Adrian Graham

Man in swimming pool reaching out for gin and tonic

The swimming pool in films

The swimming pool is a symbol of luxury and money, of having ‘made it’ in life. The poolside location has associations of summer relaxation, parties, and fun. Storytellers regularly subvert these connotations with deliberately surprising, sometimes shocking, contexts: using the swimming pool setting to signify excess, decadence, laziness, disconnection, and moral imbalance.

These stories warn us that terrible things can happen, even in family-friendly environments.

The swimming pool in The Graduate (1967), is a metaphorical symbol of Benjamin Braddock’s inability to get along in the real world, he is literally out of his depth. Given a diving suit for his birthday and goaded into the water, he sinks like a stone to the bottom of the pool.

Sometimes the irony can be shocking – in Dirty Harry (1971) a woman enjoys an innocent swim in a pool (situated on an apartment block roof), but her swim is interrupted by a psychopathic killer watching her through the telescopic sights of a sniper rifle.

Sunset Boulevard (1950) begins with the lifeless body of Joe Gillis floating in the water, and Joe narrating his demise. The Swimmer (1968) is a study of self-delusion, as Ned Merrill, an apparently successful advertising man ‘swims’ his way back home through a wealthy Connecticut neighbourhood – the sad truth about his situation gradually unfolds as he progresses.

The swimming pool is also celebrated as a place of hope and comedy. In The Way, Way Back (2013) a young adult works in a water resort, and befriends a man who reluctantly becomes his mentor. The film Old School (2003) satirises The Graduate (1967) when Frank darts himself in the neck and falls into the pool, sinking to the bottom (Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ playing in the background).

In Land of the Lost (2009) the time-travelling Rick Marshall ends up drinking a hallucinogenic juice in a pool with a chimp-like alien. Because, with killer dinosaurs and giant crabs on the prowl – there’s still hope. If you’ve time-travelled into a weird and terrifying dimension, the least you can expect is the consolation of a cool dip and a refreshing cocktail.

The Paris Review interviews

Since its inception in 1953, The Paris Reviewhas run interviews with authors in a series it calls ‘The Art of Fiction’. These delightful pieces, especially the ones from the mid-1950s, the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, tell of a time before the internet, an era of mostly gentlemanly sophistication, a boy’s club with chunky ink pens, Imperial paper sizes, chain-smoking, all-day drinking and the writer’s best friend, the mechanical typewriter.

The pattern for these ‘classic’ interviews began with a preface, an introductory text set in italics. This described the circumstances of the interview, the author’s home, the date(s) in which the interviewing took place, and intriguing details such as the interior of the writer’s home, office, his or her demeanour, the interviewer’s first impression of the author, and even a description of the clothing they were wearing. Graham Greene, interviewed in the spring of 1953, emphasised finding meaning in his novels not in his interview answers; he stressed the importance of ‘childhood and adolescence’ in forming ‘the writer’, whose career then becomes one of making that private world public.

Some of the replies to the interviewer’s questions are disarmingly honest. Truman Capote, for instance, is asked:

Are there devices one can use in improving one’s technique?

To which he replies:

Work is the only device I know of.

And there are frequent questions about writing longhand versus using a typewriter.

What are some of your writing habits? Do you use a desk? Do you write on a machine?

Capote’s reply:

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched out on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in long-hand (pencil).

The interview with Saul Bellow in 1965 took place over the summer and again later in the year – two hours a day ‘at least twice and often three times a week throughout the entire five-week period.’ He was ‘at great pains to make his ideas transparent to the interviewer, asking repeatedly if this was clear or if he should say more on the subject.’ The typescripts from the recording sessions were carefully edited ‘in pen and ink’ by Bellow. The interview locations were given as: Bellow’s apartment overlooking Lake Michigan, on a ‘Jackson Park bench’, and ‘with beer and hamburgers at a local bar’.

Jack Kerouac was forty-five when he was interviewed. His thirtieth novel had been published earlier that year. He was living with his wife and mother. The interviewer notes that the house had no telephone. Kerouac writes ‘an average of 8,000 words a sitting, in the middle of the night’, adding that, ‘I really hate to write’ – because he is forced to creep about the house while the others are sleeping.

