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PostHeaderIcon New Novel Set in Oakland

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The Bay Area is the background setting for many novels and increasingly Oakland and Berkeley are also places where novels are set. All News No Blues sat down with Oakland author Renee Swindle to talk about her new book. Here is what she had to say:

ANNB: "Shake Down the Stars" deals with a woman trying to overcome the death of her daughter by drinking and sleeping around.  Where did you get the idea for that story line?

RS: I start with character and voice when I write, so I guess you can say I let Piper, the narrator of the novel, dictate the heart of the story.  When I started "Shake Down the Stars" I saw a woman standing alone in a room while her family celebrated an event in another part of the house. Why was she alone? I wondered. Why was she drinking? Over time it came to me that (the character) Piper had lost her child five years before and was extremely lonely and somewhat ostracized from her family. I didn’t necessarily want to write anything depressing or heavy, but I stayed with Piper because I wanted to see if she’d find happiness again.  I honestly didn’t know how the novel would end. I also loved her crazy family and friends and her smart voice.

ANNB: How did you decide to set parts of the novel in Oakland, West Oakland and Rockridge?

RS: Setting the novel in Oakland was a no-brainer.  I live in a neighborhood much like Piper’s where there’s a mix of races and socio-economic classes. It made sense that Piper would also see different neighborhoods. She teaches in West Oakland, for instance, and is related to family members who live in the hills.  I loved portraying the economic diversity I see here.

ANNB: When did you first start writing seriously?

RS: I earned my MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University. I had no idea if I could make it as a writer, but I wanted to see if I could get an agent before I took on a full-time job.  After graduating, I spent a year working as a substitute teacher by day and writing by night. I think that year was when I first began taking myself seriously. I was serious enough to live on the cheap and work my butt off trying to write and teach, anyway. I signed with an agent a year later, and she sold the draft of the book I’d been working on which turned out to be my first novel, "Please Please Please."

ANNB: Are parts of the book based on your own life? The lives of those you know?

RS: I enjoy writing stories that keep the reader turning the page and surprised, and this specifically means avoiding writing about my very boring life. I save writing about my own life and people I know for my journal.

ANNB:  Tell us about what message you were aiming to get across in this book and if you feel you were a success.

RS: I hope readers learn that it’s possible to find happiness again, no matter what they’ve been through; that if you’re the outsider of your family, you can create a loving family from friends; and that humor is the antidote to many a momentary problem. The narrator of "Shake Down the Stars" is an amateur astronomer and so I also hope a takeaway from the novel is that the night sky is wondrous and amazing. Thankfully, there’s been a very positive response.  Both readers and reviewers have said they laughed and cried while reading the novel, which is perfect and for what I secretly hoped.

ANNB: Your first novel, "Please Pease Please," was an Essence Magazine/Blackboard bestseller, and was published in Germany and Japan. How did that exposure change you as a writer?

RS: Looking back, I think I thought I needed to become someone else as a writer. I wrote two more novels after Please Please Please (this explains the ten-year delay between books), but my agent couldn’t sell either book. I wrote those two novels while doing my best to sound and write like anyone except me. I’m not sure who I was trying to be,but writing those two books helped me discover my voice—or come back to my voice, is probably a better way to describe what happened.  After writing two books that didn’t sell, I basically told myself to forget about trying to be someone else and write the story I wanted to tell in my own voice. After writing those books, I discovered 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. By the time I started Shake Down The Stars, I knew I wanted to write something that used humor while also telling a compelling story.  I wanted to write in a style that felt comfortable and honest instead worrying about proving myself.

ANNB: You taught a course titled Developing The Novel for UC Berkeley extension. Have any of your students published anything we might recognize?

RS: I now teach privately and a handful of my students have signed with agents and are in the rewriting phase before the agents approach publishers.

ANNB: What do you love most about Oakland?

RS: There are many places in the world I want to visit, but Oakland’s diversity of people and neighborhoods will always win me over.  I truly love this city.

ANNB: Do you plan to set other novels in the Bay Area? What is a great place to set novels?

RS: My goal is to write stories I don’t see out there much.  I like characters who aren’t perfect and who make mistakes.  I like to write with humor. Oakland inspires all of these things.  I hope to write about the crime and poverty, the art scene, the hipsters and gentrification. Oakland isn’t perfect (what city is?), but there’s so much to do and explore.  I plan to write many more novels set in Oakland.

ANNB: What's next for you?

RS: My next novel, "A Pinch Of Ooh La La," comes out IN July 2014. It involves a woman who owns a bakery in the Temescal District of Oakland.  It’s another novel that’s both funny and moving—at least I hope so.--- KB

Last Updated (Thursday, 24 October 2013 01:16)


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