Blog Tour: Author Q&A, Excerpt for The Night Swim by Megan Goldin
Ever since her true-crime podcast became an overnight sensation and set an innocent man free, Rachel Krall has become a household name—and the last hope for people seeking justice. But she’s used to being recognized for her voice, not her face. Which makes it all the more unsettling when she finds a note on her car windshield, addressed to her, begging for help.
The new season of Rachel's podcast has brought her to a small town being torn apart by a devastating rape trial. A local golden boy, a swimmer destined for Olympic greatness, has been accused of raping the beloved granddaughter of the police chief. Under pressure to make Season 3 a success, Rachel throws herself into her investigation—but the mysterious letters keep coming. Someone is following her, and she won’t stop until Rachel finds out what happened to her sister twenty-five years ago. Officially, Jenny Stills tragically drowned, but the letters insist she was murdered—and when Rachel starts asking questions, nobody in town wants to answer. The past and present start to collide as Rachel uncovers startling connections between the two cases—and a revelation that will change the course of the trial and the lives of everyone involved.
Electrifying and propulsive, The Night Swim asks: What is the price of a reputation? Can a small town ever right the wrongs of its past? And what really happened to Jenny?
It was Jenny’s death that killed my mother. Killed her as good as if she’d been shot in the chest with a twelve-gauge shotgun. The doctor said it was the cancer. But I saw the will to live drain out of her the moment the policeman knocked on our screen door.
“It’s Jenny, isn’t it?” Mom rasped, clutching the lapel of her faded dressing gown.
“Ma’am, I don’t know how to tell you other than to say it straight.” The policeman spoke in the low-pitched melancholic tone he’d used moments earlier when he’d pulled up and told me to wait in the patrol car as its siren lights painted our house streaks of red and blue.
Despite his request, I’d slipped out of the back seat and rushed to Mom’s side as she turned on the front porch light and stepped onto the stoop, dazed from being woken late at night. I hugged her withered waist as he told her what he had to say. Her body shuddered at each word.
His jaw was tight under strawberry blond stubble and his light eyes were watery by the time he was done. He was a young cop. Visibly inexperienced in dealing with tragedy. He ran his knuckles across the corners of his glistening eyes and swallowed hard.
“I’m s-s-sorry for your loss, ma’am,” he stammered when there was nothing left to say. The finality of those words would reverberate through the years that followed.
But at that moment, as the platitudes still hung in the air, we stood on the stoop, staring at each other, uncertain what to do as we contemplated the etiquette of death.
I tightened my small, girlish arms around Mom’s waist as she lurched blindly into the house. Overcome by grief. I moved along with her. My arms locked around her. My face pressed against her hollow stomach. I wouldn’t let go. I was certain that I was all that was holding her up.
She collapsed into the lumpy cushion of the armchair. Her face hidden in her clawed-up hands and her shoulders shaking from soundless sobs.
I limped to the kitchen and poured her a glass of lemonade. It was all I could think to do. In our family, lemonade was the Band-Aid to fix life’s troubles. Mom’s teeth chattered against the glass as she tilted it to her mouth. She took a sip and left the glass teetering on the worn upholstery of her armchair as she wrapped her arms around herself.
I grabbed the glass before it fell and stumbled toward the kitchen. Halfway there, I realized the policeman was still standing at the doorway. He was staring at the floor. I followed his gaze. A track of bloody footprints in the shape of my small feet was smeared across the linoleum floor.
He looked at me expectantly. It was time for me to go to the hospital like I’d agreed when I’d begged him to take me home first so that I could be with Mom when she found out about Jenny. I glared at him defiantly. I would not leave my mother alone that night. Not even to get medical treatment for the cuts on my feet. He was about to argue the point when a garbled message came through on his patrol car radio. He squatted down so that he was at the level of my eyes and told me that he’d arrange for a nurse to come to the house as soon as possible to attend to my injured feet. I watched through the mesh of the screen door as he sped away. The blare of his police siren echoed long after his car disappeared in the dark.
