Saturday, August 12, 2017

Christopher Swann talks about boarding school, trauma, why you don't want a reader who just says, "love it!" with a smiley emoji, and his brilliant novel SHADOW OF THE LIONS

Christopher Swann is chair of the English Department at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Atlanta, where he has taught English for more than 20 years. He's another Algonquin author, which means he is family from now on!  I'm so thrilled to have him here!

I loved all the material about boarding school. Did you attend one yourself?  And if so, did you find it freeing?
 I’m glad you liked the boarding school material. I did attend boarding school—Woodberry Forest, in Virginia. Blackburne is kind of based on Woodberry, especially physically, but I made several alterations. Let’s say that a lot of the good aspects of Blackburne come from Woodberry, and the bad aspects of Blackburne I made up.
Did I find boarding school freeing? Now that’s an interesting question. Usually people who aren’t familiar with boarding schools think of them as some sort of elite prisons, like dumping grounds for Holden Caulfield-esque teens. This isn’t true in my experience. If you attend a place like Blackburne, you have access to incredible teachers and mentors. Living at your school as a teenager, without the freedoms available to you as an older college student, can feel isolating. A boarding school a contained environment. And yet the whole experience of boarding school is pretty freeing. It may not feel that way at the time. However, I am very much who I am as an adult in large part because of my boarding school experience. It’s not that I was shaped by my school, exactly, although that’s part of it. It’s that at boarding school I was allowed—encouraged, even—to grow and develop as a student and as an adolescent male in ways that I probably would not have been at a traditional day school. I write in my book that classmates at boarding school can establish close-knit friendships that, on a platonic level, may not be experienced again until marriage. The other aspect, of course, is that you spend the majority of your adolescence, from age 14 to 18, away from home and your parents. Of course you go home for vacations, but for nearly eight months out of the year you live away from home. You grow up and learn responsibility a bit sooner than you might otherwise, and you form tight-knit relationships that can last your entire life.
I’m haunted by the things we do as kids that we would never do as adults—and how those crimes shadow us. If we’re lucky, as in a way Matthias is, we get to reconfront them—but what do you think would have happened to Matthias if he never had that chance?

That is one of the shadows the title alludes to—in this case, Matthias’ fear that this one event clouds his entire life. Luckily, I didn’t experience any kind of traumatic event like Matthias does, but I often think there but for the grace of God go I. I have always enjoyed mysteries, and when writing this book I spent a lot of time thinking about Fritz and what happened to him. But I was even more interested in what would happen to Matthias, and to everyone else affected by Fritz’s disappearance. What kind of effect would that have on you?
 My senior or sixth form year at Woodberry, a girl I knew died in a car crash. I had known her for a few years and our parents were friends, although she and I were more like friendly acquaintances. But she was cute and vibrant and fun to be around, and when I got the news she had died, I was gutted. She was the first person I knew in my age group to die. I remember thinking how utterly unfair and wrong it was. How did this happen? For several weeks her death haunted me, and at first I wasn’t sure why. I hadn’t been secretly in love with her, and we weren’t even especially close, although she was always kind and friendly to me. It was that I was young, and like all young people I thought I was immortal, and when that fantasy was stripped away, which happens to all of us at some point, I was shaken. The girl’s parents and younger sister now had this horrible truth that they had to bear for the rest of their lives. It was just an awful, tragic loss.
Without being conscious of the connection, I wrote my book in part to explore the uncomfortable aftermath in the wake of a tragedy. But I wanted the tragedy in my book to contain a mystery. Death is final. Disappearance is not, and always leaves a question behind: what really happened? Fritz’s disappearance affects Matthias in ways he cannot imagine. He, too, is gutted by the loss of his missing friend. But Matthias has the sense that he can do something—even if he isn’t certain what that something is—to make amends, to put things right. It’s always dangerous to predict what fictional characters would do—my own characters often surprise me with the choices they make! But if Matthias had not had the chance to confront his past, I think he would have wound up bitter, gnawed by a sense of failed promise and culpability. Then again, maybe he could channel that into his writing and find success again. Who knows?

Matthias believes he is a failed writer, which of course is every single writer’s fear. With the praise you are getting for Shadow of the Lions, this certainly isn’t a worry of yours—but was it ever? And what did you do about it?

Hold on a sec . . . just knocking on wood. You’re very kind, Caroline—thank you. Of course I was afraid of being a failed writer—not just of failing in a particular instance of writing, but failing at the entire endeavor. I knew in eighth grade that I wanted to be a writer. And for every passing year, and for every story about a newly discovered literary wunderkind—you know, the genius novelist who’s an undergraduate at Yale and still not old enough to legally drink—for all that, I just shrugged and put my head down and wrote. Not continuously, not every day. There were months that went by when I didn’t write any fiction, maybe a solid year at one point. I don’t know why I kept going, honestly. Stubbornness, I suppose. And in retrospect it seem that at every crucial step, something happened that buoyed my confidence. A teacher encouraged me. A classmate I admired said something complimentary about a story I had written. After dozens of rejections, I had my first short story published. Et cetera.
 Last year Alison Umminger, a grad-school classmate of mine at Missouri, published a wonderful YA novel, American Girls, which you have to read. (Her original title for it was My Favorite Manson Girl, which is what the U.K. edition is called.) I attended a reading she gave at Underground Books in Carrollton, Georgia, where she is a professor at West Georgia. I hadn’t seen her in nearly twenty years. At Missouri she was a great writer, funny and honest and so damn smart. Of course she hadn’t changed a bit, and we visited with each other briefly before she gave her reading to a packed house. In her opening remarks, she talked about the long road to publication, and then to my surprise mentioned me and my own upcoming novel. “I guess for both of us, slow and steady really does win the race,” she said, or words to that effect. And I think that’s true. Johnny Evison, who I met on the Internet years ago and who has been such a guide and inspiration, wrote for years before he got published. His agent—who was also my first agent—had to send him a box of food at one point. And now he’s the author of four amazing novels, a fifth in the pipeline, and a sixth in the works.
I do have a secret weapon, though. And like many successful writers, my secret weapon is my better half. My wife Kathy is one of the most patient women in history. She’s my fiercest critic and my biggest cheerleader. She will tell me when I’ve written something terrible. I’ll give her a scene and she’ll read it and say, “Real men and women don’t talk to each other like this,” and I’ve learned instead of huffing or arguing about it, I should listen. That’s wisdom, I guess.

