Cynthia Swanson is the New York Times bestselling author of “The Bookseller,” which is slated to be a motion picture starring Julia Roberts.
Swanson’s second novel, the USA Today bestseller “The Glass Forest,” was a finalist for the Colorado Authors’ League Award. Swanson’s novels have been translated into eighteen languages. She lives with her family in Denver, Colorado
The following is an interview with Cynthia Swanson.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
What inspired you to write this book?
“The Glass Forest” is a standalone novel, but in some ways it’s a follow up to my debut novel, “The Bookseller.” Set in Denver in the early 1960s, “The Bookseller” is the story of a woman caught between a dream life and a real life – but really, it’s about the paradox women faced at that time – and still face today – attempting to juggle personal and professional lives.
When I finished writing “The Bookseller,” I felt there were further issues around this paradox that I still wanted to explore. Those issues were the inspiration for my second novel. “The Glass Forest” is also set in the mid-century period, and it centers on three women in one family: a career woman stuck in a disappointing marriage, a young mother, and a teenager on the brink of womanhood.
In writing “The Glass Forest,” I also aspired to craft a novel that crosses the line between literary and thriller. I wanted to take the psychological suspense I’d woven into “The Bookseller” a step further – and in a darker realm. Into the forest, as it turns out!
Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?
There are so many, but here are a few that inspired me in writing “The Glass Forest.” For suspense, Mary Kubica and Laura Lippman write terrific page-turners. For literary fiction and beautiful storytelling, Rebecca Makkai and Ann Patchett have my highest admiration. Historically, I was inspired by the two Mrs. de Winters in Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and by the tragic tale of April Wheeler in Richard Yates’s “Revolutionary Road.”
Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?
I want to give readers a taste for each of the main characters in “The Glass Forest”: Angie (the young mother), Ruby (the teenager), and Silja (the career woman). The story is told by each of them, through alternating chapters. This excerpt, from the beginning of the novel, both sets up the storyline and gives a voice to each of the narrators. My goal was to use a distinctive voice for each of the three, and my hope is that the excerpt demonstrates that.
What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?
Research is my favorite part of writing any novel. “The Glass Forest” is partially set in a fictional town in Westchester County, New York, and partially set in Door County, Wisconsin. It also features an area of Brooklyn which is now called Sunset Park. The character of Silja grows up here; it was, at the time of the story, inhabited mostly by Finnish immigrants and was (aptly) nicknamed Finntown.
Writing the first draft of this book, I relied heavily on my memories of growing up in Westchester, as well as vacations in Door County, where family friends have a cottage that we visit every summer.
After getting a first draft down, I settled into research. I did what I could from my home in Denver, but I also spent time and conducted interviews both in Westchester and in Door.
Additionally, I visited in Finntown and was able to tour the actual co-op building where I imagined Silja had lived. Built in 1916, it’s still standing and is still a co-op. In fact, was the first co-op in the United States. The building is called the Alku, which means “Beginning” in Finnish.
What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?
For me, the middle is always the hardest. I knew the beginning and the ending, and I had a pretty good idea of the middle, but it took some time to fit it all together. “The Glass Forest” has a more complex plot than “The Bookseller” (as well as three narrators, to “The Bookseller”’s one), so I spent many hours getting the pieces to fall into place.
What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?
I learned much about a race riot in Peekskill, New York, in the summer of 1949 than I’d known previously. In fact, when I was growing up in that town in the 1970s, the riot was not discussed at all. I knew nothing about it until many years after I’d moved away.
In the late 1940s, there was tension in many communities regarding race and communism. On an August night in 1949, what was supposed to be a concert starring Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson (organized by a group called “The People’s Artists”) turned into a scene of violence featuring an angry mob. In “The Glass Forest,” I used the incident as a catalyst for personal events in my characters’ lives.
I’m happy to report that today, Peekskill is a peaceful, art-focused community…vastly different from what happened there so many years ago. Despite this sad moment in its history, I take great pride in hailing from such a wonderful place.
What project are you working on next?
As is “The Bookseller,” my novel-in-progress is set in Denver, where I live. It takes place in the 1970s and is a family story. I’m in very early stages on it, so that’s all I can say at the moment!