Research + Inspiration
I go to Montauk to write and think and my mind gets cleared of all the stuff I have to think about all the time. I stare at the water and I feel physically better and mentally calm. I guess it’s from my childhood and I was born with ocean water in my genes. I met Nick Monte, the great man who owned Gurney’s Inn – a big hotel,spa on the ocean. He’s since died but I asked him once what was the key to his longevity and happiness. He told me he drank a small glass of ocean water every day.
I chose Montauk as the setting for my book because it’s my favorite place in the world and I have been going there since I was a child. My father first took me there with my sister and we always love to swim and walk on the empty beaches together. There was a lot of stress and turmoil in my family growing up and I had very difficult relationships with my parents, but somehow when we went to Montauk, we all got along and enjoyed each other. I guess I have always felt that Montauk is so serene and calming and soothing and peaceful because my family and I got along there. It was a miracle!
For me, the sea is restorative and nurturing- even life saving. Once when I was in my twenties, I spent some time with my favorite Aunt Ruthy on Fire Island which is a tiny summer beach community not far from Montauk. It was a melancholy but beautiful day and it was my birthday in July. She walked me to the ferry to catch a boat to meet my friends for a concert on land. But while waiting for the boat to arrive, we sat, with our feet dangling , looking out to the ocean. It was drizzling and misty. I felt to peaceful and I didn’t want to leave. I told my Aunt that in all honesty, I preferred to stay with her. She say,” So, do.” I did stay with her on the island and late that night, we heard that my friends had been in a terrible boating accident; they were all severely injured. My Aunt and I looked at each other as we heard the waves crashing against the beach outside. I have made the right decision. The ocean spoke to me and I stayed. I was in Montauk on 9/11 and couldn’t get back to the city for several days. I was horrified but felt so safe nonetheless being out there far away from all the madness and death.
Whale watching is fantastic in Montauk because the boats go out very far into the ocean and I have seen whales whenever I go out from Montauk. I first when whale watching with my Aunt Ruthy in Newfoundland many years ago. We took a small boat out and it sailed very far into the ocean. I remember so vividly that the water was so still; it was like glass and we sat out there for a long time. The sky was a bit misty. Suddenly I heard the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard. The sounds were low and deep and they got stronger and stronger. I looked around and saw to my amazement, sprays of water like fountains, filling the sky. Everywhere I looked , in a 365 degree circumference were, the spray of whales exhaling into the air and there was a big rainbow. I felt like I was really in Whale World ; I was in their world, on their turf. And then we saw one burst from the ocean not far from our boat. It was the beautiful and fantastic creature I had ever seen. We spent hours watching them. It was love at first sight. Since then I have studied them and gone whale watching whenever I can. I have learned a lot about whales over more than twenty years. I read books and watch movies and am interested in all information about whales. I think I love them because they are so solitary , for the most part . They are quiet and strong and undeniable and they follow their own path. They are gentle giants and like ballet dancers in the water. I identify with them. I have learned that whales are the smartest mammals on the planet. The way they negotiate and live and succeed in their environment is so superior to how humans live in ours. Whales are peaceful, loving creatures. They help man yet are still the most mysterious animals on earth and the most mysterious of all whales is Whale 52.
I first learned about Whale 52 a long time ago. Iread that Whale 52 was discovered by the American Navy when they were testing underwater sonar. The Navy first recorded the underwater songs of Whale 52 and his sounds. Since then scientists have been recording Whale 52 who sings at a lower frequency than any other whale. So, people named him the Loneliest Whale in the World because he swims alone and sings alone. Whale 52 has , however never been filmed. No one has actually seen him or her. We don’t know what this whale looks like. There have been many people who have tried to find Whale 52 and about two years ago, Adrien Grenier and a young filmmaker raised money and received a big donation from Leonardo DiCaprio to fund a hunt for Whale 52 and film it. They still have not found filmed him but he has become more a symbol for ocean preservation now and a kind of folk hero.
