Fables are Such Force: Julia Fine in Conversation with Erika Swyler

The booksellers who select the books we feature in our Discover Great New Writers program love the impossible and the improbable, magical and haunting stories like The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry, and The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler—and Julia Fine’s incredible debut, What Should Be Wild. Maisie is a girl born with an extraordinary power—she can kill and resurrect with a single touch. Hidden away in her family’s home, with a father who sees his daughter as a science experiment instead of a child, Maisie only knows what her father tells her to be true. And when he disappears, she sets off into the wild woods surrounding her home to look for him. The woods are a strange world—and a world that is calling Maisie home…

An antiquarian bookseller. A rare book. Orphaned siblings, drifted apart. A house falling into the sea. Doomed lovers. A traveling circus. Family secrets, family curse, or both?  Erika Swyler’s debut, The Book of Speculation, an electric tale of love and books, family and destiny, was a Summer 2015 Discover pick—and the first book we thought of when we started reading What Should Be Wild.

Here, Julia and Erika riff on fairy tales and folklore, reading genre-blind—and deliver plenty of fantastic book recommendations that range from Angela Carter and Doris Lessing to Sarah Waters and Jenny Zhang. (Grab a pencil, you’ll want to read them all.) And that’s just to start…

Erika Swyler: First, I must congratulate you and beg your forgiveness. I did that thing novelists both love and hate; I tore through What Should Be Wild in a weekend. It’s such an awful time exchange, isn’t it? You spend an enormous chunk of time writing the book, only to have it consumed like a binge-watch. And that means it’s good! That it was such a page turner got me thinking about the way you use time and scope in your work. You’re covering roughly 1,400 years, yet it never feels protracted. It’s a hugely ambitious undertaking and rare in that it’s successful. Did you know how much time you’d be covering from the outset or was that something that grew naturally as you dug into the work? Did it ever feel intimidating?

Julia Fine: Thank you! I’m both a binge-writer and binge-reader myself, so I take this as the highest praise.

When I first started out, What Should Be Wild was purely Maisie’s story, but at about seventy-five pages I got stuck. I had a theme I wanted to address, a central concept, and a few promising characters, but the plot was a mess. The Blakely family history actually began as discovery writing—I figured I would get to know the house and the estate a bit better and see where it took me. Once I started with Lucy’s backstory it very quickly became clear that this was where the book was headed. The backstory chapters were by far the easiest for me to write, and ultimately required the least editing. They gave me a clear direction to my reading and research, which made my work much more productive, and tied in beautifully to all these fables that Maisie had insisted on telling, despite my efforts to steer her in different directions. The intimidating part was then weaving the histories into the contemporary narrative. I went through several structural iterations before querying agents, another before my agent sent out the manuscript, and I think two more with my editor.

You’ve done something similar with dual storylines in The Book of Speculation. What was your approach to structuring? Did you jump back and forth while writing, or did you know all along what Simon was going to discover?

Swyler: I also found backstory chapters easier to write. Maybe it’s the lack of worrying about what problems can be easily solved by cell phones. As you said, backstory research felt focused and productive. I knew how Amos and Evangeline’s story had to end, which gave a forward thrust to half the book and meant I knew what Simon would discover, though not how, or what the discovery would do to him. It’s rare for me to have a sense of where I’m going at the start of a project, so when I find signposts—unavoidable plot points—I cling to them. That’s the gift of working with long family histories: people die, you need to manage that, and whoops, that makes a plot. I knew early on that I had to alternate chapters between Amos and the menagerie in the 1790s and Simon in the present day. It felt like the only way I could be sure the halves of the story were feeding each other. Selfishly, that meshes well with my quirks as a writer. If I stare too long at one chapter, all I see are walls. Switching back and forth between time periods and voices gave me a false sense of freedom, though I was just approaching the same story from the other side. It’s not so different from the spiraling sort of time your book works with.

