A Conversation with
Beverly Swerling, author of
BRISTOL HOUSE: A Novel
Viking; On-sale April 9, 2013; $27.95; 9780670025930
Q. You are best known for your historical fiction, but in BRISTOL HOUSE you delve into a dual narrative visiting Tudor England, and contemporary London. Was it a difficult switch to writing in the 21st century? What made you decide to write a modern story?
A. Not difficult at all! In fact, this book began with Annie, the 21st century woman who is the lynchpin of the story. She was the first of the characters to begin speaking in my head. Then I heard Dom Justin the Carthusian and decided he was not a modern man – though there are still Carthusians – but a voice from Tudor times.
Q. BRISTOL HOUSE employs actual historical points such as monks being executed in Tudor England, the Kindertransport in WWII, and modern day Middle Eastern politics. Do you do a lot of research before you start writing, or as you form the novel? What is your process like?
A. Normally for me the research accompanies the writing, but I read widely in history so it's always a matter of delving deeper into things with which I've acquired some familiarity. In this case the woman who comes over with the Kindertransport then works at Bletchley is based on the true story of the mother of a dear friend. She's a writer as well and I had to ask if she was going to use her mom's story or if I might! (Obviously she gave me her okay.)
Q. Annie is a fragile character. She lost her parents and brother at an early age, and then her son in a custody battle. Why did you decide to make Annie an alcoholic?
A. I simply needed a reason for her to not be crazy and yet go ahead and sign the lease after she sees the ghost. Or I had to change the way that scene was written. I liked it as it was so began thinking about why she might do that. Afraid she's hallucinating? Yes, that would work. But why might she think that? Oh, of course, she's a recovering alcoholic. And that's also why this assignment is so vital for her and why the stakes are so high… It made all Annie's motivations make sense. At that point I was exercising novelcraft, not imagination. The former is, I think, the handmaid of the latter.
Q. Bristol House plays with the concept of supernatural versus preternatural. As the author, what did these concepts mean to you and how are they linked in the novel?
A. A character—Rabbi Hazan—tells Annie he thinks her sightings are not about the supernatural, the mysterious after-life, but about time; a force of nature we do not yet entirely understand, i.e. preternatural. The rabbi mentions Einstein's theoretical explanation of time as a river on which past, present, and future exist simultaneously with the past and the future around bends, so we can't see them. Hazan also quotes T.S. Eliot's Burnt Norton, “…time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future…” What I'm doing in Bristol House is riffing on that concept. The voices of the monk and the goldsmith speak to us from The Waiting Place. It's part of time, but neither past, present nor future. When my characters move beyond time to eternity I simply watch their retreating backs.
Q. Which did you enjoy working on more, the present-day events with Geoffrey and Annie or the Tudor sections involving the Jew of Holborn, and Dom Justin?
A. It's hard to say I enjoyed it more, but it was easier to write the historical material. It's more concentrated for one thing; the modern section of the story is almost two-thirds of the novel. For another, there's a sense in which you can be more flamboyantly dramatic in writing of earlier times. We see them in highlights as it were, whereas writing about our own era requires more skill in creating the web that the reader will find intriguing despite its “ordinariness.”
Q. You’ve been a full-time writer for a number of years, and a mentor to many aspiring writers. What is your number one recommendation to authors early in their career?
A. Realize that if you are to be a professional novelist in today's environment you have to do more than just write. Your publisher will market and publicize your work (thank you!) but you have to be fully engaged in that as well. The competition is simply too tough for it to be otherwise.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. In my head – where I first write – I’ve been spending a lot of time in Prague before and during WWII. Let's say you were a young and beautiful woman and you had the opportunity to kill Adolf Hitler early on, maybe 1937, and you didn't take it? And then you not only survive the war, you come out of it a princess; wealthy, successful—and with the blood of so many millions on your hands. Or so you think. Then, in New York City in 20-something, your great granddaughter lives with paroxysms of deep, unexplained, existential guilt…