If you’re anything like myself, you probably dream of traveling the world one day, meeting lots of people and being inspired by the places you see and the people that enter your lives in these unknown lands. I would give anything to just leave Calgary and go to Europe for a year, but sadly I can only imagine it. Beverly Swerling, however, has done that. In fact, she’s lived all of Europe. She’s a simply fascinating woman and I recently had the chance to chat with her about her life, her experiences, her career and her newest book Bristol House.
Life is as busy as ever nowadays. How do you find the time to sit down and write?
I’m a very disciplined writer. Once I begin a book I write every morning—truly every single morning, unless someone dies or I am so ill I cannot lift my head—from around 6 a.m. until 10 to 10:30 a.m. Then I open my office door, pick up my e-mail, and let the world in. The key to the above is that little phrase, “Once I begin…” Getting to that critical moment is sometimes pure hell. I can find a million reasons why now is not the time to start a new book.
You’ve been writing for many years now… At what point in your life did you realize that writing was the path you were going to follow in life, abandoning the idea of a stable career in another field?
It’s what I wanted to do from the time I was around 9. After college I took any kind of cockamamie job I could find—file clerk, waiting tables—until I was finally eking out a bare living stringing words together. Mind you, not novels in those days. I didn’t have the guts to try a novel until I’d been a freelance journalist for nearly a decade. Fiction is way harder than non-fiction.
You’ve lived in Europe twice. What made you decide to leave everything behind and start somewhere new? Where did you live in Europe and what drew you there?
The first time my reasoning was simply that it was another of those things I’d always wanted to do. I had the chance and took it. (Interviewing for hospitals who wanted to hire Irish nurses. Then writing their stories for various mags.) Second time was more complicated and based on family considerations. I’ve lived in Ireland, England, France, Spain, and the Canary Islands (which belong to Spain and where Spanish is spoken—but different from Spain in many ways).
Do you think you were, in any way, influenced by your life in Europe when it comes to your stories?
Definitely! It’s not only the places I’ve lived that add to my novels in description, etc. I think “place” is hugely important in fiction. Almost another character. And I’m frequently interested in/writing about the reactions of an American to other places. Which is usually coloured by the fact that, except for native Americans, all of us came from “other places” one, two, three generations back…
What events in your life led you to write Bristol House? What were your inspirations for writing such a novel?
Bristol House has been lying in wait for me for 20+ years. The saga began the first time I saw the London flat in the story—No 8 Bristol House on Southampton Row—which belongs to my son’s in-laws. I was overwhelmed by how quintessentially English it was and knew I’d put it in a book someday. Soon after that we were loaned the flat for a London stay. One day I was walking down a nearby street and I heard a group of very plumy English accents behind me, women talking and laughing. When I turned around no one was there. Then I noticed that the house beside me had a plaque commemorating the fact that Lady Ottoline Morrell had lived there. She was a great patron of the arts who helped T.S. Eliot, and was close to one of my heroines, Virginia Woolf. I felt as if I’d stumbled on a “wrinkle in time,” though I could never reproduce the experience. All of that combined to become a novel in which the back bedroom of No. 8 is a place where two different eras meet, though in the case of Bristol House the historical section is based on Tudor times, not the time of the Bloomsbury Group.
As you began to write Bristol House, what were your fears?
That I could not do justice to a novel that combined the really complex contemporary plot I envisioned for the modern thriller section, and the very human drama of the Tudor period—which I knew right away had to be told by two different first person voices who were, I knew, speaking from “after death.” None of that was going to be easy to pull off.
What challenges and obstacles did you face as you wrote your novel? What was surprisingly easy for you?
I’m trying to tell a story about profound and ongoing Anti-Semitism through the ages, that also addresses real questions of religious belief. The hard part is doing that in a way that readers will find believable. The easy part was getting into the minds of both the Jewish and Catholic characters. Happens my background includes both traditions—so whichever side you’re on, I’ve got skin in the game.
Who were your biggest supporters for this novel? How did they help you?
My biggest supporter is always my wonderful husband, and in the case of Bristol House, my agent Marly Rusoff. And Clare Ferraro, editor of Viking, who got what I was trying to do with this book from the first minute. And Carole DeSanti, my editor at Viking, who was willing to aggressively engage with a strong willed author—so in the end we got something better than either of us could produce alone. And the publicity and marketing people at Viking have been wonderful.
What is the most important lesson readers can take away from Bristol House, and what will surprise them?
I hope what they’ll take away is that nothing is necessarily what it seems. And that truth is not always limited to what we can perceive with our five senses. As for the surprise…in a novel planned to work first as a thriller, I hope the ending is a real surprise.
Can you relate to any of the characters in Bristol House? If so, how?
I’m always a little bit of all my characters. Mostly, though I am not an alcoholic, I relate to Annie’s wish to have been able to better use her gifts, and to forgive herself for her failings.
In a Tweet-sized summary (150 characters or less), tell me what Bristol House is about!
A tale set in the 16th and 21st centuries, wherein a monk and historian meet and hurtle toward destinies 500 years apart, yet on a collision course.
What was your writing routine like? Did you listen to certain types of music? Drink certain beverages? Write in certain locations? Is your writing routine the same for each novel you write or does it vary?
As above, I write every morning, in my office, for 3 to 3.5 hours minimum. No music. Have to have complete silence. I’m afraid I scream if I hear anyone else in the house talking too loud.
Just for fun, I want to know your five favourites: author, musician/musical group, city, historical moment, animal—and why.
Well, authors: James Clavell, Donna Leon, Gillian Flynn, Emma Donoghue and Virginia Woolf’s non-fiction.
Music: Itzhak Perelman on the violin, Yo Yo Ma on the cello—also Jacqueline DuPre on the same instrument. And the NY Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. And I adore Cold Play. And Gregorian chant, particularly as done by the nuns of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem CT.
Cities: New York, London and Paris. But I also love Arrecife, capital of Lanzarote in the Canaries.
Too many historical moments to name, but examples: Lincoln speaking at his second inaugural. What the founding fathers said to each other in that conference that came up with the US Constitution. The liberation of Paris at the end of WWII.
Animal: My darling little mutt, Daisy, 20 lbs of pure unadulterated love.
What has your writing experience been like so far?
In the words of the L. I. Medium (see, I’m confessing to watching endless hours of trash TV—my favorite relaxation) “This is not just my work, it’s my life.”
You’re a seasoned writer. What advice would you give to aspiring authors or those early on in their writing career?
Decide if it’s worth it to you, if you really HAVE to do it. Because the price you’ll pay is very high. The lows are abysmal. You can spend years on a book that goes nowhere. But the highs, the rewards, can be enormous in terms of satisfaction, and yes, very, very occasionally economic. (Though it will help a very great deal if you can marry well. Or claim a comfortable trust fund.)
If you would like to win a copy of Bristol House, enter here! (Unfortunately this giveaway is restricted to US residents only.)
Otherwise the book hits shelves today!