Drunk on Ink Q & A with Christopher Swann and ‘Never Turn Back’, a novel
Christopher Swann is the author of the novels Never Turn Back and Shadow of the Lions. A graduate of Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, Chris earned his Ph.D. in creative writing from Georgia State University. In 2018, Chris was a Townsend Prize finalist, a finalist for a Georgia Author of the Year award, and long listed for the Southern Book Prize for his debut novel, Shadow of the Lions. He lives with his wife and two sons in Atlanta, where he is the English department chair at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School. Never Turn Back drops on October 6, 2020, and a third novel is due out in 2021.
About Never Turn Back
Ethan Faulkner is a precocious child with a brilliant but troublesome sister, a war vet for a father, and a weary mother trying to manage their family. One night a young woman rings their doorbell, desperate to hide from two men who are pursuing her. When one of the two barges in after her, the ensuing struggle leaves both of Ethan’s parents dead.Years later, Ethan has a successful teaching career and a budding relationship with a coworker. But he hasn’t quite followed through on his promise to his dying father—to take care of his sister. Susannah is not an easy person to keep tabs on, is a handful even when the tabs are kept, and quite frankly, Ethan wants her to suffer for preventing him from getting to his dad before he died all those years ago. It was a long time ago and Ethan tries to put all of it behind him. But that’s easier said than done. When news of a brutal murder breaks with evidence pointing to Ethan as the prime suspect, all the painful memories of his past come rushing to meet him. Lyrically conveyed with emotion and nuance, Never Turn Back is a powerful story about family, vengeance, and how some actions echo through the years with irreparable consequences.
SONIAH KAMAL: First author/book you read/fell in love with? Why?
CHRISTOPHER SWANN: I was maybe eleven and at home sitting in a chair by a window, reading The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. It was raining outside. I remember looking up from the book and glancing out the window and thinking, I could do this all day. That is my earliest memory of consciously recognizing how much books meant to me. And I loved Bilbo because he wasn’t a heroic warrior but a somewhat-normal hobbit on a fantastical adventure.
To unwind: chai, coffee, water, wine?
Coffee in the early afternoon, red wine at night.
A novel, short story, poem, essay, anything you believe should be mandatory reading? Why?
“Good for the Soul” is a short story by Tim Gautreaux that says so much about character and faith and does so without announcing that it’s doing it. It’s just a really well-written story that’s funny and tragic and redemptive all at once. As for poetry, anything by the British Romantics. Maybe “Kubla Khan” by Coleridge or “Ode to the West Wind” by Shelley. The raw emotion and the feelings about the act of creation still seem vital two centuries later.
Any classic you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?
I was going to say Moby-Dick, which I read for summer reading, but I actually did read it (although I skimmed the scientific/expository chapters). I got that it was an Important Book, but I didn’t appreciate it at 17. Ten years later I picked it back up and was astounded. I had to be exposed to it earlier so I could approach it later on when I was fully ready to read it. I do wish I’d discovered Jane Austen earlier. Going to an all-boys’ boarding school and having been assigned Tess of the D’Urbervilles, I had a dim view of most 19th-century novels. I was much more interested in Shakespeare and The Catcher in the Rye than in Austen’s “girls’ stories.” Which, of course, are not “girls’ stories” but sophisticated and entertaining novels about men and women. It wasn’t until my wife took me to see Sense and Sensibility by Ang Lee (trailer) that I realized what I had missed.
Favorite quote from your book
For Never Turn Back, I really enjoyed writing the dialogue, especially the exchanges between Ethan, the narrator, and his younger sister Susannah. Here’s a passage near the beginning, when after a two-year absence Susannah has just appeared on Ethan’s doorstep:
“So,” I say, deciding to tiptoe into this particular minefield, “you seen Uncle Gavin lately?”
Susannah snorts. “Fat chance. Thinks I owe him money.”
“You did take his car.”
Her eyes open and she sits up. “I borrowed it, for Christ’s sake! I just needed a ride to Athens to see Dirt Plow. How did I know I’d get pulled over?”
“The police thought it was stolen.”
“Borrowed.” She emphasizes this by poking me in the shoulder.
“Toughen up, buttercup,” she says. “What about you? You seen him?”
“No. Dirt Plow? Who was that, your boyfriend at the time?”
“They were a band, dumb ass.”
“I’m the dumb ass? The band’s name was Dirt Plow.”
