This reading group guide for Swimming for Sunlight includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Allie Larkin. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
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Aspiring costume designer Katie Ellis is at the end of her rope—her marriage has ended in a messy divorce, and she’s just agreed to give her ex-husband everything so she can keep their fearful, faithful dog: Barkimedes (“Bark”). Katie packs up a few remaining belongings in her beat-up old car and drives to Florida with Bark to live with her grandmother, Nan. She reconnects with her childhood best friend, Mo, and Nan’s circle of colorful friends.
Buoyed by the support of people who love her, Katie begins taking her mental health seriously. She reconnects with her love of costume design, fights her long-held fear of water, reignites a past romance, and finally finds the right way to be Bark’s best friend.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Throughout the first half of the book, there is not much description of what Katie looks like, although she observes a lot about what her grandmother and her friends look like. What does this say about Katie’s perception of herself?2.
On page 62, Katie reflects on how her smaller income created stress in her relationship with ex-husband, Eric. How do you view money in the context of long-term romantic relationships?
3. Nan and Katie begin to bond as Katie helps Nan reach out to old friends via Facebook—something Nan hasn’t previously used. Have you noticed a generational difference in how your friends and family use social media?
4. Have you ever reunited with a long lost friend? Was your connection still there? What changed since the last time you saw them? Have you kept in touch since your reunion?
5. The mermaid show gives Nan and Bitsie chance to reclaim an activity they loved when they were younger. Is there something you loved doing that has fallen by the wayside? Is it something you’d like to try again?
6. On page 148, Mo encourages Katie to see a therapist, but Katie doesn’t take it well. Has anyone in your group ever tried to help connect a friend with mental health resources? How did it go? How do you think Mo could have done things differently (or did she do a good job)?
7. Throughout the book, Katie has panic attacks, when she can’t control certain things. Can you think of times when she tries to micromanage aspects of her life that she can
8. What do you think of Katie’s relationship with Bark? How is her attention to Bark’s needs helpful, and how is it a coping mechanism?
9. Katie’s marriage to Eric was a mismatch. How do you think Luca would differ as a partner? What kind of partner do you think would be ideal for Katie?
10. Nan and Bitsie have fun telling Katie about their time as mermaid performers. Have any of your loved ones surprised you with an unexpected story from their past? Do you have stories people in your life would be surprised to hear?
11. In Chapter 40, when Woo Woo arrives, Bitsie worries about coming out to her. How do you think the experience of coming out later in life might differ from the experiences of people who come out at a younger age?
12. On page 260, As Katie is trying to get Hannah’s measurements, Hannah seems insecure about her weight and keeps trying to “suck in.” Katie thinks, “. . . it made me sad, because I had this idea that by the time you reach your seventies, the superficial pressures of being a woman would dissipate, and health would be all that mattered.” How has your perception of your appearance changed over time? Do you think you’ll feel differently about your body in the future? Growing up, how did the women in your life shape your ideas about body image and aging?
13. At the end of the book, Katie has learned to be more comfortable in her own skin. What changed to make this possible? What has she had to let go?Enhance Your Book Club (3-5 Enhance Your Book Club Suggestions) Note: Please make sure the numbers do not populate automatically.
1. Set up drawing or collage supplies (complete with sequins!) and have everyone design their own mermaid tail. Have each member talk about how their design represents aspects of their personality.
2. Read “The Last Mermaid Show
” from The New York Times
and discuss the allure of being a mermaid—from the early years until today.
3. Have a cocktail party that would make Nan proud! Serve “martoonis,” vegetable sushi and vegan canapés. Look for recipes on sites like ItDoesn’tTasteLikeChicken.com and Engine2Diet.com.
Bitsie’s Recipe for the perfect extra dry dirty martooni
1 ½ oz. Gin
A dash of dry vermouth
Swirl vermouth in the martini glass. Dump the excess. Vermouth is not the star of this show. Pour the gin into a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Follow with a generous splash of olive juice. Shake and strain into a glass. Garnish with three or four cocktail olives. Don’t skimp. You deserve a snack.A Conversation with Allie Larkin What was your inspiration to start writing Swimming for Sunlight?
I was doing writing exercises every morning to generate ideas. I can’t remember the specific exercise that lead to it, but the line “My husband brought a date to our divorce” popped in my head and I was hooked. Katie and Bark showed up soon after, and I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Where did the idea of writing about mermaid performers come from?
As a kid, I obsessively loved swimming underwater, and I was fascinated by mermaids. The movie Splash
was a big deal at the time, my local video story had an anime retelling of The Little Mermaid
that closely followed the Hans Christian Andersen story, and I fell madly in love with a book called The Search for Delicious
by Natalie Babbit that had a mermaid named Ardis who lived in a lake.
I first read about mermaid performers at Weeki Wachee Springs at some point in my twenties, but if I had known about them as a child, being a mermaid would have been my ultimate aspiration.
When I started writing Nan, I had the idea that she’d become a fitness enthusiast, but it didn’t feel like enough of a story for her. I wanted to give her new endeavor deeper roots. Suddenly, Nan’s mermaid past started spinning in my mind, and it felt like something I’ve been gearing up for my whole life. I truly loved writing about women who found a way to return to their love of mermaids and underwater performance. Possibly, in part, because I’d like to believe it’s something I can still aspire to.Who is the character of Nan based on? Did that person also go through a major health kick?
None of the characters I write are based on real people, but Nan’s health kick was inspired by my own quest to protect my heart health by switching to a whole food plant-based diet. I’ve been eating this way for several years now, and it has drastically changed my life and health for the better, but I also know how eye-roll inducing people talking about their diets can be. I decided to have a little fun at my own expense by turning Nan a militant vegan and making Katie very frustrated by this change. That said, I do take great joy in hacking recipes to make them meet my dietary needs, and I’ve made most of the foods Nan serves. Except for those terrible cookies.Did your dog inspire any of Bark’s personality?
