Cynthia Swanson is the author of the novel The Glass Forest, set partially in Door County, as well as the New York Times best-seller The Bookseller, optioned for a major motion picture. On Saturday, August 10, Cynthia will lead a special workshop for Write On focused on the cross-genre novel. Cynthia served as the fiction judge for this year’s Hal Prize (winner announced in yesterday’s edition). I had the opportunity to talk with Cynthia about contests, writing, and more during the Hal Prize competition.
Jerod Santek (JS): When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Cynthia Swanson (CS): I can’t remember not wanting to be a writer. I wrote as a kid, through my teen years, and into adulthood. I did take a detour in college to major in architecture for two years. I still love design, but architecture didn’t last as a major (or a career), because I couldn’t deny that writing is my true passion.
JS: What themes do you explore in your work?
CS: In my novels, issues around women’s lives (especially with regards to work and family) in the mid-century period are prominent. Other social issues also feature, particularly as they relate to some of today’s issues. For example, in my novel The Glass Forest, one of the characters is obsessed with (and paranoid about) communism. I think that type of obsession/paranoia plays out in modern life, too – not necessarily about communism, but there is a lot of fear going around these days.
JS: What can you tell us about your current writing project?
CS: Like my novels The Bookseller and The Glass Forest, my current project is set in the middle of the twentieth century. It’s the story of a complex family during the early years of international adoption.
JS: When reviewing writing — whether for a contest like the Hal Prize, students’ work, or other — what do you look for? What excites you most in a piece of writing?
CS: In my own work and that of other writers, I look for a combination of compelling plot and well-developed characters. I think this is possible even in genre fiction. The Glass Forest, for example, is suspense – but the story is character-driven. I gravitate toward writing that makes me think, and that lingers in my mind after I’ve read the final word.
JS: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
CS: Read voraciously – in your own genre and in others. Learn to read with a critical eye. What do you like, and why? What works and what doesn’t?
When writing, I’m a big believer in letting first drafts be whatever they’re going to be, and then doing a lot of revision. One of my favorite writing quotes is from Jodi Picoult: “You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
JS: How do you know when the piece you are writing is done and ready to be send out to journals, magazines, agents, etc.?
CS: Don’t settle for “good enough” – be confident in your writing skills and use them to their maximum potential. Revise, revise, revise. Once you have a solid draft that you’re happy with, find beta readers – preferably other writers and/or people familiar with your subject matter. Use their constructive criticism to make your piece the best it can be.