Sara Jaffe on her queer coming-of-age novel “Dryland”

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In some circles, Sara Jaffe might be best known as the guitarist for feminist punk band Erase Errata, but the Portland-based musician says she’s always identified as a writer.

“I’ve identified as a writer since I was, like, seven years old,” Sara said. “I’ve always played music, but it always felt like a little bit of a fluke that I ended up for a really significant portion of my life doing music primarily. So I’d say music is really important to me, and it’s given me vitality in a lot of ways, but it’s more social and more fun, but it feels less essential to who I am, even though it’s something that’s really important to me, too.”

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Sara’s debut novel Dryland, now available from Tin House Books, tells the story of 15-year-old Julie Winter, a bored tomboy who who isn’t interested in the skater boys her best friend ogles at the park. When the popular Alexis starts paying her attention and encourages her to join the swim team, Julie takes an interest in both the sport and the girls’ team captain. But Dryland is not a young adult love story—instead it’s about Julie’s introspection and quiet curiosity about the people in her life and the lies they tell, including herself.

“I think when I first started writing it, [Julie] might have been a little bit older, but I was really interested in the moment before someone gets access to the cool stuff,” Sara said. “She’s on the verge of knowing about the music and the zines and the culture. But what was it like before that moment happened? That felt like a really interesting place for me to explore.”

Julie moves through 1992 Portland with such vivid descriptions that it’s surprising to learn Sara actually grew up in New Jersey. Since the book is not at all autobiographical, Sara said she wanted to distance her protagonist from her own experiences during the time period. (What is similar, though is their age, and the fact Sara started to realize that being queer was “a possibility” around 15, too.)

 

“I also didn’t want Julie to have the sort of access she would have if she’d lived outside of New York City at that time,” Sara said. “I think Portland in the early ’90s was still pretty—it just isn’t quite as worldly as it is now, I think, so I wanted her to be in a sort of basically progressive place but not one where she’d have access to that she would have if she lived in a bigger city. Also I think there was just something about the feel of the Pacific Northwest in the winter that matched the tone of what I wanted to achieve in the book so it fit in that way.”

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Julie and Alexis have the kind of relationship that is never discussed, but takes some sexual turns that get confusing for Julie when she sees Alexis with her boyfriend at school.

“I think that Alexis is totally queer and that she’s maybe even had experiences with girls before,” Sara said. “I actually have a whole narrative for her—she had something with an older counselor at summer camp—but since she’s also able to be completely successful as a popular straight girl, she may or may not ever embrace her queerness.”

Alexis is the perfect portrait of the “straight girl” heartbreaker so many young lesbian and bisexual women have experiences with in their lives.

“I feel like there’s a certain type of ‘straight girl’ who is too lazy to be gay,” Sara said. “And obviously it’s more complicated than that, but I see her as one of those people, and I think she was able to identify [queerness] in Julie in part because she has that in herself. And I think she’s telling herself that it has to do with that she has the hots for Julie’s brother and that’s what it’s about but I think even that is a queer kind of affection in and of itself.”

 

Julie’s brother was the school’s star swimmer and his ghost looms large over the family. He lives in Germany and is disconnected from the family, on his own volition, but Julie spends a lot of time thinking about him and trying to figure out who he is and was when he was her age. It turns out they have a lot in common.

Because the book follows a 15-year-old, young readers might take to the story, but Sara said she wrote it with “an adult audience in mind.”

“To me, I wrote it in a way, a commentary on being a teenager in that time more than to directly represent it. To me, that’s one of the major differences. If younger people want to read it and get something out of it, that’s great,” Sara said. “Maybe those younger readers will get something out of it that’s different from what another reader might get out of it.”

Sara said she was inspired by similar novels like Haunted Houses by Lynne Tillman and Denton Welch‘s In Youth is Pleasure.

“It doesn’t emphasize the sort of arc of change that I think coming of age stories often do,” Sara said of Haunted Houses. “It doesn’t have that clear ‘started out not knowing something and then learned it and integrated into society, fully-formed.’ And so I was interested in sort of pushing against that narrative a little bit.”

That’s what Sara does expertly. The story unfolds in a non-sensational way, never close to being overwritten or lingering on a moment too long. Julie’s way of moving through life is so relatable that queer women of all ages will find something in her that resonates, whether it’s her self-discovery or the way she thinks about the world around her.

Although Erase Errata has officially called it quits, Sara says her musicality has benefited her writing style, though it can be hard to explain.

“When I started playing guitar, I had been playing classical piano for a long time and I really made a concerted effort to not learn guitar in the same way, and to mostly play it intuitively,” Sara said. “I took lessons for a little bit but I really wanted to sort of feel it out for myself. Of course, it’s harder to do that with writing, having studied writing in school since forever, but I do think I really loved having that more sort of visceral experimental relationship to making music, and so that has allowed me to look for places or ways to experiment in my fiction, even if I’m never going to be able to make a radical departure as I did with playing guitar. I also think it allows me to think about form and structure in a different kind of a way. Like sometimes I almost try to—sort of hard to describe—but step back from the page and almost listen to it as if it was a song—like and it hasn’t hit this note yet, hasn’t done that yet.”

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Although she doesn’t mind being “musician Sara Jaffe,” Sara is happy to now be called a novelist.

“I haven’t been doing music for at least five years and that’s about a lot of different things—not just about writing but also being a little bit older, my partner and I having a kid this last year, so it’s not as conducive to being out and playing,” Sara said. “I’m happy for people to think of me as a musician and realize I’ve also accomplished other things.”

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