Karen Raney on crafting the characters in her coming-of-age debut ‘All the Water in the World’

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The characters that inhabit All the Water in the World, the debut novel from Karen Raney, are like tapping into the third season of your favorite television series. They’re all incredibly rounded and grounded.

In the midst of dealing with her relationship with her mother, learning to love for the first time, and all of the pains of being 16-years-old, Maddy is also diagnosed with cancer. Told between alternating chapters from Maddy and then her mother’s perspective, the story is equally heartwarming and heartbreaking.

I corresponded with Raney via email regarding Maddy, her mom, and crafting the world in her debut novel.


The book has Maddy coming-of-age as she is dying of cancer. How did Maddy come into your life and how did you develop her?

The storyline of this book was built from scene to scene rather than being planned in advance.  I began with a woman’s thoughts while looking at a lake.  That woman became Eve.  As I felt my way toward figuring out who she was and what had happened to her, Maddy emerged as a distinct character. I then became so engrossed in Maddy’s story that I abandoned Eve, for long enough that I considered dropping the mother’s voice and confining the point of view to the daughter.  But when I did return to Eve, I knew the two-voiced structure was important to what I wanted to do. 

Maddy was a character I quickly found that I could channel myself into. I was once a teenage girl. I am now the mother of a teenage girl.  And a close friend of mine had gone through the experience of having a seriously ill child.  All of this played a part in shaping Maddy.  More generally, I am fascinated by the fluid nature of adolescence and the way young people both accommodate and resist their parents’ world. Maddy is someone whose world is opening up just as it is in danger of closing down. She has to find ways of taking control and distancing herself from her mother at a time when she is increasingly dependent on her.  She has to grow up fast.  Maddy’s voice emerged early on as a mix of wisdom and naivete, seriousness and wit, frailty and determination. 

There are also a lot of terrific, well drawn out characters in this novel. Who was the easiest to create? What made them flow so easily for you?

Maddy’s voice came most easily to me, which is odd in a way, as I am closer in age to Eve. I felt most free when writing Maddy. Jack came naturally too.  Maybe at heart I am an adolescent!  But I also found the grandfather relatively easy to write. I suspect he is a mixture of men I have known and the kind of grandfather I would like to have had. One minor character I had fun writing was Eve’s young work colleague, Alison.  She emerged late and seemed to fit readily into place, though I can’t think of anyone I know who is like her. The creation of fictional characters is a mysterious process. It draws upon deep parts of the personality, memories, fears, observations and longings, known and unknown, which is why it’s so hard to understand and so exciting. 

 On the other hand, which character gave you the most difficulty? Why?

Partway through the novel, I remember feeling I had to be careful with the character of Eve. Because she is in the ‘mother’ position like myself, I worried about making her voice too close to my own.  But at the same time, because I’ve never been through what Eve goes through, and elements of her character and her life are alien to me, I wasn’t sure if she was plausible.  Plausibility is important to me, in writing, on many levels.  With Maddy, it was a question of making her inner voice sophisticated enough to articulate complex thoughts, while still being the voice of a sixteen-year old. 

The relationships felt so real. Especially between Maddy and her mother. What’s your trick (or advice to others) when it comes to balancing all of the necessary dynamics between two characters while maintaining their realness? 

I would say that fictional characters become real precisely through the dynamics between them.  Interaction brings characters to life, even if interaction is represented at one remove, in their inner thoughts.  Something else that brings characters to life is when they are the product of a writer’s genuine curiosity.  I am curious about how people guard their privacy in mother-daughter relationships that are basically close and sound rather than dysfunctional. What goes on between Maddy and Eve is, in part, my effort to understand that. If you write to find something out, the story will surprise you and carry the authenticity of your search. I’m not sure I have any more specific advice to give as regards creating ‘realness.’  It’s a matter of finding the right distance from the characters.  Zadie Smith wrote an essay called ‘The I who is not me.’  This phrase has great resonance for me.  In Maddy and Eve, I seem to have found two characters who are not me, who are perhaps partial or ideal or hypothetical versions of myself, and to whom I could give pieces of myself while writing. 

I sometimes wonder if my characters seem more real to readers than they do to me – or maybe real in a different way.  I don’t know everything there is to know about my characters.  I know only what is necessary for the story.  But if I’ve done my job, readers will fill in the gaps from their own imagination, and this makes the characters more vivid. 

Your characters go through the wringer of emotions. Did you find yourself putting them in situations that you never imagined? Or were their lives pretty mapped out once you started the book?

I do very little mapping out at the start. Invention and discovery happens in the act of writing and re-writing, not beforehand.  I start with something that intrigues or troubles me and see where it goes, what’s in it for me, emotionally and aesthetically. Once the characters of this book and the basic storyline were in place, I could start to think in a more focused way about structure, plot and alternative endings. Yet very late in the writing, I still had not decided how it would finish, some scenes were yet to be resolved, and I was still playing around with the interleaving of the chapters. It’s a strange process where you are the one guiding and shaping the thing, and at the same time you’re on the sidelines, watching.  I think of the developing narrative as a kind of gravitational field that pulls in ideas that might serve and enrich the story.  Family secrets, the climate crisis, the consolations of art, all became part of the story of Maddy and Eve. 

How did you handle your emotions while putting Maddy and the others through these moments?  Were there any scenes that you almost couldn’t get through because they were too difficult (either emotionally or you couldn’t figure them out as a writer)?

During the writing itself, the effort to get the scenes to work shielded me from the emotional impact to some extent.  It was when I re-read it later that it could upset me, almost as though it had been written by someone else. 

I think the key is to be close but not too close, both inside and outside of the emotion.  Actors and musicians do this all the time.  They are able to access powerful emotional states while remaining detached enough to practice their craft and render the emotions for others.  To write this novel, I drew on my experience and fears as a mother, but I never equated Maddy with my own daughter. I saw them as entirely separate people.  I could never have written the book otherwise.  In the same way, my friend’s tragedy gave me the courage to write about something I had not experienced, as well as the drive to understand it, but the story is not my friend’s story and I never perceived it as such.  

Finally, are there other writers or books you can turn readers to if they loved All The Water in the World?

I don’t know how transferable book love is from one writer to another.  I am a fan of the stories of George Saunders, Edith Pearlman, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Stafford, Frank O’Connor, V.S. Prichett, Tobias Wolff, Colm Toibin, David Malouf and Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie.

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