Thursday, May 27, 2021

Dawn Newton Interview - The Remnants of Summer

Photo Content from Dawn Newton

DAWN NEWTON is the author of Winded: A Memoir in Four Stages, which details her journey with stage IV lung cancer. She was trained as a fiction writer and received scholarships to attend Michigan State University and Johns Hopkins University. Dawn has taught composition and creative writing at several colleges and in K–12 classrooms in Virginia and Michigan. Her essays, poems, and short stories have been published in various literary magazines. She has three grown children—Rachel, Connor, and Nathaniel—and lives with her husband, Tim Dalton, and their dog, Clover, in East Lansing, Michigan

Greatest thing learned at school. 
This question is a hard one for me. I learned so much from every school I attended. Perhaps what I gleaned from all my educational experiences has to do with asking good questions. In this year of difficult news on so many fronts, we have journalists asking a lot of questions, and certainly we’ve seen that the kinds of questions span a huge range. What I’ve learned is that there are questions that you ask – about certain subject matter, whether it’s history, psychology, or literature – based on facts and content and purpose. But there are also emotional questions that you need to learn how to ask in other arenas in your life, such as in raising kids. For different ages, you may have to ask the questions in a different way. And that’s when we are reminded that subtlety really needs to come into play when we’re talking about interpersonal relationships (or character interactions, to move the discussion to literature and writing books). But even on a very mundane level, using Google for example, I feel like I learn something every day about how to phrase a question to get at the essence of the information I need. And the arts have helped me fashion my questions in a more delicate, respectful way.

Why is storytelling so important for all of us? 
Whether a person is creating a formal story for delivery to others in a written form or relaying a passing anecdote from her day, storytelling provides us the opportunity to give shape to our own experiences and to communicate with others. As an introvert, I find it difficult to relay stories in a big group – I’m not much good at parties, and I often find it difficult to speak. But if I meet in a one-on-one situation with a friend, I can’t shut up. I want to be heard. I want to convey things of crucial social, psychological, and emotional importance to me. I’m getting older and leading a quieter life, but I still have so much to say, so much to sort out aloud, and I need a listener. That urge to speak up confounds me, since I’m not an extrovert and don’t have a pressing need to speak most of the time. But giving voice to thoughts, shaping our worlds, or seeking understanding from others – we all need that opportunity, though the way in which we tell those stories varies greatly from person to person.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published. 
My first book, Winded: A Memoir in Four Stages, was about the first leg of my ongoing journey with stage IV lung cancer. Not long after it came out, my youngest son, who was in college, had a good friend who lost her mother very suddenly and unexpectedly from heart issues at an early age. I believe it’s not uncommon for people living beyond their expected expiration date with cancer to feel guilty when they live with the expectation of dying but remain living while others who never anticipated dying are suddenly wiped off the face of the earth. I was sad when I heard about this woman’s loss, though I’d never met her; she was a beloved high school teacher. My son’s friend ended up continuing with her study abroad plans (prior to COVID-19), since they were already established. While abroad, she found herself lonely and missing her mom acutely, for obvious reasons. She’d heard about my book from my son and ended up reading it. She wrote me and told me she’d read the book and it helped her to be closer to her mother. That was incredibly meaningful for me.

Tell us your latest news. 
Some time this spring/summer, one of the stories I’ve written, a favorite, is going to be published in Pinyon, a literary magazine published by Colorado Mesa University. The story is called “Hold Tight” and shares a setting in time and place like that in my recently released novel, The Remnants of Summer. It’s about a mother and a daughter, and the daughter’s efforts to understand the world, learning finally, that no matter how hard we try to comprehend what’s happening in our lives, sometimes we just can’t decipher the signs the universe sends us.

