Renee Swindle is author of Shake Down the Stars, a novel I loved so much I immediately friended her on Facebook and asked if I could interview her.
I’m not the only one who loved it. RT Book Reviews said “This novel is a true gem. Beautifully written, it’s full of emotional impact that touches the heart without weighing the reader down. Themes of love, loss and addiction will reach into the soul.”
And author Elizabeth Gilbert recently recommended it on her Facebook page.
Renee and I had a great email chat and I found it very inspiring that after writing two novels that didn’t sell (after selling her first) she used those experiences to find her voice and work on the novel she was meant to write. I hope you are inspired too!
Looking back, I wrote those two novels while doing my best to sound and write like anyone except me. I’m not sure who I was trying to be—Toni Morrison? Alice Walker? Stephen King?! But writing those two books helped me discover my voice—or come back to my voice, depending on how you look at it.
Shake Down the Stars is about a parent’s worst nightmare happening—the death of a child. Yet, in part because the death happens 5 years before the novel begins, you manage to write very humorously and yet still poignantly about a grieving woman. How did you pull that off?!
I don’t know! LOL! I think it helped—immensely—that the daughter’s death occurred five years before the start of the novel. In the first draft, the daughter had only passed away the year before, so my idea to incorporate humorous moments wasn’t working at all. By starting the novel at a later point in time, the story became more about discovering how the narrator, Piper, would ever find joy again. It became more about how she was dealing with loss, which freed me to use lighter and funnier moments. It did take a few drafts, though, to get the balance just write. Some drafts were too dark and heavy; some were too funny and lighthearted. At any rate, I absolutely love that readers have said they both laughed and cried while reading it. That’s exactly what I was aiming for.
You take a lot on in this book—marriage, divorce, fatherless daughters, death and grief, addiction, class and race issues. And yet when I read it I still had that wonderful feeling of hanging out with people I wanted to learn more about and live in their world a little longer, instead of feeling like I was being preached at. How do you think you did that?
Thanks for the nice words. The short answer is that my first two drafts were filled to the brim with preachy, overwritten, crappy chapters! Every time I overreached, though, I’d ask: Are you being honest? Is that what the character would truly say, or is it what you want the character to say? Is this the conversation you want to force on these two characters, or is it the conversation they would truly have in this moment? Honesty saved me from myself time and again.
Your first book Please Please Please was published in 2000. Your latest Shake Down the Stars came out this summer. Everybody knows the industry has changed drastically in the last decade or so. What are the biggest surprises you found publishing your second novel?
Where oh where do I begin?! When you think about it, things like smart phones and Facebook and texting and all the rest didn’t even exist in the early 2000s–and I’m pretty sure I was still using dial up on my computer! Anyway, I guess you could say those were the heady days of publishing. I was sent on an eight-city tour that included fancy hotels—and car service! Today, though, it’s much more about the bottom line. I also think publishers were willing to take more risks and willing to work with authors more. I don’t mean to sound like a downer. Luckily there’s social media now to help with promotion, and I was also lucky to sign with an amazing editor.
I wrote the first draft of Please Please Please while in grad school. It was a terrible draft, but I liked the narrator and wanted to stick with it. Even after it sold, I had to rewrite it at least twice. After it was released, I wrote two more novels (this explains the ten-year delay between books), but my agent couldn’t sell either book. Looking back, I wrote those two novels while doing my best to sound and write like anyone except me. I’m not sure who I was trying to be—Toni Morrison? Alice Walker? Stephen King?! But writing those two books helped me discover my voice—or come back to my voice, depending on how you look at it. After writing two books that didn’t sell, I basically told myself to forget about trying to be someone else and write the story I wanted to tell in my own voice. After writing those books, I discovered 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. By the time I started Shake Down the Stars, I knew I wanted to write something that used humor while also telling a compelling story. I wanted to write in a style that felt comfortable and honest instead worrying about proving myself.
Several months went by and one day there was that person [I thought was] imitating ZZ Packer and asking if I wanted to join the writing group she was starting. I thought my cousin was playing a joke on me, but when I called the number—it really was ZZ Packer!
What’s the best writing advice you ever got?
I really like what Ann Lamott says in Bird By Bird: take things one scene at a time. When writing something as big as a novel it helps if I focus on the scene at hand and not worry about word count or whatever. Otherwise, if I start thinking about how much time it takes and all I want to do, I start to freak out. So, for me, writing comes down to one scene at a time. Scene by scene. Chapter by chapter.
Another bit of advice was to read screenplays and books on how to write screenplays. This suggestion was helpful early on when I had no idea how to shape a novel, which often has the same arcs and beats as a movie. That was huge for me. When I first started to write, I didn’t know what a scene was, nor did I realize how important tension and conflict were in the development of a scene. Some books I read also noted the importance of shaping the inner conflict and emotional arcs of characters. I started watching for these things when reading other novels and finally started making the connection. I also realized the process of writing didn’t have to feel out of my control.
Tell us about The Finish Party. How did it start and how has it helped you (and your sister writers)?
I was broke and wondering if I should give up writing altogether when I received a message from someone claiming to be ZZ Packer on my voice mail. I loved Drinking Coffee Elsewhere and had met ZZ briefly at a reading. Turns out she had read Please Please Please and gave me a hug and was just so nice. Several months went by and one day there was that person imitating ZZ Packer and asking if I wanted to join the writing group she was starting. I thought my cousin was playing a joke on me, but when I called the number—it really was ZZ Packer! I took her phone call and her invitation as a huge sign that I should definitely keep writing and not give up.
Now I pinch myself that I have the luck to be a part of such an amazing group of sister writers (I like that term!). Every time we meet, I’m uplifted by a group of incredibly smart, talented, funny-as-hell women. We eat, we laugh, and at some point, we critique each other’s work. I honestly can’t believe my luck. (By the way, if anyone wants to know more about our group, just look up The Finish Party and it will link you to an O Magazine article that will tell you more.)
What’s next for you?
My next novel, A Pinch Of Ooh La La, comes out summer 2014; I hope to make up for lost time.
Thanks so much for inviting me. I appreciate it.