Christopher Swann - NEVER TURN BACK

Christopher Swann - NEVER TURN BACK

Chris discusses his latest mystery Never Turn Back, the personal family story that served as his inspiration, the challenges of writing a thriller, the incredible author community, the importance of independent book stores, and much more.

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Chris discusses his latest mystery Never Turn Back, the personal family story that served as his inspiration, the challenges of writing a thriller, the incredible author community, the importance of independent book stores, and much more.

Never Turn Back can be purchased at Murder by the Book. 

Chris’s 3 recommended reads are:

  1. Hard Cash Valley by Brian Panowich
  2. Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby
  3. When These Mountains Burn by David Joy


characters, story, read, book, reader, write, books, frankenstein, mystery, ethan, crime, atlanta, villain, people, rural virginia, indie bookstores, happened, deal, girl, author


Chris Swann, Cindy Burnett


Cindy Burnett 00:09

This is the Thoughts from a Page Podcast, right interview authors about their latest works. Listen to what inspired the storyline, how their covers and titles are chosen, their personal connection to the story, and other fascinating tidbits about the author's themselves. My name is Cindy Burnett, and I love to talk about books. I can be found on Instagram and Pinterest at @thoughtsfromapage, and if you have any comments about the podcast or feedback for me, I can be reached at Christopher Swann is a novelist and high school English teacher in Atlanta, Georgia. A graduate of Woodbury Forest School in Virginia, he earned his PhD in creative writing from Georgia State University. In 2018, Chris was the Townsend prize finalist, a finalist for a Georgia Author of the Year Award, and long listed for the Southern Book Prize. He lives with his wife and two sons in Atlanta, where he is the English Department Chair at Holy Innocence Episcopal School. Thank you so much for listening, and I hope you enjoy the show. Welcome, Chris. I am looking forward to talking with you about Never Turn Back. How are you today?


Chris Swann 01:15

I'm great. Cindy, how you doing?


Cindy Burnett 01:17

I'm doing well too. So I'm excited to hear all about your book. So why don't we start out with you just telling us a little bit about it.


Chris Swann 01:24

It is a literary thriller set here in Atlanta, where I am. Young teacher, Ethan Faulkner, he is in his 20s, and he's got a good job. He's got a good relationship going. Life for him seems pretty good. Which is remarkable because you learned very early on that about 10 years before that he and his younger sister Susanna were tragically and violently orphaned and had to be raised by their Uncle Gavin, who turns out is more than a little shady. Ethan has turned his back on his uncle and on his uncle's life and is trying to sort of rebuild his own life. The problem is that his sister has not quite done the same. And the last thing their father told Ethan was watch your sister. And he sort of resents that because this sister is very hard to keep tabs on doesn't really want tabs kept on her, and she shows up on Ethan's doorstep after having been gone for quite a long time and drags trouble with her. Ethan has to deal with that and also finally face and sort of confront and come to terms with his dark past.


Cindy Burnett 02:29

I was so curious how you came up with the subject matter for it.


Chris Swann 02:32

Ouji board. No, this is based a lot on an event that actually happened. A what if, an event that happened my family. I went to boarding school in high school, so I wasn't home when this happened. My family lived in North Carolina, in Winston Salem. My dad was a banker. And he would come home and have a drink, watch the news, have a snack, take a nap, get up, have a late dinner with my mother. And he'd stay up past midnight doing paperwork. Consequently, our house was the last one on our cul-de-sac to turn off the lights. So one night, around 11:30, close to midnight, somebody started pounding in the front door and ringing the doorbell my daddy answers. And this young woman who's really, really distraught, upset, says help me they're chasing me. And he had a feeling that she was also probably under the influence of something. So he lets her come in the house, gets my mother immediately. And he said for some reason I turned off the lights outside. I don't know why I just felt like I needed to do that. A couple minutes later, this car comes slowly down the cul-de-sac and stops at the end of it right outside my parents’ house, engine running, and the young woman starts freaking out because apparently that was her boyfriend. They had gotten in a fight. And her boyfriend and friends had shoved this girl out of the car. She'd run down the street. Well now they were back to find her. And they sat inside my dark house for a few minutes. And the car then slowly drove away. And my dad called the police, and they came to pick up the young woman. She wasn't really happy about that. But my father's- I'm not I'm not taking you home by myself. And they took her home. That was the end of it. And I heard about this later. And I was 15 or 16. My first thought was wow, my second thought was I was disappointed that I kind of missed it. I didn't, I didn't really realize, you know what could have happened? Well, much later on. I thought well, what would have happened if those guys had gotten out of the car. And so I imagined the beginning of this book, what would happen if those guys had gotten out of the car and come to the house. Never Turn Back doesn't start with that scene. But that's pretty much where the story starts. And that's where the, that was the germ from which the whole story grew.


