Karen Raney is the author of the debut novel All the Water in the World. Publishers Weekly noted, “Raney’s pleasing tale is a deep, genuine investigation of memory, the pain of loss, and the strength of a mother’s love.” Booklist gave it a starred review and said Raney is “unafraid to probe the complexities of parenthood and partnership” and “an author to watch.” Karen Raney was born in Schenectady, New York, attended Oberlin College, and graduated from Duke University. She worked as a nurse before moving to London to study art. She received her MA in creative writing from Goldsmiths, University of London, where All the Water in the World was awarded the 2017 Pat Kavanagh Prize while it was still a work in progress. She lives in London and teaches at the University of East London. Literary Mama Profiles Editor Susan Bruns Rowe interviewed her by email.
Susan Bruns Rowe: You’ve had several careers—nurse, artist, academic—on your path to becoming a writer. What led you finally to writing?
Karen Raney: Writing has been a constant in my life since childhood. I have filled over sixty book-length notebooks with raw material for fiction, and over the years I’ve aired and refined my unpublished work in writing groups. Why I delayed seeking publication until now is probably due to having had other careers and creative outlets and a family to raise. I see All the Water in the World as the outcome of decades spent learning the craft of writing fiction.
My other careers have provided me with subject matter, analytic skills, knowledge of fields such as psychoanalysis and contemporary art, and familiarity with a variety of settings and situations on which my writing imagination can work. Writing, painting and playing classical piano are the three art forms I am passionate about. Each nourishes and informs the other.
Being a painter in particular affects what and how I write. My tendency is to write with images, and art often finds its way in as part of my subject matter. In All the Water in the World, Eve works in an art gallery, some scenes are set at the Tate Modern in London, and Maddy draws, makes a film, and loves classical music. The consolations of art, in all its forms, play a big part in her story.
For me, fiction is the overarching form in which my other interests can be combined, raised up for scrutiny, and better understood. Through writing I can explore relationships and complex ideas about life in a more explicit way than I can through either visual art or music, which is what makes writing so rewarding and why I keep going back to it.
SBR: All the Water in the World is told in the alternating voices of Eve and her teenage daughter Maddy who has cancer. What made you want to write a novel about a parent/child relationship coping with such a dire situation?
KR: The story line of All the Water in the World began with thoughts I had while looking at a lake. The voice became Eve’s. As I felt my way toward figuring out who this woman was and what had happened to her, Maddy emerged as a distinct character. The two-voiced structure became central to the story. What made me write about such a dire situation? I am the mother of a teenage girl and I have experienced the nuances of that relationship, as well as the universal fears that accompany parenthood. A close friend of mine had a seriously ill child. And of course, I was once a teenage girl myself. Writing the novel was a way of trying to reach a deeper understanding of each of these predicaments.
I think writers, actors and musicians—all artists in fact—are drawn to elemental themes of life and death, childhood and parenthood, and they find ways to place themselves both inside and outside of powerful emotions. They can access extreme states while remaining detached enough to practice their craft and render the emotions for others. The extremity of the situation I set up in the novel allowed me to think about an array of human questions in a concentrated form, as Maddy and her family have no choice but to do.
Though I drew on my experience and fears as a mother, it was important that 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 experience gave me the courage to write about something I had not gone through, as well as the drive to comprehend it, but I never perceived it as her story I was telling. Writing about something so extreme that I myself had never been through was a challenge, to say the least. Not only did I worry about getting it wrong, but at times I worried that I had no right to do it in the first place. Although the story is not my friend’s story, I was afraid she would feel that I was exploiting what happened to her for my own ends. Happily, when she read it she felt that I had given her something rather than taking something away.
SBR: Every single character in All the Water in the World is doing their absolute best despite difficult tests of love and faith. As a writer, you succeed in having great compassion for all of your characters. Do you think your nurse’s training is at work here?
KR: That’s an interesting question. Maybe because working as a nurse was such a brief and long-ago chapter in my life, it hadn’t occurred to me that it might have some bearing on my approach to fictional characters. It may be the other way around, that I went into nursing because of an interest in situations where people are in trouble or in pain. I have always been curious about people’s inner lives, and I believe the exercise of a deep and receptive curiosity is the basis of compassion.
When shaping my characters, I tried to find points of contact with my own experience, even in situations or personalities alien to 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 can only speculate on the origins of the other characters. The grandfather I think is a mixture of men I’ve known and the kind of grandfather I would like to have had, while Eve’s young work colleague, Alison, and Maddy’s teacher, Miss Sedge, do not resemble anyone I know; nonetheless they came to me almost fully formed and I had fun writing them. 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.
SBR: Sixteen-year-old Maddy is hungry to experience as much of life as she can. The novel includes a scene of her first sexual encounter, and it is wonderfully honest and tender. As a parent, was that difficult to think about? To write?
