Heather Swain

(Photograph by Robin Holland)

Rian: First off, I absolutely loved “Luscious Lemon” and found it very moving in certain parts. What was your motivation for writing this novel?

Heather: When I started writing Luscious Lemon I was under a very tight timeframe in order to keep up with the publisher’s production schedule, so I decided to write about two things I knew very well: food and pregnancy. I’ve worked in several restaurants and done food writing for a regional magazine, plus I love to cook and go out to dinner in New York. At the time I was writing the book, I was also pregnant so I could incorporate parts of my life into the story fairly easily. Pregnancy is such a rich topic to dig into because it touches on some of the most profound emotions a woman will ever experience. Once I combined food and pregnancy, the book quickly took shape.

Rian: How old were you when you realized you wanted to be a writer? Was there any particular influence?

Heather: I didn’t start writing until I was 26. I had always been a voracious reader but I had never tried writing fiction. The year I got married, my husband and I moved to Japan where I taught English in public junior high school. The job turned out to be hideously boring and since I didn’t speak much Japanese I spent a lot of time in the teachers’ room alone, daydreaming. At some point, I started writing stories at work to entertain myself and I fell in love with the process. In fact, I would get so caught up with writing that when the English teacher would remind me I had to teach a class, I’d get all irritated, sort of like, “Uh, can’t you see I’m writing here? Sheesh!”

When we returned to the US from Japan two years later, I submitted one of the stories I had written (“Sushi”) to a national contest for new young writers. Much to my delight and total shock, the story was chosen as one of twenty winners and appeared in the anthology Virgin Fiction 2 from Rob Weisbach Books/William Morrow. By then I was totally hooked on writing, even though it took me several more years to get anything else published.

Rian: I also loved how “Eliot’s Banana” was daring and unique. Why did you make Alfie the cat represent someone in Junie’s past life? (Is there a story behind that?)

Heather: I love reading stories that transcend reality so my instinct is always to throw something in my work that will surprise and, I hope, delight the reader. Alfie came from a short story I had been working on about a woman and her reincarnated lover (now a cat) who are reunited, only the woman didn’t know it. I found this idea tragically hilarious. As I was writing Eliot’s Banana, I realized that I could make Eliot’s cat be Junie’s past life love. I thought it worked well in the book because it allowed me as the writer to comment on what I see as the silliness and futility of searching for one perfect soul mate, which is something Junie has to figure out.

Rian: Do you have any other books in the works, and if so, what are they about?

Heather: My novella “The Happiest Day of Your Life” will appear in Cold Feet, an anthology of wedding stories by Lisa Tucker, Elise Juska, Tara McCarthy, Pamela Ribon and myself that will be published by Downtown Press/Simon and Schuster in the spring.

Rian: In what ways, if any, are you like Junie or Lemon?

Heather: I find that question hard to answer because I like to think I’m nothing like my characters. (Although the people who know me best tell me that’s not exactly true.) I think both Junie and Lemon represent certain parts of my personality that I’ve exaggerated for the sake of a good story. I’ve never been as flighty as Junie, but some of her spacey mannerisms (like finding weird, forgotten stuff in her pockets) and goofy ways of looking at the world (seeing lion faces in window boxes of pansies) are certainly mine. Lemon is the stubborn and determined side of me, although I’d like to believe I’m much more even-tempered and laid-back than she is. For the record, I look nothing like either one of them.

Rian: What do you think of the chick lit genre in general? What about people that bash it?

Heather: Pardon me for a moment while I climb up here on my soapbox. I feel rather passionately about genre bashing. So here goes:

I think chick lit has grown from a fairly formulaic, purely entertainment genre (which by the way, I think has a lot of value) to a wonderfully varied genre that covers a huge array of women’s experiences. Books that are now called “chick lit” look beyond relationships and explore deeper emotional issues that we all face (death, depression, illness, etc) but do it in a way that’s accessible for a reader. To me, that’s the best kind of book.

