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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.

renee swindle

Review

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.

shake down the stars

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

Connect with Renee!

www.reneeswindlebooks.com

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I’m new to the ‘blog hop’ world and excited to join in. This particular blog hop is making its way around the blogosphere. It’s called ‘My Next Big Thing’. I was tagged by North Carolina mystery writer Karen Pullen to answer 10 questions.  Then I get to tag some other writers. Here we go!

1.  What is the working title of your book?

I’m co-producing a literary zine with Beth Turner. It is tentatively called, ‘Chatmosphere’: The Arts and Cultural Buzz of Chatham County

2.  Where did the idea come from for the book?

I’ve lived in Chatham County, North Carolina for almost a decade and have been inspired by its unique character. Chatham County is full of farmers, artists, and green industrialists. At first, I wanted to do an edited volume that chronicled the history and stories of the county. I thought doing a zine, however, would prove much more accessible and fun, and would constitute a good first step to an eventual edited volume.

One day I was talking about this idea with my friend Beth Turner. We got really excited about doing this project together. We’re like the county in that we are a combination of “old” and “new” in terms of years living here. We’ve been involved in politics, the creative arts and community building. Beth is a regional non-profit organizer who was one of the co-founders of Girls Rock NC (www.girlsrocknc.org) and is also a commissioner on Pittsboro’s Town Board. (We both live in Pittsboro) Beth has also designed lots of zines through her experience with Girls Rock, a summer camp that empowers girls through music, feminist activism and history.

3.  What genre does your book fall under?

A zine is an independent publication (pronounced zeen!) that can contain just about anything from manifestos to collages. A zine can also include recipes, poetry, art work, drawings, or comics. A zine is a hands-on production and can be as informal or as fancy as one wants.

4.  Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Since this question doesn’t quite apply to my project, let me say a bit more about our process. Last year, we sent invitations to people to submit their work for consideration. I tried not to get too intimidated when I reached out to well-known writers and thought leaders. Everyone has been so nice and supportive of this project!

Here’s a snippet from our invitation:

We are inviting submissions up to 1500 words* that play with the following questions/themes:

How would you define the ‘chatmosphere’?
What keeps you committed and passionate about living in Chatham County?
What brought you to Chatham County and why have you decided to stay?

We invite you to reflect and riff on:
What is ‘rural cool’ and how does it apply to Chatham County?  Think about the areas that involve YOU, including but not limited to farming and the local food movement, creating community across difference; emerging green industries and technologies, the creative economy, the role of the arts in Chatham County (i.e. music, acting, writing, singing, etc), natural resources, the history and value of our rivers: the Deep, the Rocky, the Haw and, the Cape Fear, cultural heritage traditions, healing traditions, activism and the political cultures of our county.

5.  What is the one-sentence synopsis of your manuscript?

The ‘Chatmosphere’ is a space and attitude that blends together arts, the environment and passion unlike another other place in North Carolina.

6.  Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

We are self-publishing this zine.

7.  How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

We received our submissions in a timely manner. We are now in the process working with authors on their revisions and planning the design of the zine. It’s been a bit slower process than we imagined, because of all the things we have learned along the way. Our target goal is to have the zine out by the end of the year!

8.  What other books would you compare this story to within the genre?

N/A

9.  Who or what inspired you to write this book?

We want to showcase the talent in our community and break out of the literary and cultural shadows of Durham, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough.

10.  What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

We have some incredible writers who have submitted poetry and prose including Belle Boggs, Marjorie Hudson, Ruth Moose, Karen Pullen and Nancy Peacock. Contributors in the zine are writing on everything from the local food movement, the dissolution of a local African American church to the vision behind some of the most successful nonprofits in the county.

Now I’m passing the baton to some truly exceptional writers . . .

Barbara Ehrentreu,http://barbaraehrentreu.blogspot.com/,whose next big thing is a novel:’ When My Life Changed’:

A fifteen year old girl who would rather watch baseball than do her nails finds her life turns upside down when her father has a heart attack and needs surgery, and in the process she finds her friendship with her best friend Joey becomes more, her relationship with her family changes and she learns she needs more than a boy as a friend to be happy.

Posting NOV 25

AND Nancy Hinchliff, whose next big thing is a memoir. A story about family and significant relationships and events that have a indelible mark on one young girl’s entire life.

http://www.amemorabletimeofmylife.blogspot.com/

Posting NOV 26

AND Olga Godim, doing a guest post-on my blog about her soon to be published novel (yay!)  ‘Lost & Found in Russia’: One mother travels around the globe in search of her daughter, while another must delve deep into her heart to find understanding and acceptance.

Posting NOV 27

AND Kiersi Burkhart, http://prolificnovelista.com/, on her next BIG thing

Posting NOV 29

AND  Edith O Nuallainhttp://inaroomofmyown.wordpress.com/ on  ‘The Artist’s Daughter’ (or an update about how the novel she is writing for the National Novel Writing Month contest is going)

Posting NOV 30

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Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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