In her debut novel Late Air, Jaclyn Gilbert explores the physical and psychological repercussions of repeated trauma, as seen in the life of Murray, a Yale running coach in his sixties, whose world unravels after his top runner suffers an inexplicable accident one morning while training. Not only is Murray’s professional authority called into question as he tries to exonerate himself, but he falls prey to self-doubt, flooded with inescapable memories from his past: a shattered marriage, the tragedy involving his young daughter, his reproving father, and his own unfulfilled dreams.
A former Yale college runner herself, Gilbert captures the psychological nuances of Murray’s highly obsessive, perfectionistic perspective. She also investigates with authenticity the experience of young women runners, struggling to cope with body image and eating issues in the high-pressured landscape of Division I athletics in the Ivy League.
Reading Gilbert’s novel, I was often reminded of the writing of one of my all-time favorite authors, Virginia Woolf. In Late Air, one can almost touch the fragmented nature of reality, the words breathe; they carry an unmistakable pulse.
I caught up with Gilbert last summer in Manhattan in anticipation of her novel’s November release to talk about her experiences as a runner, negative feedback loops, and the different ways we experience grief.
The Rumpus: It seems safe to say you’re very familiar with the territory your book traverses. Let’s start there. You were a distance runner in your undergrad days at Yale, right? What was that experience like?
Jaclyn Gilbert: Running Division I cross-country carried a degree of pressure I didn’t feel equipped to handle at eighteen. I coped by hyper-focusing on my body and training constantly to escape the deeper unknowns in my life, mainly the feeling I didn’t deserve to run at an elite level, or my fear that anything less than As at Yale made me sub-par.
During my freshman year, my relationship with my father essentially ended. I fled the pain of the conditional nature of his love by obsessing over things I thought I could control: logging miles, calories, and water intake, and pursuing a relentless training and racing schedule. But there came a time when I could no longer live behind this illusion of order; my disordered eating habits wore down my body, and by my senior year, I could no longer run.
Rumpus: Was this a common experience among your teammates?
Gilbert: I think so. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how many athletes hide their inner lives, their fears, traumas, and broken dreams, by focusing on performance and achievement.
Most of my teammates probably also felt that the lighter we appeared on the outside, the faster we could run. But then this put us in an endless state of denial because although we believed we were in touch with our bodies, we were detached from their immediate needs and desires. And while at first we might have dropped our times dramatically—learning to live in a constant state of fight or flight, running all the time and eating very little—eventually, we got hurt. Many of us suffered from injury cycles that were hard to break, our bodies desperate to repair themselves but not sure how to under so much pressure to be thin.
Eating disorders weren’t only prevalent on our team. On the field when you lined up to race, you saw them everywhere around you, as though they were a given, all of us on a quest to outrun the fact of our bodies.
Rumpus: What’s your thinking on the topic of those negative feedback loops now?
Gilbert: Writing this book helped me realize that we have to find compassion for ourselves through our bodies. Let go of the ideals of perfection advertised in glossy magazines, TV shows, and movies. These are all means of depriving us of our individuality and perpetuating the delusion that happiness can be bought.
Writing this book also awakened me to the deeper urgency of being more transparent about the pressures young women athletes are under, physically and emotionally. There are ongoing cases of suicides among distance runners at the college and professional level. I hope more can be done for young women in opening up greater dialogue about the body, rather than keeping its hidden traumas a secret.
Rumpus: Are you worried that since this story closely mirrors your own experiences, people might misunderstand its fictional nature?
Gilbert: Yes. In particular, I think about the possible reaction of my coach at Yale, Coach Young, who cares deeply about each of his athletes. Many of the eating issues we suffered were beyond his immediate control and I think, as a coach, he had to detach in order to do his job. While he may recognize aspects of himself in the character of Murray, I hope he sees that Murray’s story is uniquely Murray’s, and that he can recognize the lines between fact and fiction that had to be blurred to make the novel a work of art.
Rumpus: I’d like to dig deeper into Murray, the highly flawed but somehow still sympathetic hero, or anti-hero, of the novel. What can you tell us about the inner workings of Murray?
