In Laughing in the Dark, Franny, Jude, and Anna go on their annual lake camp-out in Northern California to eat and drink, skinny dip and whoop into the night when the subject turns to death. What do you want to do before you die? What will you wear to your funeral? Who will do your makeup? Because, what better way to deal with the absurdity and certainty of mortality than to cry and laugh with your best friends? The author Susan Swartz talks with Book Glow about the novel.
Describe the book in one sentence.
When people ask what the book’s about I say: dying, old friends, fear of dementia, cancer, love, infidelity… and, oh yes, it can be funny.
What led you to write it?
My story is loosely based on late night discussions I’ve had through the years with friends over the scary and the silly. The book started to take form when our party time got interrupted by a new darkness, the kind that creeps in when you start to worry about dying and getting sick and losing people and what happens if your brain turns to oatmeal.
How long did it take to write?
This is not a simple answer. I’d been playing around with the idea for this novel for years, as a reporter, after writing a series of stories on people talking very openly about death. What started out a morbid and certainly unpopular subject often turned into the most intimate and joyful conversations. This gave me the daring to broach the subject with my friends and for myself, after a couple of bottles of wine, of course. Turns out we all had a lot to say. I took notes and hence the novel, maybe a couple of years later.
Do you prefer writing in one genre over another?
Journalism was always my craft. I got hooked in a high school journalism class in Meadville, Pennsylvania. My teacher taught us that a journalist’s job is to listen and question. To above all, be nosy and stay curious. I thought that sounded like a good way to make a reasonable living.
In my career I got to write for newspapers and magazines, have a national newspaper column (New York Times News Service), contribute to anthologies like Cartwheels on the Faultline, do public radio commentary for KRCB-NPR, have my Juicy Tomatoes books published, co-write others (Goodbye Good Girls and Claiming Your Creative Self) and co-write a play (People Like Us).
Now, I’ve written my first novel, Laughing in the Dark.
Fiction is as different from journalism as a mermaid from a red snapper but they do have some terrific things in common. You get to tell stories, figure out some of your own truths, and meet thoughtful and witty people who not only share their lives but hand over some really good lines.
What book most influenced your life?
That depends on where I was in my life at the time. At this point any book by Sylvia Boorstein, a wise and real woman who teaches meditation and Buddhist though, is a perfect example of someone who knows how to laugh in the dark.
Where do you write?
I usually write in my home office, a messy studio in the backyard, filled with books, friends and family photos and a collage of some of my sheroes including RBG, Mary Oliver, Maya Angelou and Jane and Lily.
Is there any one thing that especially frustrates you about the writing process?
Yes, learning each new software program and then having to update the damn things. I can write, but I am no techy. My favorite tools are a pen and a notebook… made out of real paper and small enough to fit in my back pocket.
Any advice for novice writers?
Read, eavesdrop, take notes.
Who knows, but as my character Anna says: it’s the women in your life who hold you up. Whatever my next anything is, I’ll be sure to have my friends with me.