Can you tell us when you started Remnants – how that came about? 
I started Remnants in the late 1980s. I had written a collection of short stories after graduate school and was trying to get that published, circulating it to big publishing houses and agents. I had the great joy of landing an agent one day, and she tried to place the stories from the collection with some of the bigger magazines. When she couldn’t do so, she suggested we wait until I finished the novel I’d started about Michigan. Then maybe we could get a two-book deal. Lots of things were happening in my life – a new baby, a move from Virginia back to Michigan, and then my parents died just as I was catching my breath. It took me a long time to work through my grief, but I knew that the book would help me bring them to life again in some ways, although the characters differ from my parents. As it turned out, the market had changed by the time I finished the book in 2001, and the novel was too quiet for the fiction market then. I worked on the book on and off over the years, along with other short stories and novels in my writing/teaching life, but I ended up publishing a memoir about my journey with lung cancer before I published this book, which I revised for the umpteenth time. Thus, it was a long journey with many twists and turns. Thanks for asking!

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel? 
Two key thoughts come to mind. The first has to do with grief, and how difficult it is to deal with it in an individual’s or a family’s life. We tend to view it as a process, but I have come to believe that it’s not linear. It comes and goes in fits and starts, and while the pain can lessen over time for the grieving, it’s not a beast to be easily tamed. I think related to that idea of the complexity of grief is the need for all involved to have empathy. That seems like a logical thing to say, yet in a family situation, it can be hard to have empathy for others when you are grieving yourself. We need to learn how to be kind to ourselves, and then maybe we can extend that kindness little by little to those around us. In a lot of ways, grief requires that there be no imperatives, no “shoulds,” yet how can that be in a world in which we need to be kind to each other? That’s a conundrum. The second thought I’d like people to have involves the need for communication, whether it’s with our children, our parents, our siblings, authority figures we can trust, etc. Adolescents often get accused of not communicating very well with others. But adults also struggle with communication. What kind of problems might we solve, if we just let ourselves be honest and confess our worries, instead of stewing over them in silence?

For those who are unfamiliar with Iris, how would you introduce her? 
She is a relatively quiet fourteen-year old, an observer, who has good intentions about how she interacts with the world. But she becomes completely paralyzed with guilt when her brother drowns because of her inaction. She loves her family, but she is desperately craving punishment for what she failed to do, and she wants them to discuss her mistake with her openly, yet the family tiptoes around the details of what happened.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
I’d like to introduce Iris to Amy from Elizabeth Strout’s Amy and Isabelle. I already had a draft of my novel nearly completed at the time Strout’s book came out. A bit later, a writing friend was trying to help me think about what kind of book it was, beyond the general coming-of-age tale. She compared it to Strout’s book, which I ended up reading a few years later. I reread it just a few years ago. I love the atmosphere, the characterization, and the writing in general. And years later, I also fell in love with some of Strout’s other books. As for why, I think Amy and Iris are similarly lost in their lives, floundering. They desperately need connection, but they don’t know how to find it or forge it. I wonder what would happen if they could conspire to free themselves from their guilt.

Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work? 
Absolutely. I could give you a whole treatise on confidence and how I lack it. Some people have it. Some people don’t. For me, that means if someone says something nice about my writing, I don’t believe it, and if someone says something not so flattering or generous, I’m convinced that their opinion is spot on. At some point, I usually come around to a middle ground. At least, that’s the hope.

What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
Kayaking. I grew up around water, but I didn’t kayak until I was in my late forties. For people who don’t have a lot of leg strength, it’s an amazing way to travel on water and chart your own course. I wrote an essay about a family kayaking experience that I wanted to include in my book Winded – kayaking was on my bucket list – but I just couldn’t find any tension to focus on in the piece. For me, kayaking is just a lovely way to be in the moment.

Best date you’ve ever had? 
I didn’t date much before I married. I was a proud wallflower. My favorite date is probably one I had with my middle son on the evening before he graduated from college in Kalamazoo, MI. I was in town early to get a special vegan cake that my youngest son with food allergies could eat the next day; my husband was bringing the rest of the family over the next morning for the ceremony. It was a beautiful evening, and my son and I decided to go see a film at a small local theater, since film is one of his favorite genres. The movie was The Lobster, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, a futuristic dystopian satire on the world of dating and what it means to be “single.” It was weird, gruesome, and intellectually disturbing. But we both found it compelling in its own way, and the perfect way to celebrate the importance of the next day’s events. Afterward, he went back to the house where he was living, and I went back to my hotel, knowing we would wake up to a lovely Michigan day on which we’d attend a thoughtful ceremony and celebrate his graduation with relatives.

