Lisa Lutz’s new thriller, The Swallows, opens like a satire on academia with Alex Witt starting work at a second tier private school receiving classes she doesn’t want. When a creative writing assignment brings attention to something known as “The Dark Room” that the boys like and the girls don’t, she teams up with a streetwise student, Gemma, to overthrow a school tradition. Lisa is able to weave her sense of humor with sense of dread and the use of multiple points of view allows her to delve into a topical subject from several angles. Lisa Lutz will be at BookPeople to discuss The Swallows August 20th at 7PM and was kind enough to take some advance questions.
How did the idea for The Swallows come about?
I had the idea to write about a gender war, and a private school setting made the most sense. I can’t say where the germ of the idea came from (my ideas are rarely sparked by an article or real-life event). After I had the idea, I did read up on private school scandals, mostly to confirm my theory that what happens in The Swallows was entirely plausible.
I think it’s important to mention that I didn’t write it as a #MeToo book—I’d started writing it before all that gained momentum. That said, I did have to contend with my own Trump rage throughout the writing of the book. You’d think it would help, but it really didn’t.
Gemma is such a great complex character. How did you go about constructing her?
Thank you. I wanted a character who was an outsider—who saw things from a slightly different perspective than the other students. Beyond that, I don’t know that I can articulate how I conceived of her—or any character, really. I just start writing and see what happens. The more you write, the more you understand them.
What about this story made you go with switching the point of view with each chapter?
I think the whole subject matter is about different points of view. I wanted a balance between adults, students, males and females. I also liked being able to layer the story so that you see some situations from different POVs.
I bought all the voices of the teenagers. Did you have to keep anything in mind when writing for them?
I think of it like writing character-specific dialogue for film or TV, just with more sentences. Everyone has their own rhythm, words they use more than others. Gemma’s language was pretty loose, and swearing was second nature. But Norman, for instance, was more locked down. I tend to talk when I write so I can hear the rhythm. (If I’m writing in public, this has the additional benefit of discouraging strangers from talking to me.)
5. This is the first book since you’ve written since working in the writers room of The Deuce. Did that experience have any impact on your writing?
Not really. Writing novels and working in a writer’s room feel like entirely different jobs. I’m not a control freak in most of my life, but I really like writing my own stuff. It’s hard to cede control. It always feels good to go back to my own stuff. Also, I’m pretty uncivilized, and when you work in a room you have to at least try to be human. Some days that’s just beyond me.
6. I recently had dinner with some of your peers and we were talking about how well you use humor in your books. What does it allow for you to do besides getting a laugh?
I always love when humor breaks the tension. I also think it makes some subjects more palatable. Also, there’s a way the girls in the book talk about things and “own the joke.” That always feels like the most powerful position. Granted, I care about jokes more than most people. “More than most people do,” I should say. I’m not a monster.
You can order a copy of The Swallows now.