Maximum Shelf author interview: Erika Swyler

Following Monday’s review of The Book of Speculation, here’s Erika Swyler: Writing, Binding and the Bath.


Erika Swyler is a graduate of New York University. Her short fiction has appeared in WomenArts Quarterly Journal, Litro, Anderbo.com and elsewhere. Her writing is featured in the anthology Colonial Comics, and her work as a playwright has received note from the Jane Chambers Award. Born and raised on Long Island’s North Shore, Swyler learned to swim before she could walk, and happily spent all her money at traveling carnivals. She blogs and has a baking Tumblr, ieatbutter, with a following of 60,000. Swyler recently moved from Brooklyn back to her hometown, which inspired the setting of The Book of Speculation, her debut novel.
swylerYou presented your manuscript in a highly unusual way. How did that work, and what possessed you?

The plot hinges on the idea that a particular old book is such a fascinating object that it could consume someone’s life. It felt very important to create that experience for a person reading my manuscript. It was a simple thought: if they connected with the manuscript as an object, it would pave the way for connecting with the story. I had next to zero experience in bookmaking when I decided to bind and age the manuscripts. I might have balked if I’d known from the start how much of my life the project would devour.

Possessed is the right word. While revising, I spent months experimenting, testing stains and hunting down the right material for the cover. I tried other binding methods, but they were either too time intensive, or spectacular failures. Japanese stab stitching was fast, and a great way to make a binding stand out. Production took about a month and a half, with binding being the fastest part. Aging books takes time–drying time. It took two days for a book to cure after being rasped and stained, and another day for gilding. For the better part of a summer my dining room was a mess of drying paper, dust from abused tarot cards, rasps and gold ink. My friends thought I’d lost my mind. I probably had, to a degree, but I’d already sunk a good part of my life into writing the book and I felt it deserved every possible advantage I could give it. If nothing else came of it, I’d at least have an art object. I made 16 manuscripts in all. I held on to two copies.

What were the most and least fun parts of writing this book, or bookmaking?

The worst bookmaking moment was when my favorite drill bit snapped and took a piece of my thumb with it. That was an angry day in the dining room bookbindery. The most fun part? I got to make books! Waxing linen thread is really satisfying. It smells delicious and there’s a meditative quality to it. I also got to learn a new skill. I’m happiest when I’m learning.

Trying to evenly balance a dual narrative was the hardest part of writing. The easiest thing a reader can say about a dual narrative is that they prefer one part over the other. It was my mission to make sure that both narratives were treated equally. The whole story had to have a chance. I’d read the narratives together, then separately, then together, and then pull them apart once more. For every one read of a draft a writer might typically do, I’d read anywhere from two to four. The most fun part of writing it? Any scene involving terrible weather. There’s some truly awful weather in this book and it was always a joy to write. Bad weather allows you room for scenery chewing.

How much of this story is rooted in history?

I did a good amount of research, particularly for the 1790s portion. I really wanted to know how circus came to America, and what it looked like before P.T. Barnum cast his shadow. I found this little window of time shortly after the Revolutionary War where circus was just beginning to pop up. It was the perfect space to let Peabody and his menagerie breathe. I also think when you’re playing with the fantastic, it’s helpful to have grounding elements. The Wallendas, Philip Astley, the Joneses, John Bill Ricketts and Mr. Spinacuta are actual figures in circus history. That said, Peabody and his menagerie are entirely imaginary.

Librarians are awesome, aren’t they?

Yes! Librarians are flat-out wonderful. Nothing’s better than a person who doesn’t bat an eye when peppered with questions about curse tablets, circus accidents, tide tables, and if there’s any way around a paywall on an article. I may have done that to several librarians. Yes, I know, search engines. Search engines are like opening a fire hydrant. Librarians are far better at helping you find what you’re after, even when you don’t quite know what that is.

You’re from Long Island. What of your childhood is in Simon’s?

Napawset is a shameless amalgam of small towns where grew up. It’s an interesting place that makes you desperate to leave it, while simultaneously wondering why anyone would ever want to go. As for Simon’s childhood, I spent a good deal of mine on the beach with my sister. Thankfully, our relationship is better than Simon and Enola’s. We played on the rocks, cooked out on the beach and made ourselves nuisances to the adults around us–like kids. Also, when you grow up on a shore, there’s always this odd need to check on the water, to see what it’s up to. I think my gift to Simon was that the water was always up to something.

