Goodbye to the Ocean
A baby is born with eyes as blue as the wings of the Ulysses butterfly, and is named Lyssa in its honor by her father. After his tragic, sudden death, Lyssa will grow up in the shadow of the butterfly her father loved so much, putting together the pieces of her family through memories, book annotations, and the photographs her mother has hidden away.
An intelligent child, Lyssa observes others and steals small, insignificant objects. She observes her mother, how she tells stories about her father and seems to keep certain stories to herself. She observes her peers, noting those that are watching her and noticing things as she does. And she steals from her best friend, Mallory, her classmates, and her teachers. As Lyssa grows into a young adult, she is challenged with making relationships last in a world where only objects seem to have permanence. When her mind begins to crumble under the weight of her own thoughts, Lyssa will have to learn to let go of her family’s past so that she can forge her own future.
Told in vignettes spanning the first twenty-seven years of a young woman’s life, Goodbye to the Ocean explores family, grief, and identity.
Interview with the Author
Etchings Press: What was your inspiration for your book?
Susan L. Lin: The first seeds of this novella were planted in a prose poetry workshop I took in my sophomore year of college. We read Henri Michaux’s “Je vous écris d’un pays lointain” from the anthology Models of the Universe. The original poem is comprised of twelve numbered stanzas, but only stanzas 1, 2, 7, 11, and 12 appear in the book. I was fascinated by what I perceived to be Michaux’s omission of certain numbers, stumped by their deeper significance. I was later disappointed to realize we’d been served an abridged version of the poem, and the numbers were in fact just ordinary numbers. Even so, that experience inspired me to structure Goodbye to the Ocean with unconventionally numbered sections. I wanted the reader to slowly uncover their meaning as they navigated their way through the beginning of the story.
Around that same time, a friend and I decided to challenge each other to write stories inspired by titles we created for one another, and she gave me the title “Fluttering Butterfly.” Because my mother has been rearing monarch caterpillars for over fifteen years, my first instinct was to center the narrative around a girl’s complicated sense of identity given the source of her name, and how that informs her relationship with her parents over the years.
EP: When did you first decide that you wanted to be a writer?
SLL: I was seven years old, and I had a 5” x 3” spiral memo pad that I would write spooky micro stories in. My favorite books at that age were from R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, and back then, I just wanted to emulate him. I’m not sure I ever matured into my own style in the genre because I decided as a teenager that I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, and I mistakenly thought writing “realistic” fiction was the only answer. I’m proud of everything I wrote during that period, including Goodbye to the Ocean, and I don’t regret the detour at all. That said, I’ve since returned to writing horror and sci-fi almost exclusively, this time from my own unique perspective, and I couldn’t be happier.
EP: Do you find yourself basing characters off of people you know or yourself?
SLL: My childhood memories influence much of my fiction. Everyone reacts to experiences in dissimilar ways, so I often develop characters by asking myself questions like, “What if I had responded to that situation by doing this instead?” or “What if that incident had happened in a different context?” Humans are complex individuals, and we all contain contradictions within ourselves. I enjoy isolating specific personality traits and building a new person off of that.
In the case of Goodbye to the Ocean, an external source did end up playing a huge role. I recently rediscovered the potency of singer-songwriter Katy Rose’s debut album Because I Can. It was one of my favorites in my late teens, and I listened to the CD on repeat while writing this manuscript. The tracks “Glow,” “Original Skin,” and “Lemon” were particularly helpful in shaping the character and life of Lyssa Wheeler.
EP: What does your planning process look like?
SLL: I’m not much of a planner. I like to dream up a premise and/or character and then let the rest of the story find me in bits and pieces, often out of order. Whenever scenes or conversations or vignettes or images come to mind, I write them down. Later on, I’ll find a way to rearrange and connect them, filling in the gaps when needed. I can’t say I recommend that anyone intentionally adopt this style of working as it is often maddening, but if that’s what comes naturally to you, why force yourself into a more streamlined process? There’s no wrong way to write a book.
EP: What advice would you give to new writers?
SLL: The only way to grow as a writer is to write. You have to give yourself the time and space to experiment with language and form and pacing. Reading is fine. Workshopping is fine. Talking about craft is fine. But the actual act of writing is where you learn the most about yourself and your identity as a writer. Developing a regular writing practice is important because you never know what mundane experience will end up sparking a big idea.
You need to be vulnerable while you write, open to remembering and reliving a wide spectrum of memories and emotions at any time. But as soon as you decide a piece is finished, you have to divorce your personal feelings from it. Don’t submit to publications that won’t pay what you and your work are worth. Don’t self-reject. And above all, if you believe in a piece of writing, don’t give up on it.
EP: How do you go about revising your work? Is there a process you follow/any tips for doing so?
SLL: Because I was in college when I wrote this, with all the benefits of a structured undergraduate thesis program, my revision process was a team effort. I was on a schedule with deadlines to meet. Countless professors and classmates and friends, who were all coming to the manuscript with their own diverse perspectives, were giving me guidance and feedback. I truly couldn’t have done it alone.
These days, I find ways to look at a piece from a different vantage point for each new draft. Sometimes that means putting it away for a while before coming back to it with fresh eyes. I might also try changing the font of the document, printing out a hard copy, reading the prose out loud, writing tricky passages out longhand, or regrouping and rearranging chapters. Of course, especially when you’re stuck, it’s always helpful to get feedback from someone whose opinions you trust.
EP: What process do you go through in order to choose an ending to your stories? Do you know it before you write or later on?
SLL: Because I don’t plan meticulously ahead of time, I do generally like having a vague destination to write towards in the early stages. Being able to picture the finish line keeps me focused even when I don’t know what route I’ll take to get there. In this case, I knew from the start I wanted the story to come full circle. It was always meant to end when Lyssa reached the age her father had been when she was born (and when he died). I also wanted the last image of the book to be a visual representation of her life up to that point.
For me, settling on the “right” ending tends to be very intuitive. While digging around in my external hard drive recently, I stumbled across my first completed draft of the short story that eventually became Goodbye to the Ocean. Back then, the entire piece was only sixteen pages long, but the closing moments take place in front of a painting at an art gallery, just like they do in this final version. The last sentence remains exactly the same.