T. Greenwood’s recent novel Bodies of Water is the touching and tumultuous love story between two married women in the early sixties. Billie and Eva’s relationship and the fallout of its eventual discovery, make for a truly compelling tale of love and loss. T. Greenwood masterfully captures the spirit of the “love that dare not speak its name” during this time period and the very human hearts involved. AfterEllen had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Greenwood about her novel, and the inspiration that called her to write it.
AfterEllen: Bodies of Water is so devastatingly beautiful. I really couldn’t put it down. I think I devoured it in three days, and I’m not the only one. Everyone I know is reading this book right now. How has response been on your end from readers?
T. Greenwood: Thank you so much. And I am so grateful for how the book is being received by both the LGBT and the straight communities. I was very nervous about how people would respond to this book. For one thing, I am straight. One of my big fears was how lesbian readers would respond. (As a writer, I think the farther you get from your own reality, the more fearful you are that someone will call your bluff.) And while the political climate in our country is obviously changing, I was also worried about how some of my existing readers might respond when they realized that the story was a love story between two women (it is not identified as such anywhere on the jacket copy). As Billie says, so much has changed, but so much stays the same. However, I have been happily surprised by the overwhelming number of positive responses I have received about this story. I always peek at Goodreads and Amazon reviews, and I have literally had TWO readers out of hundreds who have expressed anger and/or frustration about the subject matter.
And the most exciting reviews, for me, are the ones from straight readers who consider themselves “traditional” who wind up loving the book. I had hoped that depicting a love story between two women in this way, and showing the struggles that lesbians faced in that era, might even open some readers’ eyes. I almost never have a political agenda when I write, but I really did hope that this story would change some readers’ perceptions. Reading has the power to create empathy; I truly believe that.
AE: You have written many novels but BOW is a bit of a departure in that it has a lesbian protagonist. How did you come to write about this particular story, and why tell it through Billie’s voice?
TG: This novel arose from a family story that was shared with me. The moment I heard it, I knew that I had to write this book. I had never ever heard a more beautiful, or tragic, love story. Of course, it eventually became its own story, but it was based very much on a real affair during the sixties. And usually, when I start writing a novel I hear the narrator’s voice first. The opening line, “This is what I know: memory is the same as water,” came to me first. And I just had to follow it. I knew it belonged to Billie (who was inspired by my relative). And so I spent time with her. I hung out with her at the beach, at the library where she volunteers, at the bar where she goes for her nightly beer. And then I followed her down that rabbit hole into her past.
AE: I love that half this story is set in the early sixties, a time of tremendous change, yet also of great tragedy and rigid gender roles, as well as the present. Watching Billie experience a lifetime of change while still holding tight to her lost love is what makes this book so wonderfully rounded. Did you know from the start that you wanted those two very different ways to tell her story?
TG: Again, the retrospective voice came first. And so I knew that Billie was relaying this story from a distanced vantage point. And ultimately, that contrast between present day and the sixties became very important to the story. One of my favorite moments is when Billie reflects on her great-niece Effie’s relationship with Devin (who is black), and how they would have suffered had they met and fallen in love fifty years ago.
AE: Did you do research on the lives of gays and lesbians during that time period? In particular those who were married and trying to have so called “normal” lives back then?
TG: Most of the research I did was via my relatives who shared their own experiences with me. I had also seen, and really loved, Far from Heaven and Brokeback Mountain, though both of those films are about gay men. I watched After Stonewall and Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement, which is a beautiful documentary.
AE: Water plays an important role in this novel, and many of your other novels also focus on water. What role does water play in your own history as well as your creative spirit?
TG: I grew up in Vermont, spending a lot of time at my grandparents’ “camp” (that’s Vermonter for cabin) on Newark Pond. I now drive across the country every summer with my daughters to spend the month of August there (just like Billie!). And I have lived in San Diego, near the beach, for twelve out of the last seventeen years. I am a Cancer, so I am supposedly a water sign. I actually don’t really like to be in the water (unless you count baths), but I love to be near it.
Most of my novels center around the fictional Lake Gormlaith, a lake which means a lot of different things to the various characters in my books. (My first novel, Breathing Water, is set there as well, and tells Effie and Devin’s story.)
AE: What are you working on now? Any chance that you will have a gay or lesbian lead in a future novel?
TG: I just finished a novel, Here is the Bridge, a novel about an agoraphobic woman’s relationship with her 11-year-old daughter, which will be out in the spring of 2015. And I have started a novel about a traveling carnival (and the women in its “girlie shows”).
I would absolutely write with a lesbian protagonist again. And while Bodies of Water is meant to focus on the struggle created by Billie and Eva’s sexual orientation, I think it’s important for writers to begin creating characters who simply are gay (and where their gayness is not the center of the story, but rather just another character trait). I hope this is the future of more mainstream novels. And that novels pigeonholed as “LGBT” novels, can also enter the mainstream.