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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Author Interview - Mary Swan

Mary Swan is the winner of the 2001 O. Henry Award for short fiction and is the author of the collection The Deep and Other Stories (Random House). Her work has appeared in several Canadian literary magazines, including The Malahat Review, the Ontario Review, and Best Canadian Stories, as well as American publications such as Harper’s. She lives with her husband and daughter near Toronto.

What book or project is coming out or has come out that you’d like to tell us about?

My novel, The Boys in the Trees, will be published by Henry Holt in January, 2008. Set in the late 19th century, it explores, among other things, the effects of a terrible crime on a small community.

Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head.

I began to write short stories when I was about 20, and the first two were published in small literary journals. For the next many years, I sent out individual stories and then watched the mailbox, hoping for a small white envelope that would signal an acceptance, but often finding my own manilla SASE returned. What I remember feeling with the very first acceptance (and still do) was something like relief; it told me that I wasn’t totally deluded in thinking that someone else might want to read something I’d written.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work?

Constantly. For me, writing isn’t something that gets easier with time, although I think I’ve come to trust myself more, and have the patience to keep going and see what unfolds.

What are a few of your favorite books? (Not written by you.)

When I’m working on something I tend not to read fiction, so the list of books I haven’t read but intend to, is a long one. Some authors I do try to keep up with, in no particular order, are: Andrea Barrett, Pat Barker, Alice Munro, Alison McGhee, Jon McGregor, Hilary Mantel. And Sebastian Barry has two connected novels I like very much – Annie Dunne, and A Long Long Way. There are also poets I keep coming back to – Louise Gluck, Eavan Boland, John Burnside.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?

I’m very happy with how The Boys in the Trees turned out. I started working on it as a short story, then thought of linked short stories, but as I wrote different parts of the book, they began to connect and fit together. It’s not a straightforward novel, and if there are rules, I’ve probably broken every one, but for me at least, the different parts do make some kind of satisfying whole.

Take us through your process of writing a novel briefly—from conception to revision.

Often a first sentence will start circling in my mind, although I have only a hazy idea of what it will turn into. Things I’ve been writing lately have mainly been set in the late 19th or early 20th century, so I do a lot of reading – histories, memoirs, old newspapers, scientific texts. Mostly to get a sense of a particular time and place, but also just because I like to find things out. With The Boys in the Trees, for example, I spent a lot of time paging through old newspapers and mail-order catalogues to get a clearer idea of what people’s clothes would have been like, something it was important for me to know, even though in the book itself there’s very little mention of what characters are wearing.

I write bits and pieces while I’m reading and thinking, but I usually don’t have a real plan or structure in mind; that tends to emerge as the writing accumulates. I don’t set myself a certain number of words per day, or hours at my desk; I’ve tried that at different times, but it just doesn’t work for me. I tend to revise as I’m going along, so by the end I usually just have some tinkering to do. But of course there are many things that I start and then set aside, or stories that I think are finished, but then return to and completely rework months or years later.

Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?

There have definitely been times when I’ve thought there was no point in trying to publish, particularly after rejections that made it clear that someone just didn’t get whatever it was I’d been trying to do. And there have been long, discouraged periods when I didn’t, in fact, send anything out. But writing is something I do, part of who I am, not something I’ve ever thought of stopping. It’s something I’d still be doing, in some shape or form, even if I’d never published a sentence.


  1. Great story, Mary. I love when NJ showcases a literary writer.

  2. Having just listened to Mary talk at the Wpg. Writer's Festival yesterday, I just want to say that I'm looking forward to reading your works and thanks for a great bookchat.

  3. Boys in the Trees is brilliant. The succinct language, the plot overlays, the pulse, the beauty of the words!! Looking forward to knowing more about this careful writer.


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