Following the publication of her debut novel, Tides, Sara Freeman has slowly been working her way back to the page. “Having a book published is quite an external, nearly social process: editors, reviewers, readers,” she says. “It’s a new experience for me, thrilling, and yet it can be momentarily disorienting, this thing you created in total privacy suddenly becoming an object outside of you, open to interpretation and critique. And so it’s been taking me a moment to re-enter the private, vulnerable space of permission and release required for writing.”
Reading Freeman’s words is both a familiar and disquieting experience. Tides captures the intricacies of grief and transformation. Similar themes also arise in Freeman’s short story “The Company of Others,” which is featured in the Sewanee Review’s Spring 2022 issue. Below, Freeman reflects on the parallels between these works, where a story begins for her and an imagined meeting between two disparate characters.
— Rachel Schwartzmann, guest contributor
RS: In both “The Company of Others” and your novel Tides, we see themes of familial strain and longing, particularly through the lens of motherhood. While readers unravel the intricacies of marriages and sibling relationships, the children in your stories often act as mirrors for the adult protagonists. In “The Company of Others,” Léa navigates her complicated relationship with mothering as she encounters her husband’s ex-girlfriend’s daughter, Elle, who instills “a feeling of immediate interest, of unfounded complicity.” In Tides, Mara’s yearning is further reflected against Simon’s daughter Ella—Mara grows to miss her “animal warmth.” What interests you in writing about this dynamic? What scares you?
SF: It’s true that neither character fits neatly into their assigned or even chosen roles—mother, wife, sister, daughter. This ambivalence represents the surface tension or strain, as you so nicely put it, at work in both Tides and “The Company of Others.” And yet, I think in both cases, there’s a deeper longing roiling beneath the surface, one that is less about one or the other object—a better marriage, a more connected experience of motherhood, a lost child or childhood—and more to do with a deeper lack, a kind of void, which familial relationships may light up but cannot possibly resolve. Children do serve a central role in this dynamic. Both women have developed the slightly terrifying habit of projecting their own lacks—from childhood, from their current lives—onto their own children and the children of others. This dynamic, of the child as a white wall onto which an adult might project fantasies and grievances, is, in my opinion, very common in life, if unconscious.
Both of these women carry the children they once were, or weren’t allowed to be, around with them like a loaded gun. This lends them an eerie, ironically childlike menace. I’m reminded of the protagonist in Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter. While on vacation, she steals, reflexively, a child’s doll on the beach, and the act is both somehow innocent—some longing to return to a past with her own daughters that she feels she squandered—and deeply unnerving in its cruel and selfish illogic. This combination of innocence and threat is one I can’t help returning to again and again in my own fiction. I like characters who, in their vulnerability, live at the raw psychic edge of a social breach, who behave in ways that feel at once perfectly understandable from the inside and troubling and often unforgivable from the outside.
RS: As I get to know a writer’s body of work, I sometimes wonder what would happen if the lines blurred between their stories. Could you envision Léa and Mara meeting? What would that interaction look like for you—for readers?
SF: I get nervous just thinking about it! These two characters live inside of me in such different ways, it’s hard to imagine them coming together. Like introducing an ex-lover to a current one, or an old friend to a new one, there’s an inherent sense of exposure in having two intimate parts of yourself meet and be witnessed.
On the surface, in terms of personality, the two women are quite different: Mara is impulsive and prone to destructive acts, whereas Léa, at least in my mind, is restrained and deeply passive, almost paralyzed by her observations. But both exist uncomfortably inside of themselves, in a constant tug-of-war between relationship and independence, freedom and love, retrospection and action. If Léa met Mara, she might observe her with a critical distance, see little of herself in her. Her self-ideation is one of separateness, which would likely limit the encounter. On the other hand, Mara, in her brash solipsism, might brush Léa off as too conventional or uninteresting.
These are both very internal characters; I think they would need some outward event to thrust them together, and then, who knows? Maybe then they’d discover their inherent similarities? Maybe a stuck elevator, a natural disaster, or better yet, they would simply have to get quite drunk. That’s what I think I would do: I would have them sit at the bar together. Mara might convince Léa to do a few shots . . . Something quite interesting could happen between them then.
RS: I’m also struck by the role of time and seasonality in your work. In “The Company of Others,” you write: “It was cool now, September announcing itself in the breeze. It always hit me, in this season, a necessary reminder after summer’s amnesia: the city’s arctic undertow, its melancholy pull.” And in Tides: “August, slinking into September. Still hot by the evening, when the sun is a red face dipping its chin into the water.” Is it purely coincidence that your stories capture characters on the edge of summer? What arrives more naturally for you when crafting a story—a person or a place in time?
SF: Putting the novel and the story side-by-side, it is impossible not to see the many unconscious overlaps, including, as you mention, this liminal, end-of-summer season, which certainly plays an important atmospheric role in both. I can’t imagine either narrative beginning anywhere else or at any other time of year, and yet, in both cases, the character, her psychological story, came before time or place. I don’t know how to write a story without first knowing its characters inside and out. This need can be very inconvenient and time-consuming!
Léa, for instance, was the protagonist of a novel I worked on for three years but ultimately had to put aside. When I revived her in the context of this short story, the decisions of where and when to set the story came quite effortlessly. I do abide by the idea that a short story should be the occasion for a change, or at least present the threat of one, and so in “The Company of Others,” the change of season certainly mirrors a transformation that is afoot inside Léa—some decision regarding staying with or leaving her family. But her particular psychic atmosphere also impacts the way the weather and seasons are depicted in the story. In short, I’m not afraid of committing the “pathetic fallacy” in my fiction. I feel it’s true to life that weather and place can be entirely imprinted by state of mind, by psychic seasons, by subjectivity.