesmyn Ward’s brilliant first novel, Salvage the Bones. Set in the wilds of Bois Sauvage on the Mississippi Gulf, it leads up to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
One of the literary floods that I had in mind when writing about the flood of 1953, was another hurricane leading to a deluge in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. I read this novel many years ago but the image of Janie’s fight for life in the flood has been indelible. In this novel, as in Salvage the Bones, the flood becomes a metaphor for a character’s fight for their own life. In Ward’s novel it is pregnant teenager, Esch and Janie in Hurston’s groundbreaking novel.
In literature, death by water has always been with us, just as death by water always has. It begins in the Bible of course where drowning is a judgement from God.
The theme of natural justice also continues in Victorian fiction where drowning often functions as a kind of righteous death. Dickens saves both Little Em’ly and Martha Endell from a watery grave in David Copperfield but condemns James Steerforth, Emily’s seducer, to a violent death in a storm (off the Norfolk coast no less). Steerforth’s role as the corrupter of innocence requires a reckoning but the fact that Dickens gives him a tragic end seems to indicate a certain masculine sympathy.
In Shakespeare’s plays storms are frequent and useful – they feature in Othello, Macbeth, Twelfth Night and of course, The Tempest, to name a few. Often, they function as a signifier of the vagaries of fortune. But the most famous watery death of all of course, is Ophelia and the way Shakespeare describes Ophelia’s death, is particularly beautiful and poignant. John Everett Millais painted the most famous version of Ophelia in 1851 and death by drowning is particularly popular in Victorian literature, especially for women, as perhaps it was seen a less violent, more feminine death.
There is a kind of harsh justice at work in Victorian literature where female heroines are forced to turn to a watery suicide. It is an escape, but a desperate one. In The Mill on the Floss, Neither Eliot’s complex heroine Maggie Tulliver nor the river Floss can be contained. Maggie and her brother Tom are reunited and equal in death as they have never been in life. Similarly, one of my favourite characters of all, Eustacia Vye in Hardy’s The Return of the Native, dies by drowning. It is fitting that the quasi-witch figure of Eustacia would die in the raging waters of a weir at the end of the novel, confirming her innocence by drowning rather than floating as a witch would. Like Maggie, Eustacia is mourned by those left behind, such as her husband, Clym Yeobright but in the world of Victorian sexual politics, there is nowhere left for someone like Eustacia to go.
In a bleak version of self-expression, Kate Chopin’s famous novella, The Awakening offers suicide by water as the only way out for a woman in late 1800s America. At the end, when her heroine Edna Pontellier walks into the sea, leaving her children, her lover and husband behind it is presented as the only way she can escape the tight constraints on her by society at the time.
Drowning can also be a method of murder – injustice rather than justice – as in the memorable Alice Munro story ‘Child’s Play’ from her collection, Too Much Happiness, in which two girls drown another at a summer camp and spend the rest of the lives failing to atone for their crime. Another decidedly sinister inspiration for my own novel came from Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, in which Ripley dispatches Dickie Greenleaf off a boat off the Italian coast. In the novel, Ripley wonders if the discovered boat will reveal his heartless crime but this never happens. The sea has kept its secrets.
And finally, one early reader of my novel reminded me of Zola’s tale of murder and its consequences, Thérèse Raquin. In this, the lovers, Thérèse and Laurent, conspire to drown her husband Camille but he ends up haunting them both. It is a reminder of the gruesome aftereffects of drowning and more interestingly, of the damaging mental effects of a brutal crime.
All these stories remind us of something I’ve always known – that water – like some people – can be treacherous.
The Process of Writing The Night of the Flood
I wanted to describe the process of writing my debut novel in a way that would be helpful to other writers so I thought I would tell it as a narrative. This story, like most classic tales, is in three acts. Read the article.
The Process of Writing The Night of the Flood
Act One. Beginning.
