I can’t remember how I first met Erika Swyler. I know it was online, because we haven’t met yet in person. I think I was probably fan-girling over her marvelous debut, THE BOOK OF SPECULATION, which was one of my absolute favorite books last year. It was also one of TARGET’S favorite books–they chose it as the Target Club pick for the month of June! Erika has become a friend and mentor–I can’t imagine going through my debut year without her wise council. So when it came time to interview her, I knew I wanted to ask debut-oriented questions. Here are her wonderful responses.
Don’t forget to tweet or share this interview to be entered into our book giveaway of THE BOOK OF SPECULATION, one of BuzzFeed’s 24 Best Books of 2015. The Book of Speculation has been described as a meeting of The Night Circus and Water for Elephants. It tells the story of Simon Watson, a librarian seeking to stop a centuries old family curse before it takes his sister’s life. At the heart of this curse lies a pair of star crossed lovers, drowning mermaids, a traveling carnival, and very mysterious book.If you haven’t already, trust me, you want to read this novel.
Do you have a favorite memory from your debut year?
I spent so many hours at my hometown library reading, researching, and figuring out how to write. I needed to do something there and I really hoped they’d let me. They planned a book discussion and it was wonderful. When I give a talk, I bring one of the hand-bound manuscripts I sent to editors. They’re these interesting art objects meant to look like the book in the novel, and they show the ridiculous lengths I went to in order to give the book a chance. The last person in signing line that night was visually impaired. Mind you, I illustrated The Book of Speculation, and I’d talked about that. When I’m drawing or writing, I tend to focus on the art, and not who can and can’t engage with it. Accessibility is important to me, but when I met this man I felt like I’d screwed up and left him out. But we talked about the audio book, how great the reader is, and the realities of living on Long Island. Then I remembered I had the manuscript with me, and I asked if he’d like to hold it. He felt the pages and the binding. I talked him through the tea staining process, the aging, the beeswax and thread—everything that went into making it. He said he could still smell the tea and the beeswax. I learned something about accessibility and art, why we make objects, and how little effort it takes to connect with other people. It’s being present, it’s talking, listening, and it’s finding common ground. That changed me. I see those manuscripts differently now.
Has the experience of writing your next book felt different now that your debut is out in the world?
It’s harder in some ways. Time management wasn’t an issue before, but it is now. There’s a voice in my head that tells me I need to write faster, write better, and write like I have something to prove. That voice isn’t helpful, but it’s loud and hard to shut off. Nothing about the debut year leaves you feeling sane. I’m learning to accept and laugh at the insanity. I’m also learning that I have zero self-control and will compare myself to other people, despite knowing that’s pointless. The thing that makes writing a second book easier is knowing that I have it in me to finish writing a book. I’ve done it before; it isn’t impossible and I can hold the proof of that in my hand. There’s also subtle pressure to be writing the exact same type of book (which I’m not). But I now know that I can tell a good story and there are people who will let me take them somewhere different and strange just based on what I’ve already done. That’s amazing.
What advice would you like to offer to those writers at the very beginning of the debut novel process?
You’re going to go crazy and that’s normal. Embrace it and laugh. Smile and thank everyone, always. That’s sounds obvious, but make it a point. You’re going to meet an enormous number of people, most of whom are nice and really want to help you. That makes it easy to mean it when you smile. But bear in mind that can be exhausting to smile and be gracious. Bring water. Stash granola bars. Know that when you’re speaking, whoever is listening is rooting for you to do well. Also, get some “author” clothes—a couple of fun outfits, something that makes you feel like you’re having a good time. I’ve got three pairs of “author” shoes. It’s helpful to be able to don a work persona for events, and to take that work persona off at the end of the day, or when you sit down to write. For me it’s healthy to have space between my public self and my private self. “Author” me has funky shoes, wears dresses, and likes red lipstick. Writing me goes barefoot and lives in pajamas.
Are there any funny stories from your debut year you would be willing to share?
I’m a disaster. I spent a good portion of a Barnes & Noble Discover event walking around with red lipstick on my nose, completely oblivious. So, yes, I met a National Book Award winner and a Pulitzer winner with lipstick all over my face. Another author, Cecily Wong, was kind enough to let me know. Go buy her book, Diamondhead. She’s great people. Oh, and after a day of tromping around a book festival I got some serious blisters. I figured out that if you put body tape inside your shoes you can keep them from rubbing. So, the next morning I taped my shoes up. To everyone I met that day: I’m sorry if I seemed distracted. I was busy thinking, “There’s boob tape on my feet.”
Erika Swyler, a graduate of New York University, is a writer and playwright whose work has appeared in literary journals and anthologies. Born and raised on Long Island’s north shore, Erika learned to swim before she could walk, and happily spent all her money at traveling carnivals. She is also a baker and photographer and has a baking humor blog, ieatbutter.tumblr.com. Erika lives on Long Island, NY, with her husband and a petulant rabbit. The Book of Speculation is her first novel.