Swartz creates lesbian fiction with an authentic touch
Probably the majority of people believe they have a book in them and they just have to sit down and write it. Easy peasy. But they never do. Life gets in the way. Besides, writing – or writing well – is not easy. It may take a little inspiration, but it also takes mountains of discipline, self denial, determination, passion and a spirit that never quits.
Enter Winnipegger Rebecca Swartz, who has just published her first lesbian-themed novel, Everything Pales In Comparison (Bella Books). Passion and music are key elements in the fast-moving plot, which features Const. Emma Kirby, who is assigned to protect singer/songwriter Daina Buchanan – the target of a murderous stalker.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Swartz attributes her love of words and writing to her stepfather, Harry Swartz, who passed away last year at age 82. He had also written a novel, a sort of Adam and Eve story for our times, though it was never published. “He was an electrical engineer who worked for MTS for many years,” she says. “He was a low-key but very intelligent and motivated man, very loving and thoughtful. I was a ferocious reader as a child and growing up, and my father encouraged this, often bringing home books for me to read.”
She says she frequently asked him the meaning of certain words and it never surprised her when he was able to provide the definition for any word brought to him. “As I said, he was very intelligent, and his knowledge of words was impressed upon me, so that I eventually emulated him with my own word knowledge.”
Swartz has written stories since early school days. In Grade 8 she wrote one story that a teacher entered in a competition and she won a prize. She admits to having a restless spirit which has seen her travel in most of western Canada as well as the North. Anola and Portage la Prairie have also been places of living and discovery for her.
She has been something of a Jill of All Trades, working as a disc jockey, dental assistant, dog obedience instructor and pool maintenance person. Being a disc jockey had been one of life’s ambitions and she did it in clubs and at gay weddings. Therein is a contradiction, since she is usually a quiet thinker and observer, someone who chooses words carefully, is quite private and takes pains to be truthful, precise and is generally guarded in her comments. Interviews make her a bit nervous. Being a DJ is a very public and much more extrovert role.
“I am a bit of a contradiction, in that I am a mix of introvert and extrovert, the latter certainly taking a bit more effort, but not effort I’m always reluctant to spend. Deejaying became something I truly loved to do…not because I enjoyed being out in front of people, but because what I was doing was presenting what I loved (music) to an audience, in a way that reflected my personal style. So really, it was just another extension of my art, if you will.
“It was sometimes a bit nerve-wracking, but never a strain, and was often great fun. When I’m doing something I love, in front of people, I’m certainly nervous, but even so, I’m almost always having fun. Writing is more personal and private than playing music, but even so, I always look forward to sharing it and seeing people’s reaction to it.”
Several years ago she decided to write full time so she decluttered and simplified her life, lowering her material needs and selling some possessions. She also lowered her responsibility levels. Besides focusing life on writing she keeps body and soul together with a few seasonal, temporary jobs.
Besides writing — she is working on a second novel due in January — she is also focused on her North Carolina girlfriend, Melanie, and eventually hopes to move to the U.S. to live with her. She often spends three months in North Carolina, alternating it with three months back in Winnipeg.
She is also a firm believer in taking risks, trying new things, though she says firmly she will never jump out of a perfectly airworthy plane. Quitting is not in her nature. “Quitting, for me, in anything, was never an option, simply because if I quit, what was I going to do then? This applies to my character(s) as well.
“I’ve always been told I’m very strong, friends and acquaintances have said I am one of the strongest people they know. Which may be why my characters are so strong. I know of no other way to be, and quitting is just simply not an option.”
Swartz says the bottom line is that she writes novels that she would want to read. She thinks lesbian novels of a few years ago were of poor quality, with weak characters, dialogue and pacing. “I think for many, many years lesbians had very few books to choose from, to read. I am not a great reader of lesbian fiction, so I can only go on what I’ve heard: many of those earlier books were downright depressing.
“I believe that lesbians simply started writing their own stories, due to that dearth, in an effort to fill a void not only on the bookshelves, but also within themselves. Reading fills you up, and reading your own story, or someone’s else’s similar story, fills you up as well.”
For many years she thinks standards were low in lesbian fiction and so were expectations. “It’s not precisely that I’m not a huge fan of the genre, it’s more that I’m simply not a fan of poor-quality writing,” she explains” I do not enjoy coming out stories, nor the often re-worked stories of supposedly “straight women” discovering their sexuality in the company of a more “experienced” lesbian.
“This is still going on today, trust me. Bad writing is still very prevalent, in any genre, but in the last, say, 15 years, some amazing talent has surfaced: Emma Donoghue, Nicola Griffith, Lucy Jane Bledsoe, Jill Malone and others. These women, these lesbians, represent to me the golden ring, writing strong characters, strong plots, excellent pacing, believable dialogue.
“It’s not just a matter of less sex, because in my opinion, a “love scene” does work, if it’s tastefully written and not overdone. Some books do not require it, however, and it’s the author’s job to recognize that. It would appear many do not.”
Swartz was touched that her editor, Katherine V. Forrest, an iconic author herself, said the love scene in her book was “beautifully written, tasteful, yet passionate and romantic.” “She did not edit a single word of it, saying it was basically perfect. I’m very proud of that.”
She began working on her novel in 1996 and a first draft was ready in 2005 after she had worked on it full time for a couple of years. She works methodically and doesn’t believe in writer’s block. She is grateful to former police Winnipeg police chief David Cassels, who assigned a member of the police service to work with her on getting the details for the cop character as precise as possible.
Initially the policewoman character was meant to be a secondary character but as the book progressed the officer took over and became the main protagonist. Simply stated, the book is about two strong, independent women. One is saved by the other after a bomb detonates. They are forced by circumstances to be together, but eventually fall in love.
Interestingly, the story is set in Winnipeg, which was not Swartz’s original plan. She wanted a generic setting but an editor had an idea that Winnipeg was an exotic place and so the story opens in a Winnipeg concert hall.
One of Swartz’ childhood ambitions was to become a policewoman, but she didn’t meet the physical criteria required back then. So it is no surprise that a chief character in her second novel will be an ex-cop. They make for good, strong characters as is clearly evident in her first novel.
Swartz’s advice to would be novelists is simple: read a lot of good books and stick with it, realizing that writing is hard work. It needs inspiration, but also a lot of mental perspiration and discipline. Getting writer’s block is simply not an acceptable excuse for her.
– Peter Carlyle-Gordge is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer.