I first learned about Swati and her fabulous young adult novel SPLIT when her editor at Knopf (we share the same YA publisher) asked me if I’d consider reading it with an eye for writing a blurb. It was her debut novel, and I know how important the launch of that first book can feel. And be. Which doesn’t mean I would blurb any book if I didn’t love it.
In the case of SPLIT, no problem. I loved it.
Funny how often an author and I will go on to be friends (or at least good Twitter/Facebook/email acquaintances) after a bonding experience like that one.
So, Swati…thanks for visiting my blog, and here goes:
Swati: Thanks Catherine. It has been a privilege to get to know you and, as I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time, it is particularly meaningful to have your name on the back of SPLIT.
Me: Let’s start with getting your name right. Easy enough in print, but let’s get it right in the readers’ minds, too.
Swati: I appreciate that. Phonetic pronunciation is: SWA-thee Of-US-thee. It’s an imperfect rhyme. The only other perfect rhymes are with other Hindi words, like “chapati” and “hati”. Hmm… maybe that’s why I like bread and elephants.
Me: When I was waiting for my debut (adult) novel Funerals for Horses to come out, I was a mess. A total stress monster. My biggest fear was that I would finally publish a novel and no one would notice or care. Of course, my publisher was a tiny start-up press in San Francisco, not Knopf. Then again, debuting with a big publisher can be stressful for its own reasons. How much did you stress leading up to your SPLIT release date, and what was your biggest fear?
Swati: I worried about the critical reception of SPLIT. Once the reviews of SPLIT started coming out, I was more excited than scared for the release. That said, it’s only now that I can better articulate that, for me, the face and name of Knopf is my editor’s face and name. And so what I really wanted was for my editor to go bat-shit crazy over SPLIT. I figured if she loved it, then she could make everyone else at Knopf love it and so they’d get behind it with marketing and publicity. The rest wasn’t up to me. By the way, this is currently my biggest concern for CHASING SHADOWS. So I guess I haven’t really learned a lot.
My biggest fear was someone would tell me that I didn’t get it right, that I offended a survivor with how far off I was regarding the emotional truth of abuse. It was important to me to honor the experiences of the women I served when I coordinated a domestic legal clinic. Which is why, I suppose, the things that have been most meaningful for me have been the emails and reviews that have said that SPLIT resonated truthfully for survivors.
Me: a) Your viewpoint character in SPLIT is a boy. Jace. And you get inside his head beautifully. No gender awkwardness. I also often write in male POV, but then I’m…how shall I say this? More in touch with my masculine side than the average woman. Which doesn’t appear to be your case. Any thoughts on how you were able to pull this off so well? Did you feel any additional sense of challenge, or did Jace just speak to you about what it meant to be Jace? Did you research Teenage Boy Emotions 1A, or is a character just a character at the heart of things?
Swati: Thanks! I think Jace spoke to me, more than anything. I believe strongly in the imagination. I think it has become vastly underrated but not underused. We use it every time we think of another person’s situation with compassion – we put ourselves in their shoes as well as we can. And I believe that practice and research makes almost-perfect.
So for Jace, I practiced (for 8 drafts) and researched, feeding my imagination by reading and re-reading boys’ voices that seemed convincing to me (like Godless by Pete Hautman and Looking for Alaska by John Green) and that my 16 year old girl-self could fall in love with. Therefore, to me they seemed real and very male. I also fed it by doing a whole host of character exercises. Lots and lots of them. Which allowed me to play with Jace’s voice without thinking about his voice.
Me: b) Your forthcoming novel (which sounds terrific, by the way), CHASING SHADOWS, is written from more than one character POV. I’m assuming this is Holly and Savitri, but correct me if I’m wrong. Is Savitri a boy, are or you writing two girls this time? Does a gender shift—or a multiple POV—change the writing experience in a way you can quantify?
Swati: Savitri and Holly are two 18 year old girls who are different but best friends. I’m not sure what exactly has changed the writing experience. There are a lot of factors – different book, use of the graphic novel format, multiple PoVs, girls’ voices. Let’s just say that everyone around me calls this book “ambitious.”
However, I will say that writing from a girl’s PoV seems a touch harder for me. The less the characters are like me, the easier it is for me, relying on imagination and empathy, rather than what feels to me like self-indulgence and navel-gazing. So, as of right now, I prefer to write from a boy’s PoV.
Me: Will you tell us a little more about CHASING SHADOWS?
Swati: Of course! I just drafted a blurb for my agent. So, I’ll share that
Before: 18 year olds Corey, Holly, and Savitri turn Chicago concrete and asphalt into a Freerunner's jungle gym, ricocheting off walls, scaling buildings, and even leaping from rooftop to rooftop. But acting like a superhero doesn't make you one.
After: Holly and Savitri try to move on. But sometimes -- when a killer can't be found, when reality keeps sliding out of reach -- sometimes moving on isn't an option. How do you hang on to what was? How do you hold onto a shadow? Part prose, part graphic novel, CHASING SHADOWS is about how far we stretch for our friends.