What is the first job you have had? 
My first paying job was babysitting, which is a major topic in my novel! The first job for which I received a paycheck was as a cashier for a local lumber company in my hometown. My older sister had the job first, working at the store until she graduated from high school, when she passed it on to me (with the store manager’s approval). I worked there several years in high school and a summer after my first year of college before passing the job along to my younger sister. Pine Lumber was good to the Newton sisters.

What is the weirdest thing you have seen in someone else’s house? 
To be honest, nothing incredibly weird is coming to mind, which makes me think I’m either not observant in that way or my memories are dimming. But I have something on my desk, a recent experience. I was visiting an artist friend’s workspace in her basement – actually, the friend who did the cover of the book, Barbara Hranilovich, a Michigan artist. She was showing me a project she was working on involving porcupine quills, which she’d picked up at a garage sale. “Here, have some,” she said. I had thought about porcupine quills before, but I don’t think I’d ever really examined any. I have two on my desk now, and I have to say, I pick them up a lot and examine them. So perfect. The material and the coloring are incredible. The animal kingdom is so amazing.

What was a time in your life when you were really scared? 
I have two answers. The comic answer is that I am a person who is afraid of things that go bump in the night, so any time my husband goes away now (since my children are grown and mostly out of the home), I put a chair under the bedroom door and sleep with my dog, expecting to die at the hands of a home intruder. The more serious existential answer relates to a time when I was a senior in high school. I’d experienced one of the worst asthma attacks in my life. There were factors involved beyond my asthma – I’d done a chemistry experiment, I’d had a swine flu shot a few days previously, and I was under a lot of stress as a high-achieving senior.

I was admitted straight to the hospital floor by my pediatrician, so I bypassed the Emergency Department, and therefore, I hadn’t received any of the standard injections that might have addressed my inability to breathe. We kept waiting for a doctor to come and see me, and I wanted so desperately to give up – breathing was harder than ever that day. But my mother, who was always my coach when I had asthma throughout my young life, kept talking me through it, and eventually someone came and gave me adrenalin or something else that opened my passages a bit. I told my mom later that I’d felt close to death, and she admitted to me that she’d thought I was close also.

What is your most memorable travel experience? 
My most memorable travel experience involves one I shared with my family. When I was diagnosed with cancer, we didn’t know how much time I would have left. There were many places I’d always wanted to visit but had never been “abroad.” We went to France over Christmas because I’d studied French in college and had always wanted to visit. We had a meaningful trip, but I was in a dark place, and there were other things going on in the family, so it ended up being memorable in the complexity of emotions. A few years later, the family did a summer trip to Ireland. My husband’s family is very Irish, so my kids have inherited that background. I was in love with Irish history in high school, though I’m only a wee bit Irish. That vacation was like a do-over of France – we were all in a better place, and it was summer! Yet for all of us, I think the two trips are inextricably linked in our history of family bonding moments.

First Heartbreak? 
Since I didn’t date much, I didn’t have a lot of heartbreak. I had a series of crushes – all unrequited, except the one on my husband – and disappointments. My first major disappointment centered around Senior Prom in high school, when I asked someone from the lumber store where I worked (but not from my school) to attend my prom with me. He said yes but later backed out, after I’d purchased the tickets and a dress. His doing so was completely understandable to me. I’d inadvertently backed him into a corner. But I was a wallflower, after all, so ultimately, I was quite relieved, and when I left the lumber store to go to college, he made a beautiful cake for my goodbye party. It was particularly delicious.

Which incident in your life that totally changed the way you think today? 
Two connected events changed the way I think today, and they’re related to this book and to your very first question about the greatest thing I learned in school. I studied with a literature and creative writing teacher in college who’d recently emigrated from South Africa. I took several writing classes from her and two literature classes, one about Commonwealth literature and one about Holocaust literature. I learned so much about apartheid and how the Holocaust occurred, especially through the lens of great literature. I’d been raised as a Lutheran and had studied the Bible a fair amount for a young person, but I also had this view of a personal God that hadn’t always made sense to me. After studying with Sheila Murphy and thinking about the things that had taken place in Africa and during the Holocaust, it was much harder for me to believe in a personal God who does our bidding. Then, years later, after my parents died so close together in time, and especially after my mother died, having made a miraculous recovery from an initial heart attack, only to die again two months later, I found it exceedingly difficult to believe in a personal God or in a figure who is able to answer people’s prayers with specific actions. My novel was a way for me to work through that grief and recognize that I still believe the universe has a positive force, and maybe even a being who watches over it, but one who can’t flip switches to make good things happen.

