The Glass Forest, the second novel from bestselling author Cynthia Swanson, opens on the water of North Bay in Baileys Harbor, circa 1960. The protagonist, Angie Glass, is taking her infant son out in a canoe for an early morning autumn paddle. It’s the most calm moment in the novel. Past the first page, the tension mounts until the final chapters.
Angie is living idyllically in her Door County hometown with her handsome husband Paul their son, PJ. The idyll ends when Angie answers a phone call from Paul’s 17-year-old niece, Ruby, who says her father, Paul’s brother Henry, has committed suicide, and her mother, Silja, is missing. After starting in Door County, the story moves to New York, where Henry, Silja and Ruby live and where Angie begins to unravel the many mysteries of the Glass family.
Swanson will visit the county in late July for two events: July 21, 1:30 – 3:30 pm at Fair Isle Books on Washington Island for an author signing and July 23, 4-6 pm at Peninsula Bookman in Fish Creek for a reading and signing. For more information about Swanson visit cynthiaswansonauthor.com.
What’s your history and background in Door County?
I’m from Wisconsin originally. I was born in Milwaukee and raised there until I was seven and then we moved to New York. I came back to Wisconsin a lot to visit family and friends, but, believe it or not, I had actually not been to Door County until about 10 years ago. We had family friends who bought a cottage on North Bay. It was somewhere I had always wanted to go it just hadn’t happened, but once they bought their place, we started going up there. I just fell in love with the area, and I knew I would. Now we come to Door County almost every summer.
How much time did you spend researching the area for your book?
I spent a lot of time – every time I was there and some of it from a distance. The nice thing about a tiny place like that, because that area around North Bay is so small and concentrated, I did a lot of my research around that and that was really specific to what I wanted for this particular character in The Glass Forest. Angie, the main character, is from there and she grows up there in the ‘40s and ‘50s, so I wanted her to be from a small town and I wanted it to be really idyllic and be a small town that anybody would want to be from and that anyone would want to go back to. The whole point of the story is that she leaves, she’s young, she gets this opportunity – albeit for dark circumstances – to travel and then she finds that all she wants to do is get back to Door County.
So, getting back to the question about research, every time that I went there after I started writing The Glass Forest in 2014, I would spend a lot of time asking questions, talking to locals, walking around, driving around, going to the libraries, doing as much of the research as I could on site. It was incredibly intimidating and I’m still really intimidated by the fact that I wrote about a place that I’m not from.
I think some of that writing comes in from the heart more than anything. I couldn’t write about places that I’m not from if that place just really didn’t touch my heart and soul. I’ve traveled a lot, but there’s a lot of places I probably wouldn’t write about. They were cool; it was nice to see them, but they aren’t deep inside me in the same way that place just sort of got to me and always does. It is my happy place. I’m so excited to get out there in a few weeks.
Both of your novels are set in the ‘60s. What’s compelling about that era?
With my first novel The Bookseller, that book was originally set in the present day and I realized pretty quickly into writing the first draft of that book that the present day was not going to work for the story because the whole story hinges on a missed moment that would not happen today because of technology. So I knew I needed to bring that book back to an earlier time and the ‘60s just became a natural fit and it was really about the fun of it – the architecture and the clothes, the cars and the music. But as I started to do the research for that book, the social issues got so interesting to me and I wrote a lot in that book about quandaries around women and work and family and what women’s roles in society were, as they were changing so much. When I finished that book and started writing another one, I felt there were more of those social issues I wanted to explore on an even deeper level and so that’s what I tried to do with The Glass Forest and that was the work I was doing there, going into some of those issues around women’s roles and women’s roles in their marriages – traditional vs. nontraditional – and how the kinds of effects the change in society had on women in their lives.
What was your starting point for the book – a character, setting or scene?
It was more an idea and more of a theme. I was thinking a lot about what it would be like to occupy the home of a person who’s missing, which is what Angie does. She leaves Door County and stays in the home of her missing sister-in-law in New York and it’s just spooky wondering what happened and you’d be looking for clues around every corner so it puts everything a little on edge. That’s where it started from. The setting and specifics for the characters took off from there.
Was the three-narrator structure of the novel determined from the start or did it come about later in the process?
It was originally just Silja and Angie, but that didn’t go on for very long. Pretty quickly into writing my first draft I realized Ruby really needed to have a voice because her voice is so mysterious, and hopefully compelling, and just really different from anybody else. I needed her to be telling her story. So I figured that out pretty quickly, within the first couple weeks of starting to write.
