“Characters Must Show Growth and Change:” Interview with Sarah Maury Swan, Author and Reviewer – by Joan Y. Edwards
This is the second in a series of blog posts on Book Reviewers and Book Reviews. My goal is to discover what makes book reviewers tick and learn the skills that writers need to keep reviewers reading until the end.
Thank you, Sarah Maury Swan for agreeing to let me interview you. What an honor it is to have you with me on my blog!
You’re welcome. Let’s begin.
1. Where were you born?
I was born on May 29th, 1941, in the base hospital at Ft. Lewis, Washington. That was supposed to be the day my father left for duty on Bataan, Philippines, but the army gave him two extra days. I was due in June after my mother moved us all to Los Angeles, CA. But, instead of being nine months pregnant and the mother of three other children, Mother had to move four of us, all under the age of six. I think it helped that all four of us had flame-red hair and that Mother was a beautiful natural platinum blonde because we evidently had lots of people helping us along the way.
2. Where was your favorite place to live as a child?
Garrett Park, Maryland. Although I liked where we lived in L.A., we were only there six years. So most of my life was spent in Maryland. Garrett Park is a charming little town nestled in amongst much more bustling places, such as Bethesda and Rockville, Maryland.
It’s on the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) railroad line to Washington, D.C. We kids took the train to D.C. and spent the day wandering around the city. Trips to the Smithsonian were great fun, or tramping around the Mall could always provide adventure.
Garrett Park is an incorporated town, one of the first in the state, with its own post office/general store. Walking there from my house took about 20 minutes, if we didn’t dawdle. It was a daily occurrence to pick up the mail. I liked being there early to watch Mr. Chamberlin catch the mail sacks as the train hustled by.
The streets are shaded by large oak and poplar trees and there were open fields in which to play. It’s still a quiet little enclave that many people have driven through for years and never even realized what a gem it is. The older houses are mostly Victorians, but there are smaller houses which are part of American architectural history. They’re single story houses, with a small attic and a basement. And the promise was that if you bought the smaller house, you got a Chevy to go with it. So they were called Chevy Houses.
As kids, we walked pretty much everywhere, which is a good way to stay in shape. The beginnings of Rock Creek ran along the eastern border of the town and we would mess around in the creek paddling boats the boys made and roasting hot dogs along the sandy shores. Dogs and kids all played together. Rock Creek, by the way, flows into D.C. and in the city there is a beautiful park that protects the creek as it flows from the DC/Maryland border and dumps into the Potomac.
This was a time when all parents kept watch over the children, which meant we had much more freedom. It was a great place to grow up. Later, we had our very own community swimming pool.
3. Did you have a favorite place to read a book as a child?
In the summer, I read on the screen porch because it was cooler. I shared a room with my sister, so privacy was a precious commodity. In nice weather, I climbed out our bedroom window and sat on the porch roof. My grandmother was head librarian at Garrett Park’s library. so we had constant access to books. Plus, Mother bought books for us. She read to us or we read to her. I remember reading poetry to her and on snowy days, we acted out parts of Shakespeare plays. I learned how to read with emotion and inflection because of that.
4. Where is your favorite place to read now?
I like to have plenty of light when I read and I like to be comfortable. So, in the winter, my favorite place is the living room sofa with the fireplace on. Because it’s just the two of us, the house is generally quiet. Dale plays music in his office/music room which adds to the serenity of our house. In the spring and summer, I like to read in our Carolina Room which has lots of natural light streaming in and a close up view of our bird feeders. Sometimes I like to read in our bedroom where we have an ancient chocolate brown recliner by the front windows. And, if the weather is cooperating, I like to sit out on the deck to read.
5. What is your favorite genre to write?
I especially like to write picture books because they challenge me to write succinctly and that skill makes my writing tighter no matter what genre I’m writing.
6. Tell us about your new book.
My published book is Terror’s Identity. It is about a sixteen year old boy who has to go into witness protection with his mother and sister because his father is investigating a group of terrorists who are causing problems in the U.S. The terrorists target his family.
The book is selling quite well and getting very good reviews. I’m discussing doing a second printing run with the publisher. It is available from the publisher, www.sablebooks.org, Amazon, and from me at dale4sarah at suddenlink dot net.
