The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish

Sandra Partanen
Posted on November 14, 2018, 1:45 pm
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Dark, heart-wrenching and deeply anticipated. There was a lot of talk about the book before it even came out. Katya Apekina talks about The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish.


For those of us who are not familiar with you yet – tell us a little about yourself!

I’m a novelist, short story writer, screenwriter and translator. I was born in Moscow, and immigrated to the U.S. when I was 3 years old. I lived a pretty nomadic lifestyle in my 20’s—New York, New Orleans, St. Louis, and finally Los Angeles. There was something very exciting about the idea of abandoning everything and starting all over again in a new apartment, in a new city. In each new place I could imagine the different directions that my life could take. I feel less of that impulse now that I’m writing fiction because I have the freedom to imagine all those other lives without the hassle of having to live them. I’ve been in one place (Los Angeles) for a while now. I don’t know that any place will ever be Home with a capital H, but it’s home enough. I live here with my husband, radio journalist David Weinberg, and my 4-year-old daughter. 

Congratulations on the release of The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish! It’s barely been a month — how has the past few weeks been for you?

The past few weeks have been crazy and exciting. I loved seeing friends at my readings who I haven’t seen in years, sometimes decades. It’s been fun to connect with complete strangers who were affected by the book. My husband and I put on an event that was a radio drive-in—LA is a car city, so we were playing with that. We had people drive to a scenic overlook and I did the reading out of a car, broadcasting over the radio on a short wave signal so the other cars in the parking lot could tune in and listen. I’m an introvert, and thought—oh, I’m designing an introvert’s dream reading—nobody has to get out of the car! Then, about a week into everything, my daughter got very sick—she had the flu and then it turned into pneumonia and so I was with her at the hospital. I did a few interviews while she was sleeping but it was hard to concentrate on anything. She’s better now, but yeah, most of the last month ended up consumed with her illness and not the book. 

There was a lot of talk about your book before it even came out; it was named one of the most anticipated books of the fall by several websites and magazines. How did that affect the feelings around the release for you?

It made me happy! I didn’t really know what to expect. I have many friends who have published books, and each of their experiences has been different. There is no “normal.” Years ago, after I published a story in a literary magazine, I got a handwritten letter in the mail from a reader who said the story made him feel less alone in the world. That letter was so important to me, more so than any award (though those are nice too). All of the pre-publication buzz made it seem more likely that someone might pick up the book, and read it and feel as the letter writer did—understood, seen, less alone. Not necessarily because the events in the book were things they had experienced, nothing so literal, but maybe just because they felt a kinship with the emotional landscape of the book. 

What prompted you to write The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish? What were your inspirations?

I had been hired to write a nonfiction book in my early 20’s. The book ended up getting killed, but a lot of the research and then also the structure inspired this novel. When I was researching that book, I was sitting in archives, reading oral histories, trying to get a sense of the truth about a person through multiple oblique accounts. That became really interesting to me—contradictory accounts that were at odds but both true. The slipperiness of truth as I was searching for it. Even when people are not consciously trying to be dishonest, they experience things so differently, and they justify things to themselves all the time. They have blind spots and conflicting impulses. I wanted to create a book that would account for all the contradictions, put them into dialogue with one another. It seemed very ambitious, once I started it, but also, I couldn’t really imagine writing this novel from just one perspective. So, the form came first. I also wanted the novel to have the scope and depth of the Russian novels I grew up on, but I wanted to write about an American family and American history. I was also interested in the artist and muse relationship, reading biographies of poets, and the legacy of a history rooted in misogyny and white supremacy.

What was the writing of The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish like? Can you tell me a little about the process?

It took many years. I wrote it in the order that it appears, so switching from character to character. About 1 or 2 years into writing it, I realized that I would need to start over completely, which was difficult but necessary. Generally the book required such a huge amount of faith, I’m astounded that I was able to sustain it. Also, there were many moments when the process felt exactly as Muriel Spark described, “taking dictation from God,” though I don’t know that I even believe in God. But it certainly felt mystical. Then also the book is in some places very dark and disturbing and forced me to access parts of myself I did not want to access—it was terrifying and there was a lot of resistance. There’s a line that one of the characters says about making art—“Art is not a shield, it’s a knife, and you have to bleed.” I basically agree with that sentiment.

What inspired the title?

I was coming up with fake aphorisms for something unrelated. My novel was basically finished and it had no title, and when this phrase came into my head—I thought, what if I named my book that? Can I do that? Is that outrageous? I think I want to do that! The phrase just got stuck in my head on repeat, the rhythm of the words was weirdly satisfying. And of course, I think it is an accurate sentiment. The deeper you go, the uglier things get. Of course the fish are ugly because they’ve adapted to their environment, so there’s that too.