Where does an idea like this come from? Was it born to you whole, or were you working to flesh it out all the way through?

The idea is rooted in that moment we’ve all had when we stare at our families and think, “Where did you people come from?” That’s Simon’s narrative, this very practical question. His story also came from wondering about the houses that actually are sliding into the Long Island Sound, who lives in them, and how they got to that point. It was something I had to work out because it began with questions more than characters. The 1790s portion came to me almost fully formed, in about thirty seconds, while taking a bath. I saw Peabody, Amos, Evangeline, the entire menagerie, and how it connected to Simon all at once. It was a seriously great bath.


This interview originally ran on April 15, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Leslie Parry

Following Monday’s review of Church of Marvels, here’s Leslie Parry: Trusting the Characters.


Leslie Parry is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Missouri Review, Cincinnati Review, and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, among other publications. She was recently a resident at Yaddo and the Kerouac House. Her writing has also received a National Magazine Award nomination and an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories. She lives in Chicago.

photo: Adam Farabee

photo: Adam Farabee


Church of Marvels inhabits a very compelling and specific setting that combines fantasy and history. How did you choose this time and place?

I didn’t consciously set out to write a book about New York, but the sensory experience of living there (the space, the light, the sounds and smells) remains very vivid in my mind, years after I moved away. Like many Americans, the city was a portal for my family. My great-grandfather, who was born in 1888, grew up in an immigrant family in Greenwich Village. His own father was a dreamy, dissolute, would-be poet who operated an elevator; his mother and sister worked as dressmakers. He fell in love with my great-grandmother, an actress, when he saw her on the stage. It’s a story that’s always fascinated me, but because he died so young, it’s all that I really know of him. So at the root of this book, perhaps, is the desire to re-create the world that he lived in, to imagine a history of the Parrys in America. But the story, of course, became something else entirely. And once I started following these specific characters through the streets of Manhattan, the book took on a life of its own.

How much research did you have to do into this historical setting, and what did that process look like?

Before I even knew this was going to be a novel, I was reading certain books just out of curiosity–New York history, medical history, labor history; various histories of vaudeville, dime museums, prizefighting, theater. I even read a book on the history of garbage. So I’m sure all of those various threads were humming along in my mind, crossing and sparking, when I sat down to write. Then, when I was deep into the drafting process, I went back and did some more focused reading: on hair weaving, river transportation, the opium trade, etc. I loved doing research: it answered questions I didn’t even know I had, and helped me understand the hurdles these characters would have been up against. But at the same time–since this is a work of fiction–I didn’t feel beholden to a strict factual representation. I let the research inform the story, but not determine it.

You tell a number of different stories that eventually converge into one. Was it hard to keep track?

Yes! And more so at first, when the story was still taking shape. I knew the direction I was traveling–I knew, in a loose way, how I wanted the plot to evolve–but I didn’t always have a clear path. I took a lot of wrong turns and hit a few dead ends. But I was guided by the overall sensibility of the story; I had to trust the characters. And I was fortunate enough to have a terrific editor help me across the finish line.

Did you always intend to write them as distinct stories?

Yes. In fact, the very first pages of this novel were not novelistic at all. I began writing vignettes about people who populated different areas of the city–just character sketches, really. It was almost like an actorly exercise, trying to situate myself in another body, in another world. This came about after spending some time in New York, where a few chance encounters happened to dovetail serendipitously. I caught a sideshow act at Coney Island; I read Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House; I spent days traversing downtown Manhattan with my sister (usually on the hunt for gelato, mussels, pickles, dumplings). I stumbled across the word night-soiler, I think during a visit to the Tenement Museum. But I got frustrated with these vignettes after a while, unsure where they were headed. I put the pages away for a few years, but I kept thinking back on them. One day I read everything through again and saw the whole project differently–it was a novel, and soon the threads began to braid together.

What do you think makes for good or memorable characters?

That’s a good question. I’m drawn to characters who make mistakes. (This is different from having an endearing flaw–being beautiful but clumsy, say, or handsome but moody.) Mistakes–whether they’re decisions made impulsively, or are calculated; whether they happen in spite of a character’s better judgment, or begin as acts of good faith, naiveté–they reveal some of the most complicated aspects of human behavior. Confusion and doubt, shame or regret, thwarted desire, yearning, fury, vulnerability, perhaps a barbed pathway to amends–it’s a universal experience, and yet has infinite variations.

Do you have a favorite character?