KR: I don’t remember finding that scene hard to think about or write. Of course, my own teenage experience and also what I did not experience in first love, but wish I had, contributed to that scene from the daughter’s point of view. My daughter was Maddy’s age when I was writing the novel and hence I could guess what Eve goes through as Maddy starts a private relationship that her mother can’t be part of. I was interested in a mother-daughter relationship that is basically sound rather than dysfunctional, in particular how privacy is guarded within such a close bond. It was important to imagine both sides, Maddy’s intimate scene and Eve’s reaction when she comes home afterward, and I suspect it helped me to understand, and possibly to ease, the complex feelings involved by putting my fictional characters through them.
SBR: In the novel, Eve raises Maddy as a single parent and tells her that her biological father chose not to have a role in parenting her. This begins a series of events that causes both of Maddy’s parents to question decisions they made long ago. What questions about parenting were you wanting to explore?
KR: I find it hard to say where this element of the story comes from. I am not a single parent, I have never been in Eve’s position; it is not something that is present in my extended family, and I don’t know anyone whose partner left before their child was born and had no part in the child’s upbringing. Coming from, and going on to create, a standard two-parent family, perhaps I am curious to know what it would be like to go it alone, or to get to know the father of your child, or your biological father, or the daughter you never knew, later in life. I’ve always been intrigued by the mixture of inheritance and upbringing that makes us who we are, so perhaps it was also an attempt to play with these broader existential questions.
Once I started down that path, the plot took on its own momentum and I found myself imagining what the pull of biology might be when it does not coincide with actual parenting. All the Water in the World hints that being a parent is what you do, not who you are, and the role is often spread across different adults in a child’s life. Robin parents Maddy, and so do her grandparents, and her teacher. That said, I believe biological relationships can carry huge symbolic power, which is why events unfold between Antonio, Maddy, and Eve the way they do.
I am curious about how the past lives in the present, and about memory—how we imagine it works and how it actually does work. Eve thinks at one point, “No copy is kept of the past and what had gone on there.” Two people can remember an event in catastrophically different ways with lifelong consequences. This might lead to regret and self-torment; it might also lead to the realization that the unlived life could have been worse than the life you actually made for yourself. Eve’s story hints that a deeper wisdom may be at work in mistakes and misunderstandings.
SBR: Maddy’s ailing body is in many ways a metaphor for an ailing planet, and she takes an active role in helping others see the effects of climate change. But there is also a moment in the novel in which Eve, contemplating an ever-warming planet, says to her partner, “Don’t think about it.” Do you think there is a generational difference in how we view climate change? In how we see our ability to affect it?
KR: Climate change was not part of this book at the outset but, like other thematic elements—family secrets, art, music—it emerged as the writing progressed. I think of a developing narrative as a gravitational field that pulls in ideas that might serve the story and enrich it. I now think I would find it hard to write any contemporary story without reference to the biggest crisis we face, as it is the backdrop to everything that happens to us. An association between Maddy’s ailing body and the ailing planet seemed a natural one to make, both to my mind as the writer and also, I imagine, to the mind of a seriously ill young person.
Maddy is more clear-eyed than Eve. She understands that secrets between them are necessary, she is more realistic than Eve is about her likely fate, and she faces it with a maturity and wisdom that her mother struggles to find. So it is in keeping that Maddy is more clear-sighted and determined about climate change as well. Generational differences hadn’t occurred to me before, but I think you may be right. Young people grow up aware of climate change in a way that older people did not. And now that the knowledge is unavoidable, it may be that adults feel more frightened and powerless because they can envisage the consequences. In any case, Eve doesn’t concern herself with the campaign, except insofar as it affects Maddy. Eve and Robin skirt around the question of climate disaster, acknowledge it, and then look the other way. “Don’t think about it.”
SBR: You write Maddy’s interior life with great authenticity as she hangs out with friends, navigates relationships, and struggles to find meaning in the world, especially her meaning. Did your own teenage daughter offer advice or provide you with insight for the novel?
KR: Maddy’s voice came more easily to me than any other character, which is odd in a way, as I am closer in age to Eve. I felt most free when writing Maddy, and she felt like a product of myself rather than anyone in my life. Jack came naturally too. Maybe at heart I am an adolescent! Maddy’s inner voice had to be sophisticated enough to articulate complex thoughts, while still being the voice of a sixteen-year-old. What came out was a blend of wisdom and naivete, seriousness and wit, frailty and determination that seemed right for her story.
I did occasionally consult my daughter on teenage matters as the novel developed. With their consent, I listened in on conversations between her and her friends. Once, I was in the room taking notes while they were on a group phone call, which they found hilarious. Just as I did not equate my daughter with Maddy, my daughter says she never saw Maddy as a stand-in for her and this made it possible for her to enjoy being consulted.
I would say that the insight I gained from my daughter was not mainly in the form of advice she gave me, but in the all-embracing experience of being her mother, which no doubt pervades the book in more ways than I know.