Gilbert: Murray is a very complicated character, difficult to render in a way that felt most fully human to me. When I first began, I was afraid of making him too unlikeable, but by not allowing myself to explore his rougher edges, I risked simplifying him. So I went the other way: I wrote a draft in which he lacked in ability to feel at all, robotic in his every thought and action.
In the end, I had to find a balance, sift through the dreams of his life and process all the ways those dreams might have factored into his present. In time, I began to sympathize with him. By the end of the book, I was heartbroken by all he’d been through. He didn’t have a means for processing it that was safe or acceptable within the strict conditions imposed by himself and others in his life.
Rumpus: What makes you angry?
Gilbert: Unnecessary cruelty. I’m continually mystified by how unfeeling family can be, how little we can know or understand the people who claim to love us most.
Rumpus: Murray and Nancy [Murray’s wife] deal with grief differently. At first, it would appear that Nancy is more undone, but ultimately, they are equally devastated.
Gilbert: In the many books I read about grief and the loss of a child, more often than not, a husband is expected to be stoic in a way that silences him and therefore makes him unable to affirm his partner’s pain. While a woman may have more space to grieve openly, it becomes easier to “gender” her grief, to house it within a larger idea of a woman’s inner life as irrational or chaotic.
We have to create spaces for all voices to be heard in us. Equality in the human heart is about allowing contradictory emotions to coexist simultaneously, not judging them for that essential discord.
Rumpus: Murray scrutinizes “his” runners’ bodies so intensely—their limbs, hips, gait, musculature. What were you thinking in shaping Murray’s gaze?
Gilbert: As an elite athlete himself, Murray has always been attuned to every detail of his body, every fiber of muscle or adjustment of form that might lead to a faster time. But his focus is more severe than an average coach’s because it’s also fueled by the deeper pain he can’t bear to face. After Jean died, his runners became extensions of the unfulfilled dream of his child, what she might have become. In this way, he is always seeing her through them; he sees how fast she might have run in his footsteps.
Rumpus: Are there sexual undertones to his relationships with the girls he coaches? Certainly, many characters in the novel suspect as much, including his own wife.
Gilbert: During my time as a college runner, I didn’t allow myself much pleasure. The pleasures of sex were not something that went with my identity as an athlete. So perhaps that larger repression of pleasure and sex is also filtering through Murray. In other words, the denied and the unsaid find their way through the bodies he is fixating on in ways he can’t control.
Our subconscious plays all kinds of tricks when we don’t give it freedom of expression and I wanted that to be reflected in Murray’s character. I was more interested in his complicated psychology, the simultaneity of him as an athlete, coach, father, husband, than I was focused on how his narrative might capitalize on that psychology in the form of explicit sexual abuse. I guess I also thought it would be too easy to “go there,” if you will. To satisfy the reader’s curiosity in this way didn’t seem to do right by the complexity of Murray’s inner life.
I also hope the reader can leave reading this book less apt to point fingers at the problem of our patriarchal system, and more prone to sit with the problematic processes of that system as it exists in the human mind. If we can unpack the complex cycle of obsession and repression working upon us at any given moment, maybe we can achieve greater self-understanding with less judgment.
Rumpus: Dialogue plays an important role in your work. I wonder how you use it to develop theme and character and move the narrative forward?
Gilbert: Other writers inspire me—I’m thinking Paula Fox, Deborah Eisenberg, and Don DeLillo—all showed me that it was possible to use the said as a vehicle for the unsaid.
In my writing, I’m preoccupied with the underworld of human experience, this sense of the unwell that so often permeates our conversations at dinner or in the grocery store, even as we try to pretend it isn’t there, to pretend that life makes sense, when in reality, our ideas about order might choose to upturn themselves at any moment.
Rumpus: What is your favorite type of ending to a book?
Gilbert: One that can be read two ways, both hopeful and sad, in the sense that we can never really understand that basic paradox of human life, that we are always living as much as we are dying.
Photograph of Jaclyn Gilbert © Jared Gilbert.