But, the notion that the entire genre is ridiculous fluff is sexist, misogynistic bullshit in my opinion. John Updike (whose work I love) writes about contemporary relationships, sex, and is derogatory toward women and his work is called the “great American novel”! A group of women write about the same themes and we’re suddenly fluffy. What gives? I think there’s still a distinct notion in our culture (especially when it comes to literature) that women writing about women for women cannot be taken seriously.

But, in the long run, I’m not so worried about it. I think Jane Austen and Colette, (the mid-twentieth century French author who often wrote about single women in Paris and didn’t shy away from talking about sex and money) would be considered chick lit authors if they were writing today. Neither was particularly well respected in her day, yet now we revere the work of Austen and Colette is considered a national treasure in France! Perhaps not a lot has changed in how female writers dealing with contemporary issues facing women are regarded, but the great novels about women by women (Emma by Austen and Julie de Carneilhan by Colette to name just two) have stood the test of time. I’m certain most of the books called “chick lit” today will go by the wayside, as most books in any genre do, but some of the great ones will stick around and be hailed in a hundred years as ground breaking and brilliant.

Whew, thanks for letting me get that off my perfect 36C chest.

Rian: Which of your books was easier to write, and why?

Heather: Writing Eliot’s Banana was a completely organic experience. I didn’t have an agent or a book deal, I wasn’t even sure what I was writing. I just wrote every morning from five to seven before work simply because I loved doing it. By the time I wrote Luscious Lemon, I no longer had my day gig, so I could devote my entire day to writing. In many ways that was easier. Yet, I was under a time crunch and I was covering deeply personal terrain. So even though I had better circumstances for writing, emotionally writing Luscious Lemon was grueling at times.

Rian: What are your favorite books and authors of all time?

Heather: I simply love to read a giant Russian novel, “Jane” Magazine, the instructions for my new blender – I’ll read it all and be very happy. That said, my favorite kinds of books are ones centered on compelling characters that explore circumstances or emotions through people rather than books of ideas or collections of beautiful language. I love Jane Austen and Graham Greene. I’ve read Emma and A Burnt Out Case over and over again. Anna Karenina is one of my all time favorite books (talk about plot twists and romance!) and Flannery O’Connor is one of my favorite authors because she’s just so damn funny. Most recently I’ve been reading a lot of Kate Atkinson, A.L. Kennedy, and Ali Smith (three contemporary British writers.)

Rian: Where do you find inspiration for your characters?

Heather: The characters I create are always amalgamations of many different people, but I’m usually surprised when a fully formed character finally grabs me. I’m a shameless eavesdropper and people-watcher when I’m in a group of strangers, but I don’t shy away from stealing from my friends and family either! The funniest thing to me is to be out and see, in reality, the character I created. This used to happen to me all the time with Junie. I’d be in the East Village and suddenly I’d see her–Louise Brooks haircut, funny thrift-store clothes, funky glasses and all. Obviously I had been seeing girls who looked like that before I wrote Junie and somehow they had lodged into my subconscious then melded together with my own quirks and stories from some of my friends plus a lot of my own imagination to form Junie.

Rian: Do you have any advice you would give to potential chick lit writers?

Read! Read! Read! And read outside of the genre. Figure out what makes a book great for you as a reader then write for yourself rather than trying to fit into a particularly genre. If you try to fit in I think you’ll always miss the mark because the genre will have morphed by the time you’ve finished your book.
Sit your butt down! Everyday. Yes, I mean everyday. Even if it’s just for fifteen minutes. My motto is, “You can always edit crap, but you can’t edit nothing.”
Finally, you have to be incredibly tenacious and pig-headed if you want to get published. I have 36 agent rejection letters for Eliot’s Banana and literally hundreds of rejection letters for my short stories, but I don’t really care. Eventually some of your work finds a home. You just have to keep writing everyday and until all the stars align and something gets published.

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