Whichever character I was writing about at the moment became my favorite (even when they tried me and exasperated me!). But there is a special place in my heart for Alphie.


This interview originally ran on April 2, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Kate Bolick

Following yesterday’s review of Spinster, here’s Kate Bolick: The Single Woman as a Cultural Archetype.


Kate Bolick is a contributing editor to the Atlantic, and a freelance writer for Elle, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. She’s also host of “Touchstones at The Mount,” an annual literary interview series at Edith Wharton’s country estate in Lenox, Mass. Previously, she was executive editor of Domino, and a columnist for the Boston Globe Ideas section. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her memoir is Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.

photo credit: Willy Somma

photo credit: Willy Somma

Clearly this book was a lifetime in the making. But how long did you purposefully work on it? Did the idea of it change during that time?

Spinster began as a bolt of excitement in 2000, when I first came across 19th-century journalist and novelist Neith Boyce’s 1898 Vogue column, “The Bachelor Girl,” about her decision to never marry. Until then, I was completely unaware that the public conversation around singledom had such a long history, and after that I couldn’t stop thinking about the single woman as a cultural archetype, and collecting examples.

After a few years, I sat down and tried to write a book about how Neith and two of her more-or-less contemporaries had influenced my thinking about marriage vs. not-marriage. It was a total and complete failure. I had no idea how to turn my fascination with their unconventional lives into a compelling narrative, and I was too young to have any insight into or personal perspective on the topic, or even know how to ask the right questions. I put the project aside, but never stopped thinking about it.

Then, in 2011, the Atlantic asked me to write a cover story about the changing face of contemporary marriage, and as I did my reporting and research I could almost physically feel the ghosts of those women from the past perched on my shoulder, taking in everything I learned. After the article came out, I thought maybe I was old enough now to give that failed book another go. In early 2012 I signed a deal with Crown.

From the start, I knew that I’d use my own coming-of-age as an adult as the narrative arc, and feature the lives of my “awakeners” as “love stories”–women I’d found, fallen for, then moved on from. In this way I’d be able to lead the reader through a series of historical and intellectual ideas that might feel dry on their own. Actually plotting that out, though, was maddeningly difficult, and more than a few times I thought I had to abandon that approach and try another.

What started as a fascination with certain lives deepened with research into a more comprehensive understanding of the single woman’s place in the social order, and how it’s changed across time. The specific economic, political and cultural conditions of each era determine who the single woman can be, and how she’ll be perceived.

How was this writing process different from the different kinds of writing you’d done before?

The process of writing this book was so different from anything I’ve ever done that for months and months I was near-paralyzed with doubt about whether I could do it. Length alone was a challenge–I had to unlearn journalistic tics like concision and speed, and give myself over to the space a book calls for and demands. The primary challenge was learning how to create a narrative; what compels a reader to keep wanting to turn the page? Weaving my own story in with the lives of others in a way that didn’t feel thunderingly obvious and clunky was likewise vexing. I also struggled with tone. I’ve written plenty of literary criticism, personal essays, interviews and biographical articles–how could I find a voice that would be capacious enough to let all these disparate forms coexist under the same roof?

What do you most want people to know about you that’s not in Spinster?

The book is officially a memoir, but I had to leave out acres of thoughts and experiences in order to keep the emphasis on what matters: the lives of the women I write about; the history of single women in general. Which is to say, the book is only one slice of me. Dear reader, I contain multitudes!

Could there be a sixth awakener for you, who you just haven’t found yet?

Absolutely. In fact, by the time I started writing the book I’d accumulated quite a few awakeners, which I decided to cut down to a more manageable six–the ones who’d influenced me most directly. After I finished the first draft, I realized six was one too many, and cut another. I expect that for the rest of my life I’ll keep finding new awakeners. At least, I hope I do.

Are you prepared to be an awakener yourself?

Hah! Well, given that finding an awakener is such a private, intimate process, and one that the awakener her/himself has no idea is taking place, I suppose I could handle it. In this way, I’m much better suited to being an awakener than to being a heroine, who needs to be dashing and daring. I’m not very dashing or daring.

What are you working on next?

Wait, you mean there’s life beyond Spinster?! Heh. I love the material too much to even want to think about anything else just yet. After two years holed away writing, I’m excited to finally be back in the world, talking about what I learned.


This interview originally ran on March 4, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Erik Larson

Following yesterday’s review of Dead Wake, here’s Erik Larson: Ideas and Process.