“They were good, asshole. That was their last show before they broke up. They were reinventing grunge. Very earthy.”
“I’ll bet,” I say. “Did they play on farm equipment? Use a tractor as a drum?”
“Tommy Mojo was their guitar player. He was a freak.”
“You wouldn’t know a good band if it farted in your bathtub.”
“That doesn’t even make sense.”
Susannah glances at her phone. “Shit, it’s almost seven-thirty.”
“Come on, Ethan.” She grabs my TV remote. “It’s time for Jeopardy!”
Favorite book to film? And why?
Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (watch trailer here) It’s perfect. Perfect cast, perfect pacing, perfect cinema. I like it better than the novel, actually. And I still cry when Marianne is on the verge of dying and when Edward comes to talk with Elinor near the very end.
Favorite Indie Book Store/s?
There are so many. Malaprop’s in Asheville has a special place in my heart because I used to live in Asheville and there was nothing downtown, and now Malaprop’s is part of an enormous Renaissance there. Parnassus Books in Nashville is another favorite because no one made fun of me when I walked in on my first book tour with a beat-up copy of Bel Canto like some sort of Ann Patchett fanboy. Ann Patchett wasn’t in the store that day, but one of the booksellers, Niki, took my copy to Ann Patchett’s house that evening and got her to sign it. She wrote a lovely note essentially welcoming me to the club. And that book now sits on my desk in a place of honor.
The one thing you wish you’d known about the writing life?
Keep going, and don’t spend so much time taking breaks from your writing or trying to make a broken story work.
Does writing/publishing/marketing get any easier with each story/novel published?
No. The writing doesn’t, although the challenges are different. I now know some tricks and tools that can save me time, but trying to get a mental vision of a story down in cold hard words on a page is as challenging and frustrating and enjoyable as ever. As for publishing and marketing, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with two great publishers, and while I’m over my wide-eyed, golly-gee phase of book tours and such, I still remain very happy that anyone wants to read my books and then talk about them with me. I don’t ever want to lose that.
Dog, Cat, Or?
Dog. Every day. Try to say no to this face.
Somewhere with a beach where I can read to my heart’s content, and lovely restaurants so I don’t have to cook.
Favorite book cover?
Favorite painting/ work of art?
God, I’m going to leave something out. Let’s just say the entire city of Florence.
Any Lit Festival anecdote you want a share? A great meeting with a fan? An epiphany?
Patti Callahan Henry is a friend, and just after I sold my first book to Algonquin, my wife Kathy and I went to the Decatur Book Festival, where Patti had an event. We stood in line after the event to see Patti and ask her to sign a copy of her book. When we got to the front of the line, Patti looked up from her table and saw me, and she jumped up, hugged me, kissed me on both cheeks, and announced to everyone that I was a writer who had just sold his first book. I started crying, and then Kathy was crying, and Patti was teary-eyed, and dozens of women standing in line were staring at me and wondering who is this man and why is Patti Callahan Henry kissing him?
What is your favorite Austen novel, and film adaptation? Why?
Recommend a Small Press and/or Literary Journal?
I loved Story magazine, which first ran from 1931 to 1967. It was revived in 1989 as a quarterly magazine, and I discovered it in the 1990s. That’s where I first read Amy Bloom, Andrea Barrett, Dan Chaon, Elizabeth Gilbert, Carol Shields, and so many others. It’s where I first read Tim Gautreaux’s “Good for the Soul.” I actually met Tim Gautreaux at Georgia State in 2000, where he gave a reading while I was finishing up my PhD. Just before his reading, I had learned Story was folding. I mentioned it to Tim Gautreaux, and he was shocked—that was the first he’d heard of it! But I just learned today that after a brief run from 2014-2016, Story was relaunched again in 2019 and is now a triannual publication.
Last impulse book buy and why?
I went to Bouchercon in Dallas last fall. (Remember going to in-person author events? Sigh.) Anyway, I was there as a fan, I wasn’t on any panels, and I was wandering around the hotel convention rooms and found the booksellers. Most of the time I think about what books I want to buy and pick and choose carefully, but as a registered attendee I had tickets I could use to buy trade paperbacks and ARCs, and I was like a kid in a chocolate store. Among other books, I picked up Andy Davidson’s The Boatman’s Daughter because it sounded kind of cool, and I was utterly blown away. You could describe it as Southern Gothic horror by way of Neil Gaiman, but The Boatman’s Daughter is its own amazing thing.
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