Sometimes to be who you really are, you have to pretend you’re already who you want to be.
At two, Delores’s mother dropped her into the shallow end of a lake, trusting instinct would teach her daughter to swim. From then on, the water is where Delores Walker feels most at home. Now, nearly seventeen, she’s boarding a Greyhound bus leaving the Bronx for sunny Weeki Wachee Springs, a tacky roadside attraction in the shadow of Walt Disney’s new Florida phenomenon.
With a hundred silver dollars left behind by her runaway dad, Delores is chasing her dream of being a mermaid with a group of other aquatic hopefuls—girls just as awkward and uncertain out of water as they are beautiful and graceful in it. And in this make-believe world of sequined tails and amphibious fantasy, Delores will learn some very real lessons about growing up and surviving in a world where everyone sometimes feels like a fish out of water.
A heartfelt novel of coming-of-age no matter what age you are, populated with characters offbeat, outcast, and thoroughly lovable, Swim to Me is filled with the kind of wise magic that’ll have you believing in the impossible before the final page.
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“A warm novel…It’s easy to lose yourself in Carter’s cozy, generous story, in which second chances abound and change is almost always for the better.” —Washington Post
"Poignant and at times rollickingly hilarious."—Miami Herald
About Betsy Carter
Betsy Carter is the author of The Orange Blossom Special and her memoir, Nothing to Fall Back On, which was a national bestseller. She is a contributing editor for O, The Oprah Magazine and writes for Good Housekeeping and New… More about Betsy Carter
A Q&A with author Betsy Carter on her new book, Swim to Me What’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about having a book published?
I write alone either in my living room or at the library. Sometimes I play music and always, when I write at home, I talk to Lucy, my dog. I find it remarkable that what happens in those hours gets turned into books that people actually read. Which came first: the characters, or the storyline?
My characters always come first. I do tons of research before I begin a book so I feel comfortable in the time and place in which I’m writing. I let my characters act out and say whatever comes to mind. Even though I delete a lot at the end of the day, often a surprising twist presents itself and carries the story to a place I hadn’t anticipated. My advice is to allow yourself the opposite of writer’s block: even if you think you have nothing to say, just write to write–let your characters talk, describe a detail, play two characters against one another. It could surprise you. If not, erase it. Is there something in your Bantam Discovery Novel that you are particularly proud, or happy, about?
Most of the characters in Swim to Me, start out in tough situations. They are broke, unhappy and in some cases, desperate. By the end, each has found his or her redemption–no matter how bizarre or unexpected. Can you tell us about the book you are working on now?
It’s an historical novel called The Puzzle King, that’s based on a small nugget of family mythology. The novel takes place between 1880 and 1936 and goes back and forth between New York and a small town and Germany. The events lead up to World War 11 and the main character is based on a great uncle of mine who earned his fortune during the depression by figuring out how to make inexpensive jigsaw puzzles out of paper and cardboard instead of wood. He gave these away as premiums with things like toothpaste and soap, and eventually put out a puzzle a week for $.05. That’s how he became known as America’s Puzzle King. When you finish writing your answers to this Q&A, what will you do next?
Go for a swim.
Some notes on Swim to Me by Betsy Carter
You know that moment when a song or a forgotten scrap of paper turns up out of nowhere and suddenly transports you to another time and place so vivid you can feel the air on your skin and remember exactly what shoes you were wearing?
That’s what happened to me on the morning of August 12, 2003. I’d picked up The New York Times, and on the front page, bottom left, was the headline: “Sad Days for Mermaids of the Sequined Sort,” and a slightly out of focus photograph of three mermaids underwater at Weeki Wachee Springs. In the instant that it took me to read that headline, I went back more than 30-years to my own version of Weeki Wachee. My family had taken its first, and only vacation: a car trip from Miami up to Winter Haven, the site of the famous water ski show at Cypress Gardens. I remembered the winding brick paths lined with giant cypress trees and how the electric-pink azaleas lit up the pathways. But mostly I remembered the show: the water skiers in dazzling tiaras and long gloves who stood on one another’s shoulders to form a human pyramid and did crazy ramp jumps and backward slaloms. As someone who was always more comfortable in the water than on land, I felt I had found my calling. “That’s what I’m going to do,” I announced to my family after the show.
This was the beginning of my adolescence. I hated my school, my hair, my house, and mostly my father. He was sarcastic and had a blistering temper. I had a big mouth and knew exactly how to provoke him. The air was uneasy between us. Becoming a water-skier suited all my fantasies of escaping who I was, where I lived, and the people to whom I was related. I spent the next four years learning how to cut the wake, drop a ski, and spin around on a disk. At the camp I went to, I even earned the trophy for best water-skier.
I never did make it to Cypress Gardens, but as long as the park was there, there was always the possibility that I could. When I read that piece in the Times, I went back to that adolescent fantasy. What if things had worked out differently, I wondered. What if, by some miracle, I’d been able to leave home and actually become a water skier? What if I made it really big? What if? What if?
That’s when I started to write, Swim to Me.
Instead of Cypress Gardens, I decided to place my story in Weeki Wachee Springs. The book begins when Delores Walker is thirteen and she and her family take the only vacation they’ve ever had. They drive from their home in the Bronx to see the famous live mermaid show in Florida. Delores is so moved by the spectacle that she swears some day, somehow, she will become a mermaid. Three years later, after her parents’ marriage ends convulsively and her father disappears, Delores is forced to help her mother earn money to support her and her baby brother. She auditions to be a mermaid at Weeki Wachee. Miracle of miracles, she gets the job, and that is where the journey begins.
The book takes place in the early 1970’s, while the country is still reverberating from the social and cultural upheavals of the sixties. Suddenly everything seems possible, and each of the characters seeks out the “what ifs” of their own lives. Delores Walker, unhappy schoolgirl from the Bronx, meet Delores Taurus, Florida’s favorite mermaid.
Before I started, Swim to Me I spent some time in Weeki Wachee. There are live mermaids there, just as there were sixty years ago when the park first opened, though the amphitheater in which they perform smells a little musty now. The day I went to the show, parents with little kids filled the wooden benches in front of the theater. I looked for a family that might have been mine, but just then the lights were dimmed.
The music came up and as the curtain rose, two mermaids swam by, honest-to-God mermaids with their hair floating like clouds around their heads and their tails flapping in time to the current. The sun shown down on the water in such a way as to make the bubbles they breathed look like diamonds. The mermaids came right up to the acrylic window that separates the Springs from the amphitheater, and were so close you could almost touch them. The little girl behind me gasped and jumped onto her father’s lap to get a closer look. My heart was pounding the way it did the first time I saw the water-skiers in Cypress Gardens. Time peeled away, and for the next twenty minutes, I was 11 again. There was mystery and magic and the dizzying possibility that all of it was real.
Had things gone in another direction, maybe I would have become Florida’s most beloved mermaid. But as they went, I spent my own 1970’s working as a reporter for Newsweek. My parents are gone now, and most of the grudges that I held so dear as an adolescent have faded. But I still swim nearly every day and on good days, when the sun hits the water at a particular angle and there’s no one around except for me and my daydreams, I get an inkling of what it might have been like had I turned out to be Delores Taurus.