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Leanne Shapton: Poolside meditations

The author and artist twice competed as a swimmer at Olympic trials. She reflects on how her training still defines her

Leanne Shapton is making a beeline for the water. "Shall we go for a walk?" she says, ushering me out of the rambling house with the overgrown garden and the pretty cat in the doorway (all the novelist and screenwriter Deborah Moggach's), and striding across the road to the huddle of ponds nestling on the fringes of Hampstead Heath.

Over two decades ago – long before she served as an art director on The New York Times op-ed page, wrote a book in the form of a fake auction catalogue that became a word-of-mouth hit, (Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris), and designed the dust-jackets of books by zeitgeist novelists (Chuck Palahniuk, Roberto Bolaño) – Shapton was a competitive swimmer. As a teenager, her life in Mississauga, Ontario, was comprised of cross-country coach trips to regional heats, a diet rich in protein bars and six hours of training six days a week, in preparation for swimming at the Canadian Olympic trials in 1988 and again in 1992. Then, she packed it all in and headed for New York to her second career as an artist, writer and non-competitive "bather".

The old Shapton, one imagines, might have barged past the Canada geese to the nearest pond on the Heath and knocked out a few fast laps at the mere sight of water. As it stands, she plants herself down by the 'mixed swimming pond', dangles her feet over its edge as a flotilla of geese snap around her toes, and begins to talk.

She is in London to write about the Olympics for Maclean's magazine. Her old swimming coach, Byron, who swam for Canada in the 1970s, has emailed her detailed notes on each of the players at the two swimming events she was set to attend this week. "I haven't been to a sporting event this big, ever. I do follow swimming every four years at the Olympics and I watch knowing who is who, but I don't follow it closely. It didn't stick that way. I just moved on."

Yet at the same time, she says, it is there, ingrained like a watermark or a "scar" forever more. Despite the intervening decades separating Shapton's old life from the new, she has not fully exorcised her swimmer's identity. She has re-visited these early years in Swimming Studies (Particular Books, £20), which is part-meditation on a life of training, part-memoir (though she disputes the label – "I don't want to veer into that type of autobiographical mapping") and part-art book. There are paintings of water and a photo gallery of all her swimsuits.

"Because I had these sense memories that were very vivid of where I swam, I began the book in 2004 as a screenplay, just describing these images."

Then, for a time, she put it away while she worked on her 2006 book, Was She Pretty? a study of jealousy in graphic novel form inspired by the time she found herself living in the home of a boyfriend, with pictures of his ex-girlfriends around her.

Her subsequent book, Important Artifacts, had extraordinary success despite the lack of a publisher's marketing campaign. Designed to look like an auction catalogue, it mapped a broken love story (Shapton's own) in which its two main characters split-up after a long-term relationship and sell off the things that once represented a joined-up life, in auction lots, from Post-it notes left for each other to letters, clothes, photographs. It is being adapted for film, with a screenplay by the filmmaker Greg Mottola, and it is rumoured to star Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman (the latter is co-producing it). "I'm not involved at all but it's in great hands," says Shapton. "I'm really interested in someone else's take on it."

It was after Important Artifacts that Shapton turned her attention back to the unfinished book in her drawer. "With this, I wanted to see if I could write, and if I could be loyal to the images in my head. I found that the two could be woven together: pictures and words. Then I saw a little drawing by Gwen John called 'Cat Study'".

The result is impressionistic, non-chronological, and beautifully vivid writing. The non-linear structure was key to its development, she reflects, and it is this originality that takes Swimming Studies beyond the realm of memoir. "When I tried to think about how water behaved, then I thought 'that's how I want to structure the book', with elisions, kaleidoscopic repetitions, magnifications. All the stuff that water can do optically, I could use to describe how I saw the sport."

Each of her books has, in fact, been a hybrid creation that blurs the line between comic, illustrated novel and art book. "I grew up creating this mix of writing and drawing," she says. Her early influences came from alterative or underground writer-illustrators – Seth (penname of Gregory Gallant), Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell. What she responded to in their work was its specific brand of introspection. "Despite the fact that the work is usually very introspective, it is never called naval-gazing. I drew inspiration from that."

Yet surely it can't be easy, to effectively mine this intimate kind of material – from the jealousy in Was She Pretty? to the complicated feelings towards her younger, swimmer self in Swimming Studies? It's a difficult balance, she concedes, and for the project to work, all sentimentality and triteness needs to be peeled away from the material so that what remains on the page is genuine, personal and universal, all at once.

One of the most unexpected features of Swimming Studies is its reflections on patriotism. Competing for one's country on an international level necessarily leads to questions of identity and nationhood, she says. Even the smaller protocols, from wearing Canada's colours to listening to the National Anthem at formal events, brings you into close contact with it. "For all of those hours of training you put in, you are being patriotic. For all the days you put in, you are swimming for your country. For a country with a lack of military service, this is the next best thing."

For this reason, she included her grandfather in the book. As someone who fought in the Second World War, he was the one figure in her early life who helped her understand her relationship to her country. "I wanted to figure out where swimming sat in my life and where Canada sat in my life."

Turning away from swimming meant that she also turned away from this form of patriotism. Yet even now, having lived in New York for a decade, she considers the city to be where her life is, while Canada remains her home. "I could be an American citizen – and I probably will become one in order to vote – but I've been holding out." Ironically, her British-born husband and former Condé Nast editorial director, James Truman, took American citizenship at a far earlier opportunity. Having married almost two years ago, it was Truman's influence that helped her to do that very unfamiliar thing – bathe, and not race. "His outlook on life is more sensual", she says. "I enjoy water in a completely different way. I don't have to put in 40 laps or do a workout. I can bathe now."

Yet the competitive hard-wiring remains. Shapton shows none of the conventional signs of an "alpha" personality but perhaps these are just well disguised. "You should see me play Scrabble... A game of backgammon will end in tears. I am still very competitive. It never goes away. I have a team of charades players and we're all really competitive. We act out clues such as 'Adobe Photoshop' and 'my sister's new purple weave'."

After competitive swimming, she enrolled at McGill University in Montreal, swam for their team, but then left. She didn't finish her art-school studies in New York either, but learned her craft based on the rigorous principles that all the years of swimming had instilled. Art and sport are not diametrical opposites in their application, she says. The repetitious nature of doing laps has given her the mental stamina needed for editing.

Some critics have taken her book to be not just a meditation on the rigours of competitive sport, but also a reflection on not quite making the grade. This grates on Shapton. "I thought I stated pretty early in the book that I didn't have five rings in my eyes."

Giving up on swimming, she says, was not giving up on ambition. "I'm more ambitious in terms of my books. I have found a less public way of being ambitious. Swimming belongs to the world of physics. If you are ambitious, you are taking on gravity. I don't want to take on Newton, but I do want to take on the more subtle and private world of ideas and images.

Buy Swimming Studies (Particular Books) from www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk for £16 (RRP £20) including postage or call 0843 0600030