"I've almost wound up living inside my novel!" exclaims Erika Swyler, who moved back to her childhood home in Suffolk County not long before the publication of "The Book of Speculation" (St. Martin's, $26.99). Swyler's first novel was inspired by the ecology of her native turf; its contemporary chapters chronicle the travails of Simon, a librarian who can't afford the maintenance required to keep his North Shore house from sliding into Long Island Sound. Readers also get an atmospheric glimpse of 18th-century circus life in the story of Simon's ancestors, whose fates are bound up with water in mysterious ways that threaten his sister. In a recent conversation, Swyler talked about how living on Long Island -- and getting some distance from it -- has affected her writing.
How does someone who was in the theater program at NYU end up becoming a novelist?
It was a gradual switch from performing. Toward the end of my college career I said, "Hmm, maybe I'm not meant to be an actor," and that led me into writing plays. Then I got this idea that was just too big to be onstage in my mind, and it just kept growing and growing, and that was this book. I had a grand flash while sitting in a bathtub one day; I thought up the whole circus backstory at once, and I felt this need to connect it to something deeply personal to me, which is how you connect your past with your present and how where you come from makes you who you are.
Did your experience as an actor and playwright help or hinder you as a novelist?
Having a background in theater can only help you for this sort of thing, because you learn how to be quickly connected to your emotions, so you never have a problem writing characters whose feelings are just exploding off the page, and you get very keyed into psychology, which definitely helps in building a character world. Also, you're so used to working in terms of words and dialogue that having conversations between characters is quite easy, compared to other aspects of writing.
Was writing descriptive passages more difficult? Your portrait of Long Island is so vivid.
The Long Island landscape is so ingrained that it's a part of me; I could write about it all day. The book was very much inspired by Long Island, because it's such a unique place. People who don't know it either think it's all like the Hamptons, or it's New York City Junior. But there are so many little pockets that are different and beautiful; I wanted to share that. Sometimes you have to move away from your home to realize how wonderful it is.
You blog and have a Tumblr about baking, but you also do first drafts in longhand and on your collection of vintage typewriters -- is that why you call yourself "an antiquarian technophile"?
For me, accessibility is incredibly important; I don't particularly care how you consume books, just as long as you do. I'm a huge fan of digital media because it can mean access for people who don't necessarily live near a bookstore or even a library. It's also access for the disabled: the visually impaired can adjust the print size on an e-reader, and turning the pages is just a touch instead of having to use a pincer grasp on a paper page.
At the same time, I'm hugely in love with books as physical objects and keepers of memory, things you can write in and pass down through the generations; my family did, and it was wonderful. When you use an antiquarian object like a typewriter, you're literally holding history, and that's an incredibly romantic idea. But technology lets people share things in ways they couldn't before: there are all sorts of Tumblrs and blogs about old books. You have to support technology if you love books.
Do you have a new book in mind?
I'm starting my second novel. I'm looking at focusing on Florida in 1986 and a little girl and science; it's quite different. I think my style and voice are developing, but I think people who like "The Book of Speculation" will still be pleased with whatever this new project winds up being. Now that I've returned to Long Island, I have an entire studio to write in, which was not feasible in my Brooklyn apartment. It's a bucolic space, it's going well; I'm very lucky.