I need to ask you about fables. For myself, I know I began by wondering what immigrant American fables looked like, and how cultures get translated by families over time. I stumbled across Rusalka folklore while researching, and it was an extraordinary gift. Fables are such a force in What Should Be Wild. You said Maisie insisted on telling them, and we read them first as dreamy tales, but they become these dangerous gritty gems when you explore their roots. The stories you’re working with are deeply connected to the land, but most strikingly, they’re connected specifically to women. Each character is her own fable. The book’s men, Peter, Rafe, Matthew, are all interested in fable and folklore, but it’s Maisie and the other women who embody it. Can you talk a little bit about that choice?

Fine: I’ve always been fascinated by fairy tales and how they operate simultaneously as encouragement and warnings. It seems counterintuitive that the Cinderella story tells us to suffer silently and be kind to those who are cruel to us (a real world lesson), while at the same time positing a fairy godmother (utterly fantastic). This dynamic is present across so many fables and folk stories about women—on the one hand they are reinforcing the status quo, while on the other offering hope for a way out of repressive situations. The more I researched, the more I realized this is party because women have a long history as storytellers—from the oracles in Ancient Greece to Mother Goose to wealthy women in late seventeenth century French salons—and have used storytelling as a way to push back against patriarchal societies. Marina Warner has a wonderful book called From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers that delves into the different types of women who’ve told stories throughout history, and the common themes in the stories they’ve told. I leaned heavily on her work when writing, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of fairy tales.

As a teenager I remember being struck by the realization that history itself was just a story, and that the language we use has a tremendous impact on how we view what came before us. I’d like to think of the multiple versions of the fables in What Should Be Wild as a kind of historiography, examining these stories from different angles in an effort to get closer to some sort of truth. I wanted to dig into some of the stereotypical female characters we see in fables—the mother, the witch, the crone—and let them begin to represent themselves. Trying to connect archetypal characters to situations women have faced throughout history was remarkably easy. When you start to think about why a particular story was being told, it becomes a lot easier to sympathize with its villains—way too often just women with unconventional aspirations.

You look at this a bit in The Book of Speculation. Evangeline is dangerous, but in such a sympathetic way. She’s got Rusalka blood, but it seems like it’s her subconscious desires that are the real danger. Was this intentional on your part, or am I projecting?

Swyler: You’re not projecting! When I was digging around in folklore I became fascinated with how modern western religion interacts with older storytelling traditions. If you look at Rusalki in particular, they’re a clear mashup of an old idea with a new religion. Rusalki are said to tickle people to death, which doesn’t sound terribly intimidating. That’s the kind of story mothers tell to keep children from running into rivers and drowning. Then we inject religion—they’re women who were unbaptized when they died, they’re seducers, desperate for men’s souls—and it becomes something more sinister; it becomes a story that shames women’s physical desire and suggests that desire’s remedy is religion. Evangeline’s main fault is that she hungers, physically and emotionally, in a setting in which women are taught their desires are sinful. What does giving in and embracing those longings do to your sense of self?

This is a long-winded way of saying that I love a good villain, in part because I think we should question what’s villainous. You hit on that so well with how you’ve written Maisie. She has the power of life and death in her fingertips, and a specific set of rules for using it safely, but also the naïveté and temperament of a teenager, who seems at times to be wholly made of desires. How did Maisie come about for you?

Fine: I’ve always hated hearing writers say that a character just appeared to them—it makes me feel like the creative process is totally out of the artist’s control, which I don’t think is generally the case—but with Maisie that’s exactly what happened. In early 2014, I was working on a different project and just happened to hear a clip on NPR about a braindead pregnant woman whose husband was fighting the state of Texas, trying to get her taken off of life support. I immediately wondered what life would be like for that child if the pregnancy went to term, and suddenly there was Maisie, telling me all about her childhood. I wrote the scene with Mrs. Blott’s leg very quickly, thinking that I had a short story on my hands. But Maisie’s voice was so clear that I couldn’t just leave her there, I had to figure out what came next.

