By Leslie Lindsay
It’s at once delightful, yet haunting; a unique examination of love, loss, and identity. When I came across THE BOOKSELLER by Cynthia Swanson, I was immediately drawn. It might have something to do with that cover—a book with a book—well, it’s like a Russian doll of books. Of course, there’s the piece about the blurring of dreams with reality coupled with a historical touch thrusting us back to the early 1960s of Denver, Colorado. Are you smitten yet? I’m pleased to have Cynthia with us today.
L.L.: I’m always so interested in learning about the moment an author ‘knows’ she (or he) has a story. What was your inspiration for THE BOOKSELLER?
Cynthia Swanson: I was at the gym at 10 AM on a Tuesday, with one kid in the gym’s childcare area and two at school. All of the sudden, just for a moment, I wondered what I was doing in my own life. I wondered what happened to the life I’d had not long before – single, living alone with my cat and dog, writing whenever I felt like it, living completely on my own terms. As anyone with a family can tell you, that goes right out the window when kids enter the picture. It got me thinking about a character who was caught between two lives – one who begins to doubt her own reasoning skills in knowing which life is which.
L.L.: I just love how this story is so universal in the sense of that ‘what if,’ question we all ask ourselves, especially mothers. Coupled with that inevitable mommy guilt, grief…well, it was very moving. Are those the themes you set out to explore?
Cynthia Swanson: Definitely. The book is by no means autobiographical, but I think those themes are shared by many women. We want it all – careers and families – and that’s not easy for anybody, but particularly for women, because we have such high expectations of ourselves. I think it’s interesting that women still struggle with this in 2015, the same as a character might have back in 1963. I think it’s getting better – our ideas of “work” are more creative than they were back then, in terms of job sharing, working from home, and so on – but it’s still a challenge.
L.L.: I had read somewhere that you worked on THE BOOKSELLER in15-minute increments. I’m nodding and smiling because I get it. Those staccato bursts of creativity can be so rejuvenating and fuel the creative process all day. What tips might you give a busy at-home parent who feels overwhelmed with the possibility of writing a novel?
Cynthia Swanson: You just have to get started and keep going. I know that sounds clichéd, but it’s really true. It’s like exercise: any exercise is better than no exercise. Some days all you can manage is a walk around the block. Other days, you get an hour to yourself to go running or biking. Both days are valuable in terms of your physical and mental health. In the same way, shorter creative periods are just as important for your creative health as longer sessions. My other piece of advice would be, when writing a first draft, resist editing as you go. Just get the basic story down, knowing it has issues and big gaping holes. The sense of accomplishment that comes with a finished first draft is what drives me to keep going with subsequent drafts.
L.L.: How about that time period in THE BOOKSELLER? I just loved the combination of the colors (gold and turquoise), the way my imagination filled in shag carpeting, dark paneling, and clean lines of furniture ala Frank Lloyd Wright (though he was a little earlier). How did you decide to set the novel in the early 1960s?
Cynthia Swanson: When I first started writing THE BOOKSELLER, it was set in the present day. But I quickly realized that it needed a historical setting. Events needed to unfold slowly, in a way that could only happen before our technology-driven society came into being. The 1960s – particularly the early 1960s, before JFK was assassinated – made the perfect setting. That time period had just the right combination of optimism, growth, change – and a sense of nostalgia – to make the story engaging and believable.
L.L.: Full-disclosure—like you, I dreamed of being an architect. But I also liked to write. And complex math made me want to run for the hills. In your opinion, how does fiction and design dovetail? Or, does it?
Cynthia Swanson: I come from a wannabe design background; it’s a hobby and a passion, but not a vocation. I was an architecture major for the first couple years of college, but I kept taking creative writing classes as electives. Finally, an English professor sat me down and told me that while she didn’t know anything about my work as a designer, I was a great writer and no matter what my future held, I should always keep writing. That was so validating for a 20-year-old. I think the two disciplines require some of the same skills. For both, you need to see through another’s eyes. For authors that means understanding a character’s viewpoint, and for designers and architects that means envisioning how clients will use a space.
L.L.: Switching gears a bit—have you read any of the books listed in the bookseller, the ones Kitty sells in her bookshop? What might be your favorite(s)? [I found a lovely listing of those books here]
Cynthia Swanson: Yes, I’ve read most of them. Certainly all the kid ones! Of the adult books mentioned, my favorites are Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. Like Kitty does, I find Miss Brodie entertaining and engrossing. And like Kitty, I tried to read the Cold War thrillers, but found they weren’t my cup of tea. Maybe someday – but there are a lot of books on my To-Read list, so who knows.
L.L.: What are you working on next?
Cynthia Swanson: I’m deep into writing a second novel. It’s set in the same time period – early 1960s – but it features very different characters and locale. I started working on a first draft after I submitted the final edits of THE BOOKSELLER to Harper. Working on something else at that time kept me from fixating on how my debut might do once it was out in the world. These days, about half my workday is spent on BOOKSELLER promotion and half on the new novel.
L.L.: Is there anything obsessing you now?
Cynthia Swanson: Honestly, it’s that work/life balance. We have two kids who just started middle school and one in third grade, so we’re having to find new rhythms with two schools instead of one. As far as THE BOOKSELLER, I need to keep up the momentum on promoting it, so I think about that a lot. I frequently meet with local book groups who read THE BOOKSELLER, and I have several Denver-area events coming up this fall. (See this more for details.) And the new novel is constantly on my mind.
L.L.: Anything I should have asked, but didn’t?
Cynthia Swanson: I don’t know about “should have” but one thing I’d like to mention is how much I appreciate it when readers recommend THE BOOKSELLER. These days, many of us decide what to read based on Goodreads, Library Thing, Amazon reviews, book bloggers, and social media in general. If you love a book – not just my book, but any book – please take a moment to rate it and/or write a review on your favorite sites, tell your friends, recommend it to your book club. Authors depend on their current books’ popularity in order to keep their careers going and write more books! I’m so grateful for everyone who supports my work, as well as other authors.
L.L.: Thanks so much for being with us today, Cynthia! Such a delight.
Cynthia Swanson: Leslie…thank YOU!
Author Bio: Cynthia Swanson is an author and a designer. Her debut novel The Bookseller was published to critical acclaim in March 2015. She has published short fiction in numerous journals and has been a Pushcart Prize nominee. The hardcover version of The Bookseller is in its second printing in the US, and the novel is being translated into 11 languages. Cynthia lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and children. You can reach her at www.integritymodern.com.
[Cover and author images provided by the author and used with permission. Turquoise and gold decor retrieved from pfgrenada.com on 8.29.15 and has no connection to the THE BOOKSELLER or C. Swanson, but is used as illustrative purposes]