The Line Between Fun and Scary
An interview with Leda and the Swan debut author Anna Caritj.
I recently had the opportunity to interview author Anna Caritj about her debut novel Leda and the Swan, one of Deep South‘s 2021 summer reads that takes us right into fall. In this thought-provoking piece of literary fiction, titular character Leda wakes the morning after a wild Halloween frat party with little recollection of what happened the night before. Why does her heart leap when she thinks about the guy she went home with? And might she have been the last person to glimpse her now-missing classmate, Charlotte, dressed as a swan before she disappeared into the night?
Anna Caritj holds a BA from the University of Virginia and an MFA in creative writing from Hollins University. She currently lives in Virginia with her husband.
Stephanie DeGnore: What inspired you to write this book, and what was the process like?
Anna Caritj: So, there’s this incredible mural in the lobby of Cabell Hall at UVA [University of Virginia]. It’s called “A Student’s Progress,” and it was painted over the course of 16 years by the artist Lincoln Perry. Because I sang in a chorus, like my character Leda, I was always passing this mural to and from rehearsal.
There’s a red-haired girl in the mural and you can trace her four years at the university through the painting. Sometimes she’s carrying a violin. We see her with books under her arm. We see her on her graduation day, holding a silver balloon. But the mural also excludes some parts of campus life. It doesn’t take you, say, into the basement of a frat during homecoming weekend.
Anyway, when I was a student, the mural was still in progress. There were still many blank or roughly sketched sections. This might sound sort of strange, but when I was writing Leda, I imagined, privately, that I was filling those blanks in, trying to complete the mural in a different medium.
Leda’s arc was probably the hardest part of writing the book. Plot doesn’t always come naturally for me. But I did know from the beginning that I didn’t want it to be a simple thriller in which everything culminates in the unveiling of a murderer. That didn’t feel right to me. I was more interested in cultural pressures in and around the university, and how those might drive a young woman toward the brink. So the way I ended up thinking about the plot is that, as the book goes on, Leda becomes more and more like Charlotte, the girl who’s disappeared—she gets skeptical of things she’d before taken for granted. She separates herself from her sorority and her friends. But then she has to find a way not to share in Charlotte’s uncertain fate. She has to save herself, as one of Charlotte’s postcards says.
SD: How do you believe the title of your book connects to your story? Can you go more into depth about your book’s connection to the Greek myth of the same name?
AC: Yes, the title, Leda and the Swan comes from a Yeats poem, which traces the classic Greek myth in which Zeus swoops down from the heavens in the form of a swan to take his pleasure (as he’s wont to do) with a mortal, Leda. Leda is shocked and immobilized under the assault. In a lot of Renaissance art—in, say, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo’s paintings—the encounter is depicted as, like, a pastoral lounge scene or something. Just your everyday interspecies embrace.
The poem is interesting because it was one of the first times that that myth was depicted as a violent encounter, rather than a bucolic lounge scene, as it is in most classical paintings. In the poem, Zeus comes to the earth in the form of a swan and has a sexual encounter with Leda. Today, we’d call it rape. The poem is interesting, though, because it takes the perspective of Leda, and it also captures the confusion of the aftermath of a sexual assault— not knowing how to think about it, how to rationalize it, just being overwhelmed and undone. The poem overwhelms. That’s why I like it.
The tall windows writhed, the gutted houses (fraternities always felt gutted inside) risen-up, zombie-like: alive. Bodies spilled from the front porch and onto the lawn: chick firefighters, three girls dressed as salt, tequila, and lime…Leda and the Swan
SD: I found the sense of place in this novel very strong. Particularly, the opening Halloween sequence with vivid descriptions of college life such as the above quote. Can you explain why you chose to begin your book this way?
AC: I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Halloween is such an event there. I always loved trick-or-treating when I was a kid. I looked forward all year to my mom helping me make my costume and taking me to the lawn, where students open their rooms and give away candy. And since the book has so much of her in it, Halloween felt like the natural place to start.
There are also what you might call thematic reasons. College students are in this weird transitional phase; they’re not quite adults but definitely not kids either. And so, most of the undergrads in the book are dressed up just as extravagantly as the kids. They have all these desires and impulses and cravings, like kids, but they’re on their own when it comes to figuring out how to manage them.
Second, the festival is sort of timeless for Leda. It hasn’t changed since she was a kid, and it transports her, in a way, back to her childhood. Back to when her mom was living. It gives readers a glimpse of who she was (a loved child, growing at her own pace), and who she is today—a girl who, ultimately, had to grow up too quickly.
Also, you probably noticed that the book is interested in masks. Costumes and disguises naturally inspire questions about selfhood and identity. Halloween allows us to ask: Who is this person, really?
SD: I found the scenes where the sorority sisters did the primal scream very powerful, but also hollow. Can you expand on this interesting dichotomy?