Me: You live in a cold place. Why? Okay, sorry. That came out sounding rude. I was born and raised in Buffalo, NY, and I’m done with snow and ice. I figure I got enough in my first 17 years to last a lifetime. So that’s why I come off anti-snow. Because I pretty much am. I like to go visit snow, but then I like to come home where it’s warm. Tell me what’s good about Minnesota, what transcends the brutality of the winter. Or do you like winter and I’m just transferring my own stuff onto you?
Swati: No, I don’t love winter weather. I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico with 300 days of sunshine a year and I loved it. I came to Minnesota for law school in another life. I stay because of the fantastic community. Minnesotans support the arts – in writer’s groups, in readings’ attendance, and in funding. Also, I’ve never lived another place where children were so respected and where life isn’t just about work-family balance, but truly about work-family-fun balance. Every adult (and child) I know is still trying out new things– a book club, marathons, knitting groups – something, and that makes the people here engaging.
Me: Not sure if this ties in with the last question or not. You once invited me, along with other Facebook friends, to an event at The Loft Literary Center. I chose to attend in spirit only, as it’s…you know…2,080 miles away. (Sense a trip to Google Maps here?) But when I found out you know Brian Farrey, another author I’m interviewing for this blog series, and were one of his beta readers, I found myself imagining The Loft as this amazing community of awesome writers hanging out and supporting one another in all the best ways. So…tell me about The Loft. Is it anything like what I imagine?
Swati: The Loft is very much like you imagine it. It is the largest free-standing (not attached to a university) literary center in the US. In addition to the many classes that bring writers together to inspire and learn from each other, the Loft also provides writers with grant opportunities and runs a number of reading series. The Second Story Reading Series (which author H.M. Bouwman and I curate) is geared specifically towards Middle Grade and Young Adult lit. We feature a debut author with an established author so our audience can come for a favorite and stay to discover another. In fact, we were pleased to have David Levithan and Brian Farrey read for us this past fall.
Me: This is a very doggy blog. In fact, the closest I’ve come to a recurring blog series so far was More Puppy, in which I posted my readers’ photos and essays about their dogs. You have two big dogs. Please do tell us about them in as much detail as you’re willing.
Swati: A doggy blog? I love it. Jake, a flat-coated retriever, and Lily, a mutt of muttiness, are both rescue dogs. So we aren’t perfectly sure of their ages but our best guess is that they are 5-ish. Jake is the hyper one who dances, paws striking the floor (or our feet) in exuberance even if we’ve only been away for two minutes getting the mail. Lily is fastidious and feline-like. When she gets snow on her paws, she tries to shake it off delicately. And once she gets the snow off one, she starts on the other. But to do that, she puts the paw she just cleaned off down, deep in the snow – a never-ending process. We’ve had to get her snow boots.
Me: Tell me—and my readers—please, what all you do. You write, of course. And you’re a wife and a mother. I know you teach writing workshops and offer manuscript consultation. Do you also teach at the University of Minnesota? Or do you study there? Or both? I think most people who are not writers find it hard to imagine how difficult it is to make a living solely through the writing of novels. Do you envision a time in the future when that might be all you would need to do? Would you enjoy that, or is teaching something you love and would miss?
Swati: Your research is great, Catherine! I have two kids (10 and 14) who are growing now at lightening speed. I did teach at the University of Minnesota while I was studying for my MFA, but graduated a couple of years ago. Now I’m an adjunct professor at Anoka-Ramsey Community College and Hamline University, where I teach creative writing in their MFA and BFA programs.
Teaching feeds my writing. I’m immersed in conversations about the craft all the time and this allows me to question what I’m doing in my writing. For instance, I was lecturing recently about how the false epiphany is tricky for children’s fiction and then had an epiphany of my own: no wonder the end of CHASING SHADOWS is crazy-making. Holly’s false epiphany needs to be rectified for a satisfying ending. This gave me a different way to diagnose the problem and suggested to me what the end might need to be.
Me: Please write your own question, and answer it.
Swati: Writing isn’t always like other jobs – it is fraught with writer’s blocks and a strange relationship to inspiration and the muse. What keeps you writing? How do you work through writers’ blocks?
I think writer’s block always originates from fear: fear of getting it wrong, fear that the emotional truth I’m capturing is my own and no one will be able to relate to it, fear of what I’ll reveal about yourself or uncover in the writing process, fear that the muse won’t come.
There are a few things I’ve tried to work through writer’s block, but all involve just giving me permission to do what I’m afraid of.
So, if I’m afraid I’ll write it badly, I do – just as badly as I can and then I’ve cleared away that fear. And then I remember that Richard Bausch has said that we can’t ruin our books. Worst case, we’ll have to take another pass at it.
When I’m afraid no one will care or relate to what I’m writing, I remind myself that people will make what they will of my writing. That’s not my job –it’s theirs. Mine is simply to put down what I know is true for these characters.
If I’m afraid, I’ll uncover or reveal some truth I’d rather not know about myself, I remind myself that I’ve uncovered a lot of truths and that, even if I don’t like them, I prefer to know them.
As for the muse, I entice him with chocolate and coffee.
Thanks, Catherine, so much for the great questions and for including me!