Pretty soon after I decided this was a novel, I wrote a quick paragraph of Maisie looking at a darker version of herself in the forest, feasting, and this opened up her central inner struggle: like Evangeline, Maisie has these subconscious desires that she’s been told are bad, and she thinks of herself as bad because of them. I definitely pulled from my own teenage feelings of insecurity here, but filtered through Maisie’s powers all of my own experiences were heightened. I’m also a huge copycat. Ultimately, I think Maisie is a mix of myself at sixteen, and the heroines who’ve made up my reading: Merricat Blackwood from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Melanie from Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop, Philip Pullman’s Lyra Belaqua. Basically, all of her fierceness comes from these literary ladies, while her insecurities and poor decision making is all me.

I wanted Maisie to reflect something universal about what it means to be a woman in modern society. Another massive influence on this novel was Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, which is all about the compartmentalization of self—how we become totally different people under different circumstances, how the structure of our society basically necessitates that women hide parts of themselves and make binary choices. You can be a mother or a partner at the law firm, you can be sexy or taken seriously, etc. I wanted Maisie to buck those conventions. I was pregnant with my first child when I sold What Should Be Wild (he’ll be one when the book comes out), and I think some of Maisie’s desperation and catharsis has been my own as I try to negotiate new, dual roles. Did you have any specific works or experiences that you felt you were in conversation with while writing The Book of Speculation?

Swyler: It can be disheartening when authors intimate that a character or book sprung fully formed like Athena from Zeus. It’s a slipperier process—being open to ideas, asking questions, looking for where that character is lurking. There you were, listening to an NPR story, unaware that it was hiding Maisie, and ultimately What Should Be Wild. That’s work too, isn’t it? Listening. There’s so much guilt around writing, that you’re not working unless you’re sitting down and banging out words. The bulk of the work is in taking in ideas and figuring out ways to process them. Spontaneous moments of creation aren’t at all spontaneous; they’re the culmination of years of thought we don’t recognize as work.

For The Book of Speculation, I saw it as a marriage between two of my favorite books, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, and Graham Swift’s Waterland. Both deal with poisonous family legacies and the idea of inheritance and responsibility. Swift’s work is tied to land and environment in a way that speaks to me. Dunn’s Binewskis embodied this twisted technicolor view of people and familial love that felt true. I wanted to do that. Also, when I first started playing around with the book, I’d just spent a massive amount of time studying Hamlet and it crept into everything. Though he didn’t start out that way, my librarian, Simon, is my best stab at Hamlet. It’s an odd mashup of inspirations, I don’t think any of these works would be on speaking terms with each other. That’s probably what makes the finished product hard to label.

About that—part of what’s so enjoyable about What Should Be Wild is how difficult it is to categorize. You’re pulling from myth and folklore, magical realism, it has all the hallmarks of a bildungsroman, the crumbling house of a gothic, romance, and there’s also a bit of a thriller element. Are there any labels you outright reject, or genres that feel closer than others? Do you see yourself as playing between forms?

Fine: I can definitely see Hamlet in Simon! It seems so obvious now that you mention it, though I don’t know I’d have gotten there on my own. I think it’s when the inspirations are the most outwardly disparate that we get the best and most interesting fiction, though.

As a reader I am pretty genre-blind. As long as the language is resonating with me I’ll follow a plot anywhere. As a writer, it took me a while to shake off the idea that if I used genre elements in my own work I wouldn’t be taken seriously. I think that’s partially due to my MFA background. My teachers were always fully supportive, but there’d be one or two “I don’t do genre”s in a workshop that would have me second-guessing myself and my work. Ultimately, I went with my gut and wrote what I wanted, which is always the thing to do. For the most part, I didn’t have genre consciously in mind while I was writing, but it’s apparent looking back that I borrowed heavily from all sorts of forms.

It’s been fascinating watching the response to What Should Be Wild, because it does seem there’s this struggle to categorize it, which delights me. I’m happy with whatever shelf it’s put on, though I do think a reader coming in expecting the usual tropes of fantasy might be disappointed. Pure genre fiction is so much about expectations, which is part of what’s so comforting about picking up a cozy mystery or a romance. I think sometimes people don’t know what to do when those expectations are defied. I remember talking to someone about Tana French’s In the Woods (which I adore) and getting into an intense argument over her decision not to tie up certain threads. What it came down to was the type of book we each thought we were reading.