Erik Larson is the author of four national bestsellers: In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City and Isaac’s Storm, which have collectively sold more than 5.5 million copies. His books have been published in 17 countries. Larson began his writing career as a journalist, and now gets to travel the world researching his works of nonfiction. [You can read a longer and surprisingly hilarious bio written by the man himself here.]

larsonTo begin, my mother made me promise I’d ask: how do you choose the diverse subjects of your books? What makes for a compelling story that you feel driven to tell? Why the Lusitania?

Well, you tell your mother it’s none of her business. Actually, no, please tell her that, really, I have no idea. There’s more truth to that than I care to admit. The hunt for each book idea is a hard one for me, and typically takes about a year. To write the kind of history I write, I need to find real-life events that lend themselves to being told as stories–true stories–with beginnings, middles and ends. There has to be a clear, ascending narrative arc, and there has to be a rich enough trove of archival materials to make the story and characters come alive without massaging the facts. And, it has to be something I want to spend the next few years working on. I often think finding that next idea is like finding a spouse–you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find one that kisses back.

What drove me to write about the Lusitania was the potential it offered for nonfiction story-telling–for crafting a narrative full of real-life suspense. A nonfiction maritime thriller. The archival base was extraordinarily rich, full of elements that I felt no one else had adequately mined–all the things I love to work with: telegrams, diaries, love letters, secret documents, even the German submarine commander’s hour-by-hour war log. It doesn’t get any better than that. Whether I succeeded, of course, is for readers to decide.

Aside from the obvious choices to concentrate on Captain Turner and Kapitänleutnant Schwieger, how did you choose the individual stories to follow? Were they (Charles Lauriat, Dwight Harris, Theodate Pope, etc.) simply the ones who left behind the most documentation?

Exactly! The three you cite all left vivid, detailed accounts, especially Lauriat, who wrote a book on the subject, and in addition left a broad and deep documentary trail. I also liked the fact that Lauriat was a famous bookseller. How nice that a time once existed when a bookseller could become famous and travel in first class on Cunard ships and be recognized on sight. As for Pope, I found her backstory particularly compelling: her depression, her interest in the supernatural, the fact she was a pioneering female architect and pal of Henry James and that she was in that cadre of American women who were first to embrace their identity as feminists, back when the term itself was brand new.

You state in your “Note to Readers” that you are very careful to stick to the facts, with no embellishment. And yet your narrative is incredibly lively. Please explain the importance of that rule for you–the integrity of pure fact–and how you make the bare truth so gripping.

They key lies in detail. There are no shortcuts–you have to do the necessary digging to find the bits and pieces that will ignite the reader’s imagination. It’s the reader, I’m convinced, who does the animating of my narratives. I just present the details necessary to allow that to happen. For example, I often have people tell me that I must have made some things up, because I have actual dialogue in my books. But in fact, if there is dialogue, it’s pulled directly from some actual historical document, like a letter, or memoir, or newspaper interview. More often than not, however, what they point to isn’t even dialogue–it just seems to be dialogue, and reads that way in their imagination. Which is wonderful. The human mind loves to connect dots and finish sentences and make disparate bits of information seem like a coherent whole.

lusitaniaWhat do your processes of research and writing look like, and are they in fact two separate processes? What’s the most enjoyable part for you?

They are two separate processes that merge in the middle. Ideally I’d like to have all my research done before I start to write, but that never happens. Invariably I reach a point where the book just has to come out. It’s like how my wife describes pregnancy: get this baby out of my body, NOW. Passages come to mind, and I start writing. At first I’ll just write them in my journal–I keep a journal for each book–then I’ll start writing things in a computer file called “Passages.” Then I enter my page-a-day mode, where I get up early, and write a single page before breakfast, and then return to my research for the rest of the day. Pretty soon the writing supplants the research almost entirely–although the research really never ends, because you always end up having to check things. What did early NYC street lamps look like? What was the weather like on a particular day? What were people reading in the newspapers in New York on the day the Lusitania departed? That kind of thing.

How do you keep so many characters and events in such a complex world history straight?

The most powerful tool is chronology. Before I start to write, I build a chronology that contains every worthwhile fact that I’ve mined from archives, books and whatever, with each item coded in such a way that I can readily find the source document in my files. This chronology becomes a de facto outline, with various events clumping at various points, and with each character’s role clearly defined. Using this as a spine, I craft the first draft. Then, I lay the whole thing out on the floor of our bedroom and, using a scissors and tape, I literally cut everything up and move it around, hunting for the most natural structure, while hoping that no one will open a window at the wrong moment. Once my dear departed dog, Molly, walked across the manuscript for Thunderstruck. Luckily only one small passage was displaced–it wound up on the balcony outside my bedroom.

