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Q&A with Charleen Hurtubise - The Polite Act of Drowning

By Elle Summers

We are delighted to welcome Charleen Hurtubise to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release, The Polite Act of Drowning,  released on the 20th June 2024.

Michigan, 1985. The drowning of a teenage girl causes ripples in the small town of Kettle Lake, though for most the waters settle quickly. For sixteen year old Joanne Kennedy, however, the tragedy dredges up untold secrets and causes her mother to drift farther from reality and her family.

When troubled newcomer Lucinda arrives in town, she offers Joanne a chance of real friendship, and together the teenagers push against the boundaries of family, self-image, and their sexuality during the tension of a long, stifling summer. But the undercurrents of past harms continuously threaten to drag Joanne and those around her under...

Hi Charleen! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us here at The Reading Corner. I thoroughly enjoyed The Polite Act of Drowning, and loved how mystery encircled the novel. I’m excited to speak with you about your creative processes!

Hello Elle, thanks for reading.

To begin, can you tell us a little about your own writing journey and how The Polite Act of

Drowning went from being an idea to a novel?

I had been writing about this girl, Joanne, for a while, which is something I realised only after The Polite Act of Drowning was published. The essence of her character appeared earlier in short stories I wrote and in an earlier novel for young adults.

The reader sees the plot through the eyes of 16-year-old Joanne, learning about her family life and her version of the world. How did you find crafting the voice of a 16-year-old? There is certainly a sense of naivety and innocence that the reader sees in Joanne. How did you find crafting the line between childhood innocence and the raw trauma of Joanne’s experiences?

There is naivety and innocence to Joanne, but much more, the thing about her character, is she is an observer. I see Joanne as someone who looks outwards, beyond herself. Her sister, Hare, for example, is more protected from the trauma of her mother’s illness and their parent’s disintegrating marriage because she is very much self-orientated . Rita, also, steeled herself against the trauma of her upbringing by focusing on goals. I feel the mother, Rosemary, was very much like Joanne when she was younger, and it was this unchanneled sensitivity that ultimately made her sick. Joanne, on the other hand, finds a way to channel this sensitivity in a new direction. It is this self-awareness that allows her to embody herself.

Joanne’s relationship with her sister Hare is an interesting one. Despite the common sibling rivalry and teasing, it is obvious after Joanne is involved in the car crash, that Hare genuinely cares for her and worries about her. Was it important to the story that Hare not take on too much of a mothering role? Instead allowing space for the various matriarch characters who step in when Rosemary clearly does not have the capacity to care for her children fully?

Hare wouldn’t have had the capacity for a mothering role. She is tough in the way Aunt Rita is tough. Her mindset is ‘this is my lot’ and let’s get on with it and get ourselves out of here. There is a similar dynamic between the two sister sets. One set is hard and driven, the other soft and seeing of others. That was always the danger for Joanne. She is sensitive, like her mother. It could have been quite easy for her to go down the road of her mother. But in a way, her powers of observation also saved her. Having ‘one good adult’ also saved her.

Following on from my previous question, despite Rosemary clearly not being the best mother to her children, she still does have a presence and an important bearing on Joanne’s life. Could you please tell us a little more about crafting this mother-daughter relationship, especially when at some moments, the roles almost seem reversed?

There is a common theme in my work, things I have written and things I am writing now, about

young people who need to save themselves, and often from their own family. Joanne witnesses the human side of her mother. In the most troubled of situations, children often still want their own people, even when there is neglect, even if they embody the worst of traits. It is what we are familiar with, it is what we know. This dynamic is why trauma stories can be so harrowing.

Water holds such an important place in the novel, adding to the setting and elements of the

mystery and family secrets. Can you tell us a little about the title - what does the polite act of

drowning mean to you?

It is about women drowning, silently, in plain view, in their everyday lives. I was already writing

about this teenage girl and her family when I first made this connection between drowning and mental illness. I read an article about drowning, how it is not the splashing, wild call for help we see in the films. When someone is drowning, when they are really in trouble, they are unable to do anything apart from focus on surviving, trying to keep their head above water. That is Rosemary’s situation. She, and those around her, have no idea she is drowning until it is too late.

Could you please tell us a little about your experience within the publishing industry? Do you have any top tips for those hoping to have work of their own published?

Keep at it. Write your way into the thing you need to write. Take courses, find other writers. Read.

Thank you so much for your time Charleen! Where can our readership get themselves a copy of The Polite Act of Drowning?

The paperback is out now. You’ll find it in bookshops and if you are in Ireland and UK I have links to local bookshops on my website, some of which will deliver internationally.

Charleen is a Dublin-based writer and multi-disciplined artist.  Her novel, The Polite Act of Drowning, was published by Eriu, the Irish imprint of Bonnier Books UK in April 2023. 

She is also a visual artist, and is creator, curator and producer of The Peatlands, a multi-media immersive visual arts project exploring the ecological treasure that is The Peatlands.   


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