  • Neither Iris nor Scott would give Liz the satisfaction of watching them puke their guts out. On the way home, as the dim, eerie blue lights of the fairway glowed through the back window, they rested their heads on the vinyl upholstery, keeping their chins up, the strands of Iris’s dark auburn hair tilted against Scott’s chestnut mop, their faces catching the breeze from the open windows. As Iris’s fist slowly unclenched, Scott’s fingers crawled to hers on the seat.
  • [Iris] stood up and went to the window, opening it wider, even though her shoulders were chilled. Yet even as she opened the window, she felt a sudden urge to slam it shut, afraid of the darkness from outside, the sound of cars on the gravel road, creeping down the street in the middle of the night to who knew where for what purpose.
  • [Iris] wanted Liz to reach her fingers out and touch [her] hand, beckoning her closer and smoothing her hair like a mother would, pushing aside the covers to let Iris in, swaddling her so the shivering would stop.
  • Years later, Iris would understand what her sister was really trying to say…because when something horrible happened, there needed to be a reason why, a person at fault. Circumstance didn’t have a clear enough face, no eyes into which an accuser would stare. A single individual needed to bear the blame. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way, but it was. And that individual wanted the inquisition, needed to be brutalized by the accusers, made to feel shame, so she didn’t have to listen to the voice inside that spoke in a needling, insistent way.
  • Looking back, Iris could see without haze the two versions of herself those summers, integers on a number line. One who still had a brother, a girl who danced far off into the summer eve, hopeful, brave, splendid in her innocence. The other stepping heavily to the left, wandering, mired, and then, unexpectedly, at a precipice with only a plunge to anticipate.
  • “Will you wear it for the rest of your life?” [Scott] asked, rubbing his finger over the engraving [on the MIA bracelet]. She’d told him she didn’t know, but as she ran her finger over the engraving, she realized that some things did get etched on your life just like letters on a bracelet, and you couldn’t rub them out or wash them away.
  • Iris wanted to flip the switch on her father’s table saw, hold her hand above the blade, and yell to him over the whine of the spinning disc that she could just as easily die from a crazy lady hiding in a public bathroom as she could from an accidental amputation.
  • Closing her eyes, [Iris] remembered herself at the beach, the sun on her eyelids making her drowsy. But then her body tensed up. She longed for the sort of ease she used to feel with the sun on her face and the sound of lapping waves lulling her to sleep or deep relaxation. But she felt like that lullaby from her past was something she would never hear or feel again, the rhythms and sounds lost forever.
  • Their bedroom doors were shiny, orangish-brown ones, lustrous, but hollowed out. As Iris tried to decipher and then, contrarily, to block out the rising and falling of her parents’ voices, she felt that she stood in front of a tremendous tree, and some cross between a wise, talking owl and a diligent woodpecker would soon poke its head out of the knot and tell her the lay of the land inside. Was peace in sight? Would a truce be declared?
  • “I know, the last few feet are always hard. Just keep the line tight.” [Sheldon said.] The fish emerged again, and this time, Iris saw a shiny flash. She tried to focus all her attention on reeling in the fish, but she saw Sheldon’s hand reach out for the line with a fish net in his other hand. He soon held the net up and then flopped the fish into the bucket of water. Then, with one hand holding the fish, he reached into the mouth with the other hand and pulled out the hook, turning to Iris with a smile of triumph.
Deleted Scene from The Remnants of Summer
When Iris was nine, her father bought a boat from a guy he worked with. The man had owned it for five years before deciding that he was ready for bigger and better sea-worthy vehicles. She was called "The Hobo" and had a small cabin which possessed a tiny kitchen space, a toilet, and two berths. Though Liz, Scott, and Iris had grown up around water their whole lives, they’d never had much experience with row boats or motorboats, so suddenly owning a cabin cruiser seemed like a real luxury. They spent a considerable amount of time in the cabin, opening and closing the small doors that efficiently housed fire extinguishers and kitchen utensils. Their fingers lingered over the thin red vinyl mattresses that covered the two berths, caressing the line of white plastic ribbing on the edges.

