Literary Arts

Swimming for Your Life: Interview with Memoirist David McGlynn

David McGlynn will read from and sign his memoir, A Door in the Ocean, a coming-of-age story centered on swimming and a violent tragedy and how the author came to evangelical Christianity. Saturday, March 23, 2 p.m., King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 E., Salt Lake City.

David McGlynn will read from and sign his memoir, A Door in the Ocean,  Saturday, March 23, 2 p.m., King’s English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 E., Salt Lake City.

In 2008, The End of the Straight and Narrow, a collection of short stories by then-grad student David McGlynn, won the Utah Book Award. In 2012, McGlynn, now a professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, published A Door In the Ocean, a memoir that “charts the violent origins of one man’s faith and the struggle to find meaning in the midst of life’s painful uncertainties.” On March 23 at 2 pm, McGlynn will be in Salt Lake at King’s English for a reading and book signing. In anticipation of the event, we asked the artist a few questions.


15B: You’ve gone from a book of short stories, some linked, in The End of the Straight and Narrow, to a memoir, your recently released A Door In the Ocean. Was that an easy segue from fiction to nonfiction? I’m sure the earlier work informed the latter. Can you talk about that?

DM: I started writing nonfiction a few years after I started working on the stories in The End of the Straight and Narrow. But I immediately fell in love with nonfiction, with the familiar voice of the nonfiction narrator and nonfiction’s ability to muse and ruminate even while telling a story. There’s a kind of meditative quality to my fiction and, in contrast, a dramatic narrative at the heart of the memoir. So the transition from fiction to nonfiction was, for me at least, rather easy, since I’d never really seen the two genres as all that separate. Both, at their hearts, are modes of telling stories.

15B: The University of Utah was your last choice for graduate school, but you ended up here in the creative writing program. How do you feel it shaped the direction of your writing as opposed to if you had gone elsewhere, say, the Univ. of California, Irvine?

DM: I say the U was my last choice, but only because I fancied myself — in the fashion of so many young writers — living in a brooding, coastal city, like New York or Seattle. But the U was a great place for me. I loved my professors: Melanie Rae Thon gave my work (and me, personally) more than I ever dreamed a dissertation director could, and I never would have found the courage to write about religion in the way that I do had it not been for her. And I was lucky to be a part of a dynamic and talented class of writers, including Lynn Kilpatrick (who still lives in Salt Lake City), Nicole Walker, Margot Singer, Julie Paegle, Matt Batt, and Steve Tuttle (and several others), almost all of whom have gone on to publish books and win awards for their writing. I had a supportive and fiercely intelligent community of writers at the U and their successes helped motivate me to do my best and my daring work. I love them all for their good will, friendship, and big talents.

15B: I haven’t finished reading your book, but it seems from what I have read, including your chapter “Wandering in Zion” that you continue your exploration on religion and faith. How did living in Salt Lake advance your perceptions of both the value and danger of organized religion?

DM: Salt Lake City is a wonderful place to question and evaluate the functions of religious institutions. The conversation about faith — despite the stereotypes that often adhere to Utah — is far more varied and complex than I think most people living outside the state realize. Wallace Stegner, who easily ranks as one of my favorite writers, talks openly about how much he valued the LDS church during his time in Salt Lake City, even though he wasn’t himself a part of it, and I can say I agree with him on most accounts. I’m not LDS (obviously) and I don’t agree with many of its doctrines or political positions, but I nevertheless had hours of fruitful and challenging conversations about faith during my years in Utah. And Mormons and evangelicals, though opposed in a number of ways, are actually very much alike. It was interesting to look upon a religious world that was similar to my own but ultimately distinct from it. That glimpse, as it were, helped me to see the ways that my faith needed to shift and gave me the courage to do so.

15B: Water and swimming are the central metaphor of your book, it seems, and your book opens on a chilling but beautifully-rendered account of your best friend and swim teammate being murdered execution style. Can you talk about the book’s title and what a door in an ocean might mean?

DM: Traumatic experiences have a way of bending time, if for no other reason than because they loom so largely in the mind. You’ll be sitting in class or driving in a car and all of a sudden a memory will rush in and you’ll feel engulfed by it. I felt like that a lot in the months just after my friend’s death — almost like I was sucked through a portal in time. A few months after the murders, I left Texas for Southern California, to spend a few months at my father’s house in Laguna Beach, where I spent a lot of time swimming in the Pacific Ocean. The ocean calmed me and was the place I went (and still go) whenever I needed solace. At one point — and this moment is narrated in the second chapter — I found myself sort of believing that if I could dive to the bottom of the ocean, I could find a way through the portal in time and could go back and save Jeremy from being murdered. The door in the ocean endures throughout the book as a metaphor for my desire to slip through time, to both reclaim and alter the memories of the murders.

15B: I confess to having been a competitive swimmer myself, but I gave it up after high school even though I stayed chlorinated as a lifeguard through college. So here’s the most personal question today: What’s your best time in the 200-yard freestyle?

DM: 1:41.98. Nothing special by today’s standards, but I was proud of the time when I swam it, now more than 15 years ago.


With Trey and Mike and Ted, I ventured into Houston’s decaying inner-city wards, neighborhoods without streetlamps or lighted storefront, neighborhoods with police cameras mounted to telephone poles. We went to poorly lit, spartanly furnished clubs, if clubs is the right word–cramped, boxy spaces without tables or chairs or windows, linoleum on the floor and walls, peopled by a mix of scalped young men and tatooed women, black men in groups of seven or eight, and grizzled gray-haired men you approached if you wanted a beer or a joint or a bump of acid. No one checked IDs at the door. I caught myself looking for Jeremy among the bizarre bodies and unfriendly faces. He seemed to show up in pieces, as though his body had been broken down and distributed to a thousand people. The bartender had received the back of Jeremy’s head; the black-haired woman leaning over the balcony his pursed lips. The curious thing about memory, I discovered, was how much of it I had. I’d never consciously paid attention to the idiosyncrasies of Jeremy’s body while he was alive, but here, surrounded by strangers, I could identify enough parts of him to fuse together a disjointed whole. It was, in its way, a pleasurable experience, and it kept me coming back. (p. 31)

A Door in the Ocean (266 pgs.), $26.00, Counterpoint

A Door in the Ocean (266 pgs.), $26.00, Counterpoint

David McGlynn grew up in Houston, Texas, and Southern California. His story collection, The End of the Straight and Narrow, won the 2008 Utah Book Award and was named an “Outstanding Achievement” by the Wisconsin Librarians’ Association. His stories and essays have appeared in Men’s Health, The Huffington Post, Best American Sports Writing, and numerous literary journals. He teaches at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife and sons.

A lifelong swimmer, he captured a national championship in the 500–yard freestyle at the 2001 United States Masters National Championships. He continues to compete in open–water swimming races all across the country, and on most mornings is the first one in the pool.

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