The spring 1969 interview with John Cheever comes across much like a meeting at one of the affluent households in the first part of his short story The Swimmer, his own stone house was built in 1799 – ‘a tour of the house and grounds was obligatory’. ‘For the interview Cheever was wearing a faded blue shirt and khakis.’ The conversation immediately gets down to the important things: Cheever’s dislike of curtains and ‘television reception’. Oh, the perils of living in the countryside. Cheever changes the subject when the conversation gets around to his work. ‘Aren’t you bored with all this talk? Would you like a drink? Perhaps lunch is ready I’ll just go downstairs and check. A walk in the woods, and maybe a swim afterwards?’ Cheever has an office ‘in town’, which I’m guessing means Manhattan, not the local town. Cheever enjoys using a chainsaw to cut wood, watching television and playing backgammon. Cheever’s replies are strikingly honest and insightful. ‘Do you feel drawn to experiment in fiction…?’ To which he replies, ‘Fiction is experimentation.’ And then he adds, ‘Every sentence is an innovation.’ And when he is asked if he belongs to any literary tradition he says, ‘No.’, but then he elaborates, clarifying that American novelists are not part of a tradition. (Although they are now.)

Kurt Vonnegut’s interview was an amalgam of interviews that had taken place over the previous decade. In the seminal interview from 1976 – which has served to update the previous sessions:

He camps in an armchair in a shaggy tweed jacket, Cambridge grey flannels, a blue Brooks Brothers shirt, slouched down, his hands stuffed into his pockets.

Vonnegut’s writing desk is empty apart from a typewriter and the latest copy of Interview. Vonnegut is chain-smoking Pall Mall cigarettes, and during the interview he smokes almost a complete pack.

Joan Didion comments on the male dominated writer’s culture:

…in the late ‘50s early ‘60s – there was a kind of social tradition in which male novelists could operate. Hard drinkers, bad livers. Wives, wars, big fish, Africa, Paris, no second acts.

And, she adds:

A woman who writes novels had no particular role.

While one might imagine Cheever inhabiting an affluent neighbourhood, where the gardens come with swimming pools as standard, it’s something of a shock when the interviewer turns up to working-class hero, Raymond Carver’s home, and there in the drive way is a brand-new Mercedes Benz, parked outside the pleasant suburban dwelling.

Carver writes at a desk with nothing on it except a typewriter. Very minimalist, very Zen; even though he is tired of the ‘minimalist’ label attributed to his writing.

Some of the interviewers’ preoccupations seem irrelevant or almost quaint now: the hand writing versus (the demonic) typewriter battle, the increasing (and apparently concerning) trend of authors writing journalism.

The questions can sometimes feel like traps, attempting to coerce writers into revealing themselves, or committing themselves to a particular position, one of merely passing academic interest.

Ballard is asked if he is interested in ‘cultural decadence’ and when he replies – beautifully – about a fascination with ‘drained swimming pools, abandoned hotels’ he’s threatened with ‘inviting the worst sort of psychoanalytic interpretation’. This smacks of bullshit – Ballard is simply interested in maintaining a ‘mystery I never want to penetrate’. He’s never happier than when he ‘can write about drained swimming pools and abandoned hotels’ because it represents a paradox and a palpable loss – environments with a telling sense of something having gone wrong, no doubt. Ballard talks about the preliminary work that goes into his novels. For High Risehe wrote a 25,000-word report from the viewpoint of a social worker. ‘I wish I’d kept it; I think it was better than the novel.’

What are Ballard’s working habits like?

Every day five days a week. Longhand now it’s less tiring than a typewriter.

He sets himself a target of 700 words a day. He writes the first and second draft in long hand and types out the final draft. He writes for two hours in the morning, a walk, followed by two hours in the afternoon, ‘Then at six a scotch and soda, and oblivion.’ When asked about giving advice to young writers, Ballard warns:

Do anything else, take someone’s golden retriever for a walk, run away with a saxophone player.


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