Our week-long feature on The Summer of Skinny Dipping by Amanda Howells continues today with part 1 of our three-part interview with Amanda. Her interview responses blew us away, and we think they’ll do the same for you. She really has some amazing things to say, so without further ado, here is part 1:
The Summer of Skinny Dipping is one of those sort of quintessential summer books — in that it really captures the essence of the season. And it seems like summer, more than any other season, has this particular “life-changing” type of quality to it — especially when we are teenagers. Why do you think this is?
Why does summer feel so different, especially to teens? Well, it’s literally a reprieve from daily life when you’re a teenager. When school’s out for summer (and if you’re lucky enough not to have a job), there’s none of that structure happening— no alarm clock ringing, no teachers dictating how your day will be spent. And maybe you go away on a vacation where nobody knows you and so you have the ability to be perceived with fresh eyes, to become new to others, and maybe even to yourself, as is the case with my narrator, Mia. Her identity becomes more fluid away from her usual points of reference. Add some balmy weather to all of the above and anything feels possible. And to me, summer also has this strange quality of seeming both endless and yet, it’s always over too soon. It feels like forever but it’s also fleeting—because “nothing gold can stay.”
The setting is such a key part of The Summer of Skinny Dipping, it’s practically a main character. Why is the setting so important to this book, in particular? How would the story have been different if it took place somewhere else?
There’s no way this story could have taken place anywhere else. The landscape helped shape the story. At first I just chose the setting out of convenience: I had spent a summer of weekends out in the Hamptons—well, close enough (East Quogue actually)—before I decided to write a summer romance. My friend had rented this little house near the beach and so I had the good fortune of escaping sticky NYC, where I lived at the time, for this a bit of paradise.
I really fell in love with the landscape out there. It also happens to be a particularly evocative landscape. For one thing, somewhere in the writing phase I started thinking about The Great Gatsby, which I allude to often in this novel and which itself is set on Long Island. Its themes of star-crossed love, in vs. out crowd, new vs. old money, and what it means to pursue the American Dream—all this was very much in my mind when I wrote the book. And these ideas sort of dovetailed with my impressions of the Hampton enclaves; this stretch of coast is both a gorgeous and an ugly place all at the same time, stunning but also ruined by development…a fascinating study in contrasts.
I also read this fabulous, extremely juicy essay collection during the writing of my book: Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons by Stephen Gaines. There’s an essay, “Dragon’s Head,” about a controversial house that was built by a shady entrepreneur, amid much scandal, and never finished. Though I never saw the house (which I think is now owned by Calvin Klein), the piece inspired a key scene and setting in my book, where Mia and Simon have a tryst in an empty McMansion on the beach.
Mia’s story is unique to her situation, but in many ways she is experiencing things that lots of people (teens and “former teens” alike) can relate to. Things like growing up, the changing perceptions of her family, meeting a new person, etc. How do you think these experiences are both unique to Mia and universal to readers?
I tried to create a character that both teen girls and those of us who had once been teen girls could relate to. Mia’s perceptions—of her parents, of her cousins, of herself— are uniquely hers in that she’s quite an analytical, observant girl with a scientific mind, but as she matures over the summer her perceptions shift and change. To me this shift is something that happens to everyone when they come of age. A key part of growing up is realizing that your ideas of yourself—and others around you—aren’t necessarily “true” and fixed. Part of figuring out the world you live in is knowing you don’t have it all figured out.
At the end of the book, we hear from Mia about what she got out of her experience. But what do you hope readers take away from The Summer of Skinny Dipping?
The ending is sad (FYI, I wrote an entire blog post in defense of sad endings here). But I really hope readers will find the story life-affirming too. And I hope it’s enjoyable in that juicy, summer-reading, page-turning sort of way, but that readers feel there’s more to think about when the book is over.