Jeni McFarland confronted her past to create ‘The House of Deep Water’

The House of Deep Water, the debut novel from Jeni McFarland, is an intimate portrait of three women arriving back to the town they grew up in. Beth was one of the small Michigan town’s only black residents and arrives with her two teenager children to help get her life back on track after experiencing devastating trauma. There’s also Linda, who recently left a bad marriage while pregnant. Her mother, Paula, who abandonded her family years ago also returns. All three are seeking a sense of community and family.

The book pulls on McFarland’s own childhood, which proved to be an obstacle she had to overcome. The result is a stirring novel about the strength it takes to confront your past and fight for your future.

When did you start telling stories and writing?

I always wrote as a child, but wasn’t a big reader. The books that were around weren’t as absorbing [to a child]. I started out writing Phantom of the Opera fan fiction. I was fourteen when the library gave me Phantom by Susan Kay, which is a retelling of the original story. I fell in love with how dark and poignant it was at that point in my life.

Did you always plan on going to get an MFA?

No, I never even dreamed of getting an MFA. I wanted to be a music major when I started college. I didn’t make it on my first try and got distracted. I wanted to become a chef and went to culinary school and worked in restaurants. I eventually met my husband and he encouraged me to go back to school.

Was House of Deep Water the result of that MFA?

I was taking a class in 2014 and there were these prompts that went along with the different novels we were reading that were very different styles. You would write in one style – like a vignettes or a story that takes place all in one day – so you would write the beginning, middle, and end of story in each style. After that, it was like filling in the gaps and choosing one style that worked.

Tell readers what the book is about in your own words?

It’s about growing up in a small town with so few people of color there. Also healing from childhood trauma. There’s a lot in the book that is a fictionalized version of my own childhood. The abuse Beth suffers is fictionalized of what I experienced. It’s really about healing and dealing with mental health issues as well as family and finding community.

What was it like going back and thinking about your childhood from a different perspective?

It was brutal. I did a lot of hiding from it at first. The story wasn’t originally focused on Beth and she took a front and center role in later drafts. I wasn’t ready at first. It took me a while and a lot of feedback from my readers to push me to go there.

When you finally started going there, what were the obstacles to write Beth’s story?

There’s so much in society that if you experience these things that you’re not supposed to talk about it. I didn’t do anything and I shouldn’t have to suffer in silence. I had to overcome that idea that this wasn’t supposed to be something I’d talk about and let alone write about. 

Finding a way to play games in my head about how the book would never be published and I was just writing for myself. I had to say I was writing what I needed to write because it was really hard. 

Did it at some point become cathartic to be writing about these things?

Definitely, but that took awhile.

Were there any scenes or moments in the book that were really difficult for you?

The most difficult part were the vignettes in between chapters from Beth’s point of view that chronicle her life from her childhood to her late-30s. They’re in present tense and it feels very present to me. There are moments when you’re with her and in her head trying to make sense of what’s happening. Those were the worst for me.

Were those pieces around from the beginning?

They were from when I first started writing. They were actually one chapter. I wasn’t sure where to put them when I was querying agents. You send the first ten pages and the first ten pages were Linda, which wasn’t an accurate depiction of my book. So I put that chapter in the very beginning and it wasn’t until my editor suggested splitting them up

Beth has parts of your childhood in her and the town is similar to the town you grew up on. Was there any research where you went back or was it pulling memory.

It was pulling memories. Also, I lived in the town River Bend is based on after the trauma was over for me. It was more creating a new space and new world for these characters to operate in. I wasn’t in the headspace described when I was in that physical space. 

Beth wasn’t originally at the forefront and Linda was. What drew you to her as a character?

I just like her and want to hang out with her. Her grandparent’s farm was based on my best friend’s farm growing up. I remember happy moments I had going there and having bonfires during fall. It was really nice to go back and remember those memories. I liked writing those happy memories before the unhappiness crept in.

Were there a lot of drafts to get the balance right between all of the characters?

It’s hard for me to say because I wrote the whole thing out of order. There were phases when I only wrote Linda or phases where I only wanted to write Beth. Once I had a cohesive draft though, I did three more drafts before I went on submission for an agent then did one for my agent before I did four for my editor. Getting near ten maybe.

What was the biggest difference from that first full draft to now?

A lot of structural issues. Plot is definitely not my strong suit. There was a lot of work trying to make the timeline cohesive and give each character the proper amount of consideration.

If plot isn’t your strong point, what do you feel your strong point is?

Characters, definitely. These are real people in my head. 

How important was the place? Was it always going to be told in Michigan?

Yes. I started writing it when I lived in Houston, but there were things about the Midwest I missed. There’s an element of nostalgia there.

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Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit Jeni McFarland at her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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