Writing about Grief, Family and Wonder: Interview with Author Renee Swindle
I could tell a long story about getting to know Renee Swindle. It would begin with the fact that I knew of Renee years before I had the pleasure of reading her latest book, Shake Down the Stars. Kelly, a close writing friend of mine has been her student for many years and during that time I’ve heard about what a wonderful and caring teacher Renee is. Until I met my own writing teacher and found a nurturing writing community in North Carolina, I have to confess that I was a bit envious of Kelly’s connection to Renee in Oakland. But that’s another story. When Kelly shared with me that Renee’s new book was about to launch, I immediately offered to interview her. I typically don’t also do reviews for the writers I’m interviewing. But as it turned out, in the middle of setting this interview up, I won Renee’s novel through a Goodreads contest. I felt the delicious play of synchronicity at work. This book was meant to be in my hands! What follows is a brief review of Shake Down the Stars and author interview. I’m honored to feature Renee Swindle on The Practice of Creativity.
It’s been a long time since I have stayed up two nights in a row completely absorbed in a novel. I started Shake Down The Stars and couldn’t put it down. Piper Nelson, the main character has a host of problems. She drinks too much, has a narcissistic sister who is married to a pro- football player (and rap star), a self-righteous religious mother and a depressed husband. Piper gets angry, goes on drinking binges, blacks out, and makes many bad choices. Death haunts her and she also stalks it by walking around her neighborhood, at night, and paying homage to the makeshift altars dedicated to the recently departed, mostly young victims, and often victims of violence. And, at the beginning of the novel she’s isolated and doesn’t have any quality friendships.
But, we stay with Piper and ultimately root for her because we come to understand the wound that is eating away at her. It’s a wound so big it makes us wonder how she is still able to live. During the novel, we realize given Piper’s challenges, most of us wouldn’t cope any better. Take away something we love and we’d go to the shadow side.
As Piper stuffs down the pain things quickly go from bad to worse. You want Piper to edge closer to the pain, so that she can transform it. We also stay with her because she is kind, has a sharp wit, is a gifted high school teacher in a underfunded school and she loves the stars. Piper is an amateur astronomer and the stars are her refuge.
There is no typical stock character in this novel set in Oakland. Swindle calls our attention to the vibrant racial and ethnic diversity, in the city, and the range of class backgrounds (and breakdowns). The questions this novel explores are: How does one deal with grief? How can we forgive ourselves in the face of tragedy? What are we willing to do to become authentic? How do we heal? Through deft writing and fantastic characterization Swindle has created a memorable novel that inspires and delivers through the very last page.
Tell us about your second novel, Shake Down the Stars. Why did you want to write this book?
Piper, the protagonist of Shake Down The Stars, is trying to overcome a tragic loss, but doing so by spending an unhealthy amount of time with her ex-husband. She also drinks too much and sleeps around. Basically, she’s trying to anesthetize herself in any way she can against the blow she suffered years before when a car accident took the life of her daughter. Her family is of no help at all. Her mother is married to a celebrity evangelist and only advises her to pray; and her sister has no time for her, or anyone, because she’s planning a wedding to a famous football player. While certain events in Piper’s life are heartbreaking, the novel is also uplifting (at least I think so!), and sometimes even comedic, thanks to the friendships Piper makes along the way.
As for your second question, I start with voice when I write so I guess you can say I let the narrator dictate the story. When I started Shake Down The Stars I saw a woman standing alone in a room while her family celebrated an event in another part of the house. Over time it came to me that Piper had lost her child five years before and was extremely lonely and somewhat ostracized from her family. I didn’t necessarily want to write anything depressing or heavy, but I stayed with Piper because I wanted to see if she’d find happiness again. I honestly didn’t know how the novel would end. I also loved her crazy family and friends and her smart voice, and the men in her life. Luckily, people who’ve read it have really connected with the story. Several readers and reviewers have said they both laughed and cried, which is the absolute best thing to hear.
How did the process of writing Shake Down the Stars differ from writing your first novel?
My first novel, Please Please Please, was based on a short story I wrote while in graduate school. The narrator was catty and unreliable, but I also thought she could be pretty funny—and sexy. I’m still interested in characters I don’t see much and characters that surprise me. I actually wrote two novels after Please Please Please (which explains the delay between books), but they never sold. I think the problem was that I needed to find my own voice. After Please Please Please I thought I should write like someone else; but after those two books didn’t sell, I realized I needed to be ME. Once I started writing Shake Down The Stars I stopped trying to impress. Writing the two books that went nowhere helped me to see that my ability lies in humor and telling a fast-paced narrative–at least I hope so–even if the story is sometimes dark or sad.
What have you learned about being a writer in public (i.e. dealing with reviews, managing the promotional aspect of publishing, finding time to write, etc.)?
I had to stop looking at my Amazon ranking. I also stopped looking at reviews on Good Reads and wherever else. Looking at other people’s comments—good or bad–just isn’t helpful!
As for promotion, I try to set aside time every week. It’s not the most fun part of the job, at least not for me, but I’ve found a little a week is doable.
I learned years ago that if I’m going to write, I have to do so first thing in the morning. I stay on schedule because I put myself first. I write before I grade papers or start answering emails. I wake up super early and try to write, even if it’s for twenty minutes.
You have a reputation as a fabulous writing teacher, working especially well with novice writers. What’s the most common mistake that beginning writers make?
Wow! Thank you! Well…I think writers, beginning or not, can be too hard on themselves. Somehow, some way, writing has to become something you do more days than not; as with any skill it has to be developed, and that takes practice. Find a way to make the process of sitting and facing your fears every day enjoyable. I’ve said this before, and I know it sounds nuts, but it’s such a long haul, the sooner you learn to become your own cheerleader and best friend, the better. If you only have twenty minutes—Yay! If you wrote the worst paragraph ever known to mankind? Good for you! The point is, you showed up and you figured out a way to smile at yourself. The only way I could write Shake Down The Stars after two failed novels was that at a certain point the process of writing became as exciting and interesting as the end product.
Who is one writer that you’d love to know was reading your work?
That’s a great question. You know, I have some pretty fabulous writers in my writer’s group so I won’t be greedy and ask for more. I will say I’d love for Viola Davis to read one of my novels. I’d love for one of my books to be turned into a movie and for Viola to play a lead character.
What’s the best writing tip you’d like to share?
Be yourself. Write the story you want to tell and not the story you think you should tell. Do your best to discover what you’re good at and run with it. In the meantime, continue to hone the weaker aspects of your writing. Read a ton. As you read, watch how writers set up scenes and use dialogue and all the rest. Remind yourself that your craft will get better over time, so be patient, show up, and remember that you’re a rock star.
Renee Swindle is the author of Shake Down The Stars (NAL/Penguin) available now. Her first novel, Please Please Please, was published by the Dial Press/Dell. Please Please Please was also published in Germany as Mehr Mehr Mehr and published in Japan. Please Please Please was an Essence Magazine bestseller. Renee earned her BA from UC Irvine and MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University. She lives in Oakland, California
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