Renee Swindle is kind, intuitive, thoughtful, and funny—and her novel, Shake Down The Stars, has all those same qualities. When I read an early copy of Shake Down The Stars I did so in two days and fell in love with the characters and story (which you’ll learn about below)! Renee has captured the humor and depth of an American family with its quirks and hardships and real love at its core. The writing is engaging and the prose heartfelt and honest. The story carries you along but makes you think. Below, Renee talks about having her second novel published more than a decade after the first, connecting with an editor who found her story universal, and how writers should remember to be themselves while they’re writing.
Please welcome my dear friend, Renee Swindle, to Women’s Fiction Writers. (And tell her to come to Chicago to sign my new paperback copy of Shake Down The Stars!)
Author Renee Swindle Says Discover What You’re Good At Writing, And Write It!
Renee: Thanks so much for having me, Amy. For those who don’t know her personally, Amy is as nice and supportive as you’d imagine. I feel lucky to be here! Okay. How to explain my novel in a few short words? Piper, the protagonist of Shake Down The Stars, is trying to overcome a tragic loss but doing so by spending an unhealthy amount of time with her ex-husband. She also drinks too much and seeks out the company of unsuitable men. Basically, she’s trying to anesthetize herself in any way she can against the blow she suffered years before when a car accident took the life of her daughter. Her family is of no help at all. Her mother is married to a celebrity evangelist and only advises her to pray; and her sister has no time for her, or anyone, because she’s planning a wedding to a famous football player. While certain events in Piper’s life are heartbreaking, the novel is also uplifting, and sometimes even comedic, thanks to the friendships she makes along the way. Ultimately Piper learns that she can work through her loss and pain with the help of others.
Amy: Shake Down The Stars is your second novel. You’re a multi-published author! What’s the biggest difference between then and now in publishing? And what’s the biggest difference between your first and second novels?
Renee: Wow. How much time do you have?! My first novel Please Please Please came out in 1999, which seems so long ago I hardly feel like a multi-published author. I’m not sure many will remember, but back then things like texting and Facebook didn’t exist—was Zuckerberg even born in ’99?! Anyway, I guess you could say that those were the heady days of publishing. I was sent on an eight-city tour that included fancy hotels and car service! Today, though, it seems much more about the bottom line. In the past, publishers were willing to take more risks and willing to work with authors more. I also think that unless you’re a sure bet, you might not expect a big publicity campaign. Today you do what you can to promote your book by using social media as much as possible and promoting yourself locally—at least that’s what I’m doing. And I hope I don’t sound like a downer. I knew it was harder to get published in today’s market, but instead of giving up, I took it as a challenge to write the best novel I could so that an editor might be interested in publishing it.
As for the second part of your question, my first novel was based on a short story I wrote while in grad school. The narrator was duplicitous and unreliable, but I also thought she could be pretty funny—and sexy. I’m still interested in characters I don’t see much and characters that surprise me. I actually wrote two novels after Please Please Please (which explains the delay between books) but they never sold or went anywhere—except a drawer! I think I needed to find my own voice, which lead to Shake Down The Stars. Writing the two books that went nowhere helped me to see that my ability lies in humor and telling a fast-paced narrative—at least I hope so—even if the story is sometimes dark or sad.
Amy: One of the elements of SHAKE DOWN THE STARS that I loved is that is the story and characters are universal and relatable. There’s a cultural tinge, and I that reminded me of my own novel. I think you know that there were some naysayers with my book, who said that only Jewish readers would enjoy or understand the story. Did you experience anything like that with this novel? Did anyone say only Black readers would read and enjoy SHAKE DOWN THE STARS? (If they did, they are WRONG!)
Renee: Thanks, Amy. I think, sadly, the publishing industry can still be very segregated in certain respects. If your narrator is African American, or Jewish, or fill in the blank, many believe the book should be marketed as such. Can I bring back the word hogwash? When I read Jumpha Lahiri or Sandra Cisneros or even when I read The Glass Wives, sure, some food or ritual might be mentioned that I’ll have to look up, or there’ll be some other distinct cultural reference, but the stories—the human stories—are universal. That’s why we read, no? At any rate, I consider myself very lucky that Shake Down The Stars, went to Ellen Edwards at NAL/Penguin, she believed the novel would appeal to all women and said right off the bat that it would be categorized as women’s fiction. Please Please Please was marketed as solely African American fiction so I was ecstatic to hear she thought Shake Down The Stars was a book for everyone-because it is! I’ve always thought of myself as a writer who wants a broad audience so that she said that was just great.
Amy: What’s your favorite scene or part of SHAKE DOWN THE STARS? What makes it your favorite?
Renee: I like the opening scene for personal reasons. During an early draft, Piper, the narrator, was attending a party but hiding out in a room all by herself. Boring! I tried to write the scene a couple of more times with Piper’s sister walking into the room, but it wasn’t taking off. After the third try a guy named Selwyn walked inside, he was short and funny and odd. He and Piper could really riff off of each other and the novel took off from there.
Amy: What do you find is the hardest part of being a novelist? (Aside from fitting it in with all the other things you do!)
Renee: Great question, Amy. I think the hardest part for me is the lack of control. Once my novel comes out all I can really do is hope that readers find it, like it, and tell a friend. In so many ways the success or failure is out of my hands. I suppose it’s like watching your kid go off to college. You do your best, but then you have to trust that your child will find her way. As much as I’d like to walk into the bookstore and force people to read my novel, I have to trust that readers will find it.
Amy: How do you define women’s fiction? And what are your thoughts on that label?
Renee: I’m not the biggest fan of labeling books. I hate that African American Fiction, or so-called gay fiction, say, is often cut off from other books in the bookstore. That said, I love being part of the women’s fiction community because I love so-called women’s fiction. I read a wide variety of books, but there’s something about discovering how other women live their lives and overcome their struggles that allows me to completely disappear inside the story.
For the most part you know the heroine will grow and often triumph. I enjoy that and love that my novels are classified under the category of women’s fiction. Yes, I know I’m contradicting myself (smile), but I’m trying to be honest here.
Amy: What’s your best advice for aspiring authors (and frustrated authors) of women’s fiction?
Renee: Be yourself. Write the story you want to tell and not the story you think you should tell. Do your best to discover what you’re good at and run with it. In the meantime, continue to hone the weaker aspects of your writing. Read a ton. As you read, watch how writers set up scenes and use dialogue and all the rest. Finally, find a way to make the process of sitting and facing your fears every day enjoyable. I know that sounds nuts, but it’s such a long haul, the sooner you learn to become your own cheerleader and best friend, the better.
Renee’s first novel, Please Please Please, was published by the Dial Press/Dell. Please Please Please was also published in Germany as Mehr Mehr Mehr and published in Japan. Please Please Please was an Essence Magazine bestseller.
Renee Swindle earned her BA from UC Irvine and MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University. She lives in Oakland, California with her two dogs and three cats–meow!