Interview: Beverly Swerling

September 15, 2012
City of Dreams
September 9, 2012
The Queen’s Gamble
September 21, 2012

W elcome Beverly Swerling! I've read the entire City of Dreams series, so it's a true pleasure to feature Beverly as the first author on my blog. If you aren't acquainted with City of Dreams, read last week's book review.

JC: What are you working on right now?

BS: I would love to say I'm writing my next book – and indeed it's there in my head waiting for the real birth pangs to begin – but Bristol House has been from the first a novel that devours me. Initially because I was deep into the writing of the City series when the idea for this book set in London in both Tudor and contemporary times arrived and wouldn't let go.

It took four years to write (and of course rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite). Then, after it was sold to Viking Penguin, we spent a year in the editing because the editor and I had some primary disagreements. But it's precisely out of that creative tension that the best work gets pulled out of you. In the end I owe the great Carole Desanti an enormous debt of gratitude. Her insights made for a much stronger book. Then I was privileged to work with Beena Kamlani, who is maybe Penguin's secret weapon. Brilliant line editing.

So now, to finally answer your direct question, what I'm doing is working on the production process for, what else, Bristol House. We're including some terrific front matter, maps and a line drawing, and everything needs to be gone over once and then again, and again after that…

Still, there is that new book… What if you had a chance to kill Hitler before the worst of it started, and you didn't take it? What if your guilt was passed down through generations? I suppose thinking about a novel is sort of working on it…

JC: What books or authors have inspired your own writing?

BS: Books and authors that have inspired me: What most moves me is wonderful supple prose, the kind I'm always reaching for and never quite achieve to my own complete satisfaction.

Virginia Woolf is for me the primary source. I don't write anything like her – would that I had such talent – and it's not her fiction so much as her non-fiction that I find most inspiring. It's that combination of deep intelligence and wit and the illusive, magical writing gift which is a touchstone. My fantasy of the moment is to have enough time in some idyllic setting to once more (for maybe the fourth time) read her diaries from start to finish.

Another of my Oh-that-I-could-do-that authors is Graham Greene. Characters whose deeply held beliefs change their lives. And the influence of a power beyond our own, portrayed in novels that again are marvels of lucid and athletic prose. And in a much more commercial vein: the plotting of the inimitable (though I try) James Clavell. Perfect foreshadowing, total control of every thread, and the whole thing delivered at breathtaking pace.

JC: What’s the one piece of advice you wish someone had given you when you first began writing?

BS: The piece of advice I wish I'd had early in my career… or more accurately, taken? That's easy. You must accept the responsibility to market your own work. Even when a major publisher has made a substantial commitment to you and everything seems to be on target.

Book publishing has always been a small and frequently marginal business. The huge bestsellers that everyone reads and talks about are one in many thousands. Not because there aren't others out there which are as good or even perhaps better – whatever the standard you're applying. But because no one can buy a book she's never heard about. And in publishing there are laughably tiny budgets for promoting even the most promising titles on their lists.

I always want to write. I want to say don't bother me about promotion, that's your job. Well, after a long career I have learned it is mine. Today social media makes it much easier, but you have to use it to be effective. Get the word out. That's as much down to you as writing the best possible book you can pull from deep within your soul.

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