One of the best story collections I’ve read in the last several years, Rachel Swearingen’s How To Walk on Water and Other Stories (182 pages; New American Press), winner of the New American Press Fiction Prize, is defined in no small part by its author’s ability to immerse her readers in the complex and varied interior lives of the characters who populate her stories. Whether Swearingen is describing a graduate student’s attempt not to be driven to murder and madness by rude undergraduate neighbors or is offering us an intimate and highly specific view of a widower still grieving over the loss of his wife, Swearingen seems equally comfortable sketching the contours of her diverse characters’ frustrations, pleasures, and sorrows.
It’s likely that what initially drew many authors to fiction-writing was a desire to understand and inhabit points of view and sensibilities different from their own. Ian McEwan’s response to this impulse often comes to mind when considering why certain books—Swearingen’s debut collection among them—live on in our thoughts long after we finish reading them: “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than oneself is at the core of our humanity.”
Second only to her empathic sensibilities is Swearingen’s light comic touch. Many of the stories in How To Walk on Water feature sly, darkly funny moments that resonate with irony and pathos. Hers is a supple and multifaceted talent, her imagination marvelously strange and antic.
Swearingen is also the recipient of the Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Fiction, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, and the Mississippi Review Prize in Fiction. In 2019, she was named one of 30 Writers to Watch by the Guild Literary Complex. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. I had the opportunity to interview her about her book via Google Docs and email.
ZYZZYVA: Your stories exhibit what seems to me the rare quality of a writer who is equally comfortable in both a comic or a dramatic mode. When you start a new story, do you ever set out to write in a specific mode or do you simply see where the story takes you?
Rachel Swearingen: When my stories start to sound too similar in tone, I’ll try to shake it up. Sometimes this works, but my stories rarely turn out the way I intend. That’s probably a good thing because overly controlled stories are even less fun to write than to read. My funny stories often turn into my most devastating, and when I set out to write serious literature, I’m often laughing by the time I finish, or tossing the whole thing into the trash.
My favorite storytellers temper heavier moments with lightness, and vice-versa. I try to do the same. When my stories become too dark, I will often reach for a joke, a trick I learned from my father. Thanks, Dad. It’s that edge I like best, and also fear a little, the place where drama and comedy meet.
Z: “Advice for the Haunted” is a ghost story (and a story about domesticity), the only one of its kind in the collection. It’s funny and sweet and also eerie. Have you written other ghost stories?
Always get the last word.
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RS: Supposedly, Barry Hannah said that every story is a ghost story. I think this holds true, at least for me. Most of my characters are haunted by something, whether a memory, a person, or a failure of some kind. So, in that sense, I have written lots of “ghost” stories. As a child I had an overactive imagination that caused me to look for ghosts everywhere. I wasn’t alone in this. The kids in my neighborhood, my younger siblings, we all loved ghosts, created them as a kind of built-in neighborhood adventure.
I think this attraction to ghosts is what’s interesting. What is so alluring about being haunted? What purpose does it serve? I teach an American Ghost Stories course at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and we try to define what makes some ghost stories particularly American. What we keep returning to is the idea that ghosts force us to contend with all that we refuse to see. Our ghosts reveal what we try to repress, as a culture, as families, as individuals.
Z: At least one of the stories in this collection is set in Seattle; others take place in Venice, Italy, in Chicago and Michigan. How important would you say place is to your writing?
RS: Of all the different elements of a story, I think place has become the most confounding and mysterious for me. Lots of writers talk about place as a character, and as a container. I’ve lived in many different places, and spent much of my life seeking the kind of adventures I imagined a change of setting would produce. But I think of setting differently now, especially after returning to the Midwest. It’s a mistake to think of place as a finite, temporal thing, as something that any one person can map out and understand. And, yet, try to argue with someone’s vision of a city, especially if they have roots there.
We change the places we live, and those places change us and stay with us, get embedded in our DNA. I’m never more of a Midwesterner than when I’m on one of the coasts. But then I often feel like an outsider when I’m back home. I think place is a thing that moves through us and through our stories. In writing, especially short stories, you think you are creating a composition and moving your characters through it, but in actuality, setting is as mutable as the characters, and it’s carrying all these associations and histories that the writer is only somewhat aware of. So, place is enormously important, and depending on the story, enormously difficult to get right.
