Leanne Shapton, author of "Swimming Studies" - photo: Jason Fulford
You may know Leanne Shapton from her book “Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry” (which has been optioned by Brad Pitt’s production company), or perhaps from J&L Books, the art and photography book publishing company she co-runs. She has also held art director positions at the New York Times op-ed page, among other places, and written for various outlets. But before Shapton excelled at all that stuff, she was really, really good at this other thing: swimming.
Shapton spent her formative and early teen years waking up before dawn in her hometown of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, often times with snow on the ground and in freezing temperatures to train as a competitive swimmer until she quit in 1989 just a year after competing in the 1988 Olympic trials. She spent many subsequent years trying swimming on for size again and again to see if it still fit and how. This included a full-on reentrance into the sport a few years later, just in time for a go at the 1992 Olympic trials. The Goldilocks verdict: still not quite right. Shapton quit again, this time for real.
Her new release “Swimming Studies” is an exploration of what to do with something that was once such an intrinsic part of you, but which you eventually need to set free. While reading Shapton’s offbeat, refreshingly honest and insightful new memoir, the reader shuffles back and forth between the then and now of Shapton’s relationship to swimming as she struggles, but eventually finds, the right blend between her artistic and athletic selves. We spoke to Shapton about this journey, "Important Artifacts," and her recent trip to cover the Olympics.
In the book, you are trying to “figure out what to do with something [you] do well but no longer have any use for,” i.e. swimming. What did you ultimately decide on, and do you find yourself questioning that decision periodically, or have you made peace with it?
Making this book was a big part of my figuring out what to do with that obsolete skill. I needed to really deconstruct everything about my swimming career and what swimming had become to me, to figure out what to do with it. I finally realized that the way I worked related directly to how I was trained, and that I could find the same sort of “zone” -- one that I’d always missed and longed for once I quit the sport -- when I painted or drew or, in this case, wrote.
Had you thought about writing this book for a long time?
I've wanted to do something with the swimming material since 2003. It was just too rich and too vivid for me to forget. I still want to do more with it. It began as a screenplay, then turned into a series of small essays, then into this weird collection of pieces that finally became the book. As I worked on it, the shape took form, very organically. I had to let the content dictate the (structureless) structure at a certain point, which was scary but also liberating, so in that way the material chose its shape.
“Swimming Studies,” of course, focuses mostly on swimming, but your interest in art is a current throughout. They are, at least on the surface, very different pursuits, though your brother, too, started out a swimmer and wound up a photographer. Where did your interest in art and writing come from?
Our father was an industrial designer, so, drawing boards, paper, pencils, markers, and art supplies were in abundance during our childhood. We went to the Art Gallery of Ontario a lot as kids. (One of my earliest memories is sliding through the center of a big Henry Moore sculpture.) So it was always there. Our years spent competitive swimming were also spent attending a specialized arts high school, so there was always that balance between art and sport. We took it all in stride. I liked having a separate life in both realms, but at times not really fitting into either scene was a little lonely.