Debut Author Snapshot: Erika Swyler

Posted by Goodreads on June 2, 2015

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With circus mermaids, traveling tarot readers, and a bona fide family curse, Erika Swyler's imaginative debut, The Book of Speculation, blends past and present, carnival history, and bookish lore. At the middle is Simon Watson, a mild-mannered librarian living in a dilapidated house on Long Island Sound that is slowly but surely sliding into the sea. When he uncovers an an astonishing fact—for generations the women in his family, a line of circus "mermaids" skilled at holding their breath, have each drowned on July 24—he scrambles to find out more for the sake of his wayward, bohemian sister, who has just returned home for an unexpected visit.

Long Island native Swyler, who also blogs about baking at I Eat Butter, shares some of the watery inspiration for The Book of Speculation.

"Horseshoe crabs are a link between the novel's narratives. Years ago I stumbled across their annual spawning at night. It's the most striking thing I've ever seen. I realized how very young people are compared to them and latched on to the idea that horseshoe crabs might know more of history's plot than people." (Watch the video at National Geographic.)
Goodreads: There's something so deliciously intriguing/terrifying about a family curse. Have you ever encountered a curse or some strange coincidences in real life?

Erika Swyler: To me, the power of coincidence is very real. Years ago I interviewed for a position as a studio assistant to a potter. When the potter heard my name, she immediately hauled out my mother's business card—she'd taken it from the wall of a ceramics studio in another state—and asked if I was any relation. She hired me on the spot and became one of my dearest friends. That's the best kind of kismet.

As far as curses, I'll say this: In the novel I mention a "cursed" lake that has a habit of drowning men. I was in the final stages of edits when another man drowned in it. Granted, it's a deep lake and any time you mix people and bodies of water there's risk, but it was eerie to have just written about it and then see it in the news, drowning a man.

"Erosion is kept at bay with bulkheads, but they're costly to maintain and ultimately can't hold back years of storms. Once a bulkhead buckles, water cuts behind and destroys what's left, pulling the land out from under." (Photo: Erika Swyler.)
GR: What was your inspiration for The Book of Speculation?

ES: I'm from Long Island's north shore, a place that's highly vulnerable to erosion and sea level rise. Here you see the effects of climate change as land loss. If you walk the beaches, you'll see houses along the bluffs poised to fall. I always wondered who lived in them, how the houses got that way, and what happens once a house is past the point of no return. I pictured a person who'd inherited a house and didn't have the means to keep it but was too tied to it to let it go.

The circus story line came from my false start as an actor. I loved acting but wasn't particularly good at it. One of my professors in theater school was a ringmaster in a small circus. I realized that for some people running away with the circus is actually an option, it's a real choice people make—escaping, living a transient lifestyle in order to find your home.

The novel melds these worlds. It's a conversation between someone who longs to leave home but can't and someone who longs for a home but can't stop traveling. The two stories are bound by a book because books tie me together.

"A broadside advertisement for John Bill Ricketts's circus, which was the first in the U.S. to have its own building. The equestrian acts were identical to those performed in England. The format of Ricketts's circus influenced the art for generations." (Photo credit.)
GR: The world of the carnival and its characters is so ripe for storytelling. What drew you to this specific niche? What is your favorite thing you learned about circuses?

ES: I fell in love with carnivals as a kid. One would roll into town for a week every summer, and I'd find any excuse I could to go. There's something infinitely appealing to me about the mix of innocence and seediness. It's great fun, even though we all know we're getting fleeced. We're in on it. But I think it was Katherine Dunn's Geek Love that cemented my love for carnivals, circus, and sideshows as vehicles for stories.

In the U.S. the history of carnivals and circuses is closely intertwined, thanks largely to P.T. Barnum and his style of spectacle. If you're writing about circus, you have to dig to find what it looked like before Barnum. I landed on this interesting period in the 1790s, when John Bill Ricketts was just beginning to shape circus in the U.S. It felt like a wide-open area in which I could invent my own Barnum.

My favorite thing I learned while researching was that there was a fad of "Learned Pigs." The pigs were similar to counting horses, and more often than not were named Toby. That's delightful.

GR: Tell us about Simon. How did you develop the character? Is he the straight man to all these more eccentric characters?

ES: The hardest-working actor in any piece is the straight man; they have to hold the illusion of normalcy while things fall apart. Simon is very sure he's the straight man. But it's also part of human nature to think that you're normal and everyone else is weird. That's Simon. Simon keeps his weird quiet because it's such an integral part of who he is. He's incapable of seeing himself as other, despite the fact that he's the only person in the contemporary story line who practices extreme breath-holding.

