In the novel The Summer We Came to Life, three lifelong friends unite for their annual summer journey of discovery. What has changed with this trip, however, is the death of their fourth friend, Mina. The protagonist, Sam, battles hardest with the loss in the wilds of Honduras where she has temporarily relocated, and through her eyes writer Deborah Cloyed investigates some heady subjects including friendship, Quantum Physics, loss, the afterlife and the basic complexities of familial relationships. But the debut novel is not a heavy or dense read, bogged down by pretension or affected gravitas. Instead, Cloyed tackles the subjects with a maturity and depth that belie her debut stature. The interview we got with Deborah has been one of our favorites, so let’s just let her do the talking — and if you like what you read, buy the just-released The Summer We Came to Life for some intelligent, solid summertime reading…
This book takes place in Honduras, where you really lived for 6 months as a photographer. What specifically were you doing in Honduras? How did your travels there influence the book — were there any autobiographical moments that made it to The Summer We Came to Life?
I was in Honduras working for Susan Potter, a very successful commercial photographer there, and a dear, dear friend. It was a unique situation in which I was introduced to an amazing group of very successful influential peeps in the capital, Tegucigalpa. It was a truly magical time — filled with family rooftop dinners, fashion shows, restaurant and nightclub openings, 16-hr society weddings on sprawling estate grounds, and weekend trips to our friends’ vacation homes on both coasts, at Mayan ruins, and in the jungle. Certainly these experiences inspired the landscape of the book, and the vacation home in Tela in the book is modeled after my friend’s home there, but really it was the relationships — the emphasis placed on family and love and best friends — that are reflected most in the book.
Nany’s Restaurant in the Garifuna village and dancing punta — that’s pretty close to a real memory. And, of course the near-drowning….
I want to ask you about your extensive travels. It’s obviously been a big part of your life — you and your best friend Bianca were even contestants on Amazing Race. How was that experience?
Hilarious, miserable, enlightening, and ultimately incredible. Incredible to be on TV as yourself with your best friend since 3rd grade in front of millions of people. And to be a part of a generational phenomenon, that’s the best part –stories for the old folks home. Bianca and I will still be friends, showing ancient sexy pics of ourselves to the wait staff and bickering about how we lost a million dollars.
On the show they kind of edited it so you and Bianca came across as lesbian — you know, emphasizing you guys saying “I love you,” etc. Two part question: 1) Why do you think this is? And 2) Did it annoy you that they contrived that angle, or did you get a kick out of it?
I think the boys in the editing room saw an opportunity and rolled with it! Ha. But in seriousness, it made for some tricky interviews — you don’t want to offend the lesbian community by being indignant. At the same time, Bianca and I both tend towards being naughty attention lovers so we’d play into the banter and then get a phone call from our mothers like, you’re not really . . . are you?!
I think the world could only be so lucky to have such a close, twenty-six year friendship as mine and Bianca’s. She’s my family, plain and simple. It’s a major theme in the book – exposing the broadening definition of family in our fractured, scattered modern culture.
Hit the Jump to continue reading our interview with Deborah Cloyed…
“More so than any time in history, we have access to single voices in the clamor. So then even in ubiquity, we can still be touched by an individual in need…”
What was your singular best/worst/funniest/most salient memory from that experience?
Four pounds of meat. I ate four pounds of meat in a half hour. Think about that. It’s pretty disgusting. Though I find it reassuring that I have a second career waiting for me if all else fails. Tell that Japanese hot-dog-eating punk to watch out.
The Summer We Came to Life deals with 2 different generations of women interacting and sharing the stories of their lives, moments spent at historical turning points in world history (Iran Revolution, US Civil Rights struggle, Panama in the 70s). How do you think the proliferation of technology (web, iPhone cameras, Facebook, Twitter) affect humanity’s ability to share these watershed moments?
After two years spent living in Honduras and Kenya, I plunked myself down in my folks’ home for three months to write a first draft. There I was researching away, at the library and online, until finally one night over pot roast I looked at my parents and said, “Hey, weren’t you two around for this stuff?” Out came yearbooks and photo albums and stories I’d never heard about racism and revolution in Virginia and DC in the 60’s. It was uncomfortable; it was moving; it was eye-opening. So, first I would say that we have an obligation to continue the ancient, quintessentially human tradition of storytelling. There is merit in aging that often gets undervalued in our society that so idolizes youth, especially in a place like Los Angeles. At thirty-two I’m just getting my first glimpses of humility, hindsight, and the cringing aha of what-a-pompous-KID I was. We need to learn from our own experiences, but also listen to the stories of the past filtered through the lens of wisdom.
Now, all that being said, I think the proliferation of social technology offers a new mode of storytelling that is equally valuable and utilizes an entirely different perspective – the P.O.V. of NOW. My next book is a love story set against the political violence in Kenya in 2008. I was sitting at my computer in my cozy room, scouring the internet for first hand accounts of the situation – people killing each other with machetes in all the places I had just been. Blogs, twitter, facebook – I got to experience history as it was happening, in all its voracity, confusion, misinformed rage, and soaring hope. This happened a second time, watching the Honduran political crisis unfold in 2010. I am captivated by the potential social media has to bring the world closer together, unite us in a more shared experience.