You work with different perspectives as well as tense in The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, which makes for a very interesting read, not only subject-wise, but also structurally. Was this challenging, or did you feel like it was something that came naturally with the story?

It was challenging to switch back and forth, but also, it would probably have been challenging to maintain only one voice throughout. The scope of the book was so big, and the form was very exciting to me. It was fun to go into the minds of the peripheral characters, to see how they viewed their roles in the story. Once I figured out the form, the book wrote itself.

You were born in Moscow, and have produced translated work. Do you write in (or about) Russian at all?

I don’t write in Russian, but I have been working on something set in Russia. It’s interesting, because I think in a lot of ways The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish is a Russian novel, just in a different setting and in a different form. I can’t really imagine writing an autobiographical novel, or a memoir, because it feels so constraining—writing about something completely unrelated to me or my history gave me the freedom to write a lot more personally and honestly. All the emotions in the book are my own, even if none of the sources or facts in the book correspond to my life.

Did you have to conduct any research for the writing of this novel?

The novel came out of the ashes of a nonfiction project, so it ended up being heavily researched. In addition, I read a lot of biographies of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and their poetry for the character of Marianne (the mother) and to imagine what her poems, which I include in the book, are like. I’m not a poet, so this took some research, because I didn’t want them to be terrible.

The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish was released by Two Dollar Radio — how has it been working with them?

It has been fantastic. A dream. I have not had to make any changes to the book that I didn’t believe in. They have been very responsive and they have done such a good job getting the book out there. I also love the cover, which they designed. It’s a very unsettling shade of yellow. 

Do you have any authors or other creative minds that you look to for inspiration?

I am friends with a lot of writers and they definitely inspire me—my acknowledgements page is very long (Ottessa Moshfegh, Lisa Locascio, Anne-Marie Kinney, Sara Finnerty, Lia Silver, Emily Robbins, Shannon Robinson, Kathryn Davis, Jordan Jacks, Michelle Huneven, Merritt Tierce, Lauren Groff, Zach Lazar, Anton DiScalfani, Marshall Klimasewiski, Kathleen Finneran, Mimi Lipson, Emily McLaughlin, Maura Roosevelt, Sarah Cornwell, J. Ryan Stradal, Sara Murphy, Amanda Goldblatt). I also listen to a lot of podcasts—my husband has a great one called Welcome To LA, and another one called Random Tape. And visual art inspires me. I try to go to a museum once a week. My mom is a ceramic artist, and I grew up getting the best museum tours from her.

I read Dennis’s character from a feminist standpoint. To me, he acted as a representation of how women have been presented in history by men. Was there a contributing factor like that that made you exclude him from having a narrative first person voice?

Well, there were two reasons. One, I don’t want to give anything away, but all the narration other than Edie’s is told looking back on the events from 2012, so I could only include characters who could do that. That’s the practical answer. But, even if I could work around that, which I’m sure I could, Dennis’s story is the story I feel like we get all the time in our culture. He interested me in so far as he affected his daughters, but if I had allowed him to talk, he would have taken over the story. So, on a very instinctual level, I knew early on that I did not want to give him the platform. He’s the kind of character who is charming and persuasive and sucks all the air out of the room. There’s this mythology around great male artists, they’re outside of morality. I wanted to look at the fallout around him. There are bits of his journals and letters, so there is a sense of him as a person, but a direct first person account would have shifted the focus away from his daughters.

How was it working with several characters in the way you did, and therefore working with all of their “truths” at the same time? Did you start by setting up the situation, and then viewed it from the eyes of these characters to create their version of the story, or…?

Yes, exactly. I tried to see all of the different perspectives at once, and do it without judging them. Even with Dennis, and even though I didn’t give him a first person account, I still felt like I could understand his point of view, and his justifications for doing what he did. Everyone is the hero of their own story and people can justify anything to themselves. I started with the characters in their situation, and then things evolved on their own, and I followed them to their natural conclusions.

Are you working on something else already, or are you caught up in the whirlwind of post-publication events at the moment?

Both! I’m working on another book (though that has been a bit on hold for the last few months), and writing some essays and short stories. I have a short story coming out tomorrow actually. Oh, and I’ve also written a script for a movie (unrelated to the book), which we will be shooting in the fall.

Last but not least, I like to ask my interviewees for three book recommendations, and why they recommend each book. Do you have any for us?

Edie by Jean Stein

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm. Those are probably the three books that most inspired this novel. Edie is a brilliant oral history that inspired the book’s form. I would read Bolaño to get into a certain awake but dreaming headspace. And Malcolm’s biography of Sylvia Plath was so interesting—both because of its portrait of Plath and her marriage, but also because of a perhaps inadvertent glimpse of the biographer herself as a character.

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