What are you or will you be working on next?

I’m exploring a possible idea. This is early for me, so, being a pessimist, I’m pretty sure the idea won’t pan out. But I’m writing a test proposal. I won’t say what the subject is, because I never talk about works in progress until they’re done. It’s very annoying for my friends and family, though my wife and daughters all know early on. The proposal is a draft of what I would eventually send my agent, and which he in turn would send to my publisher, and which ideally my publisher would love so much that she would spend gobs of money to acquire it. Doing a proposal is a good test of an idea’s strength. If you get through the process–writing an opening chapter, an overall description and a chapter outline, maybe 80 to 100 pages in all–you have a pretty good sense that it’s a viable idea and that halfway through you won’t hang yourself from boredom.


This interview originally ran on February 9, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Cecilia Ekbäck

Following Monday’s review of Wolf Winter, here’s Cecilia Ekbäck: The Impact of Place.


Cecilia Ekbäck was born in Sweden, in a small northern town. Her parents come from Lapland. Ekbäck now lives in Calgary with her husband and twin daughters, “returning home” to the landscape and the characters of her childhood in her writing. Wolf Winter is her first novel.

ekbackWhat background–literary or personal–led you to this subject matter?

A wolf winter is a very cold, very bitter winter. But in Sweden, it is also the period in life when you’re faced with your mortality, when you realize that you’re alone–an illness, or the loss of a loved one or something like that, when you come face to face with death, and feel very lonely. Where you have to face sides of yourself that you didn’t know that you had, that you like less, or things that you haven’t dealt with. I wrote this book after my own wolf winter, which was when my dad passed, from cancer. He was my best friend. That was the time when I had to do a lot of soul-searching, when I had to do a lot of thinking through what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and what I was going to do with the enormous space that he left after himself. The book sort of came out of that. I wanted to take a number of characters and have them walk through their wolf winter, if you like, both literally, with the cold and the winter and the snow and the hunger and so on, but also emotionally.

The book switches perspectives slightly between several characters. What led you to that strategy?

Society in those days was very compartmentalized, so I knew that I wanted the main character to be a woman. When we read history, there’s so little about women. I wanted to write women back into that period. And I felt you had to have a few different views to get access, for example, to the church. Maija was always there; and then I felt that her character did not let her easily get involved in the more emotional or spiritual side of Blackåsen, so I let her daughter do that. And then I felt that we needed the priest to get access to the church and to the crown.

Was there a character you felt closest to?

Well… I like them all. But I like Maija and the priest very, very much. Frederika felt… a little bit close to home. I grew up in a very religious environment, and I just felt she came a little bit close to home, so I liked her less! But I was very, very fond of the priest and of Maija.

Are there heroes and villains in this story?

I think there are more strengths and weaknesses. You could say that there are certainly villains. But I guess what I wanted them to be was thoroughly human. So nobody, I don’t think, is straight out one way or straight out another. I wanted to work more with strengths and weaknesses of each character.

What kind of research did you do to evoke 1700s’ Sweden?

I read lots. I’m not a historian, and I get uncomfortable when people say this is a historical novel, because I know that I don’t have my education in that field–I have a terrible memory, and very poor attention to detail. It’s a story set in the past, is how I think about it.

I read everything I could find. In northern Sweden, very often when a town celebrates 200 years or 300 years, they publish a book. Those books are only locally published, and they give the history of the place and lots of anecdotes and so on. I worked a lot with books like that. Then, one of the most important things I did was interviews with my grandmother, her sister and their friends. Even though the story happened way earlier, Lapland didn’t actually change that much until after the Second World War. My grandmother used to say they lived like people had lived in all times. And then, one day to another, they went from shoes that they had made themselves to buying high-heeled shoes in the shop. It was a shock to everyone. It was like when falls a meter of snow and you wake up and you go out and you think, this is not my world! I recognize certain things, but not many others…. So, I spoke a lot to them about the practical details, how they cooked, how they shepherded goats, how the cold was, how the houses were, and I imagined that a lot of it wouldn’t have been that different. Because a lot of this sort of knowledge was passed down through generations–the way you did laundry, the way you worked with nature and so on. So that was really, really important for the practical life of the settlers. And I spoke to a lot of priests, but that was more to understand the faith of the state church as was in that time.