7. How do you keep yourself physically fit?
Who says I’m physically fit? I do try to get to the gym several times a week, but some weeks that works out better than others. I also try not to eat junk food or too many cookies. My downfall is ice cream. I also play golf and kayak in nice weather. I have to be careful about too much exposure to sunlight since I’m so fair skinned.
8. If you go to an amusement park, which ride do you go to first?
I’m not a big fan of amusement parks. They’re loud and crowded. If I go, I’d prefer to ride the Merry-go-Round. Which ride do you ignore at all costs? When I was 11 or 12, I went with my sister and first cousin to Glen Echo amusement park and the three of us scrunched into one car on the roller coaster ride. My sister and cousin each weighed about 160 pounds and I weighed about 80 pounds. They put me in the middle, so every time the car headed down a hill, their thighs spread out and popped me right out of the seat. Never liked roller coasters since!
9. Do you love the beach or the mountains best?
I lean slightly toward the mountains because I like the majesty and wonder of them, along with the serenity of the wind whispering through trees. Riding a horse in the mountains is a thing of joy. But on the other hand, walking along the seashore and being lulled to sleep by the sound of breakers thumping onto the shore and shushing out to sea again is very soothing.
10. What genres do you prefer not to read or review?
I’m very tired of reading dystopian fantasy. I’m not fond of reviewing girly-girly snarky fashion stories or heavy-handed teen angst.
11. What are three of your favorite books?
Oh my, only 3? When I was growing up, I’d pick Wuthering Heights and books by Jack London and Mark Twain. I liked horse stories, especially those by C.W. Anderson.
Of the modern books I’ve reviewed, I’d choose: Forever Changes, Want to Go Private? and One Silver Summer because they are well written with compelling characters and set in easy to picture settings.
I have a couple of interesting personal anecdotes about Jack London and Mark Twain. My paternal grandmother, Grandmaury, had an intense dislike for Jack London personally, though she did admire his writing. She felt he was leading my grandfather astray when they were friends in San Francisco. My maternal grandmother, Granny, did not like Mark Twain personally because when Twain got in trouble during his travels in Europe, my great grandfather, Naval Attaché to Kaiser Wilhelm, had to go bail Twain out. Granny did like Twain’s writing.
12. Where is your favorite place to visit?
I especially like visiting Scotland because part of my heritage is there, but I also like visiting places in the U.S. The Shenandoah Valley in Virginia is beautiful. Dale and I tend not to like cities, though a three day trip to the Big Apple is always fun. I don’t like crowds and lots of noise.
13. When did you decide to become a book reviewer?
It seemed like a good way to see what editors and publishers were buying in the way of children’s books. I enjoy the mix of styles I get. Generally Emily Griffin from The Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database (http://www.clcd.com/#/display/1),will send me two or three picture books and a middle-grade and YA selection. I do get frustrated by the number of writers who have no understanding of American-English grammar and I don’t like stories that have to do with self-centered “Valley Girl” types. There are so many talented writers who struggle to be noticed and who have original stories that go unread. Probably, it’s jealousy on my part.
14. Where can we find your reviews?
The books are sent to me by Emily Griffin at The Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database five books at a time. I have a month to read and review them. Emily is always looking for new reviewers (email@example.com). I get to keep the books and do with them as I please. After the reviews are posted on CLCD, I may post them anywhere. The best place to see my reviews is on my blog, http://sarahsbookreflections.com.
15. Do you charge for your reviews?
I haven’t set up a system of doing reviews for authors other than those whose books are sent to me by CLCD. But, now that you mention it, maybe I should start reviewing other people’s books.
16. Who or what has inspired you the most?
My mother and my grandmothers inspired me a great deal. My mother, in particular, since she was widowed during WWII, and also lost her father and one brother. But she didn’t let that stop her. During the war, she worked at Lockheed and was promoted to Tool and Dye Designer. She was the first woman to have that position and since she was also beautiful and a war widow she was used as a “Rosie the Riveter” type on the posters and other promotional activities to encourage people to help with the “War Effort.” When the war ended Lockheed fired her, so “a man coming home from the war could support his family.” Never mind that she needed to support her family. Anyway, she showed a lot of grit during her life. She loved to read and sew and act in little theater productions. After she retired, she took up painting and sculpting. She was also very bright, having gotten her B.S. from M.I.T. because her father was stationed in the Boston area. She was one of three women in the whole school. Her degree was in physical chemistry.