The nurse arrived the following morning. She wore hospital scrubs and carried an oversized medical bag. She apologized for the delay, telling me that the ER had been overwhelmed by an emergency the previous night and nobody could get away to attend to me. She sewed me up with black sutures and wrapped thick bandages around my feet. Before she left, she warned me not to walk, because the sutures would pop. She was right. They did.
Jenny was barely sixteen when she died. I was five weeks short of my tenth birthday. Old enough to know that my life would never be the same. Too young to understand why.
I never told my mother that I’d held Jenny’s cold body in my arms until police officers swarmed over her like buzzards and pulled me away. I never told her a single thing about that night. Even if I had, I doubt she would have heard. Her mind was in another place.
We buried my sister in a private funeral. The two of us and a local minister, and a couple of Mom’s old colleagues who came during their lunch break, wearing their supermarket cashier uniforms. At least they’re the ones that I remember. Maybe there were others. I can’t recall. I was so young.
The only part of the funeral that I remember clearly was Jenny’s simple coffin resting on a patch of grass alongside a freshly dug grave. I took off my hand-knitted sweater and laid it out on top of the polished casket. “Jenny will need it,” I told Mom. “It’ll be cold for her in the ground.”
We both knew how much Jenny hated the cold. On winter days when bitter drafts tore through gaps in the patched-up walls of our house, Jenny would beg Mom to move us to a place where summer never ended.
A few days after Jenny’s funeral, a stone-faced man from the police department arrived in a creased gabardine suit. He pulled a flip-top notebook from his jacket and asked me if I knew what had happened the night that Jenny died.
My eyes were downcast while I studied each errant thread in the soiled bandages wrapped around my feet. I sensed his relief when after going through the motions of asking more questions and getting no response he tucked his empty notebook into his jacket pocket and headed back to his car.
I hated myself for my stubborn silence as he drove away. Sometimes when the guilt overwhelms me, I remind myself that it was not my fault. He didn’t ask the right questions and I didn’t know how to explain things that I was too young to understand.
This year we mark a milestone. Twenty-five years since Jenny died. A quarter of a century and nothing has changed. Her death is as raw as it was the day we buried her. The only difference is that I won’t be silent anymore.
Copyright © 2020 by Megan Goldin
Q&A with Megan Goldin
THE NIGHT SWIM
1. Your previous novel, The Escape Room, was set in the world of Wall Street high stakes investment banking. How did you decide to set your next book in a seaside resort community?
For me, part of the pleasure of writing is to explore characters, places, issues and even writing styles. When I finished writing The Escape Room, I was interested in expanding my horizons as a writer rather than embarking on a new novel that would tread similar ground to The Escape Room. I'd been reading about several sexual assault cases going through the courts and I was interested in exploring some of the issues in my fiction. Not just about sexual assault itself but about the judicial process and the effects of it on families. As for my choice of location, my process is that I sit down and start writing, and let the story unravel in a very organic way. So when I started writing The Night Swim, the setting sort of chose itself!
2. Rachel, the main character in The Night Swim, hosts a true-crime podcast. Are you a fan of those types of podcasts yourself? Why do you think they're so popular these days?
I love podcasts and I listen to them often, while exercising, cooking, and driving. Of course among the podcasts that I enjoy most are true crime podcasts although I also enjoy history podcasts and current affairs podcasts as well. True crime podcasts are popular because people are fascinated by the dark side of human nature. Like many podcast listeners, I became a fan after listening to Serial. I quickly became addicted to other podcasts as well. The biggest problem right now with true crime podcasts, and podcasts in general, is that there are so many fantastic ones around. I wish I had more time to listen to them all.
3. What made you decide to write the book from a dual point of view? Did that make it easier or more challenging to explore the parallel storylines?