I always want to know about the creative process. Do you write on scrap paper, on a computer, pen or pencil? Do you have rituals?

I write almost everything on a laptop. My handwriting is lousy, although I’ll occasionally jot something down on a scrap piece of paper or in a notebook. But my mother sent me to typing lessons one summer when I was thirteen. It was a class full of housewives going back to work. I was the only male. The next youngest student was maybe twenty-six. But by God, I learned how to type. And I’ve been typing ever since.
For maybe the second half of my novel, I stuck to what my wife refers to as “sacred writing time.” Usually it’s from eight o’clock in the evening to ten or so. Nora Roberts—she didn’t invent this idea, but the first time I heard it was from her—she said that the secret to her success as a writer was “Ass in the chair.” There’s something to that. And I know it works, because when I would skip watching TV or playing on my phone or reading a book and instead put my ass in the chair in front of my laptop, I would produce writing. And for the past several months, various events have conspired against sacred writing time, and I’ve written very little on my second book. This summer, before I go on book tour, I plan to reinstate sacred writing time.
What’s it like for you being a debut author?

Surreal. A few weeks ago my editor said we needed to choose a narrator for the audiobook version of my novel. She had two voice actors in mind and sent me their audio files. So I sat in my classroom during a free period and listened on my phone to two different voice actors reading the opening pages of my own novel.

I’m still a little self-conscious about saying “my agent” or “my editor.” A friend or colleague will ask about my book, and I’ll say, “Well, I was just talking to my editor,” and then I’ll think I sound like I’m bragging. I’m letting that go, though.
Algonquin has been absolutely fabulous—I could not have asked for a better publisher on my first go around. A few months ago I was on a group call with maybe a dozen or so people at Algonquin—my editor, the publicist, marketing, copy editors, the whole nine yards—and I just wanted to hug all of them. I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was in eighth grade, and now it’s actually happening. How often do you have a life-long dream and then you achieve it, and then you can keep on doing it (knock on wood again)?

Mainly I’m just consciously trying to enjoy the whole experience, appreciate every moment. I have friends who are consultants and fly to other parts of the country every week, they spend their weeknights in hotels—it’s part of their job. Me, I’m going to go on book tour, and when I stay in a hotel, I’m going to be the guy who’s all delighted that there’s an iron in my room. “I have an iron! Wow, that’s so thoughtful! Wait, there’s a mini-fridge, too?” I’m like that right now about everything having to do with the publication of my book. And I want to keep that feeling for as long as possible. And I’m both excited by and terrified at the prospect of giving a reading. What if they don’t like it? What if they don’t laugh at my jokes? But then I remember that I make a living, in part, on getting up in front of groups of people who may not care about what I have to say, and I have to engage them and convince them that what I am going to say might be interesting. 

Almost everyone I have met in this business—editors, agents, publicists, booksellers, and especially authors—has been so generous and supportive and kind. It’s like I’ve found my people, you know? And I got my first review on Goodreads, by someone I did not know, and she gave Shadow of the Lions five stars. It was the loveliest feeling, to know that a complete stranger had read my story and enjoyed it. That’s part of why we write stories, isn’t it? Because we want to write something that will have the same kind of impact that another book or author had on us.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
Politics, although I’m trying to cut down on the amount of political news I read. There’s only so much healthy outrage I can maintain before I start feeling ill.

The book series The Expanse by James S. A. Corey.  The TV series is on SyFy and it’s awesome, season two ended this spring, but the books are these incredible plot-driven stories with great characters that, at the same time, wrestle with some really big metaphysical questions about humanity and conflict and community. And they also manage to realistically depict the hard science of living and traveling in space. Any one of those things is difficult to pull off; to do all three is amazing. And my own book and the book tour and everything around that. It’s not that I’m being narcissistic or super-anxious. It’s just that I want it to go well. I want people to like my book, and so I have to do my best to promote it and I want people who come out to hear me read to enjoy the experience.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
 Everything I’m coming up with sounds so lame.  Which is probably why you didn’t ask me those things.
I will add some advice for people who have been writing for years without success. If you love stories and you love writing, don’t quit. If you don’t like writing, or you don’t love stories, then for God’s sake move on to something else. But if you do, don’t quit. Read widely, write regularly, and show your work to someone you trust who won’t just write “Love it!” in the margins or send you a smiley face emoji. Slow and steady wins the race. And it’s not really a race, except with time, which always wins in the end. But you can sidestep your own mortality by writing something that a stranger will pick up years from now and think, “Now that’s a good story.” And the only way to achieve that is to put your ass in the chair and write.

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