Stella, our German Shepherd, came to us at thirteen months and was an absolute terror. Through a lot of hard work, she eventually settled in and became a functional member of our family.
Then over the course of a year, we lost our other dog to cancer, our elderly cat passed away, and we made a cross-country move. The ways we’d taught Stella to cope were dependant on having animal buddies, a big yard, and a regular routine. Suddenly we were living in a different environment with different parameters, so Stella and I had to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to help her function in our new life. It also forced me to confront my anxiety issues, because she picks up on my nerves. I wanted to be better for Stella and it made me better for myself too.
Stella has taught me so much about bravery. She still has her jittery moments, but she’s gone from being afraid to leave the house to nudging me out the door for our two-mile walk every day.How did you approach writing a community of characters in their retirement years?
I realized in an early draft of the book that to write Nan and Bitsie and their friends, I needed to cultivate a greater understanding of their formative experiences. I never had the opportunity to take women’s studies in college, so I decided to engineer my own crash course. I spent a summer reading and researching the history of the women’s movement and the ways women have been represented in pop culture over the years. It was fascinating, maddening, enlightening, heartbreaking, and deeply inspiring.Katie seems to have shied away from the things she wanted most in an attempt to create a sense of safety. Can you relate to the way fear navigates her choices?
When I was in college the first time around, I was so afraid of failing. The idea of trying for something I might not get felt so horribly shameful, and I got very good at aiming just below what I thought I could achieve. Then after my sophomore year, I dropped out of college and promptly went out into the real world, where I fell flat on my face. Like, the life events equivalent of a woman belly-flopping when there had never even been a pool. At the time, it was horrible, but in the overall trajectory of my life, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I failed and I survived and I didn’t have to pretend to be perfect anymore. On the other side of that failure, it seemed way less scary to start trying for things that felt out of reach. Rejection didn’t scare me anymore.
Katie is just at the edge of that experience; she’s starting to get comfortable with the fact that playing it safe hasn’t gotten her the things a person needs to thrive.As the story progresses, we learn that Katie is afraid of a lot of things. Do you identify with her struggles on a personal level? How did you figure out what Katie’s healing process should be?
I was a nervous little kid, and I headed into adulthood with anxiety issues. I think it’s one of the things that made me a writer, but training your brain for writing doesn’t necessarily help. Once you’ve taught yourself to always think about the “what ifs” it’s hard to stop. I finally got to a point where I was uncomfortable being uncomfortable and started seeking better ways to manage my mental health.
I consulted therapists and read as much as I could on trauma and anxiety. The Body Keeps Score
by Bessel van der Kolk is brilliant. I found The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking
, by Oliver Burkeman, so helpful on a personal level, and it sent me down a rabbit hole of stoic philosophy (which probably inspired some of Bitsie’s worldview).
Toward the end of Swimming for Sunlight,
Bitsie says to Katie, “I know being okay is work, and there’s chemical parts and physical parts and it might be a long fight. But it’s a fight for something worth it, right?”
There are so many variable personal elements involved in mental health issues, which means there aren’t cookie cutter answers. I wanted to be careful not to prescribe anything too specific for Katie’s recovery. It felt right to me to leave Katie at a place where there’s still work ahead of her, but she’s set up to succeed, and she’s finally fighting for herself.The setting for Swimming for Sunlight is in Florida. How did that come about and what kind of research did you do to get the Florida “vibe” just right?
I spent time in Florida as a child, and was back a few years ago on vacation. I have a soft spot for that particular brand of suburbia and palm trees. Also, when we lived in Rochester, we were the newcomers in a neighborhood full of people who had built their houses in the 50’s and 60’s, and that was certainly an inspiration too. This is your third book! How did writing it feel different than writing your first two?
This book feels very special because I’d had the idea and a vague outline for a while, but when it came time to kick it into gear, my friend Caroline Angell, (author of All the Time in the World
) suggested we do a weekly call. We reported in on our work, talked through narrative problems and character development, and set goals for the next week. We called our calls Introvert Happy Hour, even though they very often strayed far beyond the hour mark. There’s something so meaningful to me about the way our friendship grew through nurturing each other’s work, and how that celebration of female friendship is echoed in the book.How did you get your start as a writer? What specific moments and people along the way have encouraged you to keep going?
I grew up performing in summer camp plays and community theatre and first went to college as a drama major. I loved the work, even though I wasn’t always thrilled about being on stage. When I went back to college in my twenties, I took a few writing classes and felt like I’d finally found the right medium for my interests. But I draw on my theatre training constantly, especially when it comes to character development. I’m so thankful for that foundation, even though I didn’t realize what I was laying the groundwork for at the time.
After college, I joined a writing group in Rochester, and the camaraderie, the feedback, and the deadlines were vital to helping me stick with it. I also had the pleasure of attending the Titles Over Tea
book club at the Greece, NY Barnes & Noble. Titles Over Tea
is open to the public, which results in a group of book lovers of different ages who have had very different life experiences. I read novels I would never have read otherwise, and also had familiar books opened up in new ways through our discussion. It made me a better reader and a better writer. And I think also influenced some of the multigenerational relationships in this book. Moving away from my writing group and book club is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
Now I’m in an online group of novelists, have critique partners who are constructive and inspiring, and I take weekly writer hikes with my friend Cassandra Dunn, (author of The Art of Adapting
). Since the actual writing process is so solitary, connecting with the community of writers around me is vital. It truly is an honor to get to work with and root for other writers on this level. It’s an experience I cherish.