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Friday, 30 September 2016

Nancy Swing

Sally Spedding talks to Nancy Swing

Nancy Swing has retired after more than 40 years living and working as an independent consultant on five continents.
These international experiences enrich her first novel, a mystery set in Laos, where she lived for two years in the early 1990s.
Her characters and situations are a fictional blend of the myriad individuals and events which shaped Nancy’s life in overseas settings as diverse as Guyana, India, Italy, Kazakhstan and Somalia.
She and her husband, author Russell Sunshine, currently live on California’s Central Coast with five backyard deer who come and go as they please.

Thank you, Nancy for agreeing to be interviewed. I really enjoyed your first crime mystery, Malice on the Mekong and had to find out a little more about you, its author.

Sally: When did you begin writing? What was the spur? And what did you write?
Nancy: Seems like I was always writing, from an early age. Later, as an adult, I was writing a lot of professional stuff — articles, reports, scripts, training manuals, etc. As for when I seriously started writing fiction, that would be in the mid-nineties, when I decided to retire from consulting on educational media and adult education in developing countries. I felt awash with experiences that I wanted to share with others. Fiction seems the best way to reach the most readers, and sometimes novels can bring home truths better than a statement of facts, figures and historical events.

Sally: Do your own memories play a significant part of Malice on the Mekong?If so, which ones?
Nancy: I think the book is enriched by the myriad individuals and situations that have shaped my adult life across 40 years and five continents. The novel’s characters and events are often an amalgam of my real-life memories. However, no character is based on a single real person. That having been said, I did experience at first-hand how destructive women like the character Sophia can be. This may be especially harmful for the vulnerable wives who follow their men around the world and make do with environments not of their choosing. I was twice devastated by such viciousness, only later realizing I had allowed myself to be hurt and that the bullies were to be pitied.

Sally: What drives you to write crime fiction?
Nancy: First, it’s among my favorite genres. Always has been. Second, crime fiction is about sin and redemption. The sinner may not always be redeemed, but hopefully the protagonist will be through his/her experiences. I like to leave some ambiguity in the story, but I also like it to end (mostly) well for the sleuth. He/she has been through a lot and grown in the process. Sadder maybe, but wiser definitely.

Sally: What or who has been the biggest influence in your life so far?
Nancy: Personally or professionally? Personally, I would name my Dad, a great lover of crime fiction but more importantly, a wonderful example of how to live life as true to your principles as possible; then Harriet Shetler, my mentor at University, who kept encouraging me to be all I could be; and finally, my husband, Russell Sunshine, who’s always been there for me. Writers need that kind of sustenance; it’s a lonely, sometimes discouraging job, and we need all the backbone and support we can find.

Sally: .Which authors do you read, and why?
Nancy: Until recently, I’ve been living in countries with few English-language books available. What a joy to relocate to a small town in California, blessed with a Carnegie library and an endowment that allows them to purchase most books that readers request. I’ve set myself the task of working through the crime fiction (or “mystery” as it’s termed here) shelves, starting with “A” and heading for “Z.” So far, some of my favorite authors of the genre have been:

Boris Akunin, famous in Russia but only recently available in the West through translation. His depictions of Imperial Russia in the 1870’s and his protagonist, Erast Fandorin, Commander of the Tsar’s Criminal Investigation Division, pull me into a byzantine world only dimly glimpsed before.
Colin Cotterill, because he writes of Vientiane and the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic in the early years  of  the Communist regime. His protagonist, the coroner Dr. Siri, must tiptoe through a minefield  of conflicting authorities.  
Barbara Hambly’s protagonist, Benjamin January, is a free Creole man, trained as a surgeon in Paris and returned to his native New Orleans in the early 19th century. Hambly offers wonderful insights into the diverse society of New Orleans, where Creole women of light color can exercise power over their white patrons, and the crass Yankee nouveau riches haven’t a clue about how this multi-cultural city works.

Donna Leon writes with deep understanding of the intricacies of contemporary Venetian society in her series featuring Commissario Brunetti. I lived in Italy for fifteen years, and I find her novels to be the best by far in depicting the threads of power and influence often hidden from foreign tourists and long-term residents.

As you can see, I’ve only sampled about half the alphabet, so there are lots of authors to look forward to.