Swyler:  It shows that you’re an omnivorous reader. During the tenser moments when Maisie’s in danger, I found myself grinning madly because suddenly you’d led me into a horror novel. It was seamless and the only thing that could have happened.

I love that you encountered people who said they don’t do genre. As someone without an MFA, I’m contractually obligated to say that MFA writing is a genre. And I don’t mean that as an insult! But in the same way one can go looking for happy endings in romance, or radical political ideas in science fiction, when you want a dissection of domestic drama and painful disaffection with American life, an MFA novel will rarely let you down. I got to hear Margaret Atwood talk briefly about genre (at Comic-Con, of all places). She cheerfully tossed out that genre categories were created solely so that booksellers know where to shelve books. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but I find that interesting, especially when you consider how particular people are about calling some of Atwood’s work speculative fiction rather than science fiction, as though that indicates something about quality. It doesn’t. Atwood is Atwood. I understand the delight in watching people struggle to categorize the work. I think it means you’re getting readers to question their expectations of what a book can do. That’s good for them. It’s a book, why shouldn’t it be allowed to pull from whatever it needs to?

But back to the MFA. Can you talk a little about that experience? I’m massively curious as to what I missed out on.

Fine: MFA writing is totally a genre! I wish I’d had that response at hand back in my writing workshops…

I think the most valuable thing I got from my MFA was the community of writers I suddenly had access to. Writing can be a very lonely endeavor, so it’s nice to feel like you’re at least alone together.  I’ve always been one of those crazy people who likes school, so an MFA was a natural fit for me. I also like feeling like I’m doing things purposefully, even if that’s an illusion. I have a lot of self-discipline, but I struggle with the self-doubt that I think plagues most writers, and saying, “I’m writing this novel as my thesis” felt like a justification for the time I was spending, and the odd jobs I was taking to make rent. It let me relax a bit and focus on the work rather than where the work was headed. I’m a “fugue state” kind of writer—I’ll do nothing for weeks and then sit down and work nonstop for as long as is physically possible—and graduate school is conducive to that type of work. What’s your process like?

Swyler: My process is a mess. I’m a Type B personality masquerading as a Type A. I do well with guidelines and deadlines, mostly because if I’m left to my own devices I’ll never turn anything in due to crippling self-doubt. Guidelines are generative for me in a backward way. I’m a contrarian, so I like having something to work against. If I get a suggestion to amp up a romantic plot, I immediately need to make something that renders romantic plot impossible. You said you’re a binge writer—I am too. I have long fallow periods where I’m collecting thoughts and mashing things together, then boom, I’ll churn out a short story in a day. Or a novel draft in a month. Then those things sit for ages until I can figure out what I’m trying to get at. I recently sold a short story that sat for a year before I felt like I could see what it was. It’s not efficient, but I feel like I need to be a different person by the end of a project. Sadly, that takes time. That said, I’m an insanely regimented reviser. I break it down to hour blocks and what needs to get accomplished each hour. I revise like it’s a cleanse. Maybe it is? I’ve started working at a treadmill desk.

I also need to talk about what I’m working on—that thing we’re never supposed to do. Hearing an idea out loud helps me to get my brain around it and see what interests people. The joy of seeing words in print is a long time coming, so I take my little hits of excitement where I can. For me, talking about a story is hugely different from working on the page, and an important step in sliding the puzzle pieces around.

Are you someone who can talk about what you’re working on? Not that I’m desperate to know what you’re working on. I absolutely am. Please tell me, if you can.

Fine: Ha, I’m a Type A trying desperately to pretend that I’m Type B. I don’t think I’m fooling anyone, though.

I go back and forth on about talking about a project. I’ve found that talking through the minor stuff is helpful, but if it’s a more nebulous idea I’ll end up talking myself out of it. Right now, at a very broad level, I’m in the early stages of working on a postpartum poltergeist novel. I haven’t even discussed it with my agent yet, so you’re getting the super early scoop! I also have that drawer novel I’m reluctant to give up on—it’s a dystopian version of Aeschylus’s Oresteia story. I was too young when I originally wrote it, and I’m still not sure I’m ready to do it right. Maybe book three, if I’m lucky enough to get one! Because I am quick to throw a project away, I just abandoned another ten thousand words of a novel that I’d completely plotted out, but wasn’t fun anymore. After What Should Be Wild I told myself an outline would make the next book so much easier, but I don’t know if I’m capable of making one without zapping the life out of the book.