So I started writing this three-way narrative and then I realized that I needed to write all the Silja chapters first. I needed to get her whole story down because she has all the backstory, so I stopped writing the other two characters and I wrote all the Silja chapters so I had her whole story down solidly. Then I went back and wrote the Angie and Ruby chapters; their story takes place in a week in the fall of 1960. And Silja’s story is history which goes on for 18 years, so I needed to have that history down first so then I could put in those pieces of the Ruby chapters and the Angie chapters.
And then it was a lot of rearranging. There were so many revisions of this book, I went over it so many times. It’s really plot heavy, but I didn’t plot it before I wrote it, so I had to spend a lot of time rearranging and making sure Ruby was revealing things at just the right moment after you read a Silja chapter that was going to correspond. There was a lot of that and working on that structure and getting that right.
What’s the importance of having three female narrators? Why didn’t you choose to have a male voice?
That’s so funny, I just did a book club the other night with The Glass Forest and they asked that too. I feel like this is a woman’s story because the women’s lives are so controlled in a way that’s hard for us to comprehend now. We didn’t live through it, so for a lot of women now, there’s so many things that we take for granted. You take for granted that if you want to get out of a marriage, you can pretty much do it. It might not be easy, but you can do it. There’s no husband that can say we’re not getting a divorce and that’s the end of the story, but that was the case back then. It’s a really different way of living and all of that was just their lifestyle, but things were changing and it’s just on the brink of that change which I find especially fascinating for women. Certainly the men’s stories are important, but they’re really more through the lens of how the women were seeing their lives as affected by the things these men did and that’s what I wanted the novel to focus on.
When did you start writing?
I always worte. I wrote as a kid. I was writing lots of stories and books and poems. I always thought I wanted to be a writer and then I took a little detour in college and I was an architecture major. I went to UW-Madison to architecture school there for two years, which I loved because I always had an interest in design, but I kept sneaking off to the English Department and taking creative writing electives. And I finally had a creative writing professor in the spring of my sophomore year who sat me down and she said, “I don’t know anything about your architecture, I know that’s your major, but I don’t know your skills and passion in that area, but I have to tell you that whatever you do, don’t stop writing because you’re really good.”
That was an amazingly validating thing to hear as a 20-year-old. It changed my life. I changed majors, I changed schools. I graduated from UW-Madison and I went on to make money, to have a career. I was a marketing writer, I did some PR writing and a little bit of technical writing. And I did that for a lot of years and I always wrote fiction on the side, some short stories and a few novels before I wrote The Bookseller. Those were good starter novels that didn’t go anywhere and The Bookseller was the one that finally got somewhere. A little late in life, but it finally happened.
How do you stay motivated through the process of writing a novel?
When I’m writing a first draft, it’s words. I force myself to write a certain number of words every day or every week. When I’m doing revisions, I give myself an amount of time that I’m spending on it. The hardest thing is that there are so many things drawing your attention away. If you really want to do it, you’re going to do it. And all those other things, they become a lower priority. So I say my highest priority was my family and my writing and everything else can be secondary.
The people who want to write, I always say to them, you can do it if you really, really want to do it. It’s really hard to do it and then it’s really hard to get anywhere with it once you do it. So only do it if you can’t even imagine not doing it. I can’t imagine not doing it, so that keeps me motivated.
Are you currently working on another novel?
I am. I have a third one in the works right now and I’ve been working on that for about a year and a half, in between the publication of The Glass Forest so I work on it a little every day, but it’s still got a ways to go. It’s coming along though. It also is set in the 1960s, in 1965. The issues that the characters face are a little bit different. Vietnam’s an issue; there’s some racial issues that come up in the book. And one of my characters is a child narrator, which has been an interesting change for me to do. I have a three-way narrative and one of them is an eight-year-old girl, so that’s been really kind of fun to work on.
What do you most look forward to when you come to Door County?
We don’t get any internet connection there, so it’s wonderful to get that unplugged time with my family. My kids are 14 and 11 now and they’ve been going there since they were little so they still look forward to that. They can spend all day long in that bay playing with the rocks and swimming and just playing with each other and running around. Our family friends we stay with, they’re like parents to me, so I really enjoy getting to see them.
From a writer/author standout, getting to talk with some readers and getting to spend some time with people that know the area and that like books about Door County. So I’m excited to have the two events that’ll give me that opportunity to be chatting with readers and hopefully some other writers.
Is there anything else you want to say about the book?
I hope I have done Door County well in my portrayal. Anything that’s a mistake is entirely my own because the research I did and the people I talked to were so helpful. I hope people do enjoy reading this book that has a couple nice snippets about the area and I look forward to getting to meet some readers while I’m there.