For three years they spent almost every Friday afternoon from May to August driving to Algonac where the boat was docked at a small marina called Wally's Lake Marina. They initially assumed that Wally would be some old, weathered fisherman type who'd spent years on the water and had lots of stories about dark and turbulent nights on the lake, the kind of guy who would wink at you when you came in the office where they sold fishing tackle, canned goods, and flares.

But it turned out that Wally was a young kid almost straight out of college, and he'd saved up his money to buy the marina from Jim – who was an old, winking fisherman type – because his parents never let him near water when he was a kid and he'd developed an overwhelming thirst for it, a desire to learn every current of the lake his parents had kept him from. Instead, they’d forced him to spend summers in the backyard of their Grosse Pointe home where he'd listened with hunger to the stories of neighborhood kids from well-to-do families who owned yachts and cabin cruisers. Wally's real name was Walter; when his parents were in a casual mood, they called him Walt, but they must have been more than chagrined when they drove up to his new marina only to find the name "Wally" emblazoned in aqua letters on the white painted background of the wooden sign. Wally had claimed for himself a new identity, and most days you could find him hanging around the docks oiling one piece of boat gear machinery or another, a lopsided grin of simple pleasure hanging off his face.

On the way to the lake, Iris’s father would tune into WJR on the radio, and they’d all listen for the boating reports on the lake. Some weekends they didn't go out; they just sat there at the slip, their father puttering around the boat while the three of them got bored, walking up to Wally's to play pinball or traipsing over to the nearby store to buy orange sherbet push-ups and fudgsicles. But when the boating reports were good, the family settled into sleep in their tent early on Friday evening, for their father would wake them early on Saturday morning and everyone would climb into the boat. They pulled away from the dock at eight or so, the boat's engine throttling at low speed, and wind through the marina, passing all the boats they’d come to know so well, identifying them from their shapes and sizes before seeing their names. It took only twenty minutes or so to work through the channel, but it was the longest twenty minutes Iris knew at that age.

The boat moved so slowly they could hold conversations with the occupants of other slips as they moved along the water. Boaters are cordial and friendly sorts; they know the pleasure of the freshwater spray and their nods and waves are like a communal recognition of the wonders of the water. They, too, had motored by, gliding across the water, waving the same wave, biding their time as they waited for the point where the channel opened to the wide expanse of water.

When they neared the end of the channel and could see Lake St. Clair opening out in front of them, their dad would bend his head forward in concentration, his hand on the throttle. As they reached the threshold and he pulled out the throttle, the engine would sing out louder and higher, the fine spray of water misting them as the boat cut across the waves. Tendrils of their hair would sweep across their faces, and if they stayed on the deck of the stern too long, their clothes would be drenched from the spray. Squinting against the wind, they stared out into the view ahead, feeling the vibration of the boat underneath their tennis shoes and clasping their arms tight around orange life preservers, which their mother insisted that they wear.

Some weekends they went out to Harsens Island; other weekends they motored out to Strawberry Island, where changing currents had created an especially warm patch of water for swimming. One Saturday a storm came up suddenly. A gray sky descended and swallowed up the sun as the water turned from blue to grayish green and the waves picked up, slapping and chopping the side of the boat. Iris’s father and mother hurried them in from the water, their mother throwing towels around the three of them as they climbed onto the boat shivering from the sudden cold. The boats moored around them began pulling up their anchors and departed in quick succession. When Iris’s father had lifted their own anchor and they were ready to push off, he turned the key in the ignition only to hear a dull gurgle as the engine tried again and again to catch.

Iris’s mother rose from her seat on the cushions and went over to their father, bending her head to question him quietly. She whispered in a tense voice and lifted her eyes every few minutes to search out the water around them. The waves were higher, two feet tall, the white foam spinning angrily amidst the green. Their father told Liz to go into the cabin and find the flares underneath the sink. She came back after a few minutes, smiling triumphantly as she held the purple package in her hand. As their father ripped it open, they all felt relief, knowing that someone would see it soon, know they were in trouble. They would be safe.

