I am so thrilled to have Swati Avasthi as a guest on Try This Book today! I discovered Swati's novel Split last year, thanks to Twitter. Split quickly became a favourite of mine. And I love sharing my favourite books, with anybody who will listen.
I hope you enjoy my interview with Swati Avasthi, a writer I'm sure you'll be hearing a lot more about in the future!
KC: Jace Witherspoon is one of the most authentic characters I’ve come across in a long while. He’s a shell-shocked teen who knows what it’s like to live in an abusive home. Every action and reaction he had was authentic. Can you tell us a bit about the research you underwent to make Jace so incredibly real?
SA: Thanks for having me and for the kind words! I do two types of research: 1) getting to know the characters and 2) getting to know their situation. Getting to know Jace was the best research I’ve done. I did “interviews” with him, wrote exercises to discover memories and exercises to discover his desires. I tried to keep everything in first person so I could get a feel for his voice. Once I even grocery shopped as him. Twinkies are tasty.
The other kind of research didn’t start out as research at all; it started out as my job. Long ago, in another life, I coordinated a domestic violence legal clinic. At the clinic, I listened to thousands of victims who needed orders of protection, thousands of incidents of abuse. I didn’t take any of their stories, but I understood the dynamic by the time I sat down to write SPLIT.
KC: I’m quite familiar with the first type of research you mention. The second type must have been simultaneously rewarding and difficult for you. Christian and Jace’s dynamic relationship—It really kind of takes the reader’s breath away. Family members in an abusive environment have an unspoken code of silence and shame. You played this so incredibly well between Christian and Jace. You did an amazing job of depicting the brother relationship and all it entails within an abusive situation. Can you tell us why you chose two boys—brothers—for your main characters?
SA: Domestic violence (DV) is typically framed as a women’s issue, but frankly, I think it’s a men’s issue, too. After all, men are a key component of the relationship. Whether he is a victim or a perpetrator, we make the guys who are in DV situations invisible—which silences victims and subtly gives a free pass to abusers. So I wanted to think about the effect that DV has on boys. And, since people respond so differently to abuse, I wanted to show the range in the boys’ responses. Contrast often makes for good fiction.
SPOILER ALERT We know that while most abusers are men, most men aren’t abusers. In my view, it’s those male allies who have the best chance to stop abuse, which was why it was critical to me that: 1) Jace had to change himself (no woman could do it for him) and 2) Christian had to be the one to give him some of the tools to change (running).
KC: Not to give away any Split spoilers, but I found it fascinating when Christian discovered the secret that Jace was harbouring about his girlfriend. Christian’s reaction was palpable. It was the one thing that could tumble the house of cards he built against the abusive past that he escaped. It must have been hard to write this aspect of Jace. Did you ever worry that the reader would turn against him?
SA: Yes, I did. Early on, the second reader I showed a scrap of chapter one to told me she hated all the characters and wouldn’t keep reading. I restructured the book and chapter one became chapter twelve, and a secret was born. While it gave me the space I needed to let me connect the reader to the characters, it also gave me a tough problem: how was I going to do a reveal in first person present tense? I dove into books to find the solution modeled for me in INVISIBLE by Pete Hautman—a book worth reading.
SPOILER ALERT AGAIN: The cool thing that happened when I restructured the book (and I wish I could say I had structured the book this way because I ‘m soooo narratively brilliant) is that it’s structured like an incident of abuse. We get to know Jace as a sympathetic, charming guy first and then we see his dark-side, after we’ve invested 100 pages into his life. And then he’s so sorry, so remorseful. Do we forgive him or not?
KC: That was quite the stroke of luck (brilliance) that came from the restructuring. So true that the reader likes and is sympathetic of Jace. When readers come across a new favourite author, they tend to wonder what that author likes. What their favourites are. So, this part of the interview is a multiple question survey. What does Swati Avasthi feel passionate about? Can you tell us a few of your favourite things?
SA: I love traveling, how it frees you beyond your responsibilities, beyond yourself --how you pay attention to the earth, the water, the sky better. I love seeing different ways of living, thinking, being. I’m also a sucker, obviously, for books. As I write this, I realize these two things might be related. :-)
KC: Who are your favourite authors now? And who were your favourite children’s authors when you were growing up?
Now: Laurie Halse Anderson, Pete Hautman, MT Anderson, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, Emily Bronte.
Growing up: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Harper Lee, S.E. Hinton. I still love these authors.
KC: What are your favourite movies? Actors?
SA: Huh. Well. I don’t watch that many movies anymore (lack of time) and a lot of what I watch is animated (have kids). So a lot of them will be older . . .
Apollo 13; Meet the Robinsons; How to Train your Dragon; Totoro; Goodwill Hunting (shocker, I know!); Shakespeare in Love; Amelie; The Road Home; Moulin Rouge; Kinky Boots; Gross Pointe Blank; Once; I.Q.