I wrote this story four times. The first time it was set in 1985, and it was really much more of a family saga. I was writing it to try and understand where we came from and why we were a certain way and why we were religious, why we didn’t speak of certain things, why we were frightened of certain things, and so on. And the second time it was set in, if I remember correctly, 1865. And then I wrote it set in the early 1800s, and then, finally, in 1717. And every time I wrote it I thought yes, but this is not where it starts, this is not the beginning. And the further I went back, the more I felt that 1717 was a great year, because the early 1700s was when the settlers began to arrive to Lapland, for various reasons. That particular year was a year when Sweden was at its peak. Sweden was a great power, but it was crumbling. The king had warred abroad for his whole life, and he had just returned to Sweden, and we were warring on several fronts and there was no more money and so many people had died in the years of war…. I thought that added something, that crumbling sense, where things change for the characters regardless of which social class they belonged to. I thought that was a good setting for them and for this story. It’s where the story felt comfortable. We’re so influenced by place, in the largest sense of the word; not just nature and climate, but political history and socially what’s going on and so on. I wanted a place that would have an impact on them, whether they were close to it or further away.

What did you feel upon completing your first novel for publication? What are you working on next?

It’s a bizarre thing, publishing your book. You’ve lived with it for so long and it’s so close to you. The delight is that others read it and talk about it, and they’ve seen things in it or found things in it that they feel are valuable, and then I feel elated. But the publication of it actually frightened me more than it made me happy. When I found out that I had actually sold the book, I went to my best friend and I cried. I said, I don’t want to be published! And he said, you’re insane. But that’s what I did. And then I called my husband and said I thought I had a brain tumor. Those are the two things I did.

Now I’m working on the second book, which is a very, very loose sequel. It’s set 130 years later, at Blackåsen, and so the mountain is the same and the supposed curse is the same, but the characters and the dilemma they face are completely different. I have found it easier in a way and harder in others, to write the second one. Easier in that I have more of a writing process. And also easier because I wrote it in so many different centuries that a lot of the research I’d already done. But harder in the sense that it’s much more real: it’s actually going to be a book! It’s not just a story for me any longer. And I find that makes it harder.


This interview originally ran on November 25, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Jonas Karlsson

Following yesterday’s review of The Room, here’s Jonas Karlsson: On Acting in Writing.


Jonas Karlsson writes plays and short fiction. One of Sweden’s most prominent actors, Karlsson has performed on Sweden’s premier stage and in several acclaimed feature films and television series. In 2005, he made his debut as a playwright, earning rave reviews from audience and critics alike. Spurred by the joy of writing for the stage, Karlsson began writing fiction. He has published several short story collections; The Room is his first novel.

jonasThe Room is a short and apparently straightforward work, but takes us deeply inside the head of Björn, which is a strange place. How difficult is it to present such seeming simplicity?

Thank you! I’m glad to hear that. As an author, I believe it’s all about trying to get inside your main character’s head. If you’re close enough to the story, you’ll get an instinct for what is important and what isn’t. If I choose to describe the right details, it will give the reader a clear image–probably not exactly the same as mine, but one shaped by the reader’s own experiences.

Your background as an actor would imply that you haven’t spent a great deal of time in office settings, but this isn’t the first work of fiction you’ve set there. What experience are you drawing on?

That is correct–I’ve never worked in an office. But I’ve visited many offices and maybe I nurture a secret dream about working in a real open office landscape. I can tell you that the environment in the theater and movie business is more similar to offices than you could imagine. There are a lot of meetings, deals, hierarchies, informal decision paths, intrigues, jealousy–not to mention weirdos–there as well.

Did you intend this as another short story that got away from you, or did you set out to write a novel?

I actually never know how lengthy a story will be when I start writing. Most often I start with a situation or some dialogue that I think seems intriguing. Then I write on and see what happens. Sometimes it turns into nothing, other times it becomes a short story, and sometimes–pretty rarely–it turns into something as lengthy as this. It all depends on what I find along the way, and if I find it exciting to keep going. (I love this feeling of freedom in the writing process. It is like being a jazz musician and starting on a piece of music, and not knowing what will happen–all you can do is hang on.) The story about Björn was hard to let go.

Your decision to write in Björn’s own perspective or voice is a large part of what makes his story so creepy. How did you make that choice?