It was my childhood dream to to be a published author, but as I grew up, I had no confidence in my writing. I wrote throughout adulthood but it wasn’t until I was 39, in 2015, that I began writing The Night of the Flood. By this time I had already spent about four years writing another novel which was put in the metaphorical drawer. I had worked as a teacher part-time while my children were small and wrote in snatched moments on the kitchen table or in cafés. But when my mother-in-law offered to help me pay for a MA in creative writing at Bath Spa University for my 40th birthday, it seemed like a real chance to see if I could write a publishable novel.
The first time I received negative feedback for my writing, I cried in the car on the way home. But the camaraderie of the other students, and the dopamine rush of praise, kept me going. There are many ways to become a writer – but I think doing some kind of course is extremely helpful in carving out the time to experiment and to write. It signals to family and friends that you take it seriously. The Masters was only the beginning for me, but it was a crucial step.
Act Two. The Middle
This section could also be called A Series of Lessons and Errors.
The first lesson was about how to tell the story. I already had the beginnings of the novel – the characters, the backdrop of the flood, but at first I was going to write a dual narrative where the two main characters, Arthur and Verity, were looking back at their youth. Early on in the course, I began researching the 1953 flood. This soon became the focus for the novel and the turning point of their young lives. Initially, I was going to hone in on the night itself and tell the story of what happened to each of the characters, with their versions overlapping. I was still experimenting, writing from different characters’ perspectives, in alternative tenses and person. However, as I wrote chunks of the narrative and submitted them for feedback, I quickly settled on the past tense close third person.
The second lesson was what story to tell. It became clear that the 1950s element was stronger. And I received a crucial piece of advice from Tessa Hadley: to extend the 1950s section to the summer before the flood so that readers could get to know the characters – their feelings, their hopes and dreams – before the catastrophe of the flood overwhelmed them. It was a key insight into the importance of structure.
By the time it came to submitting the 25,000 words of my dissertation, I decided to concentrate on the first section of the novel. Then I only had the rest to write! I spent the next six months finishing the novel in time for the terrifying ‘Meet the Agents’ event the course organises in London the following May. At this stage it still contained a section in the present day.
It was at this point that I made my first error. Before the event, agents are sent a sample of everyone’s work in an anthology. We all then gathered at Waterstones in Piccadilly. I was sweaty, nervous and excited. But by the end of the evening I had some interest from agents and in my excitement, I sent off the novel.
In many ways I was extremely lucky – most of the agents got back to me – some with standard rejections, but some asked for the full manuscript, which is a good sign. However, eventually all the agents replied and none offered representation. It was a blow. Yet I was lucky again – a few of them offered feedback, some of it extremely helpful, and some asked me to get back to them if I wrote another novel – or another version of this one. After a few days of feeling sorry for myself I realised what this meant: that the book had some merit but I needed to re-write it. I had, I now realise, sent off my first draft.
Later that year, I submitted again. Mistake number two. I thought I had made some big changes. I’d got rid of the present day section, I’d focused more on the character of Verity, I’d even changed the title of the book to reflect its change of focus. But when the responses came back the second time, the same kind of thing kept coming up: that the story didn’t have enough impetus.
This was the lowest point. I felt that I’d burned my bridges now. I tried to write a different novel. But I couldn’t let go of this one. I felt that I had something worthwhile – some really experienced, wonderful agents had told me that. But it was often hard to keep going.
In the end, I needed to learn more about the craft of writing. It took key insights from other readers to help me gain the confidence to approach agents for a third time: I needed to work on the plot and strengthen the story arcs of all the characters. By now it was 2018. This was what I worked on for the rest of the year. I had to re-calibrate the structure to give it the momentum to take the reader through to the end.
Act Three. The ending
Finally, in early 2019 I found my agent. The novel needed two rounds of further editing. This involved digging further into each of the characters’ motivations and behaviour; building up tension at critical points and deepening the historical research. Crucially, it was my agent who also suggested the final title: The Night of the Flood. By summer 2019, we were ready to submit to publishers.
After a nail-biting August, on the bank holiday 2019 I was driving to Norfolk with my children when my agent called with the news that I had a deal!
