Sunday, May 29, 2022

Erin Swan

photo credit: Sylvie Rosokoff
Erin Swan was born in Manhattan and lived there for ten years until her family moved upstate, where she started writing stories and poems. She used her early adulthood to travel, write children’s books, and work for a literary agency before going to teach English in India and Thailand. Swan earned her MA from Teacher’s College at Columbia University and began teaching in New York’s public school system in 2008.

While teaching full-time, Swan attended the MFA program at the New School and graduated with a degree in fiction. Her work has been published in various journals, including Portland Review, Atticus Review, The South Carolina Review, and Inkwell Journal, and her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.

Walk the Vanished Earth is Swan's first novel.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Titles are not easy for me. This was especially true when it came to this novel. Coming up with a short story title feels simpler, because it needs to cover less. For a novel, however, the title must encompass characters, plotlines, themes: everything I’ve crammed into the book. It took me a while to land on Walk the Vanished Earth, especially because the story covers so many characters and settings and timelines.

When I had just a short story that was only beginning to dream of being a novel, I called it Aftermath, because at that point it was fixated on my character Bea’s trauma and its apocalyptic aftermath. As I churned out more pages, spinning into other time periods and eventually launching my characters to Mars, I chose the title This Infant Nation, which is a phrase my bison hunter Samson says towards the end. I thought this captured what I was trying to say about America, what it has been and what it might yet become. This title, however, didn’t roll off the tongue quite right.

Once I began working with my agents (I have two who collaborate brilliantly as co-agents), we decided the book needed a new name. After writing my character Michelangelo on the Caribbean Sea in the year 2030, I noticed a line he said that included “vanished earth.” This seems like a start. There is a lot of walking and a great deal about the journey in the book, and so eventually I combined these ideas into Walk the Vanished Earth. The grandiosity of this title used to embarrass me when I said it aloud, but I have come to embrace it and can now proclaim it with pride. I think it captures one of the book’s big ideas, that even if all comes tumbling down, we as a species will continue to push forward, to walk across what seems vanished, because that is what humans do.

What's in a name?

Usually, I give my characters the names that pop into my head while writing, but in a few cases in this book I made conscious choices. One such choice was to change some of my characters’ names as the story progresses. For example, I begin one character as Paul, an average-seeming insurance salesman in Kansas City, but change his name to Pa once he becomes the architect designing the Floating City in flooded New Orleans. His daughter Kay becomes Kaiser in the Floating City, as most of that city’s inhabitants choose new, often ridiculous, names. In this section, I have a Mussolini and a Roosevelt, a Harbinger and a Rhombus and an Isosceles. I wanted to show both their playfulness in their new environment and their desperate need to shuck off the old world that has failed them. I don’t have real children to name, only characters in books, which is probably good, because who knows what absurd names my kids would end up with?

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I believe my teenaged self would be thrilled by my novel. She loved everything from Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath to Stephen King and Frank Herbert’s Dune. She also wrote a lot of poetry, much of it about death. That angry, bookish teen would delight in my novel’s dysfunctional families, apocalyptic upheavals, and adventures on another planet. I think she would also appreciate the poetic language and the way I play with structure and point of view in each section. I like to think that on some other plane of existence, 17-year-old Erin is reading Walk the Vanished Earth, maybe even staying up all night to finish it.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I definitely find beginnings easier to write, because anything seems possible. Once I am midway through, I tend to flounder, uncertain where to go next. When this happens, I give my draft to my partner to read. He is great with helping me brainstorm plot points, especially when it comes to endings. We will sit around our campfire at our cabin in Pennsylvania and generate as many crazy ideas as possible. He was the one who helped me alight upon the giant babies and the presence of fire that tie my novel together, bringing everything full circle. That said, since there are so many time periods in the book, there are actually multiple smaller beginnings and endings in this novel, which presented other challenges for plotting but also eased some of the pressure, since there are so many places for the reader’s attention to go.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

For this, I will say simply that this is one of the most autobiographical things I have ever written, although in many cases links to my own life might be evident only to me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I don’t know, everything? I tentatively began this book in 2014 and completed final revisions for it in 2021, so I did a lot of living and a lot of thinking during its creation. Here is a list of some of my non-literary inspirations:

Living in New York City
Riding the subway at 7:00 am
The film Beasts of the Southern Wild
The film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The film Children of Men
My cross-country travels in my 20s
Hearing deer bark outside my cabin
Headlines in the New York Times
American politics from 2016 to 2020
The rover Curiosity’s pictures of Mars
Recent hurricanes, wildfires, and mudslides
The weather
Visit Erin Swan's website.

--Marshal Zeringue