On the Spotlight with thriller author Cheryl Swanson
|Interview with Cheryl Swanson
Interview by Mayra Calvani
How long have you been writing?
I started writing stories when I was around seven. When I was thirteen, Arizona Highways Magazine sent me a check for $50 for a short story about riding a mule down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Getting that check hooked me, but I must say it was the last easy money I ever got for my writing.
Tell us about your latest thriller, DEATH GAME. What was your inspiration for this story? Is this your favorite genre?
Death Game is the beginning of a series about a family traumatized by their father’s secret life. The father may or may not be dead; you’ll have to read the series to find out. Death Game starts when the past reaches back and pulls the family’s youngest son, fifteen-year-old Jimmie O’Brien, into a murder plot. Jimmie’s sister Cooper tries desperately to extricate her brother. But she’s battling not only some very bad people but her brother’s misguided hero-worship of his missing father.
I’m a strong believer that family secrets are dangerous and perhaps that inspired the idea for the series as much as anything else. When children aren’t allowed to tell the truth about their family, I think they grow up both secretly ashamed and deeply confused. In my case, I’m living this out because my daughter is adopted from a third world country and she was born in difficult circumstances. From almost the first month my husband and I adopted her, we have told her the absolute truth about everything. We’ll see if that proves to be a good strategy.
Technically speaking, what’s the hardest part of writing a thriller? The easiest? The most fun?
People like to lose themselves in thrillers. They like to “step into them” and that requires the author to be particularly adept at creating a convincing sense of place and a character moving through it. A good thriller writer should be able to “take” the reader somewhere, make them “hold their breath” as they see the lead character totally focused while their risk level increases. It’s a type of self-transcendence—a truly great thriller writer can make an imaginary experience more vivid than one you actually have. This is the hardest part of writing a thriller, but also the most fun.
The easiest part is recreating exotic locations. I love to travel and I’m planning to send my heroine all over the world before I’m done. Some of the places I will have already been too, others I will make sure to visit before I write. Travel is a blast, whether you’re a reader or a writer.
Do you follow a disciplined schedule when you write?
I used to only be able to write in the evening. I’d put on a pot of coffee and write until dawn, snatch a few hours and then go off to work. My five-year-old daughter ended that; she’s a lot more demanding than a day job!
I’m writing full-time now, but it’s still hard to find uninterrupted time. Sigh. Maybe when Carmen is older I can start pulling all-nighters again. I love how the world seems to hold its breath in the early hours of the morning…it always inspires me.
Do you find the process of book promotion difficult? How many hours a week do you spend promoting your book?
Okay. I’m weird. For the most part, I enjoy book promotion. I have a strong marketing background and I like to try new things—see what works and what doesn’t. I also love the “press-the-flesh” part of book promotion, the book signings and readings. You meet fascinating people and I consider it all research for a forthcoming story.
For instance, at a book signing in a little Hawaii jungle town called Hanalei the other day, I met a gifted twenty-eight-year-old painter. Moses became a quadriplegic in 2002 from an accident and now paints holding the brush in his mouth. His art was technically proficient as well as extremely moving and he’s doing very well with it.
A month or so ago, I met a twenty-something woman who teaches scuba diving to cruise ship visitors. She took me out for my first night dive a while back. Moray eels were slinking through our legs!
It was terrifying.
Would you like to share with our readers any of your present or future projects? Any more thrillers on the horizon?
I’ve already mentioned that Death Game is the first in a series. The sequel is about 2/3’s done. In the meantime, I just sent a non-fiction manuscript out to an interested publisher yesterday. It’s an inspirational survival guide to breast cancer.
Perhaps that cancer guide will find a wider audience than just patients, because my take on the disease is quite different. The whole experience of facing a threat like cancer is something I would wish on everyone—without the disease, of course. About 90 percent of what used to bother you disappears forever from your life. One small example: the whole concept of a “bad hair day” doesn’t exist for me anymore. I’m just happy to have any hair at all. I read women’s magazines these days and laugh myself silly. I can’t even imagine being bothered by things they focus on. Some women never cared about those things to begin with, but I used to let my fears trap me.
For you, what’s the most rewarding aspect of being an author?
It used to be the writing itself. Now it’s the people I meet, particularly if they enjoy my writing. It was cancer that changed that for me as well. And…adopting from a country where the children have such a tough time just getting enough to eat. I don’t live inside myself so much anymore.
What is your favorite book of all time?
The Bible. I started reading the King James Version when all the other kids were reading Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys and the beauty of the language sank into my soul. I also loved all the graphic violence and sex in the Old Testament. My family was pretty anti-church in those days, so I kept a copy hidden and read it at night when everyone was asleep. Of course, that made it all the more thrilling.
Do you have a website and/or blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
My website is www.cherylswanson.net. I have several personal blogs that you can link to on that website, but my favorite is my writing group blog: www.madten.wordpress.com.
Leave us with some words of wisdom.
Mayra, I know your daughter just published a book (my congratulations to her) and since we’re approaching Mother’s Day, I’ll focus on that. If you have a young artist or writer in your family, give them everything you can possibly give them to help them succeed. But also warn them that the only people who should try to make their living off of their creative work are people who really have to do so. It’s a very difficult career and the only people who should be in it are those who want it more than anything else.