I decided to make Robbie deaf because I wanted him to be “special” and have a definite sensibility that was really unique to him. I just decided that he would play music. At first I don’t’ know why but in the first draft of my book, Robbie played the drums. As I researched during the writing , I learned a great deal about deafness, deaf children, deaf culture and how they communicate and hear. I learned that hearing is not only achieved through our ears but through vibrations. So, during my research I learned about Evelyn Glennie, a brilliant Scottish, deaf musician who travels around the world and teaches. Evelynn Glennie is a percussionist and I watched many films about her and listened to interviews with her. So, I felt good that I had made the right choice with Robbie to be a drummer, like Evelyn Glennie.
But then, while I continued to write and research, I learned about a tuba player for an orchestra in Massachusetts and how his friend, a marine biologist, asked to play the tuba for a whale caught in a fishing net. The whale was in terrible distress and they were trying to cut it free. The tuba player sat on a small rowboat and played music for the whale and it calmed down. The light bulb went off in myhead; Robbie had to play the tuba! Robbie would be able to hear the music of the tuba through holding the instrument and feeling its vibrations. I started listening to tuba music and also whales’ recordings and they sounded very similar I discovered, to my amazement. I think that tuba music is the most similar to whale songs than any other instrument and so I had found a natural, good way for my character to be able to communicate with the whale in the book. I wanted Robbie to be able to contribute something to Kip’s whale study and to provide a key to communicating with the whale. I wanted Robbie to have a self of satisfaction and be able to feel good about himself as he was struggling serverlyto get over the death of his father.- which he blamed himself for. They say out of the mouths of babes come the most profound truths… and so it was only a matter of time for my very smart character, although only a boy, to link the sound of the whale with the sound of his tuba and to help Kip understand and communicate better with the whale. And when his theory proved correct, Robbie felt a great deal better about himself.
Communicating with Animals
I also studied a lot about how humans communicate with animals and the animal-human connection. I read about and watched documentaries about animal whisperers who helped animals. I read about a remarkable woman, Anna Breytenbach, who communicates with animals. I saw a film of how she communicated with a traumatized jaguar in a rescue in Africa. The jaguar called Dioablo, would not come out of his cave for years. After Anna “spoke” to him, she learned that the animal hated his name which means devil and so his owners changed it to Spirit. He told her that he was beaten and abused but he was mostly worried about two jaguar cubs that were in a holding rescue and he didn’ know what had happened to them. Anna found out that the cubs were given to a safe and wonderful rescue and were doing so well and she relayed that to the jaguar. In a short time after communicating with her the jaguar, came outside for the first time, climbed its high pole in the yard and was happy. You can watch this film and see for yourself the power and beauty of human –animal communication.
I learned about a harbor seal named Andre and his friend , a man with a familyof two daughters who lived on the ocean. The relationship between Andrea and Harry Goodridge, the man who loved him is so beautiful and so I gained more knowledge of the way we can communicate with animals. I have a Labradora Retriever, Gala, and had also another Lab, Futuro, before he died last year. I talked to them all time and Futuro definitely telepathically communicated to me strongly. Now , Gala and I communicate and I discovered recently that she wants a puppy now. So, next Spring, my husband and I agree that we’re getting a puppy. So, when I was writing the book, I learned so much about whales and human interaction and took my relationship with my dogs into consideration and as an inspiration. There are two Labs in the book – Lindy and Diesel. They are like my dogs, Futuro and Gala!
Finding Time to Write
I am a literary agent who represents some international great authors including the Booker Prize winner, Han Kang. So, I have to juggle writing my own books in between a busy agenting career which involvesme travelling to Seoul and to London and Frankfurt every year. I am married and have friends and family and a dog. I knit. I do yoga. I swim. I go to the theater and movies a lot. I walk miles every day in Manhattan. I am a busy person. How could I find time to write?
Well, it is not easy but once I had the idea for my book it became my top priority and I gave up any vacations, free time, movies, theater, fun, relaxing, etc to write. I had to sacrifice any time I had outside of my “bread and butter” work in order to complete my book . The first idea came to me than more than twenty years ago but it was about five years ago that I sat down and started it seriously; five years ago, I made the commitment.