In the beginning, I only had the part where Björn finds a room. I put myself in his shoes and, as the character took shape, he became very special. When I had the whole story set in my mind, I actually tried to change it to third person because it was so hard to describe how the people around Björn reacted to him. But this proved not to be so easily done. I felt it was like exposing him: “Look here, what a crazy guy, and look at the weird stuff he does….” It became obvious that the story had to be experienced through Björn for it to work.

Besides, I think it’s very intriguing to gradually, over time, discover your narrator isn’t to be trusted.

What do you think makes Björn such a compelling protagonist?

I hope that I’ve given him depth, despite the many comic situations he finds himself in. I always try to imagine that I’m my main character–I have to think: Okay, if I was Björn, what have I done? Kind of like I do as an actor when I play a part.

How hard, or troubling, is it to write from inside a space of darkness or even mental illness?

Above all, it is very exciting. But I did have periods when I thought it was difficult and wondered if I was going to go mad, or if my readers would think that I had become weird and had all of those crazy ideas. At the same time, it is a wonderfully mind-blowing feeling to create and enter into the mind of such a special character. Again, it is similar to acting in that way.

Did you have any role in the translation of this novel by Neil Smith into English? What does the process look like? Is there any sort of back-and-forth?

Neil is such a good translator, and I trust in his judgment 100%. We really just talked about the end, which is altered a bit from the original text. Otherwise I let him do his work, which he does so well.


This interview originally ran on November 10, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf author interview: John Vaillant

Following yesterday’s review of The Jaguar’s Children, here’s John Viallant: Looking at the World Differently.


John Vaillant’s work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, National Geographic and Outside, among other magazines. His two previous nonfiction books, The Tiger and The Golden Spruce, were award-winners and international bestsellers. Vaillant was born in Massachusetts and lives in Vancouver, B.C. The Jaguar’s Children is his first novel.

vaillantIs Hector’s story based on a specific true account? Where did you get the idea?

The idea came from a conglomeration of different border-crossing incidents. There was one particularly awful case in which a boxcar load of immigrants attached to a train was taken across the border and never opened. It wasn’t found for weeks, until it got to Iowa. Just a hideous, nightmarish situation. I started wondering, what happens in there? What would you go through? And then my family and I lived in Oaxaca for a year, 2009-2010. In Oaxaca, water trucks are a common sight. On one side, they read, “Agua por Uso Humano,” “water for human use,” and I kept thinking about that, and I kept thinking about thirst, and the anagram of agua and jaguar. It just fell into place. All these disconnected observations and ideas gradually coalesced. There was a moment when this fellow, the narrator, just announced himself to me, in January 2010.

This is your first published fiction. What led you here from your past work in nonfiction?

Trying to find a container that was suitable for the story I wanted to tell. Needless to say, Oaxaca is a really interesting place–Mexico is full of stories. There was a nonfiction story that was jaguar-related, that I was pursuing and actively researching down there, and for a couple of reasons it didn’t fully coalesce. A lot of what I was experiencing were more like travel anecdotes, but I didn’t want to write a travel book. It felt too trivial. So then I asked, how do I take all of these things I’m seeing and hearing and feeling, and put them all together in a place where they will make sense and hang together, and create a synergetic narrative and a picture of what is going on down there right now? And the novel was the right form.

This is also somewhat a departure from writing you’ve done about the relationship between people and the natural environment.

I’m really interested in hearing voices that I, or we, don’t usually get to hear, so that’s in a sense what the books are about: creating a platform for these people or beings who are generally invisible, to get some air time. You know, it’s not a selfless, altruistic mission on my part–I’m really curious and I want to see what that world is like, I want to understand it better and re-create it in a way that feels authentic. Ideally people who live that life, whether they’re tigers or conservationists, or biologists or foresters or Mexicans in Oaxaca, will feel that their realities were accurately reflected. So the whole natural world connection is almost incidental, honestly. For me, those margins where human beings and the natural world collide, that’s where the most dynamic tension is. It’s a kind of a front line, and also a fault line. Whether it’s human beings and corn, or human beings and thirst, or human beings and tigers, or the forest, there is a common thread. But it’s certainly not intentional; it’s just where my natural interest seems to go.

Did you go to Oaxaca with any work in mind, a book or a story?

I was deep in The Tiger then. I was in the middle of edits and to be perfectly honest, all I wanted to do was finish that book, lie in a hammock and read books that didn’t have tigers in them. Or any other big cats. That really was the plan.

And here we are.

