An Interview With Beverly Swerling

Please help me welcome Beverly Swerling, author of BRISTOL HOUSE (Viking, April 4, 2013).

Photo Copyright Sigrid Estrada
Photo Copyright Sigrid Estrada

Born in Boston, I went to school in Kansas City MO (don’t ask).  After college I moved to NYC and took a job as a file clerk in an insurance company so I could support my writing habit.  Eventually I could legitimately call myself a freelance journalist, but it was a good ten years before I managed to write a saleable novel.  In the meantime I got married and not long after moved to England.  Lived there and in France and Spain for nearly a quarter century.  We settled in New York when we first returned stateside full time – my husband’s Manhattan born and bred, and my professional life is rooted there – but a few years ago, on impulse, we moved to Philly. I’d been researching a possible book set here (never wrote it) and discovered it’s a delightful town where we were able to get three times as much house for a third as much money.  And it’s a little over an hour by train from NYC.  I can and do go up to the city for lunch meetings.   All in all, a good move. 

13D Bristol House Cover Use

In modern-day London, architectural historian and recovering alcoholic Annie Kendall hopes to restart her career by locating several long-missing pieces of ancient Judaica. TV pundit, Geoff Harris, is soon drawn into her quest, both by romantic interest and suspicions about the head of the organization sponsoring her work. He’s also a dead ringer for the ghost of a monk Annie believes she has seen at the flat she is subletting in Bristol House.

In 1535, Tudor London is a very different city, one where monks are being executed by Henry VIII and Jews are banished. In this treacherous environment of religious persecution, Dom Justin, a Carthusian monk, and a goldsmith known as the Jew of Holborn navigate a shadowy world of intrigue involving Thomas Cromwell, Jewish treasure, and sexual secrets. Their struggles shed light on the mysteries Annie and Geoff aim to puzzle out—at their own peril.

BRISTOL HOUSE is a dual period narrative that seamlessly blends a haunting supernatural thriller with vivid historical fiction.

I’m delighted that Beverly could join me during her busy launch week! And so, with no further delays … on with the questions:

Where did you grow up? Will you share a favorite story from your childhood?

I grew up in Revere MA, just outside Boston. When I was a kid Revere was mostly Italian and Jewish immigrants (my own family is a mix of both!) and in large measure dominated by two racetracks. Suffolk Downs for horses and Wonderland for greyhounds. In those days it was not uncommon for bookies to rent space in front rooms that allowed them to see the tote board of one of the tracks, so they got the results as soon as they were posted. Which in those pre-cellphone times was a huge advantage for odds-making.  All of this is, of course, entirely illegal.  Nonetheless, for a while at our house we had Sid and Nate.  They were very nice to me. Gave me lovely presents – I remember a Cinderella doll particularly – and a gift I didn’t recognize at the time.  I constantly overheard things like, “The Little Guy wants two g’s in the third at Aquaduct…” It’s been very useful to call back that kind of louche in the occasional novel.

What inspired you to start writing?

Stories have been hatching in my head from the earliest I remember.  And I was terrible at math and science, but from as early as third grade I remember being the one picked to write a letter to some important person on behalf of the class.  Don’t remember the person or the subject.  Only being picked because I could put words together.  But I couldn’t actually get it on paper very well!  I never had good penmanship and was always being scolded about blotting the page.  My parents bought me a typewriter when I was just entering middle-school and I soon became an extremely fast touch typist.  It’s proven to be a useful skill!

If you could go back in time and share one writing lesson with “new writer you” before starting your first manuscript … what would that be?

Don’t be afraid to let bad things happen to your good characters.  I got a lot of early – and valid – editorial  criticism for allowing important scenes to happen off-stage.  Eventually I realized it was because I liked the people I was making up and didn’t want to see them suffer!  The serious lesson is don’t avoid drama.  You have to learn the difference between it and melodrama, then it’s a tool you can wield to great effect.

Your new novel, BRISTOL HOUSE, is a fast-paced mystery with supernatural features, blending a modern-day sleuth with the ghost of a monk and events that took place in Tudor London. What did you find most challenging about writing a mystery with multiple timelines and supernatural elements?

It was Annie Kendall – the sleuth – who was the toughest character to realize on the page. She’s an architectural historian who goes to London to do some research, and finds herself drawn into a complex and ultimately very scary mystery that she gradually realizes has roots in Tudor times. In the contemporary story we see everything from her point of view.  Annie was born in my head with a lot of baggage – a recovering alcoholic who has made a mess of her career and hopes to salvage it with this assignment – and I could not have written her any other way.  That meant I had to make her both strong enough to fight the evil, but vulnerable enough for readers to forgive some pretty serious past mistakes.  Getting that right  was really hard.  Also, I heard the voices of the two Tudor characters from the moment I started  thinking about this book.  Both the monk and the goldsmith spoke to me in first person voices and I knew I had to write them that way.  But where were they speaking from?  It turned out to be something I came to call “The Waiting Place,” which is explained more fully in the story.  Finally, it wasn’t until the third or fourth draft that I fully realized how the Tudor story and the contemporary story came together.  Maybe all this explains why Bristol House took me four years to write.  (Though admittedly I was working on the last two books of my series about early New York City during the first two years of that time.)

