From Texas, With Love or Something Like It: An Interview with Stacey Swann
Dec 26 ● BY Ashland Hubbard
I’m nervous as I walk to the backdoor of the Katherine Anne Porter House. This is my first interview, so I tell Stacey Swann, the novelist and Texas State alum, that I have never used a recording device, a small omission that doesn’t reveal the totality of my inexperience, but provides me enough relief. I’m compulsive in that way, always striving for authenticity, when no one cares, really. But Stacey’s face is warm and lovely, and so is her first novel Olympus, Texas. We discuss the relationship between women and anger. We discuss how to love Texas when it makes it hard to love. We agreed this is what writing is for—complications. The floors of the Katherine Anne Porter House are original; there’s a doily on the piano, and it’s that kind of Texas winter that I love; gloomy, with crisp air that’s full of promise. It’s fitting that we’re conducting the interview in Kyle. Stacey’s novel is set in a small town, and I can almost see her characters rounding the dining room table, preparing for a meal. We begin:
Ashland Hubbard: So, you split your time between Austin and Lampasas. You got your MFA at Texas State. Was it important to you to write a novel set in Texas?
Stacey Swann: You know, it’s funny, some stuff as a writer you can pick and choose where you go, for me, I tend to always write about Texas. I’ve written a couple of short stories that were not set in Texas, but I like to write out of landscape and it’s the landscape that I know best. I’ve lived in Texas my whole life except for two years and I’m writing a second book also about Texas, so I think that if I’m living here, I am likely to write about it.
Hubbard: I lived in New York for eight years and being from Texas is something that I’ve grown fond of as an adult. It wasn’t necessarily something I loved as a kid, which I find interesting, and I think it was because being from Texas felt so novel: Go Texan Day and the State Fair. I felt more complex than cowboy boots, but now, I have three pairs. Did you ever have a time when you rejected being from Texas?
Swann: There’s Texas and then there’s also rural Texas. I’m not sure where you are from—
Hubbard: Houston, so that might have been part of my angst.
Swann: I loved Houston as a kid because it was much bigger than Sealy, which is where I grew up. Up until the age of eighteen, it was hard to separate if I was rebelling against a small town versus Texas. It could feel anti-intellectual in a way, and book culture was not big there. I dreamed of going to other countries, if not other cities. Then I wound up staying in Texas for college, thinking I would leave Austin, but Austin sucks you in and won’t let you leave. I had made my peace with that. Austin is where I’m happy to be. I was going to California for two years at the end of the Bush presidency; there was a lot of anti-Texas talk, as there would be, and even though politically I agreed with all those things, I started to feel defensive of my home state. That allowed me to access my appreciation for Texas more. It continues to be difficult because Texas gets harder and harder politically.
Hubbard: It’s an interesting exercise in complication, which I think literature can be for, exploring that nuance and how to define things within opposition. It’s easy to paint Texas a certain way.
Swann: I completely agree. Part of what I worry about right now is polarization. For those of us that have grown up in Texas or have lived here a long time, it is slightly easier to access that kind of empathy where even if you disagree with people’s political choices you can still see them as human. That’s important right now, especially for writers to be able to show that complexity in everyone.
Hubbard: Absolutely…it always felt like being Texan on the East Coast was considered quirky, and that all serious literature is set near and around the East Coast or New England. Have you had any specific instances where your writing or you as a writer have been questioned due to where you are from and what you write about?
Swann: I can’t remember who told me this, but someone said people on the coasts, especially on the east coast, like southern writers, and they like Texas writers, but they like them when they leave. If you’ve chosen to stay in those places, maybe you’re a little more suspect. In terms of my own publishing experience, I haven’t felt any of that at all. If anything, I feel representing a part of Texas in this first book was something the industry hadn’t read much about. It felt fresh to my agent and my editor. My editor’s parents came from Louisiana, so she knew the South. I do think it’s more of a bias of writers that live in New York versus everyone else. Everything happens there. You can’t just have lunch with your agent when your agent is 1,500 miles away.
Hubbard: The East Coast, or New York as we’ve clarified, at least to me, provides this wonderful claustrophobia of people, culture, and industry while the West allows for isolation and reinvention within vastness. To me, the Southwest also provides such amazing mythology to play with from a literary standpoint, is that partly why you chose to have your characters based on Greek and Roman gods?
Swann: Definitely. It was the original idea for the book. I had a lot of friends from Texas State and from being in Austin who were not native Texans; they came here for school and ended up staying. They’d get irritable about how much Texans love Texas and themselves, buying into the mythology. I don’t think of myself as a rah-rah, super patriotic person, but even I have that knee-jerk love of Texas that I don’t understand. Texas is a state with its own mythology. It really lives this mythology and buys into it; and what fun it would be to match that with the Greek and Roman gods who were so big, so larger than life, and often so cavalier in how they treated humans. It seemed like a good fit.
Hubbard: You have such a large, engaging group of characters in Olympus, Texas. Not only that, but many of the characters have a foil within the Briscoe family itself—June and Peter, Arlo and Artie, and March and Hap. Was it hard for you to keep track of them all?