It's actually quite challenging writing from multiple points-of-view as each narrative has its own 'voice' and style so it's quite a complicated process. I often start my writing day by spending the first couple of hours just reading back on the previous chapters of that particular point-of-view so that I can get the 'voice' back of the character before I start writing.
4. Are courtroom scenes difficult to write? How do you keep the energy or tension up?
I've read novels and watched movies with terrific courtroom scenes over the years. When done well, powerful courtroom scenes are among the most memorable scenes in films and books. So I have to admit that I rubbed my hands with glee when I had the opportunity to write the courtroom chapters. It's almost as if I'd been working towards writing those chapters my entire life!
5. The tight-knit town in the story is torn apart over charges that the town's "golden boy" brutally attacked a young woman. Were there any real-life cases you drew from to tell this story?
There weren't any specific cases that I based the novel on but there were many sexual assault cases that had been in the news over the years that I had read about. Many of them left a deep impression. When I started writing The Night Swim, I went back and read courtroom transcripts from some of these cases as well as other cases that came up in my research. I also read, watched and spoke with as many people as I could in order to get an insider view of what happens when these cases are brought to court.
6. The parallel storyline involves someone (Hannah) leaving mysterious notes for Rachel, begging her to investigate their sister's death from decades ago. Why was their approach so secretive, and at first, vaguely threatening?
Hannah had a traumatic childhood because of what happened to her mother and sister. She never really recovered from those childhood traumas so she was understandably wary about whether her story would be taken seriously. She was a fan of Rachel's podcast and she truly believed that Rachel would get justice for her sister if she only knew what had happened, but she also knew that she needed to find a way to connect with Rachel and get her attention. Following Rachel, and leaving messages for her was her way of connecting. Hannah was so focused on getting to the truth about what happened to her sister that she didn't realize that it might be perceived as threatening.
7. The Night Swim looks at how sexual assault victims who come forward often face an equally traumatic ordeal with the investigation and publicity. How did you portray this with sympathy and care, while still keeping the pages turning?
I tend to put myself in my character's shoes when I write so I found it emotionally grueling to write some of the chapters related to sexual assault in The Night Swim. I felt an enormous obligation to be as accurate as possible about what sexual assault survivors and their families go through. So I did as much research as possible and wrote, rewrote, edited, and re-edited those scenes many times over. I did my very best to write it with the respect and sympathy that the subject matter deserves as it's a truly harrowing trauma that affects people for the rest of their lives.
8. A nightingale makes regular appearances throughout the book. Are you a bird lover yourself? What made you include that in the story?
As part of my research, I'd read about the Greek myth of Philomela. She was raped and then silenced when her tongue was cut out and eventually turned into a nightingale. There are various interpretations of the story but some suggest that the silencing of Philomela symbolizes the silencing of women over the centuries. So that's how the nightingale found its way into the book. As for whether I'm a bird lover: I'm living in Australia right now and we have magnificent wild parrots and rainbow lorikeets which are the most stunning rainbow-colored birds that live in the trees by my house. We're currently locked down due to coronavirus so it's somewhat liberating watching the beautiful Australian birds fly around freely even if we are stuck at home.
9. I hear you just got a new puppy to help you and your family get through the lockdown in Melbourne. Tell us about her!
I jokingly call her our lockdown puppy but in truth, we'd been thinking of getting a puppy for a long time. She is a Labrador puppy and we were lucky to get her because in Australia there is such a demand for dogs right now that there are few rescue dogs available and pedigree breeders have multi-year waiting lists. My beloved Lab cross died of cancer a few years ago and I'd been waiting until my kids were old enough to get a new puppy. I volunteer to care for temporary guide dog puppies so our new puppy was always going to be a Lab of some description. They are beautifully natured dogs although they spend the first year tearing the house apart as they chew everything in sight. My last Lab ate books from cover to cover. With the pressures of the lockdown and the effect it has on kids, it's a welcome distraction for my kids to have a puppy to help raise.