The final edits with my actual editor were the most enjoyable of them all. At this point, my editor asked me to work further on Verity and Arthur, clarify some of the spy subplot and tidy up the structure. But the most painful, difficult editing had already been done. The synergy with both my agent and editor is what took the novel through to publication: they didn’t want to change the story; they wanted to make it the best it could be.
This particular story has a happy ending, but I’m now working with my editor on my second novel and that is another story entirely.
The Stresses of Being a Debut Author Published on 3rd Sept 2020 in the UK
When I first signed the contract for my first novel to be published, in September 2019, I was too busy celebrating to think about the date it would be published. After having spent my whole life dreaming of this moment, and four years writing my book, The Night of the Flood, it was a minor detail. It also felt like a long time away. A whole year! Read the article.
The Stresses of Being a Debut Author Published on 3rd Sept 2020 in the UK
When I first signed the contract for my first novel to be published, in September 2019, I was too busy celebrating to think about the date it would be published. After having spent my whole life dreaming of this moment, and four years writing my book, The Night of the Flood, it was a minor detail. It also felt like a long time away. A whole year!
Fast forward nearly twelve months and we are still in the grips of a global pandemic, a recession is about to hit and just under 600 books are now going to be published on the same day as mine. In the context of the rolling disaster of 2020, having an overload of books out on the same day is hardly a pressing issue. For debut writers though, who are already a bundle of jittering nerves, alternately hysterically excited about a dream realised and panicking that no one will buy it, it is a source of anxiety.
But why is this autumn such a hotspot for publications anyway? There are a few reasons. Slots for publishing books are booked up a long time in advance, much longer than most people realise – myself included. My novel’s date was already 3rd September and I would have shared it with quite a few other books in normal times. During lockdown, many writers’ books have been pushed back to Spring 2021, but some were also pushed back to this autumn. At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, it must have seemed to be publishers (as it did to most of us) that the world would look quite different by then. Added to this is the fact that publishers usually timetable a lot of big releases for the autumn anyway as this is traditionally the period with the highest book sales.
However, as The Bookseller recently explained in a recent article, this isn’t as much a disaster as it appears. A lot of the books being published on the first Thursday in September are academic titles so are hardly competing for attention in bookshops and online with the fiction and popular non-fiction releases.
Nonetheless, the negative impacts of the glut, will be felt mostly with debuts. Review and publicity space is tight. Well-established writers and publishers’ much-touted titles are always going to be able to stand out in the media coverage. It is harder to see how an unknown debut can make themselves heard above the noise. If we’re lucky enough to have publicists they are doing their utmost to shine a light on our books through blog tours, radio interviews, podcasts to name but a few strands. Most of us are tweeting and instagramming like mad but who knows what difference this will make? In the end, we have to trust that after the hue and cry of September and beyond, our books will find their own way in reading world.
I certainly hope that’s the case for my own debut. In the meantime, I’d love to tell you a little about it. The novel is set in Norfolk, my home county. I was born and grew up in Norwich and spent many happy childhood days out on the beaches of Norfolk. I’ve lived away since I was eighteen and left home, but when I began writing seriously in my mid-thirties, most of what I wrote was set there. I had left, but it hadn’t left me. When I first conceived of The Night of the Flood on the Bath Spa MA, I imagined my characters, all young in the early 50s, in coastal locations in Norfolk as if that was where they belonged. Then I found out that on a freezing night in January 1953, a devastating storm surge swept along the East Anglian coast killing 307 and leading to the evacuation of 32,000 people. This was one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in UK history but it was hardly known. I knew I had the background to my characters’ tangles of love and betrayal.
The novel is set in the harbour town of Well-next-the-Sea, against the backdrop of the Cold War, and follows a group of five characters from a range of classes who are all desperate to escape from their lives. In the build up to the flood, tensions increase between all five of the characters. Everyone has secrets from everyone else, but the tragedy of the flood changes everything.