I know you recently sold your second book. Congratulations! Can you talk a bit about it, and about what it was like coming off of the first? That “sophomore novel” is supposedly the nightmare…

Swyler: There you have it—postpartum poltergeist is an incredible pitch. My agent doesn’t know what I’m working on yet either, but at this point, it’s because I can’t describe it without saying things like, “So, there’s this filament tank. You know, filaments? Just go with it.” It’s funny how we grow into stories. I hope you do pick up that Oresteia novel again, but I understand what you mean about being too young for it. That’s what happened with my sophomore novel. I had an idea about a father who wanted to keep his daughter from growing up, but I needed to suffer a little more as a human to figure it out.

Second novels are weird beasts. There was pressure in that I felt there were expectations to meet or exceed, and that people wanted me to write the same book all over again. I was also dealing with the depression that comes when the book publicity cycle ends. It’s inevitable people stop talking about a book, but it’s shocking how short that life cycle is, even if a book is a success. I’m here to tell you that debut novel postpartum depression is normal. I’m guessing it’s just post-publishing depression. As for the writing of it, it felt a bit like someone was watching me through a peephole while I worked. Of course, no one cares that much about any single writer working, but it’s a trap we all fall into. And it’s easy to think you know how to write a novel because you’ve done it once or twice. Wrong. Each project is learning to write all over again. I had to tell myself, “It’s okay if you don’t write another.” Permission to be a one-book wonder is freeing. This next book (tentatively called Little Twitch) is hugely different, but I’m hopeful that people will trust me. It’s another hard to categorize book, but that’s where the similarity ends. It’s science-oriented, set in 1986 Florida and in the future on a space module. It also has a child protagonist. I love it because it feels in line with who I am at this age, and because it helped me feel like I’d finally put The Book of Speculation to bed.

So, you teach as well. What do you tell your students who are grappling with this process stuff?

Fine: I’m glad you like the concept! Little Twitch sounds wonderful—I’m very excited to read it.

I do teach, although my maternity leave has lasted much longer than expected so I’m not in the classroom right now. I’ve been teaching college composition and rhetoric, which is very different from teaching creative writing, but equally rewarding as food for my own fiction. I usually kick the semester off with a personal essay, which can be very daunting for my freshmen. The best advice I have—advice I also regularly give myself—is “write what scares you.” It’s next to impossible to be boring when you’re writing from that place of vulnerability, and I find that my students are much more passionate about their work when they’ve hit upon a topic that cuts to the bone.

I’m sure you’ve had other writers ask you for advice. What do you say?

Swyler: Advice for the individual writer is so difficult to give because nobody works in quite the same way. I don’t recommend working the way I do. If someone’s just beginning their writing career, I try to remind them that it’s a very long game. I’m just starting. With luck, I’ll be writing well into old age. Style takes time to develop and writing benefits from living. I remember feeling anxious that I wouldn’t have published anything by twenty-five. Very few people have figured out what they need to say by age twenty-five. Get a strange job or two. Stop at a few roadside attractions.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Fine: I think the best advice I’ve gotten regarding novel-writing is to give myself permission to write all over the book, rather than feeling like I have to go chronologically. I had this idea that all books were written start to finish, but that’s just blatantly untrue. General writing advice—this sounds so basic and silly—-is not to pile on or mix my metaphors. I’m a chronic over-writer and it took me a while to realize that less is more. I also like the advice you just gave me about thinking of those periods of not-writing as mental preparation!

Swyler: What are you reading now that you really love? Are there any writers you secretly wish you could crib from?

Fine: Right now I’m reading Marlena by Julie Buntin. I’m about halfway through and trying to slow myself down because it’s such a beautifully immersive experience—I know I’ll be devastated to see it end. I also recently finished Fen, an amazing short story collection by Daisy Johnson that examines female power and sexuality and insecurities in all sorts of fascinating ways. She’s a fabulous writer, and has a novel coming out soon that I can’t wait to get my hands on. I adored Danielle Lazarin’s Back Talk, which is another hard-hitting collection about womanhood. So many excellent, nuanced portrayals of women in fiction these days!

