Interview with Swati Avasthi

If you’ve paid any attention to my blog interviews, you’ve noticed they’ve all been with dudes. That’s because I’m inclined to talk about “boy books,” here, and also because most of the women I’ve invited have complained about the beer bottles and pizza boxes everwhere and the constant sports on the big TVs. However, I’m happy to welcome my first female guest, and I even picked up a little and turned off the TV in favor of a little Ani DiFranco on the stereo. Swati is a debut novelist with Knopf, and if you think that’s not enough nepotism, especially following the Josh Berk interview, you don’t know the half of it. Swati is also a Minneapolitan and Golden Gopher, so we share a publisher, a city and a campus.

Swati’s first book, Split, will be hitting bookstores on March 9. When you’re dropping by to pick up several paperback copies of Mudville, be sure to ask for Split.  I read it early and thought it was excellent. Angela also raved about it.

The jacket copy to Split explains that Jace Witherspoon arrives at his brother’s doorstep with bruises, a few dollars and change, and a secret. The story is about the bruises, but it’s also about the secret.

The bruises are courtesy of Jace’s dad, who beats up everyone in the family. (The back of the book promises that readers won’t be able to put the book down, but I actually had to put it down after some of the more harrowing scenes as Jace recalls some of his dad’s greatest hits, so to speak.)

[spoiler]The secret is that Jace has beat up his own on-again off-again girlfriend, Lauren. The most horrifying moment may not even be the punches he throws her way, but Lauren’s meek apologies for making him do it, causing Jace to imagine in a moment an entire future where the two of them live in the same endless cycle of abuse as his own parents.

This moment of clarity leads Jace to force a stand-off with his father, getting himself thrown out. He runs to live with his brother, Christian, who has escaped years ago and is getting on with his life.

There is plenty of drama and intrigue about Jace and Christian getting to know each other and exorcising their personal demons while trying to help their mother escape their father, but at the heart of the story, and most compelling, is Jace’s struggle to control his own rage and break from his past, to come to terms with what he’s done.[/spoiler]

Avasthi evokes S.E. Hinton more than once in describing brotherly bonds in rough times, and the depiction of survivors of abuse are compelling if tragic reading.

K: Swati, what do you think about the scented candles? Too much?

S: Awww, you did all this for me?  To add to the ambience, I brought a pizza and a 6-pack.

K: Oh, cool. It’s Surly, too. Thanks for supporting local brewers and, um, bringing beer. The last guy only brought soda pop. Now, be honest. Which do you like better, Minneapolis or Albuquerque (I won’t even put Minneapolis against Chicago because that wouldn’t be fair… to Chicago.)

S: You’re not a fan of the easy questions, are you?  No way I can chose.  I miss Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta, Mexican Food, the humbling mountains and, of course, the weather was a tad better out there.  But I love Minneapolis’ vibrant (if nepotistic) literary/aritistic community, lakes, school system, and political theater.  I mean, between Jesse Ventura and Michelle Bachman, there’s always some thing to shake your head and laugh about.

K: And even when the pols let us down, the sports teams are there to step up and give us a little tragicomedy… (makes a gutteral noise that sounds like something between “Favre” and “Aargh!”, tears up and reaches for kleenex, fails, and settles for some used and rather greasy pizza shop napkins. Gradually pulls self together.)

So besides the city, we also both spend our days at the U. You’re in the creative writing program, and I want to know how that experience went, both writing YA in a writing program that’s not geared to children’s lit, and dropping a 2-book deal with Knopf on them.

S: Good writing is good writing, whether it is for adults or for children.  Having professors like Julie Schumacher, who writes for both adults and children, made the experience really rewarding and I learned a tremendous amount there.  That said, I admit that there were times when I felt obliged to educate my colleagues in YA and Children’s Lit, and there are a few people at the U who see writing for kids as lesser.

K: Of course there’s some very knowledgeable people on campus who take children’s literature seriously. Jack Zipes over in languages, Karen Hoyle who curates the Kerlan collection, and the reading education faculty in the college of ed. I just wasn’t sure how it was treated over in English. I kind of wanted you to say that they’d all turned up their noses at it, then you walked in with your book deal and blew their minds. Even if it was nothing like that, I like imagining it was.

S: The book deal has been fabulous!  The faculty has been and is still very supportive as I get up to speed on the publishing industry.   I love having the resources to email someone or a few people when something inscrutable comes up.  For instance, I emailed Charlie Baxter on the day of the auction.  He is so clear-sighted which always makes his advice useful.  I actually didn’t get to celebrate with my colleagues because about 3 days after I announced the book deal, I was hit by a car when I was crossing the street.  I was laid-up for nearly 3 months and by then, a lot of the initial response had died down.

