Readerly Chats: Cynthia Swanson, Author of The Bookseller

Cynthia Swanson, Author of The BooksellerTell us about yourself- how you got started writing, what kind of books you like to write?

My name is Cynthia Swanson. I’ve been writing fiction my entire life, and have published numerous short stories before my debut novel, The Bookseller, was published by HarperCollins this month (March, 2015). The book is upmarket fiction – what I affectionately call “a book club book.” By that I mean fiction with a compelling plot and well-developed characters – a story that’s easy to get through, but one that still provides plenty of food for thought and discussion.

Writers respond to the process of writing a book in different ways. Can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

When writing the first draft of this book, I had very little free time – I had small kids at home and a freelance career doing technical/marketing writing, as well as some design work. I found that I had to discipline myself to write in very small increments, sometimes as little as 15 minutes a day. That meant I had to focus and get started – and write very fast! I allowed a lot of mistakes in my first draft. I wasn’t seeking perfection at that point. I wanted a completed draft that I could refine later, so I gave myself a lot of leeway. 

What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?  Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?

I tend toward novelists who seem to have the same writing philosophy as I do: a gripping plot combined with well-rounded characters. A few writers who do that well: Liane Moriarty, Sara Gruen, Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Patchett. I also found after writing this book that I am often disappointed by ambiguous endings; I prefer resolution. Along the same lines, I generally don’t care for series. I admire a good storyteller, one who can tell a satisfying story with a beginning and an end.

The Bookseller by Cynthia SwansonThat types of books would some of your characters have if they were readers?  Given their issues what book(s) would you suggest for them to read?

Given that my main character owned a bookstore, there are plenty of books mentioned in The Bookseller. A few include Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, among many others. The children in my novel were reading Dr. Seuss, the Madeline series, Hardy Boys, and Beverly Cleary.

Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be?  How involved were in choosing the name of the book?

It went through several iterations, and it was my editor at Harper who pushed for the title we chose. She felt strongly that since the main character owns a bookstore, we should emphasize that. I agreed with the choice, and we kept it simple by just going with The Bookseller.

How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped? 

One at a time. I keep a lot of other ideas in my head, but I firmly believe that if an idea is good, it will keep cropping up. So I don’t need to rush off to take notes on every good idea that comes along. I know that if it’s worthwhile, my mind will bubble it to the surface at the appropriate moment.

Are there other books you love or writers you admire that are from your local area?

In a few weeks I’m going to be on a panel at Lighthouse Writers Workshop with three other local debut novelists: Tiffany Quay Tyson, Maura Weiler, and Rebecca Snow. I haven’t read their novels yet; Tiffany’s is not due out until summer, Maura’s next month, and Rebecca’s I need to pick up. But I’m looking forward to reading them all, and being on a panel in their great company.

Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular? 

The main character, Kitty (AKA Katharyn), was certainly my favorite, but I did also love writing about Kitty’s best friend Frieda. Various friends have asked, “Did you base Frieda on me?” The answer is usually, “Yes, but not completely.” Frieda is a conglomeration of the best qualities of my dearest girlfriends.

Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?

Write first, research later. I find that too much early research can send me down a rabbit hole and distract me from the actual writing process. I get a first draft down, taking lots of notes and making lots of guesses. I then do the research to support what I’ve said – or change it, if I was wrong. Since this story takes place fifty years ago, quite a bit of research was needed – but it was fairly easy (and very rewarding) to do, because I live in the city where the story is set, and we have some fantastic resources here – a great library system, local historians, and so on.

Where do you most love to write? Are there places where it comes to you easier than others?

Coffee shops, especially Stella’s, which is near where Kitty and Frieda’s bookstore would have been. I love my office at home, and I can work there (it’s where I am right now), but there are a lot more distractions here. And Stella’s has that wonderful café smell…can’t get that at home.

What’s next?

My next book is set in the same time period, but different locale – mostly in a small town in New York State, where I grew up. The town is fictional, but I’m evoking a lot of memories of my hometown as I work on the book.