Swann: Harder, I think, for the reader to keep track of them all, which is why the paperback edition has a family tree! I was doing zoom book clubs after the hardcover was out and so many people told me they had to write down a cheat sheet to keep everyone straight. I thought we should do a family tree because I love those in books anyway. It wasn’t hard for me, but I slowly eased myself into the novel. A lot of those characters were there from the beginning, but it did get bigger as I went along. Having that background knowledge of mythology, I’m not a scholar in any way, but it was something I was interested in as a kid, so I already had places to fit people in. It was easy to keep them all straight, and, I think, coming from a short story background, I really enjoyed having multiple points of view to move into. I didn’t think I could stay in one head for three hundred pages: that’s terrifying! That’s too much, but somehow being able to move through the different points of view made it feel more like an extended series of short stories.
Hubbard: Do you have a character you are most grateful for? A character, who once you got them figured out, had a clear voice that guided you through the writing process?
Swann: I was very grateful to Vera—
Hubbard: She was so great. I loved Vera.
Swann: It took a while to get to know her because I started the novel sympathetic to Hap. He was someone I saw more of myself in. I got to a point where I really had to dig in with Vera. She couldn’t just be this mean, beautiful person I had created early on. I unlocked more about her and found her sympathetic myself, and then the meanness really helps too for fun dialogue; there’s nothing like someone who really likes to say the truth and poke as many buttons as they can in the process. Whatever scene she was in, her dialogue always came easily and felt fun. I was grateful to have her around and grateful for the variety. I knew if I had a Vera chapter coming up, if something had gotten too weighty or sad in the prior chapter, then there would be more movement, that she brought action to the scenes.
Hubbard: I felt with Vera, she’s probably one of my favorite characters, that she was complicated in such a wonderful way; she sparked. She surprised me the most. Same with Thea. I loved when she came in. They were both truth-tellers and would react in these fun, surprising ways. To feel attached to them and have them surprise me, but still be in line with their characters was exciting.
Swann: That’s one of the nicest compliments a writer can get. When you’re surprised, but it still feels true.
Hubbard: There’s a moment within the novel when June wants to be remade through anger, and I thought that notion, anger as a transformative force, was so interesting and something that a lot of the characters in your novel contend with. What does it mean to be transformed in anger and how do you think you answered that question through story and characters?
Swann: A lot of what I was thinking about with June and was thinking about when I was a kid and reading about mythology, is that Hera is not a goddess that you root for. Everyone thinks she’s the horrible, violent, punishing people she shouldn’t be, shrill, harpy of a wife. Then, getting older, I realized that was a patriarchal gaze of what it meant to be Hera. In reimagining her, I was thinking a lot through a more feminist lens, and certainly, since 2016 at least, I’ve been thinking more about anger and how anger is not—we are taught as women that anger is a negative, but that anger can actually be transformative and can lead to change. You are also balancing that with a family and quite often anger within families, especially between parents and children, is toxic, so I hope that June is relatable and understandable, but certainly the reader will see this as not an ideal parenting situation.
Hubbard: You struck that balance really well…It was interesting to see anger from June become generational, but also not only did that complicate the story in a wonderful way, but the anger was complicated as well. It is a complex emotion, especially for women. Even in my personal life, I work on feeling anger, because women internalize it so much. I really loved seeing female characters that were angry.
Swann: For so long, you’re taught to not own anger, and it gets shrunken or becomes depression, all these other things…it was easy to go in that direction working with mythology, because gods and goddesses have vengeful things going on, so it felt natural to the story as well.
Hubbard: I know that at Texas State, and at most MFA programs, the focus is on the short story. I’ve heard among friends that the novel writing process is challenging after focusing on short fiction, but that to stumble through a novel is to write a novel only you could write. What was it like to write a novel? And how is it a story only you could have written?
Swann: That’s a great question…it took me an especially long time to write a novel and what really helped with that was at a certain point, six years in maybe, I told myself: Alright, even if you think this is not going to be sellable, even if you think this winds up in a drawer, you have got to finish the entire draft. I’ve seen a lot of people write half a book, put it in a drawer, write half a book, put it in a drawer. It is the finishing; you have to know that you can finish a whole book. That is as important as any craft thing. I told myself: You finish no matter how bad you think it is…It’s interesting to think about what is in your books that only you could write. A part of it is the place. One of the nicest compliments I’ve gotten from readers, people from Texas saying that it felt very much like Texas to them, and people from small towns saying it felt like small towns because that would have felt bad to get that wrong. Being able to see small towns and…I don’t why, but I don’t like drama in my life and I have trouble with confrontation, but I have always loved books and movies that are full of people yelling at each other, like long, extended arguments. When I was in high school, I went and saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; I just loved it. Probably because I do repress that stuff. A lot of that came to the novel: dysfunction and long, extended arguments.
Hubbard: I love that writing can do that. That it’s this recreation of reality depending on where you fall on the realism versus speculative spectrum, but still, it feels like this really free space to play around with some of that stuff.
Swann: To be all those personalities that you’re not comfortable being out in the world.
