In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by picking which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer. Renee Swindle’s novel, Shake Down the Stars, follows the attempts of Piper Nelson, amateur stargazer and high school teacher, on her journey to find herself in the wake of her five-year-old daughter’s tragic death. Renee balances tragedy and comic relief in almost perfect proportions of bitter and sweet. Here is what Renee had to say about reading, writing, and the self-help book she’d recommend her characters read.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
Before I answer, can I say thanks for having me? I really enjoy your blog. (Thanks! I really enjoyed reading your novel!)
My first novel, Please Please Please, was based on a short story I wrote while getting my MFA in Creative Writing. I wrote two novels afterwards, and while editors gave positive feedback, neither book sold. Looking back, I think I was trying to find my voice. I’ve learned that I should stop trying to be the next whomever, and be myself.
Shake Down The Stars grapples with a woman trying to overcome a tragic loss, but she does so by drinking and seeking out unsuitable men. It’s an intense story, but I’ve learned that I enjoy writing with humor and also like to make sure my scenes feel fast-paced and tight. While the story is hopefully moving, it’s infused with humor and quirky characters as well. The friends she eventually meets, for instance, turn out to be a lot of fun. I love the feeling of not wanting to put a book down and that’s always my goal when I write. I also enjoy writing stories I don’t see out there much. I like characters who aren’t perfect and who make mistakes.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you through the writing process?
Tea! It’s one of my favorite things. There’s nothing better than writing with a good cup of tea by my side. I’m not much of a shopper, except when it comes to buying fine tea and lots of books. I’m constantly reading. When you mention food and recipes, all the cookbooks on my shelves come to mind. I’m not sure why, but I love curling up with a good cookbook, especially books on baking. I love looking at the photos and recipes. For the longest time, I was actually afraid to try any of the recipes. Crazy, right? Two years ago, I vowed to start using all the cookbooks on the shelves, and now I’m addicted to baking. In fact, in my next novel, the narrator owns a bakery. I also find reading graphic novels relaxing and fun. Graphic novels can be well written and when you tie that in with the artwork, it makes for a very pleasurable reading experience. I love them. I also read just about every type of book out there.
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’m currently reading Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin and Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler. Just over the past few months I’ve read Savages, Room With A View, Asterios Polyp (great graphic novel), The Silver Linings Playbook, French Lessons, Eleanor and Park, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and Dark Places. Whatever I’m reading, I pay attention to how the author writes scenes and uses language. Even so, I’m also capable of taking off my writer’s hat and love reading for reading for reading’s sake. I can take breaks from writing but it’s extremely rare that I’m not reading a book.
In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people. What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?
I teach part-time at two community colleges. In order to make time for writing I have to get up early and write before classes; otherwise I’m too zonked after a full day of teaching. It took some time before my body clock to switch over to mornings, but now I enjoy waking up extra early and giving myself my needed ME time. I wake at 5 a.m. (earlier if I’m trying to make a deadline), meditate, write and walk the dogs. After that it’s off to class. I have a relatively long commute and I use that time to daydream about the scenes I need to write the next morning. Having a plan for the next day helps me avoid staring at the computer without any idea what to write. When I’m on vacation, I keep the same schedule, except after walking the dogs I come home and write for 3 – 4 more hours. After that, another walk.
Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were in choosing the name of the book?
The initial title of my novel was How High The Moon. When it sold to Penguin/NAL, however, the powers at be discovered another book with the same title and they said I could no longer use it. How High the Moon is the title of a jazz tune and I wanted to use another song title. I eventually remembered the song Shake Down The Stars by Sarah Vaughn. The narrator of my novel is an amateur astronomer so I also knew I wanted something about the night sky in the title. I still prefer How High the Moon, but—eh—what can you do?
Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?
I have always been curious about astronomy and I thought it would be interesting to turn the narrator of Shake Down The Stars into an amateur astronomer. Piper’s knowledge about the stars gave me the excuse to buy books on astronomy and study some of the basics. While I’m not nearly as knowledgeable as most, I do share the feeling of amazement when I stare up at the sky or when I see images of the space that the Hubble sends back. I think it’s pretty amazing that we’re out here floating in a galaxy, part of a vast universe.
What 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?
I love this question, Nicole! Well, my narrator, Piper, is a high school English teacher and before her drinking started to get in the way of her life (ahem) she read all the time. At the start of the novel she’s about to read a few pages from Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. I picture Piper as a fan of books from this time period and authors like E. M. Forster. To help her with her sadness and low self-esteem, I’d probably suggest Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart. I’d also give her poetry collections by Mary Oliver and W. S. Merwin. Piper’s sister, Margot, is a complete narcissist and only reads Twitter! Piper’s mother is a born again Christian and only reads the Bible. I’d probably force the entire family to read Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment by Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks.
I’m working on something that I hope is fun but also moving. I should be working on it now—ha ha! It’s due in three weeks and I’ve yet to write the ending. Wish me luck!