Betsy Carter is no stranger to hard times. Her own roller coaster of a life story, as recounted in her intensely honest memoir, Nothing to Fall Back On, includes cancer, a collapsed marriage and a house fire. Yet Carter a journalist who has worked at Esquire, Newsweek and Harper's Bazaar has taken every curveball flung her way.
Her humor and optimism shine through in her second novel, Swim to Me. It's the graceful and intriguing coming-of-age tale (or should we say tail?) of a young girl in the 1970s who searches for life beyond the confines of her unhappy home in the Bronx. Delores Walker's quest takes her to Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida (a real-life attraction, profiled in the box at right), where she becomes the star mermaid in an underwater show. Carter answered a few questions for BookPage about her new novel, the allure of mermaids and her own personal ups and downs.
Delores is thrilled at age 17 to find work as a mermaid in a Florida tourist attraction and as a weather girl for a local news station. Growing up, what was your dream job?
From the moment I went to Cypress Gardens and saw the water skiers with their tiaras and elbow-length gloves, I vowed to become one of them.
Swim to Me is set in the early 1970s, in the era of Watergate and Archie Bunker. What were you up to in 1973?
Alas, I was not a water skier. I was the media researcher/reporter at Newsweek.
You've set two novels in Florida, yet you live in New York City. Why are you so drawn to the Sunshine State?
We moved to Miami from New York when I was 10. I still haven't gotten over the colors, the heat and that behind many gas stations were cages with live bears and old Seminole Indians wrestling with alligators. Stuff you don't see in New York City.
Who would you rather be: Ariel (the Little Mermaid) or Esther Williams?
I envy Ariel's underwater lifestyle and her red hair, but Esther Williams got to wear those fabulous bathing caps with chin straps and the rubber flowers. I'd have to go with that.
Do you have a pool? If not, where's your favorite place to swim?
Chelsea Piers in New York is on the Hudson River with views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It's the most beautiful pool in the world.
In a letter to her little brother back home in the Bronx, Delores writes, Things happen that you can never have imagined in your whole life. Tell us something that has happened in your own life that shocked you.
My life has fallen to pieces several times (see the last question). The surprising net of these disasters is a happy second marriage, a new career and the fact that I'm still here.
Delores and her fellow mermaids get a lot of attention when they stage an underwater take on The Godfather. What movie would best sum up your life?
No movie, but The Mary Tyler Moore Show came pretty close. Heaven help me, I've got spunk.
Delores' mother is a janitor at a New York City fashion magazine, where she hears a fashion assistant get quite the chewing out. You're a former magazine editor yourself. Are magazine offices really such snake pits?
Hmm, some places are worse, some are sheer joy. Mostly, I've worked at the latter.
You got rave reviews for your debut novel, The Orange Blossom Special. What's it like to write a follow-up? Nerve wracking?
It's a kind of disconnect. I write in my living room at home with only my dog, Lucy, as company. I find it remarkable that what happens in those hours gets turned into books that people actually read.
You wrote an incredibly candid memoir, Nothing to Fall Back On, in which you chronicled what you call your dark years: divorce, illness, career troubles. What was it like to lay bare your whole life for public consumption?
Insane. Horrifying. Liberating. And, God willing, I will never have enough material for another one.
Amy Scribner learned to swim in her grandmother's pool in Yakima, Washington.