Do you have a favorite author, book, or genre? If so, who (or what) is it, and why?

Well, no surprise that historical mystery is my favorite genre absolutely.  Though I love  contemporary mystery as well – particularly psychological mystery.  And when the three come together, I’m in heaven.  I’ve got lots of favorite authors.  Starting with the late great James Clavell.  Absolutely master of the genre.  Both Shogun and Noble House are towering accomplishments in commercial fiction. (Incidentally, I think we need to recognize that “historical fiction” can run right through WWII, and great historical fiction often straddles the literary/commercial line.)   I’m also a huge fan of memoirs and biographies.  I adore Virginia Woolf’s non-fiction (not as enchanted by her novels), and I’m fascinated by anything to do with the Bloomsbury group.  In fact, when I first heard the historical voices in Bristol House – the monk and the goldsmith – I wasn’t sure what period they were speaking from.  And since I already knew the novel would mostly take place in Holborn, within spitting distance of Bloomsbury Square, I thought maybe those two men were somehow connected to V.W. and her friends.  But I listened a bit longer and realized that wasn’t true.  They were unquestionably men of Tudor times.

Do you have a favorite scene or section from BRISTOL HOUSE? If so (and if you can tell us about it without revealing the mystery!), what makes that scene stand out for you?

There’s a very dramatic and unusual chase scene towards the end of the story, and advance readers all said it got their pulse racing.  Certainly it was a challenge to write and I’m elated that I seem to have gotten it right.  But it’s not my favorite scene.  That’s a scene that also takes place near the end, in Guys Hospital.  I love that it’s both physically graphic and fully realized emotionally.  I think it allows the reader to actually drive through London to the hospital with Annie, experience her frustration when it seems she may not be in time, and then to be fully engaged in what she finds when she gets there.  It’s a really well honed scene, and I know how many years of practicing my craft went into making it so.  I love that feeling of knowing that for a time at least – maybe just a few hours – I was writing at the top of my game.

What is the last book you read, and why did you choose to read it?

DEARIE: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz.  I read it because I’m a passionate cook and learned an enormous amount from watching Julia.  Also, I’ve scheduled a trip to D.C. with two of my nieces in April.  We’re going to the Smithsonian to see the remount of Julia’s fabulous kitchen.

How did you push yourself to get past difficult moments in writing and editing BRISTOL HOUSE? Do you have a favorite place to write or to edit your work?

Answering the second part first: I write in an office on the second floor of my three story Victorian in Philly.  And in a sense that’s the answer to the first question as well.  I get up every morning really early and go into my office and sit at my computer and just bloody do it.  Sometimes, if I’ve come to a place where I seem to be stuck, I spend a lot of time rewriting things I’ve written already – I’m a compulsive rewriter – but eventually I just grit my teeth and get on with it.  Even if it’s terrible, at least it’s something I can rewrite.  Also, I act as a consultant to other authors on writing and representation, and that work always provides a welcome, frequently inspiring, change.

Do you have any upcoming signings or readings?

April 9, 2013, 7pm: Five Stones Bookstore, Lebanon PA

April 10, 2013, 7pm: Nicola’s Books, Ann Arbor MI

April 11, 2013, 7pm: Lake Forest Book Store, Lake Villa Public Library, Lake Villa IL  I’m very lucky because this is a twofer with me and Christina Schwarz

April 12, 2013, 6:30pm: Murder By The Book, Houston TX

And be sure to check Beverly’s Website for even more information about her readings and signings!

And now, the speed round:

Plotter or pantser?

Pantser – which will be a surprise given that I’m known for complex plots.  But I work them all out on the page as I’m writing, and NEVER outline.

Coffee, tea, or bourbon? 

Tea.  Or seltzer with OJ when I’m working.  With dinner, wine.  Maybe brandy for special occasions.  Years since I’ve tasted bourbon.

Socks or no socks?

None unless it’s below zero.

Cats, dogs, or reptiles?

Dogs.  I have a delightful little mutt – part Chihuahua part God-knows-what  called  Daisy.  We got her as a rescue dog in 2003.  She’s the smartest dog we’ve ever owned.  Incredible vocabulary, understands every word you say.  Maybe because she writes with me most mornings.

For dinner: Italian, Mexican, Burgers or Thai?

Italian (or French, which I’ve been rediscovering thanks to DEARIE, and which you didn’t list!)

Thank you again, Beverly, for joining me here at the blog today. I truly appreciate you joining me during your release week, and I’m really looking forward to reading BRISTOL HOUSE!

You can find out more about Beverly on her website, or find her on Facebook! BRISTOL HOUSE released Thursday, April 4, and is available in Hardcover, ebook and audio formats at all major online retailers and at your local bookstore!