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.
You 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!