Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski is a captivating portrayal of queer love in Europe at a time when relationships between men were staunchy looked down on. Though, as Jedrowski explained in a letter that accompanied the advance copy of his debut novel, he reminds readers that many of the LGBTQ+ community in Poland still hides their true identities out of fear.
Jedrowski was born in Germany to Polish parents. He studied in England and later France where he currently lives. It was when he was living in London when he first came up with the idea for his debut novel and took nearly a decade for it to be published. We corresponded via email about his background, the books that inspire him, and how Swimming in the Dark came to see the light of day.
I wanted to start with your background. Were you always a writer even as a child? Or how did you fall in love with writing?
No, I didn’t write as a child, not even as a teenager. I suppose my relationship to writing was the same as to my sexuality: I fantasized about it for years, but for a long time I was too scared. So I pretended to be a lawyer for some years, and when that became too hard I started CBT and my therapist literally made me come out. I had to admit to myself that writing was what I had always secretly wanted. I couldn’t even say why because at that point I hadn’t written a single page. But I guess what we truly want is never rational – that’s why it’s so hard to go for it.
Swimming in the Dark is your first published novel. Was this your first attempt at a novel or were there other attempts that never saw the light of day?
I only ever worked on Swimming in the Dark, but that included many attempts at getting it right.
It took five years before I felt that I could send it out, and then a further two years of editing with the my agent and editors. I’ve been lucky to be able to work with great people to make the final text what it is.
What’s the background on when you began to create Swimming?
I was living in London at the time, and I’d just quit my job at the law firm (it was pretty clear to both sides that I would never make a convincing corporate lawyer). I joined a weekly writing class and the idea for Swimming came straight away. It took over. I began to go to Warsaw more often to explore the city and to do research, and a year later I moved there to immerse myself fully in its history.
Queer literature has a long tradition. What are the earliest books by LGBT authors do you remember encountering?
Giovanni’s Room is the first novel I came across which dealt with same-sex love. It completely blew me away. I remember it was the autumn of 2008, I was 23. Until then I’d considered myself a book lover, but I hadn’t known literature could be that powerful. I felt like James Baldwin was talking to me directly, that I was not alone after all. This is why I included the novel in Swimming – I wanted Ludwik to have that same sense of discovery that I’d felt, the same sense of hope.
How did the structure of the novel – Ludwik’s narration – come to form?
I was reading Jonathan Kemp’s London Triptych towards the beginning of the writing process and found the choice of a letter style – narrator addressing his lover/the reader as ‘you’ – very powerful. Another inspiration was Giovanni’s Room: the narrator recounts a story that happened in the past but also gives us glimpses of the present he finds himself in. I wanted to convey a similar sense of reckoning, of someone looking back and trying to make sense of past experiences in order to move on.
The book perfectly balances the lustful and sensual nature of their relationship. How did you decide how to portray their affair?
I think I wanted something that felt real, something that resonated with my own experience of love and lust. Romantic, but not hopelessly so. Erotic, even objectifying, but not in a directly pornographic way.
Another part of your writing that I adored was how you tapped into their emotions and poured them onto the page. Is revealing emotions easy for you or were these passages difficult for you?
Thank you. I found some of these pages very difficult to write, actually. I don’t usually have difficulty expressing my feelings, but then we all harbor quite a few illusions about ourselves.
Where do you want to take your writing in the future? What would you like to explore?
I haven’t thought about it in that way. I feel like writing is such a subconscious, even magical process, so I’m just grateful when an idea presents itself. Right now I’m working on a novel that is radically different from Swimming, and it’s pushing me to learn more about nature and spirituality and our place in this world. I’m loving it.