When I began seriously to write the first draft I got up at 4:30 or 5:00am every morning. I would force myself to go to my computer and write because I would have to start my agenting job at about 9 or 10. I can get in about four hours early in the morning of writing if I get up and do it. I find that writing fresh material or focusing is best for me early in the morning. Actually putting pen to paper is best in the morning. Then I always print out what I write and as I work or go about my day, I am thinking about what I wrote. At night – say between about 7 or 8 – midnight , I go over what I wrote and revise.
Then I start the next morning. Again and again. I am very disciplined when I am writing a book. I have to be otherwise I would not be able to write it. A great deal of writing is thinking and having the time to think. But I don’t have exclusive time to think about my own writing so I focus intensely when I can. I always get ideas or solve problems when I take a shower or bath and when I walk my dog. When I let go and just walk or swim and let my mind “not think”, it thinks. I also go to therapy and I found that I could discuss , analyze and critique the behavior of my characters’ motivations and actions with a professional in order to achieve truthful, naturalist characters. My therapist is a great resource although she tells me all the time that she knows nothing about writing. But she knows about what make people tick. She is a kind of writing coach for character development. I go once a week for 45 minutes so I came to take that time to improve my characters and I think I am better off too. I do become pretty obsessed about the book and the characters. Completely obsessed. With this book, I know Montauk very well but I returned there oftenand photographed and watched people and spent more time soaking in the environment. I have news alerts sent to me about the changes in Montauk from the local papers.
I can’t say I have a definite routine because my work needs as an agent change all the time. I work for myself and so sometimes I am very busy but, I also have free time and days or weeks when I am able to devote more time to my own writing. The one commitment and rule I have for myself as a writer is that I will write every day and finish the book – no matter what it takes. And I have a very understanding husband who supports my creative endeavors.
I always start with a title. When I started this book I had the title MONTAUK which was then changed to WHEN THE SEA BELONGED TO US. But I thought and meditated on the title and then I decided immediately that Montauk was a big character in my book. That’s why I initially wrote the book. I wanted to depict the Montauk I loved and preserve it on paper forever. It is changing and getting bought up and developed and I felt a deep need to memorialize the place that I loved so much.
Then I thought of a story that could be good for the book and I decided that the main character would be a shoe designer and she would have a young son who was deaf. I knew there was a whale and a sailor and sadness and a death but that’s all I knew at the beginning when I started. As I write the book over five years, I found the story and who the characters were.
The development of the main character, Tess and the sailor, Kip was very difficult. Robbie and Uncle Ike, Jimmy, Rita and everyone else came so quickly. But I struggled a lot for years with Tess and Kip. In one early draft of the story, I found that I had cut out Robbie, Montauk and that I was on the top of Montblanc in Switzerland with Tess and Kip! How did I get from Montauk to the Alps? I don’t know! But then I threw that all away and returned to Montauk and Robbie. I don’t have the whole story or chapters written out . I don’t follow an outline as much as I wish I could. I have written many outlines and character studies of the characters but they don’t work. So, I write one chapter starting with #1 and then I continue in chronology of the story and the story unfolds to me as I write it. I wrote about 12 drafts of this book.
I am inspired by the real place Montauk and the places I have stayed there and all the locations are real locations in life that you can visit. The people are , I think, conglomerates of people I know, friends, family, strangers I might have seen once. I research using photographs, movies, music, and all experiences in my life. I lead a very active, varied life and so I use all the experiences and knowledge I have gained and take from the “file cabinets in my brain” to create characters and stories I think. I keep press clipping of stories that interest me. I love shoes , so Tess became a shoe designer. And I made her an artistic type because I know first hand what artistic struggle is. I also am an avid reader and very very inspired by great writers. I always read and have books by my side. So, I think when I am writing myself, I try and fill myself up with other great writing, not to take any lessons or writing tips, but rather to elevate my consciousness and help me tap into my own creativity.