Lighting a match, their father held it to the end of the flare. They watched and waited for it to take, but the match just kept burning until the wind finally blew it out. He lit five more matches, one after the other, but still the flare wouldn't take. Their mother silently held out the other to him and they all held their breath as he tried to light it, but there was no flash of hot bright pink light; the matches all fizzled.

Though most of the boats had departed, across the way one boat remained. Iris’s father went down into the cabin for a few minutes and reappeared in his swimming trunks, the rust and gray plaid trunks he’d used for years. Since he swam only infrequently, they didn’t get much wear, though each year, as his girth grew, they seemed to shrink. He awkwardly lowered himself into the water, gritting his teeth as his waist and then his shoulders met the cold. Then his arms begin to move. In a slow crawl, the stroke he’d learned in his Navy days, he worked his way through the choppy water, making steady progress toward the other boat, his head bobbing in the angry gray and white water.

With each stroke, he must have thought about how stupid he was to let the gas get so low, how foolish he was not to realize that it was the lack of gas that made the engine stumble. He would have to admit his mistakes to strangers in order to ask for help. But when Iris thought about that event, she tried to focus on how he looked near the end of the day, after the boat dropped him off with a can of gas. Flush with success, he stood in his swimming trunks in front of the wheel, a towel thrown over his shoulders, a wicked grin on his face.

The man who purchased the boat from Iris’s father a year or so after that incident paid cash. Iris and Liz sat on their front porch while their father counted it out: twenty-seven hundred dollars he peeled, one after the other, from his big wad. The two girls jumped and danced as if he were a magician, and they couldn’t contain their enthusiasm at his sleight of hand.

But their father remained there on the porch long after they went inside, and several years later Iris realized that it was the end of something good for him. He’d wearied of the family’s complaints, their constant “We’re bored,” refrain, grew tired himself of the long Friday afternoon trips to Algonac. And rather than let the boat just sit there, unused, he decided to give it up. Like their mother, he just folded his disappointment, so many dollar bills, into himself, and that must be what could make him swab away their mother’s dreams with a few plain words. No stranger to disappointment himself, he knew how to extinguish hope and expectation in others.

Why I deleted this passage
As a writer, I am quite fond of flashback; I think that affinity stems from having an associative brain, one that constantly links experiences, ideas, and moments to others, often from the past. But as fiction has evolved in the last century, readers generally prefer more forward action in their novels. Flashback tends to slow the pace of a novel. This scene felt important to me because it helped to illustrate how both parents in the novel had to endure disappointments with respect to their dreams. It also shows that adults are just as capable as adolescents of making mistakes and oversights. But because of its length and the fact that it is something Iris remembers from the past, and is therefore a flashback, I had to decide to remove it. But I still like the empathy that Iris can feel for her father.

Thanks so much, Jean, for the wonderfully comprehensive and thoughtful opportunity for me to share my work and my life with you and your readers!

Iris is sinking. As the summer of 1974 begins, she must grapple with the events that have lain dormant since the previous summer when her brother, Scott, drowned in their neighborhood lake. On her watch.

While Iris flounders with the weight of her guilt and grief, she seeks redemption from her family and yearns, in particular, to repair a strained relationship with her sister, Liz. But new developments threaten her efforts, forcing her to navigate the turbulence of the present summer while reckoning with the emotional trauma of the past.

Set in a working-class Detroit neighborhood, The Remnants of Summer is a story of how collective grief and personal guilt threaten the individuals who make up a family. As Iris sifts through the images of the past, she wrestles with waves of guilt and responsibility, acceptance and forgiveness. Surrounded by the gentle rhythms of a Michigan summer, she endeavors to rise up and become visible once again.

You can purchase The Remnants of Summer at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you DAWN NEWTON for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of The Remnants of Summer by Dawn Newton.


  1. Oh, definitely that I do not love them back. How awkward.

  2. I think it's a whole lot more difficult to tell someone that you don't love them back, like it's also hard to break up with someone and let them down easy. I give people plenty of chances to redeem themselves and then it becomes a toxic relationship which does no one any good.