Meryl Steep; Edward Norton; Robert Redford; Heath Ledger; Johnny Depp; Anne Hathaway; Natalie Portman; Gary Oldman; Matt Damon; Tim Robbins; Gwenyth Paltrow; Nicole Kidman; Renee Zellweger; Kate Winslet; Kathy Bates
KC: Do you have a favourite writing place? Is it in your home, or in the wild?
SA: The wild atmosphere of Starbucks, stalking the best comfie leather chairs and coffee. If I’m at home, I have too many distractions. I don’t have any games on my computer, so I pretty much stick myself where either I’m bored or I’m writing.
KC: Another Starbucks writing junkie! Which 3 books would you pack to take to a deserted island?
SA: To Kill a Mockingbird, Speak, and an unabridged Shakespeare.
KC: Pantser or Plotter? Do you like to outline your novels, or do you just write off the cuff? OR, do you do a bit of both?
SA: Bit of both. I know one big obstacle I’m going to throw in the path of my protagonist; one character epiphany, whether false or true; and my starting line. (I wrote “Now I have to start lying” Split’s opening, about three months before I wrote anything else-like a whisper of the voice to come.) Other than that, I let the characters lead.
KC: I love your story about Split’s first line…almost as though you percolated on that line for those months. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? What is your first memory of actually sitting down and writing?
SA: I decided to be a writer when I was five and read Little House in the Big Woods. After all, I was like Laura. (I’m secretly a 19th century, white pioneer!) She was a writer so obviously I was too. I started writing shortly after I read that. Sadly, my memory stinks—I remember fiction better—so I don’t remember sitting down and writing anything until I was 12, though my mom’s stack of embarrassing files say otherwise.
KC: Can you take the reader through the journey you walked with SPLIT, from concept to shelf?
SA: The concept started long before the book. One of my clients came in with her two kids and when I found out that they watched this brutal incident of abuse, I got mad at her, which surprised and embarrassed me; I knew better than to victim blame. But I felt protective of those two little kids. It bothered me for years – my response, my confusion, so I gave the problem to a character.
Author and professor Mary Logue said that if you write one page a day, you could have a novel in a year. I gave myself one year to write it and one year to revise it. And that helped tremendously.
The publication process was so unusually easy that I hesitate to talk about it –I found an agent in a month (the wonderful Rosemary Stimola) and she sold the book at auction three weeks later. My editor (the also wonderful Nancy Siscoe) had a few notes; I made the changes and voila! A book on the shelves.
But, at some point, you always pay the piper, she says, 4-years, 14-drafts, and novel no. 2 later. The second novel, now titled CHASING SHADOWS, was the payment. With interest.
KC: What a great story! Thanks so much for sharing it. I can see why Split was such a quick sell, both for an agent and a publisher. Congratulations! A writer’s dream journey to publication. (-: CHASING SHADOWS (once tentatively titled Bidden)! If your readers are anything like me, they must be dying for its release. Could you tell them what to expect with this book? What it’s about? When they will get it in their hands? Talk about Holly, Corey and Savitri, the cast of Chasing Shadows!
SA: This is the blurb I’ve been playing with:
Before: 18 year olds Corey, Holly, and Savitri turn Chicago concrete and asphalt in a Freerunner's jungle gym, ricocheting off walls, scaling buildings, and even leaping from rooftop to rooftop. But acting like a superhero doesn't make you one.
After: Holly and Savitri try to move on. But sometimes -- when justice can't be found, and reality keeps sliding out of reach -- sometimes moving on isn't an option. How do you hang on to what was? How do you hold on to a shadow? Part prose, part graphic novel, CHASING SHADOWS is about how far we stretch for our friends.
KC: WOW! That sounds so incredible. Can’t wait for fall, 2013! For your fans who are also writers, do you have any tidbits of advice you would like to share?
SA: My advice to writers is always: Writing is no place for cowardice. Be bold; be brave; write every day you can.
KC: Excellent advice! Thank you. With Split, you built a big fan base. I find that most readers who discovered it are very passionate about it. They want to know there’s more where that came from. Do you have any other writing projects in the hopper…other than Chasing Shadows?
SA: I can neither confirm nor deny any new writing projects. :-) I’ve learned the hard way that my job at the early stages of any writing project is to protect whatever might be coming to light. And for me, even talking about it is revealing it to harsh elements. I remain silent.
KC: Now that is an intriguing answer. As a fan, I’m going to take it as confirmation that there is something in the hopper. Thank you so much for this opportunity! I’m always thrilled to share my favourite authors with others. I wish you the best of success with your future endeavours.
SA: The pleasure’s all mine. Thank you!
Now that you've become more familiar with Swati Avasthi, it is time to go out and get a copy of SPLIT. Online, you can purchase Split at Amazon...both in print and in ebook formats.