Z: “Edith Under the Streetlight” is a darkly comic story set in Chicago about bad neighbors, youth, old age, and a gory prank. Where did this story come from?
RS: That story was inspired by a number of things. In grad school, one of my professors commented on a classmate’s story by saying that women couldn’t understand or appreciate a good prank. I knew I wanted to write a story to disprove this, and I entertained myself for a few years inventing all kinds of elaborate pranks before I finally sat down to write the story.
Then other ideas entered: a friend’s stress over her neighbors’ all-night parties; an interest in insects and sound; America’s obsession with detective shows and murdered women. In the end, “Edith Under the Streetlight” has more to do with women, with aging and stereotypes, and women’s relationships with each other, than with the prank in the story.
Z: There’s an undercurrent of unease rippling through most of these stories—maybe all of them—would you say two of your primary themes are violence, both suppressed and expressed, and the menace of loss?
RS: That’s a good question, and I’m not sure that I can pinpoint the nature of that unease for the stories as a whole. It’s different for each of the main characters, and yet I do think loss and potential violence permeate the book. Nolan, in the title story, can never figure out where his own sense of menace originates, out in the world, or inside himself, or in some combination of the two.
Z: You’ve won some prestigious literary prizes, among them the Rona Jaffe Award and The Missouri Review’s fiction prize. I’m always interested in writers’ feelings about awards because, in part, they do carry cachet and often help readers find your books. Did you have more confidence in your work after receiving these prizes?
RS: Yes and no. Both of the prizes you mentioned came after periods of rejection and difficulty. I’m extremely grateful for them. They did energize my writing practice and also helped me to justify all the time and energy I was putting into my writing. More importantly, they enabled me to engage with a group of extraordinary and generous individuals, and in the case of the Rona Jaffe, an incredible community.
I’ve been on the other side of contests, too, and I know how the final decision often comes down to kismet and taste. If you plan on spending your life writing, it’s important to not take prizes or rejection too seriously. Both can knock you off your feet and make you forget that nothing has changed on the page. You still have to show up every day.
Z: You write equally well from the male and female point of view. Did you find it to be a challenge at times, however, to write from the male perspective in, for example, “Boys on the Veranda” and “The Only Thing Missing Was the Howling of the Wolves”?
RS: At times, yes, but not as much as you might imagine. I grew up reading stories of boys and men, and didn’t even realize until much later how much code-shifting I was doing as a reader. The distance often helps me to crack a story open and see my characters better. It also helps that I had an incredibly reflective and complicated father, and several brothers. What I find interesting is that simply by questioning gender, all kinds of questions and possibilities appear.
Z: I’d classify “Notes to a Shadowy Man” as noir and it also seems to be set in the past—the 1970s?, or perhaps even farther back than this? There’s the threat of a kidnapping that hangs over the whole story. As with “Edith Under the Streetlight,” I very much wonder how this story began for you.
RS: I’m a huge movie buff and grew up on black-and-white films. I’ve always had a thing for film noir and have a soft spot for corny dialogue. I spent a few years of my childhood trying to perfect a Lauren Bacall delivery, something that had to be especially hilarious coming from a scrawny kid in a rainbow shirt. The story actually takes place in the late ’90s, but Vera, the main character, is a British au pair who only half lives in this world. The rest of the time, she lives in her imagination, and this is probably why the setting feels out of time.
I used to visit a theater in Seattle called the Grand Illusion that had an antique reel-to-reel projection booth and red velvet chairs. I always wanted to set a story there, and so I suppose that theater is where it all began. Once the film noir mood appeared, I knew the genre needed to bleed into the plot. For me, so often it’s lighting and sensory details that trigger stories.
Z: What are you working on now?
RS: I recently completed a temporary art installation on a frozen lake with a group of artists in Minnesota, a first for me. I am now back in Chicago where I am finishing a novel, as well as working on a few short stories and essays.
Christine Sneed is the author most recently of The Virginity of Famous Men. Her stories have been included in publications such as The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, New England Review, The Southern Review, and Ploughshares. She has received the Grace Paley Prize, the 21st Century Award from the Chicago Public Library Foundation, the Society of Midland Authors Award and has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She lives in Pasadena, CA and teaches for Northwestern University’s and Regis University’s MFA programs.