K: Yeah, I remember that. It’s like what we all think is going to happen. This is too good to be true; I’ll probably get hit by a bus. I’m glad it was only a car and you mended OK.

OK, let’s talk about Split. First, let me ask you what a lot of people are going to ask, which is how you came to write a book from a boy’s perspective. Many writers find that difficult to pull off, but I thought you did quite well making Jace a believable boy and captured his voice really well, so I’m also wondering how you got into his head. Do you have brothers, or other guys in your life you thought about when creating the characters? Did you use other books to help find that voice?

S: Thanks, Kurtis.  It’s funny you say that because I didn’t have brothers.  Two older sisters, in fact. During my younger years when we were all stilll talking about boys and cooties, I had no access to the boy voice really.  (Unless you count my dad).  And I went to a school that had been a girl’s school at one time and so my graduating class was 2/3 girls.  So my best access to a boy’s voice came through my boyfriends and my slew of male friends in college. It helps now to have a son who is getting there, and a husband, who has been there. Still, I find it almost easier to write from a boy’s perspective — something that is substantially different from my own

The harder part was actually the scenes between Christian and Jace (and there are a lot of those) because I have never seen a conversation amongst men without a woman present.  I so wanted to hide a tape recorder in a room and listen.  But I never did.  Instead, I had a few of guys read it before I sent it out.  They caught a couple of slips.

K. The other question you probably get asked is about the theme of abuse that runs through the book. I feel like I’ve seen this before from the victim’s perspective, but you took a bolder move in being somewhat sympathetic to an abusive person, and I think that sets it apart. What were your goals for taking that approach?

S: That’s a great question.  [spoiler] I wrote this book as a response to working in a domestic violence legal clinic where I heard thousands of victims talking about their perspective and it was both haunting and rewarding.  When I was working there, a lot of people would ask me, “Why does she stay?”  But no one was asking me “Why is he hitting her?”  (Sorry for the use of gendered terms; I do it for convenience and because in the majority of abusers are male and victims are female).  I came to resent the “why does she stay” question; it subtly places the responsibility on the wrong person.  So I wanted to reframe the question and start asking why does he hit.  If we want to break the cycle, we need to start with the abusers, see things from their perspective, without condoning their actions.  So I wrote it from the perspective of a boy who had already hit his girlfriend and who needed to be the one to stand up, take responsibility, and choose who he wanted to be.[/spoiler]

K. There’s a lot of pain and darkness in Split. How much did it affect your mood when you were writing it? Can you just turn that on and off, or do you kind of live inside the book for a while?

S:  I was able to shut out the darkness pretty easily while pondering it.  I think it came from the professional distance one learns when working with the DV population and from the fact that I have two kids so I can’t wallow in anything.  When I was writing it, on the other hand, the darkness was pretty hard to handle sometimes.  More than once, I ended up in tears.  There’s a line in Split where Jace narrates that he “showed up wrecked and raw.”  I often felt that way at the end of my writing time.

K: I think you’ve got another book in the works that’s way different from SPLIT. Are you ready to tell people about it?

S: Yep.  The working title is Bidden.  Corey, Holly, and Savitri are looking forward to their upcoming summer of free running and comic book reading when a shooting changes everything.  Corey is dead; Savitri, who is a peace activist, is seeking revenge and Holly is spiraling out of control. Like Split, it is about what happens in the wake of violence.  What makes it so different from Split, as you suggest, is that part of it is written as a graphic novel.  So, I’ve been learning a lot about a whole new form.

K: Last question, which I always ask — what’s the pet situation in the Avasthi household? Is there a big scary dog that barks her head off when you come in the door, then turns out to be a total sweetheart who just wants to put her head in your lap and have her head scritched?

S: You should drop by and see how much has changed!  We’ve added a new dog, a bigger dog!  I wouldn’t advise walking into my house uninvited, but once the dogs see it’s okay for you to enter, the only concern is the fight for attention.   Jake will do his best to push Lily out of the way to steal all the attention, and you’ll end up with two dogs’ heads — one on each leg, looking up at you waiting for you to pet them.

K: Well, thanks so much for visiting. Do you mind hauling some of these pizza boxes out to the trash when you leave?

S:  Okay, thanks so much for the interview and I’ll also blow out the candles on my way out.

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