Books·How I Wrote It

How Gillian Best channelled her love of swimming into her debut novel

The Last Wave explores the quiet life of a wife and mother who is driven to swim the English Channel 10 times.
The Last Wave is Gillian Best's first novel. (House of Anansi Press)

In Gillian Best's debut novel, ​Martha, a wife and mother, lives a relatively quiet and normal life on the U.K. coast. But she has one passion that drives her: swimming. Told over six decades and from multiple perspectives, The Last Wave explores how one woman's drive to do the extraordinary has a lasting impact on those she loves and cares for.

Best, who lives in the U.K. but was born and raised in Ontario, discusses how she wrote the compelling The Last Wave.

The painting that started it all

"I saw a painting a friend of mine in London did. It was a man, staring out to sea on a cliff with a dog with three legs. I wondered what he was looking for. I thought about it and thought, 'Well, he's probably looking for his wife.' It never occurred to me that she could be anything but swimming. That was my immediate reaction. She grew, and blossomed into this woman who had a very similar relationship to the water that I do. It happened unconsciously. It's live-giving."

Why she's drawn to the water

"I was obsessed with the water. I took on this idea of looking at the water in a religious kind of way — like it's the most special thing. It would be nice if people kind of looked at swimming differently — as something more meditative as opposed to athletic. I hope people can understand that inner peace, that thing that you're looking for when you do yoga or you meditate, that you can find it in the water too."

A freestyle approach

"The way I wrote The Last Wave was very freestyle. I'd write one chapter and I'd be like, 'I wonder what happens next.' It was though I was telling myself the story as I was writing it. It felt natural for me to tell a story from different different voices and different perspectives. It was really, really fun to move from one character to another. If you get bored of talking in one person's voice, you can just do another chapter. You're able to get that intimate knowledge that you wouldn't get with a third-person narrator."

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Tackling difficult subjects

"Martha has cancer. John, her husband, has dementia. These aren't uncommon anymore. These are things everybody has in their life. My grandma has dementia. A couple friends have had cancer. It's not to say that it's okay, but those things are part of life. I wanted Martha and John to have normal lives, just like everybody else, and those are things we have to deal with." 

How writing is like swimming

"I think that training as a swimmer for years has helped me as a novelist — you're used to that repetition and that dedication. My biggest part of the process is remembering to do it every day. You go to the pool every day, swim every day. You might not have a great workout that day, but it doesn't matter. You have to go — it's the thing you do. Most of my free time is spent writing, it's almost the same as swimming — it's enjoyable, it's frustrating and it's wonderful."

Gillian Best's comments have been edited and condensed.