Here we are. That’s the beauty of the muse, really. All the books I’ve done have really come unannounced. It wasn’t a premeditated objective to write any of those stories, they’ve all come to me and I see them as gifts of sorts. Really time-consuming ones. This again came right when I was just about wrapping up The Tiger and ready to read Under the Volcano or some other books about Mexico. And instead, Hector showed up.

Hector’s perspective is of a Mexican indio from Oaxaca, and his voice is convincing.

I do have a strange, kind of inside track to Mexico. For three generations my father’s family lived there, and I grew up steeped in Mexican lore as it was refracted through their experience. My grandfather was a well-known archaeologist who wrote the first comprehensive history of the Aztec nation, a book called Aztecs of Mexico. My grandmother told us many stories about him. Her house, all her kids’ houses, including my father’s, were filled with things from Mexico, some of them very very old, none of them more modern than 1930 because that’s when they came back. So Mexican art and artifacts were featured in my upbringing, as were stories of my grandfather.

In what ways was your year in Oaxaca helpful?

My wife is a potter and an anthropologist, and she wanted to spend time with traditional Mexican potters. I would follow her around in her trips to these villages, quite remote and very very traditional, so we’d meet people who didn’t speak any Spanish at all. People who have never really succumbed to the dominant culture. They were nominally Christian, but observing and worshiping traditional deities and certainly pursuing traditional practices, whether it was ceramics or agriculture. So it was really like going into another world. I had a notebook and a camera and my innate curiosity. The fact that I had a deep Mexican connection in the family gave me more of a motive to try to understand it. What was it that kept three generations of my family down there when they were all Americans? And perfectly well-connected Americans; they could have had fine lives up here, but for some reason Mexico was the place that offered them something different, something more.

But ultimately this is a story about a Zapotec guy from southern Mexico. Think about the U.S./Mexican border: it’s the most active border on the planet, the site of the largest human migration on earth, and Oaxaqueños play a huge role in that. One in three people from that state go to the States at some point to work, most of them illegally. And all kinds of things happen to them. As I came to understand that, it just started to feel more and more important.

And there was another inspiration. Just as I vowed not to read any more books about tigers, my father-in-law gave me The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, which won the Booker Prize in 2008. It’s a wonderful novel about a low-caste, indigenous guy from northern India, who notices that there’s something big going on in Bangalore and Delhi. Big money is being made. He’s very smart, but he just doesn’t understand the system well enough to know even how the money’s being made. And that’s how a lot of indigenous Oaxaqueños approach the U.S.–they may have family up there, they may not, but they do not understand the culture terribly well–or often the hazards of the journey, which are many, and can be absolutely lethal. So you have these people who are capable in their sphere but naïve about the wider world, making the journey north, and a lot of them come to grief on the border.

Was this book as difficult or traumatic to write as it may be to read?

I wondered a lot about why I would want to return to this place over and over again, and go back into that truck. It’s a hideous, deadly place. But I thought, nobody else is probably going to do this. And this is something that happens to people, that shouldn’t be happening. And Hector was a very compelling person. But as far as difficulty goes–it was extremely difficult. The novel is a different animal, so to speak, than nonfiction, and certain narrative tools do translate, but being in that voice and pacing it and dealing with the other voices… really was new to me. You’re not really the same after doing something like that. I look at the world differently and feel it differently as a result of spending so much time there.

So the challenge of immersing yourself in the painful subject matter was ultimately rewarding, which I think is the case for readers as well. This is about more than just a nightmarish border-crossing incident.

So much of the book isn’t about that. It’s really about being a young person in a very troubled–some could argue broken–society and first trying to find his place in it, and then ultimately having circumstances align in such a way that he has to leave. The time you spend in the truck is desperate and terrible, but also you get to see how strong Hector is, and what he’s made of. He’s extraordinary in some ways, but he’s not superhuman. It’s amazing what people survive. It’s amazing the kind of clarity and wisdom those kinds of stressors can evoke and inspire. I think it’s a crucible for him, and for his character. I think all of us undergo tests, some of them truly terrible–it’s part of the human experience. Hector is a guy trying to figure it out. Trying to survive at the immediate level, but also at the cultural and occupational levels. The world is changing really fast around us. There are pressures being brought to bear that I have no control over, so what do I have control over? How should I respond to the people around me, to those who are trying to help me and those who are trying to impede me or hurt me? In that sense it feels like a kind of fundamental story.


This interview originally ran on November 5, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

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