Hubbard: What does it feel like to be doing a craft class and reading at the KAP House? It must be a surreal, full-circle moment.
Swann: It’s one of the nicest things that has happened since my publication, and part of that is because writing is a tough field. It’s not enough to be talented, you also need luck and a variety of other things. To be able to teach a class in a room where I once took a class from George Saunders. All the wonderful people that I’ve seen at the KAP House. It’s also lovely too, in a sense of community, that I may be gone from Texas State, but that same community of writers is still there. People that are excited to talk about books, and even taking some of my same professors, like Debra Monroe. That continuity feels lovely.
Hubbard: It’s cool that it does remain, yet you’re here to make that impression yourself, because of where you are in your career. It’s exciting that you get to come back and leave a mark that will remain within the community too.
Swann: It is easy to get discouraged, right? I think a lot of us in writing programs don’t grow up knowing writers. It’s not like you know famous writers, and seeing people that you are linked to that have had books published, it’s nice to know. It was helpful, because it took me so long when my friend started publishing. I could see, okay, this does happen.
Hubbard: I know as a second-year student, I’m already starting to wonder about the future, both excitedly and with dread, wondering what life might look like post-MFA. What advice might you give the current MFA students at Texas State? Both in navigating the program and what life might look like directly after.
Swann: The one thing I would always recommend, that was a great thing for me, in whatever way you can, stay in touch with the group of people that you resonated with during the grad school experience. I was lucky that I stayed in Austin and a lot of other people did too. For years, and even still, we haven’t met in a while, had a writing group that had other Texas State alum in it. It’s easy to give up on writing or move away from it for five years and come back, but when you keep other writers in your life, it just makes it more likely that you’ll keep writing because you’re still in those conversations. You can share the rejections you’re getting. You can share the things that you’re applying for, and it’s helpful. It’s hard otherwise because everyone has different needs. Some people start families pretty soon after grad school and that requires a different job situation than if you’re just supporting yourself. For me, part of the reason why I didn’t give up, even though it took so long, is I was always working jobs that helped my skills as a writer. I was teaching and I was doing freelance editing. The freelance editing really helped, but I was never making enough money or having a stable enough career that I didn’t still need to think, well, I’m still a writer and the goal is to publish a book, which will then expand the things that I can do to pay the bills. That was helpful for me, but I also didn’t have children, so it was easy to be slightly underemployed.
Hubbard: I feel like writing is an isolated act, and it is, but I like that your message is community is key. That’s really relieving, because the thing that scares me the most about writing, and I’m sure many others, is that isolation.
Swann: Those communities grow the more that you’re just in the atmosphere of things. I have a Texas State community. I have a community from the fellowship that I did at Stanford, but I also have this great American Short Fiction community when I used to edit back when I worked there, but also, I’m still on the editorial advisory board, so I go to stuff and I meet new writers. Recently, when my book came out, I joined a Slack group of other debut novelists, so they’re not even people that I’ve met in person, but they feel like a community too. It’s important to keep those different communities open. Even if you go to one of the summer writing conferences, like Sewanee or Bread Loaf, you’ll meet people there. You’ll go to a residency and meet people there, and you wind up staying in touch.
Hubbard: Was your novel in any way related to your thesis?
Swann: It was not. So, my thesis was all short stories, and I was nervous about writing a novel because I didn’t have an idea that I felt I was excited enough about to commit to writing a whole book. The idea for the novel came about a year after I had graduated. It was something new and different. There were a couple of short stories that I thought I might turn into a novel one day, but now, enough time has passed that they feel calcified; that world is not letting me back inside.
Hubbard: Are there any books that influenced this novel? Anything you read during the writing process that changed the course of the novel significantly?
Swann: There were several early on that wove into the DNA of the book. One of them was A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. It’s a very bleak reworking of King Lear and it’s set on an Iowa farm. It’s a farmer and he has three daughters, and they’re splitting up the farm instead of splitting up a kingdom. Seeing another writer and how they handled adaptation when the adaptation was a little looser and not so one-for-one was helpful. There’s a book I love that not enough people have read called The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall. That one really helped me with point of view. Talk about a lot of characters: it’s a polygamist sect and it’s modern day, so your main character, Golden, has three different wives and dozens of kids. A lot of kids. So, he has a point of view, one of the wives has a point of view, and one of the kids has a point of view, and there’s a feeling of omniscience in some of it too, which felt very similar to what I was trying to do. There’s also a lot of empathy for characters that are hard to have empathy for. That one helped me clarify the tone of the novel.
Hubbard: Do you have any advice that you would give your younger self during her MFA years?
Swann: It took me a long time to deal with validation as a concept. As a writer, it’s very easy to get shaken by the negative, but even positives, you feel like a bottomless pit, no matter how many compliments are thrown in you don’t quite believe them. So, it took me a long time to believe in my own work and it took external validation to do it. I wish I had been able to give that more to myself, and I think it would have made the first few years easier to take constructive criticism. I think I started off super sensitive, but it all worked out in the end. The truth is, all writers are pretty sensitive, so I don’t think I’m much different from most of us.