As for the books I wish I’d written: basically anything by Angela Carter, though The Magic Toyshop is my absolute favorite. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren is definitely up there. The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is, in my mind, a perfect book. Anything by Megan Abbott. I could go on! What’s on your nightstand at the moment?

Swyler: I’m on something of a gothic binge. My current read is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, which is beautifully done in the way it lets uncomfortable moments linger. I read Colin Winnette’s The Job of the Wasp not too long ago. It’s a terrific and sinister little book that’s as dark as you can get, but also hilarious. I’m a sucker for an unreliable narrator, and both books dig in on that in such different ways. Kanishk Tharoor’s Swimmer Among the Stars is shaping up to be my favorite read of the year. It’s as perfect a short story collection as I’ve ever read. I finished it in early January and I’m still thinking about it. I circle back to one particular story, “The Phalanx,” almost daily. Up next is the Wilson translation of The Odyssey, which I want to leave some space to think about. I’m going to need room for all my feminist feelings.

But you’re right, I think we’re in a golden age of complex women in fiction. Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart come to mind. They’re full of women who are unapologetic, sometimes cruel, often lost, and desperately human. Yet we still encounter that awful sexist question, “Is she likable?”

Fine: Ooh, Sarah Waters is a longtime favorite. Have you read Fingersmith?

I’m so sick of women’s work and work about women not being taken seriously. I’ve already gotten my first “oh, I guess this book isn’t for me because I’m male” response to What Should Be Wild and it boggles my mind. I love The Great Gatsby—am I supposed to feel alienated because it has a male protagonist? I’m raising a son—is my life experience not relevant to him because I’m a woman? The whole point of fiction is empathy toward “the other.” I want as many male-identifying readers as I can get. This book is one hundred percent for you!

Swyler: Fingersmith has been in my TBR pile for forever! I’ll have to shift it to the top now.

It strikes me that the barriers to female writers being taken seriously are the very reasons we must be taken seriously. Maybe it’s overly optimistic of me to believe that thoughtfully reading outside your gender is an inroad to fixing misogyny and transphobia, but I do. As you say, empathy is the point. And there’s a subversiveness in What Should Be Wild that I think speaks to that, a questioning of roles. You’ve occupied roles and spaces that come with enormous social connotations. You’ve been a teacher, mother-to-be, mother, and woman writer, all of which have been at times used as arguments for not seriously considering someone’s work. How do you push back? What is it like for you to move between these roles?

Fine: Honestly, navigating all these roles is only possible because of the support I’ve gotten from the publishing and literary community. I know it isn’t every author’s experience, but I’ve found my day-to-day interactions with everyone from the publisher to my agency to other authors like yourself to be inspiring and generous and vital to both my career success and general well-being. I hope this doesn’t come off as deferential or at all gendered—maybe a man would never shift the conversation to his team like this, but honestly he should! Literature doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I’m so lucky to have found an agent—the fabulous Stephanie Delman—who immediately believed in and understood my work. A few weeks after I signed on with Stephanie I found out I was pregnant, and not once did she ever make me feel that this was an impediment to having a career, selling the book, or being taken seriously as a debut author. And at every step of the way my publishing team at Harper has been phenomenally supportive.

I was finishing my final edits as the full-time caregiver of my three-month old, so What Should Be Wild is inextricably linked to my role as a new mother. Parenting has my brain operating on a whole new level—I notice and devote myself to things I never gave a second thought before. Teaching has always been a way for me to shift my perspective. Pregnancy gave me a better understanding of my body. These roles are all hugely beneficial to my writing, and if anything they should be celebrated. I do worry about time, and how difficult it is now to disappear into the work. My husband can fend for himself while I’m glued to the computer in a way my one year-old most certainly can not. But other mothers make it happen, and that inspires me. I think it’s about patience, and vulnerability, and above all believing that you have something worthwhile to say.

What Should Be Wild and The Book of Speculation are available now.

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