author of Sway
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Sweden, moved around a lot as a kid, and did not have an illustrious academic career. In fact, if you were to tell one of my old high school teachers I managed to make it through graduate school they would call you a liar outright. I enjoyed dropping out of school so much that I did it a few times–high school twice, college twice.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
I wanted to be a writer for just about as long as I can remember, and before I learned to write, I was a storyteller. After I saw Indiana Jones when I was seven or eight years old (which now seems horribly inappropriate that my parents would let me see that movie at that age) I wanted to be an archaeologist, and I do have a fall-back career in the museum field. When I was eighteen I wanted to be a museum curator/archaeologist and I pursued that path for a while. I love to write, I love museums, I love art and history, but strangely I discovered over a long career that the one job that never bored me, never frustrated me, and I never wanted to give up…was bartending. I love everything about it. Every day is different. You meet all kinds of interesting people and never can anticipate what craziness might ensue. I eavesdrop on people’s personal stories (people will say some astonishing things within earshot of a bartender) that later become fodder for my novels. I love the pace, the fact that the work can be very physically demanding, and the intense contact with other people. Finding a way to get along with every human you meet is an interesting challenge, one that never gets old to me.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That I’m smarter than anyone else.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your
own development as a writer?
Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson had an enormous impact on me as a young reader. And I still cry every time I read that book. I sometimes read the last two chapters just if I want to have a sob fest—seriously, nose running, tears streaming down my face, hiccoughing. Paterson is a brilliant writer and the world is a better place because she wrote books for kids instead of adults.
As far as music is concerned that is an insanely tough question to answer. I listen to music almost constantly—at work, as I write, in the car, whenever I have to walk anywhere. My books all have soundtracks because different music sets different moods for me to write each story. I keep the playlists on Spotify under Spotify/katbooks.com. Each book I have written or am writing has its own playlist. I even do playlists for some of the characters and will listen to their playlists when I am crafting dialogue for them. Carter Goldsmith, a secondary character in Sway, has amazing taste in music. Jesse ,the protagonist in Sway, tends to like music that features a strong or distinctive guitar sound like The Stooges or Django Reinhardt because he plays guitar. I know. Jesse and Carter don’t really exist. I get that. But it helps with the creative process.
I didn’t choose to write a novel. It chose me. I have written many things in my life—grants, exhibit text, newsletter articles, term papers (blech), business letters,—that all have some personal or professional purpose. My fiction is very different. Isaac Asimov once said, “I write for the same reason I breathe; if I didn’t, I would die.” (Or something similar to that sentiment but perhaps with better punctuation. I do have a copy editor for my books.) I remember reading that quote when I was in my late teens or early twenties and realizing for the first time that there were other people who felt exactly the way I did about writing. An important revelation.
My ideas for stories hatch fully formed from my brain like Venus from the clam shell. After that it takes me a while to get to know my characters as people, so I can understand their personalities and motivations. They live in my head for a while until I am ready to put them on paper, but they are as real to me as an old friend who lives on the other side of the country who I just don’t see very often.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel
Humans are complicated, always a mixture of good and bad—never all good or all bad. I like characters that are ambiguously heroic and that definitely describes the main character in Sway.
Jesse, the protagonist in Sway, is an antihero. He doesn’t just seem like a complete jerk, he is one (this has made several people very unhappy, I’ve noticed from reviews). At first glance, Jesse has very few redeeming qualities. But he’s a loyal friend, treats everyone exactly the same regardless of race or income level or gender, and is smart.
When we meet Jesse he has closed himself off emotionally from the rest of the world, but an unlikely friendship with a boy who has cerebral palsy, and the experience of Jesse’s first love with a girl, creates serious conflict for him as he tries to maintain his cool and the empire he has built as the go-to guy who deals drugs and fake IDs and term papers in his high school.
I love Jesse. Some of his best qualities are so hidden, many people don’t notice them. For example, his best friend is a girl named Joey who happens to be a lesbian. Throughout the book if Jesse is asked whether he and Joey have a romantic relationship he says no, claiming that Joey is too crazy for any guy to date. Jesse makes a point of never outing Joey because it is no one else’s business that she’s gay. He acts like a jerkwad by calling his best friend crazy and unstable and suggesting that girls like that are impossible to date, but at the same time he does it to protect Joey’s privacy. So? Is he good or bad? Ummmm…both.
