The author chats about dark secrets, the seedy brilliance of carnivals, and the fact that everybody knows someone who’s made out on the docks.
In Erika Swyler's debut novel, The Book of Speculation, protagonist Simon Watson has a lot on his mind. Not only is he about to lose his library job, but his seaside childhood home is in danger of toppling over a cliff.
Then a battered old tome mysteriously arrives one day. In it are clues to his family’s past — including its long line of circus “mermaids”; expert breath-holders who “drown” in front of amazed audiences — and warnings about an ongoing curse that threatens to claim Simon’s beloved (if frenetic) kid sister, Enola.
How much of your own experience growing up on Long Island Sound did you draw on in imagining Simon and Enola’s upbringing?
I borrowed very heavily from the experience of spending summers on the beach, and the tightknit nature of families in this type of little town, but less from actual events. There are certain aspects of shore living that are universal. Everyone who has lived in a harbor town has either known someone who’s necked at the docks, or been someone who has necked at the docks. So, yes, that’s my experience, but not “mine” at all.
The elements from my childhood that I outright stole were the sensations. I know that your feet can get so tough that you can walk on steaming asphalt and melting tar and not feel it. I know the specific smell of the water. I did [like Enola] almost completely skin the back of my legs on barnacles. I wish I’d made that up. Fortunately, using it in a novel gives that kind of pain a purpose.
Family secrets figure heavily in your novel. What is it about the unknown (or unknowable) parts of our past that makes exploring them irresistible — and maddening?
As humans, we’re always looking to understand why we are the way we are. Digging through history is part of that mad quest to rationalize self. It’s easy to latch on to the idea that if you can find out why your great uncle left home at 14, you’ll understand why no one talks to your side of the family. I think everyone has a secret hope that they’ll stumble upon greatness and find it reflected in themselves.
So much of the time, all we find are names or a picture. I’ve got a fantastic photo of a great-great-grand relative of some variety. I don’t know her name or exactly how we’re related, but she’s wearing a truly impressive hat. It makes me wonder, “Is that it? Is she why I’m obsessed with hats? Did it start there?” It’s tantalizing because these people are just out of reach, along with any answers they might hold as to why we’re all so incredibly screwed up.
Because both books are about carnivals/performers, reviewers inevitably compare The Book of Speculation to Erin Morgenstern’s equally excellent The Night Circus. Do you think it’s an apt comparison?
I hadn’t read The Night Circus until after I’d written The Book of Speculation. I’m flattered at the comparison, but it’s not necessarily fitting. I think it might be jarring to go from one book to the other. My fantastic elements are rooted in folklore, and my version of reality is as real as I could tolerate. Overall, my “weird” is smaller, but my 250-year scope is much larger.
The Night Circus is so much about the gorgeous world-building, whereas The Book of Speculation is more focused on family history and relationship dynamics. I’m also wading in several genres rather than staying in fantasy or magical realism. I like to think that what I’m doing is asking the reader to find wonder in the ordinary. The common ground between the books is the love of the circus arts.
When it comes to traveling carnivals, there’s a fine line between creepy and cool. Yet you loved them as a kid. Why?
Everything in a carnival is loud, bright, and just on the edge of falling apart. That’s what most kids are. I also revel in the slightly creepy. Traveling carnivals fall into that interesting world of the uncanny. I didn’t have that term as a kid, but it’s a concept I’ve always liked to explore.
Carnivals fascinate me in that there’s a distinct divide between the people running the show and those attending; they’re hugely different cultures, staring each other in the eye. That’s the sort of situation where interesting things happen. Carnivals are safe in the sense that their only purpose is to entertain you. And yet they’re also trying to fleece you, and you know it. I love that silent agreement of watching people trick me, and letting myself be duped. I like watching the trick unfold.
Which authors writing today make you want to up your game (or abandon writing in utter despair because they’re so brilliant)?
I’m forever despairing. Kelly Link makes me want to pack up my toys and go home. Aimee Bender does the same. Then it was Kirsty Logan. Jincy Willett makes me want to relearn everything about English, and this time do it right. Alexander Chee makes me dream of one day being able to write a coherent essay. Some writers I have to swear off entirely or I’ll never pick up a pen again, because why bother? I love John Banville, but he’s responsible for so many hours of writer’s block that it wouldn’t be uncalled for to ask for an apology.
Just in case you ever need work as a professional mermaid, how long can you hold your breath?
I just clocked myself at a minute and a half, which is far better than I expected. Time to get fitted for a fin.
[Photo by B.J. Enright.]
Holly Smith is managing editor of the Washington Independent Review of Books. Carnivals have always freaked her out a little.