AC: I think Carly’s screams do have some power in them. I think Carly is right when she stresses the importance of learning what you like and what you don’t like, in terms of sex and intimacy. When you don’t like something, she says, then don’t be afraid to just fucking scream. Leda, I think, would do well to take Carly’s advice on this one. But you’re absolutely right; there’s something hollow there, too. Carly makes a lot of noise, but she doesn’t seem to know quite what she’s saying. It’s like the big bouquet of roses Leda brings to Charlotte’s house after Charlotte’s disappearance. It’s a nice gesture, but it’s also showy. It’s a performance of grief and outrage. Leda’s own personal loss is still very raw. Like Leda, I lost my mom when I was a teen, so I know how strange it can be to find yourself at an intersection between public and private grief. So, I think that’s mostly what I was getting at—this unsettling situation, when you see a version of your own sadness and confusion briefly reflected in the wider culture and you’re not exactly sure what to do with it.
SD: Leda and her sorority sisters have a very interesting relationship. At one point in the book, Leda remarks that they would not notice if she disappeared for several days. With the exception of Mary, can you explain why you decided to depict the relationship this way?
AC: Leda joins her sorority because she’s looking for a home. Her single mother has recently passed away, and Leda rightly senses that she needs some sort of support system. Even Mary (who ends up deciding that Greek life is not for her) rushes initially because she’s homesick. Community is one of the truly wonderful things that groups of this kind provide, and for a time Leda thrives in her sorority. She crams her schedule full of social activities. She feels braced by her sisters. She feels loved. But Charlotte’s disappearance drives Leda off her comfortable college track. The rhythm of parties and playdates punctuated by essays and exams and study sessions is disrupted. Charlotte’s disappearance hits Leda harder than the others, in great part because she knows loss more personally than most of her sisters.
In my experience, exclusive social groups generate their own gravity. Sororities have their own subtle (and not so subtle) rules and hierarchies. We see this with Mary. Once some tacit boundary is breached (Mary disses a beloved Disney movie for being misogynist), the group might begin to reject you, shed you. That’s the flip side of the positive aspects of community.
SD: Leda remarks on the monsters that are chasing her. One way you show this is through her being haunted by her mother. Can you expand on the monsters in the book?
AC: When Leda was a kid, she used to ask her mother to chase her for fun. Later, as a college student, she finds herself seeking similar thrills. Even on jogs, she likes to feel as if she’s being pursued. Fear, she reflects, is part of what makes things fun. The obvious problem is that this equation for having a good time can be dangerous. You’re forever balancing on the knife’s edge between (as Leda puts it) fun and scary. When it comes to flirtation and sex, that gray area can be especially hard to navigate. Everything is fine … until it’s not.
SD: Throughout the novel, you repeatedly refer to astronomy. This seems to be a particularly strong motif. How does it connect to Leda’s character?
AC: Astronomy gives Leda a chance to see outside of herself, however briefly. Her professor goes on about perspective—about how large the ever-expanding universe really is and about how small we are in comparison. Leda thinks it’s cheesy, but it also gets in her head a little bit. She deals with a lot on her own, and I think she’s eager for whatever guidance she can get. It’s a scary time in her life, and yet her astronomy professor succeeds in getting her in a different frame of mind.
When I was in college, I remember being shocked that it was possible to enjoy a subject in which I performed so consistently poorly. Math has never come naturally to me. I put in a great deal of effort, learning equations, but eventually, I had to accept that I wouldn’t get everything. And I didn’t have to, necessarily. I got so much out of the class. I came out with a lifelong love of astronomy, which is founded in part on mystery and unknowing.
SD: Leda often flips between excitement and fear, unsure of what to feel, and sometimes feels both. I think it is interesting to explore that these feelings are not black and white, one or the other. What made you decide to write Leda like this?
AC: College is such a strange, transitional moment. You turn 18, you move into your dorm, and poof—you are no longer a child. All of a sudden, you are the master of your own life. There’s no longer someone monitoring your behavior, making sure you wake up and get to class and eat right.
It can be very liberating. You get to trash your own apartment. You get to throw away your dishes instead of washing them (that’s a true story). You can discover that a possum has had babies in your laundry basket and decide to leave them there (also a true story). You can skip class and drink all day and stay up all night.
But it can also be scary. It can be scary to realize that you’ve got to clean up your own messes. If you fail a test or get a bad grade on an essay, that’s on you. If you get plastered at a party and blackout, that can have real and serious consequences. Lots of students start missing their families. They want to be taken care of even while they want freedom, but of course, you can’t have both.
SD: At the end of your book, what exactly happens to Charlotte (and Leda) is ambiguous. Why did you choose to end this way?
AC: It’s totally reasonable to crave resolution in a mystery. Leda does this throughout her journey. She’s uncertain about so many things, craving answers to big questions about (among other things) the solar system and how she should live her life. I also felt that way in college. In my experience, I got some answers with time. But most of life’s questions don’t have a single easy solution. Usually, there’s no one person to blame. So, life becomes then about living with that uncertainty.
Leda sings alto in her choir, which means she never gets to sing the melody. She always finds herself moving through tricky rhythms and disharmonies. But that’s her lot, right? She has to figure out how to hear her part in the dissonance, and maybe even to find some beauty in it.
Leda and the Swan is one our 2021 summer reads. See the full list here.