Coming out next year from St. Martin’s and in the works now is Flat Back Four. I’m a big football fan, hence the title, and the four main characters all play for the same team. This story is about friendship and how fragile it is. After Jason, the protagonist, experiences the death of his younger sister, he’s left to question the ties that bind him to his three closest friends, who he has always relied on as his surrogate family. I’ve moved many times in my life and some friendships last forever while others fade away. I liked exploring what makes the difference between a lifetime friendship and a friendship that exists only in a specific time and place.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
When I was about 20 years old I read A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. It had a profound impact on me because it was the first time in my life I loved a book, couldn’t put it down in fact, when I didn’t like or even sympathize with the main character. Ignatius Reilly was such a reprehensible human being—absolutely repugnant. Yet Toole’s writing was so grand and masterful, his ability to perfectly capture a character and paint him as clearly as an artist does on a canvas just amazed me. And here’s the thing, the fact that I hated Ignatius Reilly as much as I did, was because of Toole’s writing ability. A good writer can evoke strong emotional reactions from readers. It dawned on me then, that even if the main character was a complete jerk, the brilliance of John Kennedy Toole was that his writing was so compelling, so captivating, that I had to keep reading even when it made me sick to my stomach, or angry and frustrated.
I am in no way comparing my writing ability to Toole’s. He was masterful and spent a decade writing Confederacy, but it was one of those light bulb moments in my life I will never forget. I could die happy if someone ever walked away after reading a book of mine and had a huge emotional reaction like I did to A Confederacy of Dunces.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I have to say that I have a huge amount of respect for Meg Medina (author of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass). The first time I met Meg was at a writers’ group and she was telling everyone that she had finally worked up the courage to tell her mom what the title of her latest book was, though I’m pretty sure you can even say “ass” on television now. (Can I say “ass” in this interview?) Meg is incredibly supportive of the careers of other authors and makes the time to have genuine connections with the people who read her books. Meg spends a lot of time and energy advocating for diversity in children’s literature—diversity of authors and diversity of book characters. After all, everyone needs books, and young adults want to feel as if they can recognize themselves in the pages of the books they read, or find role models in the authors who write them. Diversity isn’t just about race—it can be religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or a hundred other factors. That’s one of the reasons I love Tom Angleberger’s book The Poop Fountain: 1) because he entitled it “Poop Fountain” which is awesome, and 2) because he wasn’t afraid to populate the book with unlikely heroes and heroines for middle grade literature. It also helps that he is hilarious. The great thing about this book is that the characters are diverse, but the book isn’t about diversity. It’s about a poop fountain, and that is as it should be.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
My goal is for each book I write to be better than the last I wrote. Writing is a craft, not a God-given talent. I hope I can learn from the process and develop as an artist. My editor, Sara Goodman, is amazing. She has a great feel for characters and plot development and after working with her on Sway I feel like I am better able to see the shortcomings in my writing while I’m in the process. I may not know how to fix it on my own, but after a conversation with Sara it will help to shake things loose from my brain, help me to see how the story could be better, the characters more three dimensional. And sometimes the changes are very subtle but can have an enormous impact on the story.
I look back on Sway now that it has been finished for some time and there are things I wish I could change, though overall I am happy with it. The changes I would make are mostly very minor, but I learned a great deal from the editorial process and it makes me eager to grow in this profession.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
I always say the best advice I can give, is never take any advice from me. But if I had to give advice I would say…write. Write all the time. Write for yourself. Don’t worry whether anyone is ever going to want to read it or if it’s marketable or matches a current trend. Write because you love to write, not because you want to be rich or famous, because you have a better chance of getting hit by lightning than you do of being a famous author (I did not actually conduct any research to verify the accuracy of that statement). But most of all, instead of taking a class in writing, take a job working in a bowling alley, take a long train ride and watch the people around you, listen to the way people talk (really listen), make friends outside your race and socio-economic comfort zone, volunteer in a shelter for the homeless, attend a comic book convention…just do something. A lot of published, well-trained authors have not lived very interesting lives, and it shows in the stories they tell. Anyone can develop writing as a craft through the practice of writing and reading, but not everyone has a good story to tell.
Kat, thank you for playing.
by Kat Spears
In Kat Spears’s hilarious and often poignant debut, high school senior Jesse Alderman, or “Sway,” as he’s known, could sell hell to a bishop. He also specializes in getting things people want – term papers, a date with the prom queen, fake IDs. He has few close friends and he never EVER lets emotions get in the way. For Jesse, life is simply a series of business transactions.
But when Ken Foster, captain of the football team, leading candidate for homecoming king, and all-around jerk, hires Jesse to help him win the heart of the angelic Bridget Smalley, Jesse finds himself feeling all sorts of things. While following Bridget and learning the intimate details of her life, he falls helplessly in love for the very first time. He also finds himself in an accidental friendship with Bridget’s belligerent and self-pitying younger brother who has cerebral palsy. Suddenly, Jesse is visiting old folks at a nursing home in order to run into Bridget, and offering his time to help the less fortunate, all the while developing a bond with this young man who idolizes him. Could the tin man really have a heart after all?
A Cyrano de Bergerac story with a modern twist, Sway is told from Jesse’s point of view with unapologetic truth and biting humor, his observations about the world around him untempered by empathy or compassion – until Bridget’s presence in his life forces him to confront his quiet devastation over a life-changing event a year earlier and maybe, just maybe, feel something again.