17. What has been the most exhilarating moment as a reviewer and as a writer?
That’s easy. When I get a book that I can’t put down, that tells a story so provoking I can’t get it out of my heart. As for exhilarating moments as a writer, when a character pops into my head and starts telling her or his story.
18. What are five main ingredients of a good book review?
As with a good critique partner, a reviewer should start and end with something positive to say about the book. Sometimes that’s easy to do, but sometimes I have to think about it and use my diplomatic skills. There is always a nugget or grain of good in any book. Each reviewer goes about the review differently, but it is important to give the gist of the story and a feeling for the characters. I like to let the tone of the book set the tone of my review. If it is a humorous picture book, use humor in how you describe it. If it is written in rhyme, try to keep that rhythm going. For an older audience, try not to be judgmental about what the characters are doing. For the CLCD, if possible, I must give an idea of how the teacher or librarian could find teachable moments in the book. For instance, in Swim that Rock, I learned a great deal about commercial clamming and about quahogs in particular. So I made note of the commercial fishing information at the end of my review so teachers could use that information for classroom discussion.
19. How can authors get reviews for their books?
If a trade publisher is putting your book out, that marketing department will send out copies to reviewers and The Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database(CLCD), or some other such organization. If you’re going it alone, there are lists of freelance reviewers who might review your book. Some charge a fee, but others get a fee from whomever publishes the review. For children’s book writers, check out the SCBWI website and you’ll find a list of freelance reviewers.
20. What are three things that a book must do to entice readers to read to the very end?
For me, I must have sympathy/empathy for the main character and a feel for where the story is taking place and a feel for the atmosphere of the story. The character must show growth and change. Books that come to mind, other than the ones I mentioned earlier, are National Velvet, Of Mice and Men, Sometimes a Great Notion, The Book Thief and the one I’m reading at the moment, The Nightingale.
21. As a reviewer, does research play a part in your reviews?
Seldom, but if the story doesn’t ring true for the area or time period, I might do a little research. My sister stopped reading Charles Frasier’s Cold Mountain because one of the characters ate an apple variety that hadn’t been developed yet.
22. What kind of books are you interested in reviewing?
I have only reviewed children’s books because that’s my own writing interest, but I could probably review grown-up books as well. I do review non-fiction because I write some.
23. How should authors or publishers contact you if they would like for you to consider doing a book review for them?
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
24. How do you decide which books you’ll review?
Since I’ve only reviewed books that are sent to me by Emily Griffin with The Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. I have to review each book she sends whether I like it or not. If I were to review other books, my criteria would be that the grammar be good; that the book be professionally edited by someone other than the author’s family; that the book look as if the author took the time and/or money to have a professional looking cover produced; and that the first 5 pages grab my attention.
25. Do you post your reviews on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads as well as on your blog?
I just joined Goodreads and intend to post my reviews there. I do review books that I’ve bought through Amazon, but I’ve never done reviews through Barnes and Noble.
26. Do you have any advice for people who may be interested in “self-publishing?”
For anyone interested in “self-publishing” a book, be sure to check out the publishers on sites such as “Preditors and Editors” at http://pred-ed.com/. I highly recommend my publisher, http://sablebooks.org
27. How can others connect with you on social media?
I have a Facebook page and at LinkedIn page.
Sarah Maury Swan’s articles and letters have appeared in many magazines, newspaper and literary journals. The first chapter of Terror’s Identity was published in the 2014 Shoal, after placing first in the fiction category of the Carteret Writers contest. She is also the editor of Carteret Writer’s Write Stuff newsletter.
Recent transplants to lovely New Bern, N.C., Sarah and her handsome devil husband generally enjoy retirement by playing golf, kayaking, and giving house concerts featuring well known folk/blues singers. They do miss the horses and dogs they nurtured in Maryland, but Kilroy, the cat, gets as much attention as he wants. Their children come to visit when they can get away from work.
Terror’s Identity At sixteen life is hard enough, but for Aidan Knox add the extra problem of becoming a different person in an unfamiliar city. How will he remember his new persona, cope with the danger his family is in, and find someone he can trust?
Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to interview you, Sarah.
Thank you for reading this interview. Sarah and I would love to hear from you.
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Filed under: book reviews, Interviews, Marketing, Writing | Tagged: characters must show growth and change, favorite genres, flame red hair, good reviewers, Reading, Sarah Maury Swan, Terror's Identity |