With Simon I wanted to write a character who could at once feel comfortable and familiar to a reader, yet still be someone who could subtly lead a story off the rails. The trick of Simon is that to every other character he's utterly bizarre. He's reclusive and makes decisions that seem insane, he's a breath-holder, and he's letting his house fall off a cliff. He lives loudly but is so convinced of his own normalcy that he looks like the straight man.

GR: What's next for you as a writer?

ES: I'm figuring out another novel. I'm in that wonderfully awkward stage of plunking out a world and defining boundaries. It looks like I'll be playing around with science, space, and time. Nothing big.

"American circus was long portrayed as a hybrid of entertainment and education, combining elements of theater, museums, and zoo attractions. The museum aspects later translated into the jar and taxidermy displays associated with carnival sideshows and freak shows." (Photo credit.)

Comments Showing 1-16 of 16 (16 new)

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message 1: by Mary (new)

Mary This book intrigues me. I want to read it.

message 2: by Lori (new)

Lori Holuta Wow - I've never seen a plot like this before! Added to my want to read list and looking forward to getting into the story.

message 3: by Donna (new)

Donna Kamiel-forster Read the advanced copy and it is wonderful! Go to your nearest Independent Bookstore and buy a copy on June 23rd.

Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* The plot sounds fascinating, I'll grab it up when I get the chance.

message 5: by Ruthie (new)

Ruthie Lucky enough to have read an ARC of this novel - trust me, you will love it! Check out the author's website for more great info and photos and read about how she learned how to age paper and bind books to make her submissions to publishers look like old, antique books!

message 6: by Eileen (new)

Eileen This is everything an interview should be. It peaked my curiosity enough to download a sample later this month. Something tells me the book will quickly move to my Currently Reading List.

message 7: by Bobby (new)

Bobby Joyner You are creative and perhaps one of the most beautiful authors I've crossed paths. God's Peace! Bobby

Lynne Hawthorne so who do I have to tickle to be reminded when this book comes out, how do I purchase it, through whom? Thanks!


message 9: by Lori (new)

Lori Holuta Lynne Hawthorne wrote: "so who do I have to tickle to be reminded when this book comes out, how do I purchase it, through whom? Thanks!


It's on my wishlist at Amazon, though I'll pre-order it soon, too. I use my Wishlist as a personal reminder list, too.

message 10: by Bobby (new)

Bobby Joyner I pre-ordered the book through Amazon, it will be out shortly and Amazon will remind you when the book is being shipped. Lynne, I will volunteer to tickle you at the appropriate time or any other time you might need tickling:) Bobby

message 11: by Mary Eve (new)

Mary Eve Can't wait to read!!

message 12: by M (new)

M Price Mary wrote: "Can't wait to read!!"

You MUST read this! Glad I saw your comment on the home feed. I would have missed it with what's going on at home right now. Definitely one that's a must read and one of the few I've ever wished for a readers quide with Q&A as well as others to discuss it with.

Fantastic is an understatement!! Intriguing, thought provoking, etc etc. One of 2015's best of the best.

message 13: by Mary Eve (new)

Mary Eve Melissa wrote: "Mary wrote: "Can't wait to read!!"

You MUST read this! Glad I saw your comment on the home feed. I would have missed it with what's going on at home right now. Definitely one that's a must read an..."

I recently got a dry frm NetGalley, so...I'm planning on it. Now I really can't wait. But, first...I gotta move thru the books that need reviewing ASAP!! SO BEHIND!

message 14: by Virginia (new)

Virginia Hotchkiss Put it on my HOLD list at the library.

message 15: by Donna (new)

Donna Kamiel-forster Lynne Hawthorne wrote: "so who do I have to tickle to be reminded when this book comes out, how do I purchase it, through whom? Thanks!


Any independent bookstore will either have it in stock or will be able to order it for you!

message 16: by M (new)

M Price I'm shaking my head in awe! Every single thing about The Book of Speculation and this interview is so beyond fascinating, Wonderful, intriguing and is one of the best books I've ever read.

Having read the book and it being one I, for the first time ever, wish I had a reading buddy or readers guide...... I've just found the perfect answers to my questions here. This is such a powerful interview, fun in learning some of the answers to things I had questions about as I read the book and getting a sneak peek into your ( Erika Swyler ) mind for this story.......I'm in awe and thoroughly enjoyed reading this and the book.

Thank you so much to goodreads, St. Martins Press and of course Erika Swyler for your brilliant story and these answers which are beyond what I could express amazing. The how and why and a little of Simons personality!!! I don't know what to say. It's all so perfect! I cannot wait to read your next book. Space, Time travel, books about books and curses.....anything and everything. An incredibly talented and unique in the most awesome way, writer. What a gift! <3

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