There are some benefits to the pandemic, as without it I would never have met Peter Swanson’s handsome cat Finty. In a normal year, I would probably have interviewed the American crime author in a shiny but soulless central London hotel bar on his UK publicity tour or, if he wasn’t on the road, via a transatlantic phone call. But the coronavirus has given us the unalloyed pleasures of the video call in all its sorry-you-froze and can-you-unmute-yourself? glory. So when Swanson appears on Zoom from his home in the working-class Boston enclave turned hipster hotspot of Somerville, Massachusetts, sat next to him is “executive assistant” Finty.
Alas, Finty’s somnambulance adds little in the way of usable meaty quotes—she mostly snoozes on the couch next to Swanson, barring an occasional haughty look up at the both of us—but her presence lends a welcome cosiness to the chat, because we are discussing murder and lies.
Swanson’s latest psychological thriller, Every Vow You Break, is an enticing blend of layers and clever twists in which buried secrets come back with a vengeance. The novel centres on Abigail, an editor for a New York indie poetry publisher, who is marry- ing tech multi-millionaire Bruce. Abigail might not be head over heels in love, but Bruce seems kind, stable and he represents a refreshing solidity from her past difficult relationships and the somewhat chaotic upbringing she had with her boho arty parents.
After a few too many pinot noirs on her hen ’do at a ritzy Napa Valley winery, however,Abigail shags handsome California dude Scottie. She passes it off as a drunken mistake of a one-night stand, but when she gets back to New York, she is chilled to see Scottie at a coffee shop near her office. Why has he followed her across the country? How did he know where she worked? He later emails her (how did he get her email address?) to say he thinks they had a deep connection, and pleads with her to break off the marriage. She brushes Scottie off and gets married to Bruce, but on their honeymoon at a posh eco-hotel on a remote Maine island, cut off from the rest of the world, she discovers one of the other guests is... Scottie. And then things start to go a bit dark.
The book is named after a line from the old Police song “Every Breath You Take”. Swanson says: “Yeah, that was probably one of the creepier mainstream radio hits of all time... so this is a stalker novel. I’ve writ- ten a lot of thrillers that are quite complex in the sense that they take place in different timeframes, and they often have different perspectives: the past influencing the present and so on. I really wanted to write a thriller with a straight-ahead narrative, told strictly through one perspective. I wanted to write one of those thrillers that is just, something bad happening to someone and they’re react- ing, and we just move forward in time along with this protagonist, wondering what’s going to happen next.
“I mistakenly thought this would be some- thing I could write quite fast, that it would be easier than my other books. And I did write the first draft quickly, but then there was redraft after redraft, as it took some pretty sinister turns from the original premise.”
Swanson reveals he is “not really a plotter”, which might come as a surprise to fans as his books tend to be multi-layered—such as his 2015 UK breakout A Kind Worth Killing with its Strangers on a Train-esque “Why don’t I murder your cheating spouse for you?” storyline. He explains: “I think I’m essentially a premise writer: I come up with what I think is an interesting premise, and some interest- ing characters to plug into that premise, then I essentially let it roll from there. That’s not to say I don’t think ahead and imagine what might happen along the way. But I’ve never written an outline for any book and I’ve often hit the midpoint with no idea about where it’s going next. It is a double-edged sword, because on the one hand, it can lead to exciting reveals that you might not have been able to plot; on the flip side, you’re left with the horror of not knowing where to go next, and you start thinking, ‘Did I paint myself into a corner?’”
The hard yards
It was a long road to bestsellerdom for Swanson. He grew up bookish kid in Carlisle, Massachusetts, the next town over from literary Concord, the home of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond and Lousia May Alcott’s birthplace. He attended Trinity College—“the one in Connecticut, not Dublin”—and did creative writing degrees at the University of Massachusetts and Boston’s Emerson College. While trying to make it as a poet and author, he worked a number of jobs, including as a bookseller (at the now sadly closed Harvard Square indie institution WordsWorth Books), a teacher and a project organiser at a non-profit organisation. He secured an agent for a crime series he was writing featuring Ted Lockwood, a dissolute, drunken poetry professor who is an amateur sleuth, but he was unable to get published.
“I’d just kind of given up,” Swanson says. “Everything was falling apart and I had hit that point in my forties where I thought, ‘It’s not going to happen for me.’ But I did love the actual writing, so I carried on doing it. Then I was contacted out of the blue by an agent who had read a short story of mine that had been posted online. And my début was sold fairly soon after that. I don’t think I ever thought I would ever be on a bestseller list, I was just happy to finally have my own book in my hand.”
It is interesting that he tried initially with a series, as his published books have been all standalones. “Maybe if I had started my career 10 years earlier, my publishers would probably have asked for me to create a series by now. I think there’s an ebb and flow in the industry about what’s most popular. Of course, publishers can love a series because if someone falls in love with one of the books, they’re going to read them all.
“I may do a series one day, but I like both [series and standalones]; they both have pleasures. We’re post-Gone Girl with these big standalones with the promise that somewhere along in this narrative, there will be a shift that will kind of blow you away as a reader. Whereas, if you’re reading, say, Ann Cleeves’ new Vera novel, you’re excited to be back in Vera’s familiar world. And that’s what’s interesting about a lot of crime fiction: it involves murder and danger, but also brings comfort, which is a strange combination.”
Every Vow You Break (9780571358502) is published by Faber on 18th March. The hardback costs £12.99
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