Sally: If fiction, does setting play an important part in your enjoyment of it?
Nancy: Absolutely. As you can see from the above selection, I especially enjoy books with historical and/or foreign settings that intrigue and inform me. I want to know what life is like in that place, at that time. For example, I’ve really enjoyed the novels of  Jason Goodwin about the eunuch, Investigator Yashim, who solves mysteries in 1830s Istanbul. What an eye-opener to the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, the life of a eunuch and the foreigners who live in, but not of, this fascinating city with its myriad layers of history and cultures. Besides, I really like Istanbul herself and pray that her troubles will soon be over.

Sally: What is the setting for your next book, Child’s Play?  Also, what is the book about?  (No spoilers, please!)
Nancy: It’s set in the fictitious small town of Lewistown, West Virginia, a place not unlike where I spent my adolescence. The wife of a prominent lawyer and a poverty-stricken girl are both found drowned in the wealthy woman’s car. The girl’s thirteen year-old friend and the woman’s alcoholic sister must join forces to discover what happened. As they solve the mystery of how these two came to die together, they also unearth the nasty secrets of some of the town’s most prominent citizens. I’m completing the final draft and hope to have it out before the end of this year.

I should add that Child’s Play is the first in a trilogy set in Lewiston. The three books have interlocking characters, sometimes featured, sometimes supporting. The second book, Lazarus, is about a badly injured dog, a boy who quits school to help support his family when his father dies and the woman who took them both in. Murder and mayhem threaten the boy’s equilibrium, but he perseveres to bring the culprits to justice. The third book, The Silver Foxes, begins with a husband’s fulsome eulogy of his divorced wife. Her friends from the retirement
community are suspicious. Before long, they’ve organized themselves into a sleuthing team to find the truth behind his unctuous tribute.

Sally: What advice would you give an aspiring crime fiction writer?
Nancy: All the usual things, but that doesn’t make them less true:
Write and rewrite, then rewrite again.
Be brave: kill your babies if necessary — not every word, sentence or paragraph is sacred, no matter how much you labored over it. If it’s not truly contributing to the story, cut it.
Get feedback — from trusted readers, workshops, or mentors. Listen with an open mind and an open heart. Sometimes what hurts most will help most.
Write at least five days a week, with time off to refresh body and mind.
Give your subconscious time and space to be creative; it’s where your writing comes from.
Exercise daily. Nothing like a brisk walk to wake up your imagination. Gardening’s good, too. Nurturing plants nurtures your creativity.
Be prepared to market and market and market. Writers don’t get the help with this that they used to, so start thinking from the start about avenues of publicity and promotion.

Sally: Do you manage to write/edit/research every day?
Nancy: It usually comes out to five days a week, not necessarily Monday through Friday. It depends on commitments, other obligations in life, etc. But I try to reserve at least five days a week. That having been said, when I finish a draft or the final manuscript, I like to take a break, physical and mental, then come back in a couple weeks to look at it with fresh eyes. Always a surprise to find out how much better it can be if only….

Sally: Will you continue to write crime mysteries?
Nancy: As of now, yes. I want to finish the West Virginia trilogy, and I have a couple plots in mind for Anjali Rao, the sleuth of ‘Malice,’ one of them based on our surviving the tsunami which ravaged Southeast Asia in 2004. After that, I’m thinking about editing the letters I wrote to family and friends from all over the world. They’re full of the details — good, bad and funny — of living in some pretty exotic places.

Sally: Thank you, Nancy, and wishing you every success. 
Nancy: Thanks for asking such intriguing questions, Sally. This has been fun!

Sally Spedding was born by the sea near Porthcawl in Wales and trained in sculpture in Manchester and at St Martin's, London. My work was detailed, accurate and in demand, but I began to realise words can deliver so much more than any narrative sculpture or painting. Sally’s first crime mystery, Wringland, has a strong historical thread and is set in the bleak fenland around Sutton Bridge. Cloven also invokes the past while in A Night With No Stars, published in January 2005, it's a fourteen year old murder which destabilises the present. Prey Silence, set in SW France, featuring an animal rights activist, was published in July 2006. Come and be Killed, set in the Malvern Hills, came out in January 2007. Her strong familial connections with the Pyrenees, Germany and Holland have provided her with themes of loss and exclusion. The dark side of people, and landscape. The deceptive exterior, the snake in the grass are all themes which recur in her writing. Sally is married to the painter, Jeffrey Spedding.

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