Q&A with author Rachel Beanland

UofSC alumna makes waves with first novel, 'Florence Adler Swims Forever'

Rachel Moyle Beanland graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2003 with degrees in public relations from the School of Journalism and Mass Communications and art history in the College of Arts and Sciences. She also was in the second class of McNair Scholars and a member of the South Carolina Honors College.

Her first novel, Florence Adler Swims Forever (Simon & Schuster), was published this spring to strong reviews. USA Today called it the perfect summer read and it is featured as one of Good Morning America's "25 Novels You'll Want to Read This Summer."

We caught up with Beanland to talk about her book, her family, the writing process and her time at the University of South Carolina.

Question: Let’s start with a short synopsis of the Florence Adler Swims Forever.

Rachel Beanland: The book follows the Adler family in the summer of 1934 in Atlantic City after their youngest daughter, Florence Adler, has returned home from college intent on swimming the English Channel. She ends up drowning off the coast of Atlantic City. You’re following along as the family grieves her loss. But the family has more immediate problems because her oldest sister, Fannie, is on bed rest in the local hospital after having lost a baby the previous summer. The family makes the decision not to tell Fannie that her sister is dead. Of course, that secret becomes their undoing one way or another, and it’s what pushes the story forward.

Q: The book is loosely based on your family. (Fannie is based on your  great-grandmother and the character Gussy is based on your grandmother.) How did you learn about that history?

A:  My parents are interfaith. My mom is Jewish and lived in Philadelphia and Detroit, but her parents lived in Atlantic City, so she spent summers there. My father was from Upstate South Carolina, from the sleepy little town of Walhalla. He had been raised Methodist. He had the polar opposite upbringing of my mother. His family was much more loose-lipped; we knew all the stories. That storytelling piece was a large part of family life in South Carolina.

On my mother’s side of family, they were very tight-lipped. Nobody spoke about Florence. By the time I was growing up in ‘80s and ‘90s, Florence had been dead for decades and there were very few people alive who knew her. When my mother was telling the story, the emphasis was always on what a strong woman Florence’s mother must have been, to go in (to her older daughter’s) hospital room and act like everything was fine. It was presented as a black-and-white argument; there was no gray area.

As a teenager, I remember asking, “What if Florence’s sister — my great-grandmother — had wanted to know her sister had died.” After my father died, it felt important to mourn someone in real time. I started to question it more and more. As I thought about writing this, it was that little kernel of the story that wouldn’t leave me alone.

Q: The book is getting good reviews and is included on several “must read” summer lists. Why do you think people will enjoy or connect with this story?

A: There are a few things that make the book relevant right now — or at least maybe a good escape. I think contemporary work can be a little bit tough right now. Our contemporary world is so mixed up, in some ways, it’s a relief for people to pick up a book that takes them to a time before COVID. I think that might be part of it. It’s a good time for historical fiction.

Another thing about the book, it’s about grief. I don’t think I could have written the book without having lost my father. I lost him 10 years ago. He died of pancreatic cancer. He was 58, I was 29.  It rocked everyone’s world. I think it was only because I had witnessed my family lose him and saw the way we all dealt with our grief differently that I was able to rotate through the Adler family and imagine how each of them was dealing with Florence’s death in their own way. I think that would have been a challenge to do that without having that fundamental loss in my own life.

And the time we’re living in now, we’re all grieving something. Whether we’ve lost someone we love to COVID or had to reschedule a wedding or missed a bar mitzvah. Or you’re a freshman in college and you missed part of the year and you don’t know what’s happening with your sophomore year. There’s so much loss right now. There’s something appealing in watching this family go through this loss and come out the other side. That is uplifting in a weird way.

What has your family’s reaction been?

When I was writing it,  I would not let my mother see it. I was slow to tell her about it. I was particularly nervous to tell my grandmother. She was alive when I started working on the book. As she got older, she talked about Florence’s death. It was a defining moment of her life. She was 6 years old when she witnessed her aunt’s body brought up on the beach. So, I was nervous to tell her I was fictionalizing this highly traumatic event in her life. She was 94 when she died, I was halfway through the book. My mother said, ‘Rachel I have to tell her this before she dies.’ My grandmother was fine with it. When I handed the manuscript to my mother, I’d finished a draft, my agent was excited about it, but I hadn’t sold it yet. I figured my mother would have corrections; she’s a great editor. She called me at one point and said she was having a hard time, definitely with Isaac (the fictional character of Fannie’s husband, Beanland’s grandfather). In real life, he was a great guy, so she was having a hard time telling herself these were fictional characters. But two-thirds of the way through she was able to let go of the real people and embrace the characters. When she finished the book she called me in tears and said it was lovely.

What did you study at Carolina?

I studied journalism and art history. What’s funny is I never discovered creative writing at USC. I knew I loved to write, but I was being too practical. No one sat me down and said,  ‘Rachel, you love to write. You could write books.’ It didn’t occur to me.

How did your time at UofSC prepare you for what you are doing now?

All of my classes prepared me for this. Art history was a different kind of writing, I was writing big extensive papers. I took a wonderful African American literature class in the Honors College with Jim Burns. Journalism classes were really helpful to me. There’s something about that bare writing you’re trained to produce in a journalism program and professional life that works well for me with my creative writing. I don’t think I’m a particularly florid writer. I try to get to the point. I think there’s something about my style that comes out of the journalism school background.

One class I think about constantly is Doug Fisher’s copy editing class. As a PR student, you did not have to take copy editing. But I knew if I wanted to have any street cred in the real world, I needed to take this class. That class was the hardest class I took in college. I got an ‘A,’ but I worked really, really hard for it. The act of copy editing is great anytime you’re writing anything, thinking about your word choice and the specificity of word choice. The idea of shaving down the unnecessary; it’s important at the sentence level and it’s important at the paragraph level. When you are working with your editor and she tells you that you need to take out 15 pages of this chapter, you have to switch your brain and say, ‘What are the scenes or pieces of dialogue that are not critical to this story?’ That’s what Doug Fisher was teaching us the whole time, how to remove what was not necessary. That stayed with me.

And being a part of the McNair Scholars program and part of the Honors College, I was always told from the very first day I walked in that I was going to do big things. You kind of don’t believe it when you are 18. I was a Truman finalist. Jan (Smoak) and Novella (Beskid) in the (National Fellowships and Scholar Programs) held my hand through that whole process. There were a lot of times like that, where despite it being a very large school, it felt very small and it felt like everybody wanted to help me be successful. And that they somehow recognized my talents. I never for a second questioned my decision to go to the University of South Carolina.

There’s something appealing in watching this family go through this loss and come out the other side. That is uplifting in a weird way.

Rachel Beanland, author of Florence Adler Swims Forever

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about