Let’s talk about that for a second — from the tsunami in Japan to the Jasmine Revolution happening throughout the Arab world to the Haiti earthquake, do you think these social media technologies will bring people together, or does their ubiquity callous us to the plight of far-flung peoples?
I think technology is merely unmasking a long disguised fact: we live in a global world, operating as a single species. What will come from the mounting crash of cultures we are experiencing — the ramifications for religion, economics, politics, codes of morality — no one can say for sure. But I certainly think it’s worth talking about and prophesizing. I used to say every American high school senior should be required to travel to four countries for two years, alone, before going to college. Okay, I actually still think that. But now the web, smart phones, and social networking allow for what I was essentially advocating – exposure to other modes of thinking and doing, an outside-in view of one’s identity. The perception I gained, traveling as an outsider, is that America is a caring society. In a misplaced way at times, and with the attention span of a kindergartner perhaps, but we are an empathetic, charitable society when times are really rough. Millions of dollars were raised to help Haiti and Japan. And that I think is the unique power of viral technology – the ability to make a far away crisis personal and urgent. We all relate to crying children and grandmothers, and trapped house pets. More so than any time in history, we have access to single voices in the clamor. So then even in ubiquity, we can still be touched by an individual in need.
“I think technology is merely unmasking a long disguised fact: we live in a global world, operating as a single species…”
In the book the protagonist, Sam, drowns and is re-united with her best friend in a parallel universe of sorts. This is heady stuff — were you at all reluctant to tackle such a subject in your first novel, or was it the essence of the reason to write the book in the first place?
The very essence. I like that. Yes, for better or worse, nearly dying gives you a amplified drive for living and achieving. I’ve nearly drowned twice, once white-water rafting in Honduras, and the second on vacation in El Salvador. In many, many ways these experiences were the impetus to write. I had always been fascinated by science and quantum physics in particular, but after writing myself off for dead twice, I was no longer musing about aliens and time travel. I began to wonder how string theory, M-theory, The Copenhagen and Many Universes Theories, etc. informed age-old questions about the nature of life, death, destiny, and consciousness. Combine that with where I was at in my life, turning thirty, making important life choices of the ‘what next’ variety, meeting my parents as adults . . . and the inklings of a book started to materialize.
Tell me a bit about your background or research into quantum physics, and how this nurtured The Summer We Came to Life.
I am no physicist, I will be the first to say. At one point in time, I dreamed of double majoring, but in reality the math required was never my strongest attribute nor of sufficient interest. I like the big ideas of physics, and I love reading physicists like Brian Greene whom are able to translate mathematical answers into metaphors that make my head spin around a few moments of transcendental understanding. I always imagine it’s similar to visiting a Buddhist monastery and tackling koans.
I wrote a book in my twenties (which thank goodness will never see the light of day) in which I compiled a history and explanation of physics, relativity vs. quantum physics, and a tongue-in-cheek history of the world from Big Bang to present (plus 16 major religions). For The Summer We Came to Life, I went back over a lot of that research, combined it with new breakthroughs I learn about mostly through science journals, Ted, stacks of books, online, and news, and then stopped and began the creative process of applying it all to fictional stories of love and loss.
I was recently just put in touch with esteemed string-theorist Clifford Johnson, who’s reading the book before we have coffee. I can’t wait to hear what he has to say! My astrophysicist uncle at Cornell has yet to read the book, as far as I know . . .
Do you think this book can appeal to men? Or do you think because it’s primarily female characters and from a woman’s perspective that that will disengage male readers?
Well in addition to my uncle, my dad has yet to finish the book either (a man who can take down a James Patterson book in two hours). My boyfriend somewhat reluctantly read the book in a single sitting, showering me with surprised exclamations of hey . . this is good! So, certainly I find this phenomenon fascinating – genre, categorization, and literary appeal pegged to gender. Is it unfair bias? Stereotyping? Genetically based? Social conditioning? I’ve worked in the male-dominated photography industry for over a decade, and been called a tomboy more times than I can count. And yet I wrote a book that instantly gets slapped with a ‘women’s fiction’ label. Try to define women’s fiction and you’ll see very quickly why it gets tricky. Women’s fiction is more relationship based? But what about male writers like Jonathan Franzen? So then women’s fiction is rosier? Double check the body count. Less literary? This is the point where feathers really ruffle. I suspect it has to do with, as you say, “a woman’s perspective.” But women read male perspective novels all the time, certainly if we’ve read our way through the ‘classics.’ So does this imply men are simply more accustomed to enjoying a privileged point of view in the world?
Wow! This is definitely an article I would love to research and write.
What’s your ideal Tuesday evening?
Pinches Tacos, Arclight movie, and back home for some good sex.
Ok, last question: if you were lost in a supermarket, in what aisle would we find you?
Stocked up on Maker’s Mark and wondering where the peperoncini are.