Interview with Beverly Swerling

Tell us about your newest release City of God.

It was a book I took great pleasure in writing because it documents such a transition in the city, almost a kind of blossoming of the New York we know. The clash of culture and religion and gender is part of the warp and woof of the city today, and it really was born in the period between 1836 and the start of the Civil War in 1860 – the period of this book. Also, I really loved the characters. I hope readers will as well.
What brought about the desire to write fiction? Was it something you always knew you were going to write or was there a catalyst?

I’m one of those who was always going to write – it was obvious to the adults around me from the time I was a little kid, just about the only thing I was really good at – but I started out in journalism and had to muster the courage to set out into the uncharted waters that are fiction. Even book length non-fiction is much easier to write. It has natural paramaters. Fiction – at its inception, when all the pages are blank – has none.

How long does it take you to write a novel? Will you describe the steps you take in the writing and revisions?

Most of my books take about two years to write, but sometimes a book will come at white heat, and that is a process with its own demands. In the case of the City series I’ve been doing for Simon & Schuster, it’s easier now because I have developed a body of research and in each instance since City of Dreams I’m building on a foundation I have already laid. At least in terms of the research. The books, of course, can all be read as stand alone. And Shadowbrook really is to the side of the others. It touches the series in places, but it’s a separate thing. (And because of all the American Indian material, it was the most difficult to research.) Because I never write an outline – I would be too bored to write the book if I did that – I am changing and rewriting constantly. Now that I write on a computer and can keep rewriting with relative ease.. I do. I’m compulsive over commas, not to mention the story. And I’m always thinking of new things that I can add if I just go back and do a bit of foreshadowing here and plant a clue or two there…

Your books are known for their research. Will you walk us through the steps of beginning that laborious process? What do you do first and how do you organize your materials?

Every book begins for me first with characters, then with place, and then with plot. What if he does this and she does that… And then what if someone comes along who… But once I have those ideas – and I outline nothing except in my mind – I have to see how what was happening in the time and place I’ve selected is likely to impact my characters. To do that I start reading – generally a pile of books that overview the period and the conflicts. Once I’ve got a good sense of the highlights of the time, I dig deeper by using the Internet – what a Godsend that is! I can remember when I would trek from one library to another and wait while some librarian (all librarians are wonderful in my world) went and found me some dusty old something no one had looked at for years. Now the digitalization of resources is truly staggering. I thought I might do something in 1776 during the Second Continental Congress (probably won’t as it turns out) and I discovered that the Library of Congress in DC has on their site the entire diary kept by John Hancock while he was President of the Congress. In ordinary type and in facsimile. That is astounding. Just a few years ago I would have been figuring out how to get down to DC and if I could get to see the diary and get everything I needed in one day or if I’d have to stay over…

During your research, what fact or practice surprised you the most?

In the New York series, the fact that slavery was so prevalent in the North and that the entire economy of New York City was, for many years, built on the slave trade. In City of God you’ll discover that New Yorkers were violently opposed to the Civil War (and anti-Lincoln) because the end of slavery was going to cost them huge sums of money. And they were so self-righteous with it. But there were heroes as well. Many in the black community who were the guts of the Underground Railroad (and they had the most to lose if they were caught). Some whites also saw the terrible injustice and stood up to be counted. Of course most of my characters were in their number! Another thing that astounded me was the truly terrible fire of 1836. The city almost burned to the ground. It’s why there is so little of colonial New York left. And before I started working on City of God I knew nothing about it.

Which book are you most proud of? Why?

That’s easy. I’m always most proud of the book I’m working on right now. Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel will understand why that is. It’s really, really hard and you feel proud of yourself for trying every day.

Which book was the most difficult to write? Why?

Sorry, they’re all difficult. A dozen times in the course of a ms I think, my God… I’ve lost the thread entirely. I can’t do this. Why did I ever start.

Sol Stein argues the writer must never lose sight they are writing for an audience, while William Zinsser advises writers not to envision “the great mass audience.” When you’re writing, where do you fall on this scale?

I tell the story I want to tell, but I’m always conscious of never telling the reader an untruth (advice from a man now head of a major publishing house whom I knew back when he was a junior editor) and not making things so complicated the reader has no idea where you’re going. Most important, never, never, never bore the reader. That’s uppermost in my mind always. What would I want to know next? All that said, I write a book as I think it should be written and tell the story I want to tell.

Was there ever a difficult set back that you went through in your writing career?

Yes, indeed. But I won’t tell you about it. Too horrible.

Do you still experience self-doubts about your writing?

Every single day. Writing, at least for me, is a craft practiced in total isolation and without feedback. I cannot tell you how often I wonder if what I’m doing is any good at all. Henry Morrison, my wonderful agent of twenty-plus years, is usually my first reader and I wait to hear from him chewing my fingernails like the greenest novice.

Tell us about your journey to publication. How long did it take before your first novel was published?

As I said, I started in journalism, then wrote a book of non-fiction, then dipped my toe in the fiction stream by writing a genre novel under another name. That was a good many years ago and I only stopped getting royalties on that book a few years back. It was, incidentally, a terrible book. Done rather like painting by numbers. I analyzed other books in the genre and followed the pattern. Got a second class agent and was lucky enough to have him sell it to a first class publisher.

What do you consider the best advice you’ve heard on writing/publication?

G.B. Shaw – at least I think it was he. “All of writing is rewriting.” I’m a great believer in polishing and polishing.

What is the worst?

The sort of thing people say to the young who express interest in being a writer. “Oh, you’ll never be successful at that. Too hard. Sell insurance. It’s more secure.”

What advice would give a newcomer entering into the publishing world?

Have a decent day job (maybe selling insurance) and gird your loins to put up with a huge amount of rejection, but never lose faith in yourself. Above all, apply backside to chair and keep doing it. If one book doesn’t sell, throw it out and start a new one. Write every single day and never stop honing your craft. More books fail because of lack of craft than anything else. I occasionally mentor young writers and I’ve learned that good ideas for a novel are much easier to come by than the skill to actually tell the story. Novelcraft is rule number one.

Will you give us a view into a typical day of your writing life?

I write very early – usually starting around 5:30 and keep going until probably 11 or so. After that I can’t write more. I can NEVER summon new words later in the day, though on occasion I can do such things as correct galleys, or edit a few pages.

Will you show us your writing space?

I wish I could. I have a small office and I work surrounded by tons of reference books. But I’m the last person in America not to have a digital camera. My cell takes photos but I can’t figure out how to upload them to the computer. I keep thinking I should upgrade, but so far I haven’t done it.

How much marketing do you do? Any advice in this area?

Not as much as I should. I’d much rather write. And my advice would be to not do as I do.

Parting Words?

Thank you for asking.

Beverly Swerling is a writer, a consultant to other writers, and an avid amateur historian. Her previous historical novels are Shadowbrook, City of Dreams, and City of Glory. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband.