Erika Swyler on the perils of writing about the places close to your heart.
It’s risky to borrow from your childhood home for your novel. The instinct to write what you know better than anyone else is strong, which makes hometowns irresistible, particularly after long years of living away. I shamelessly stole geographic features, mannerisms, small town life, and the Long Island Sound from home. I wrote them as loudly as I could — lovingly, I hoped. I sent it off to my agent and thought nothing more of it.
And then, I had to move back.
“Oh, so you wrote a novel.”
“How wonderful. What’s it about?”
That’s when I began to sweat. Faces I knew from the time I was small wanted to know where it took place, what it was about and, of course, who was in it. I can now recognize the exact moment someone superimposes my life over my novel’s plot. It’s a particular kind of glance, a little too long, a little too interested. More importantly, I know the look of someone who desperately wants to ask if I’ve written anything nasty about someone we both know.
I have and I haven’t. When you write your hometown, you aren’t really writing your town, you’re writing the idea of it mixed with others. You pull buildings from here, roads from there. You borrow a library from another city because the light is right. You make it more. You make it different. It’s the same with the inhabitants. Every character is borrowed from everyone I’ve ever known, plus me, mashed together and squeezed out to form someone entirely new. So yes, I’m sure I’ve written something nasty about someone I’ve known since birth, but that someone is really aspects of ten or twenty people — and above all, aspects of me — swirled together and poured out to make something new. Familiar, perhaps, but very different. I’ve written nice things about people too, but that isn’t nearly as exciting.
People ask if I’ll keep writing about where I’m from and I’m quick to say no. No, the next thing’s somewhere else. Florida, Russia, Mars, anywhere far away. Anywhere where my face is anonymous and no one will look too deeply at my descriptions. I’ll have to learn to love somewhere else. The danger of being inspired by your childhood home is that eventually you must give it up for other places, and it hurts.
The danger in being inspired by your hometown is suddenly feeling that you can’t escape your book. Once a week I drive a section of a road I stole in the name of fiction, and each time I imagine my car spinning out. It took in the neighborhood of thirty tries to write that scene where the car spins out. I now remember it as though it happened whenever I drive that bit of borrowed road. I do wonder if I’ll have to move to escape this book. Until then, every time I swim in the Sound I’ll think of all the women I drowned on behalf of plot. That feeling isn’t as far from drowning as it should be.
But the joy of it, too.
“You wrote a book?”
“That’s amazing. I remember you when you were just a baby. Your mother would be so proud.”
And it’s perfect. Because I borrowed that white hair. I borrowed someone else’s freckles. The overlapping front teeth. The smell of the water. I stole a voice that’s been stuck in my ear for over twenty years. I swiped everything we all hated and loved about small towns, and made it again. The great big mess of a book that people feared might have them in it? It’s a love letter.
Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone on the Long Island Sound in his family home, a house perched on the edge of a cliff that is slowly crumbling into the sea. His parents are long dead, his mother having drowned in the water his house overlooks.
One day, Simon receives a mysterious book from an antiquarian bookseller; it has been sent to him because it is inscribed with the name Verona Bonn, Simon’s grandmother.
Simon must unlock the mysteries of the book, and decode his family history, before fate deals its next deadly hand. The Book of Speculation is Erika Swyler’s gorgeous and moving debut, a wondrous novel about the power of books, family, and magic.
Erika Swyler is a writer and playwright whose work has appeared in literary journals and anthologies. A graduate of New York University, she was born and raised in Long Island’s north shore. Erika learned to swim before she could walk, and happily spend all her money at travelling carnivals. She is also a baker, photographer, and blogger.