Photo credit: Morgan Dox
A while back I was meeting with an editor — not mine. She asked me to name another writer whose career I wanted to emulate. My answer: I don’t think like that. I want to do my own thing.
That’s when the editor advised me to pick a lane. She meant that I should just write either regular crime novels (like The Passenger
) or comedic ones (like the Spellman
series). All of this experimenting and coloring outside the lines — Heads You Lose
, How to Start a Fire
— was bad for my career, she suggested.
That editor may have been correct on the whole. I get the argument for not alienating your readers by writing something vastly different from your previous book. But if I picked a lane and stuck with it, I wouldn’t always be writing what I was most passionate about. Therefore, I wouldn’t be producing the best book that I can.
I live with a book for a year or longer — three, in the case of The Swallows
. If I’m not really excited about what I’m writing, I don’t how to convince someone else to be. When I’m writing a novel, my ultimate goal is to get the reader as locked into my obsession as I am. The way I go after that goal looks pretty much the same for every book. Since The Swallows
is my current book, I’ll use that one as a case study. The writing process begins with...
A gender war at a private school
. That was the slug line that got stuck in my head sometime around 2014. So while the book wasn’t a response to the #metoo movement, working on it during that time certainly had some influence. The germ of the idea came before any research. Then I Googled “scandals in private schools” (if you think my book isn’t realistic, please try this for yourself). My research confirmed a theory: private schools can exist like sovereign nations, with their own rules and laws, or lack thereof.
The setting was looped in with the idea, but there’s tremendous freedom when you make shit up. In the past, I’ve used real and fictional places or some combination of the two. I’ve come to prefer the “mostly making shit up” approach, which is still informed by biases and ideas based on places that exist. I wanted Stonebridge Academy to have all the trappings of our notions of private schools, but with its own specific quirks, which is why the buildings are named after British authors. (Or maybe I just wanted to get the Graham Greenehouse in there.)
As I wrote the book, I eventually realized that I needed to create a map of the campus, because I was creating random buildings and landmarks with directions that were literally all over the place. My spatial memory is sub-average at best, so I drew a map — well, my artistic abilities are sub
-sub-average, so I drew a rough sketch of a map and sent it to professionals to redraw. I hung the map on my wall and used it as a guide as I ferried my characters throughout the Stonebridge landscape. The redrawn map is now in the book.
I also chose to set the book in 2009, because that was around the time the reporting of the private school scandals began, which meant that plausible deniability could still exist in my fictional school. I had another reason, too — a cultural reference that was key in an earlier draft but later dropped.
Eventually it made sense to keep the 2009 date for other reasons: I wasn’t sure where this country/culture would be in light of #metoo a year from when I was working on the book. Finally, I didn’t want a book with Twitter, Snapchat, or references to Instagram pictures that I could never show. I couldn’t in good conscience write something set in present-day high school without a hefty dose of social media. And frankly, I didn’t want to acknowledge the existence of Trump, in my fictional worlds or my real one.
Sometimes the ideas for characters and plot come at the same time. Occasionally the characters come first, with just the vaguest notion of the story. With The Spellman Files
(about a family of PIs), the framing of the story was inextricably connected to the characters. The Swallows
was more story-forward, although I’d decided early on to write from shifting points of view. As I worked out what characters I needed to narrate, I had to make sure I had enough breadth of viewpoints to give the reader access to all of the places that I wanted to take the story. It made sense to have fresh eyes in Stonebridge, which is where Alex Witt came from.
To round out the narrative, I went for parity: male and female teachers, Alex and Finn, and male and female students, Gemma and Norman.
I write every book like a crime novel, whether it has a traditional crime narrative or not. There’s a natural engagement that happens with a reader if the book invites curiosity, which generally involves a strategic withholding of information. The Swallows
has no dead body at the beginning, but it has a brewing conflict and a suggestion of tragedy. But you need something more along the way.
Whenever I read or watch something that I love, something in it wakes me up. I respond to things that are a little mad. What immediately comes to mind is something in the second season of Killing Eve
(only mild spoiler follows). Villanelle dons a pair of boy’s cartoon sleep jammies when she escapes the hospital. It’s funny, it’s insane, and it gets your attention, like a tiny, almost pleasant, electric jolt. I don’t always succeed, but that’s generally my goal. I write to my own tastes. Whenever something thrills me, it usually involves a surprise.
This surprise usually comes with some humor attached. Some people are uncomfortable with humor in a book that tackles serious issues. It’s that “pick a lane” argument again. But I’ve always believed comedy makes it easier to take on the challenging subjects. Sometimes it breaks the tension, sometimes it heightens it, but it changes the feeling, it mixes things up. Sometimes it might feel crazy, but that crazy feeling is what I’m always chasing. There are so many times I’ve felt utterly unhinged when writing, and that always feels like my best work. Which is why I never wavered on the inclusion of the blowchart.
When I begin a new book, there’s usually a grace period where it’s all exciting and fresh, like a new relationship. Mostly what goes on in my head is: “It’s so great to not be writing [insert name of last book].” Then the obvious and constant doubt returns. With me it’s not just, Fuck, I don’t know how to do this anymore
. The dread is accompanied by worries about dementia. I’ll often read a passage I’ve written with absolutely no memory of having written it.
The upside is that it’s easy to have fresh eyes. And sometimes, when I’m reading something I wrote in an amnesiac state, I think, Holy crap, this is insane
. And that’s the best feeling of all.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the New York Times
bestselling, Alex Award-winning author of the Spellman Files series, as well as the novels Heads You Lose
(with David Hayward), How to Start a Fire
, and The Passenger
. She has also written for film and TV, including HBO's The Deuce
. She lives part-time in New York’s Hudson Valley. The Swallows
is her most recent book.