Cindy Burnett 04:44

Well, I was curious if it was an article you'd read or something like that, but that's a very personal connection to it. That must have been pretty jarring for your parents.


Chris Swann 04:53

It was when, and my father was a good storyteller. He didn't upsell the drama, make it into some sort of dramatic event. But just simply, I think that that was actually more, more effective. The way he told it, my mother would sort of shiver and she didn't really want to talk about it because she was she, she had a pretty good imagination too, was wondering what could have happened. And I don't know what would have happened. I don't know if this would have been a some sort of an argument. But I wanted to take that, that possibility and see what happens. It's one reason I like writing stories about crime, because crime affects anybody and everybody. It doesn't really matter social class, gender, race, it cuts across all that. And luckily, I think most of us don't have to deal with it on a regular basis. But every once in a while you get this crossover, this violation where somebody has broken into your house or somebody hits your car. What would have happened if everything had taken hard left turn and gone wrong? How did this boy who grows up into a young man, how would that affect him?


Cindy Burnett 05:54

I do you think that's the engaging thing about crime is you can take some small story like that, or a germ of an idea, and then take it in whichever direction you want, and creatively deal with it.


Chris Swann 06:05

I agree. And that's it. I'm not a sociologist, and I don't I don't write fiction from that kind of standpoint. But crime is a perfect kind of story to explore any kind of world and to discover new worlds. When I read a book, I love to learn something I didn't know before. I like to see a world that I wasn't familiar with, or see a world that I am familiar with in a brand new way.


Cindy Burnett 06:28

I always look at mysteries almost like a puzzle. And so you're slowly unfolding, the story is slowly coming together, as each piece gets put in, when a writer does it well. You are surprised, you know, it's going and it goes in a different direction than you think it's going to go.


Chris Swann 06:43

Right. And that is the fun part. And the hard part of trying to write something that's a mystery, because the two extremes you want to avoid. It's what I call the butler and the aliens problem. You don't want to know the butler did it? How surprising. I figured that out on page 50. Thank you for leading me through the next 300 pages in the vain attempt to convince me that something new was going to happen. I just wasted my weekend. Or you get to the end, you're like it was aliens? But where did that come? Right? You know, it's some random out-of-left field. A really good mystery that you read, you get you go, I didn't see that coming. But it makes perfect sense. And then you can start looking back and seeing where the clues and the breadcrumbs were, or if you figure it out right beforehand, but if you figure it out too early, then the suspense is lost. And if you make it, if you cheat or make it so that there's no way the reader could have guessed it, there's nothing there. You've withheld information from the reader in a way that doesn't seem fair, or you trick them in a cheesy way, then the mystery kind of falls apart that way too. So hopefully I've steered between those two extremes.


Cindy Burnett 07:50

I find it very frustrating when either like you described, I figure it out super early on, and then I have to just keep plowing through. But I find it even more frustrating when it ends up being somebody that maybe had like a page of the whole book. And you're like, there's no way like, you know, that person just truly came out of left field. So I agree, it's, it's kind of you got to walk the line in between those two.


Chris Swann 08:11

Yes. And I think you have to give, you have to give the reader some credit, and respect the reader's time in that sense. I don't write stories necessarily thinking about that in the forefront of my mind. When I'm writing a story, I'm trying to make sure the character makes sense and the scene I'm writing is clear. And it's compelling and interesting and getting to where I want where I want to get to. Readers are pretty smart. And readers, they're taking their time to read your book. And I'm always so happy when somebody says, Well, I've read your book, I really enjoyed it. Or they want to ask me questions about it. You know, I hope I never lose that feeling that sort of warm feeling I get when somebody says you know, I've read your book, and I really enjoyed it. And they, they seem like they're being genuine. And I want to honor them with that. So if they're going to read the book, they're going to be hopefully entertained by it and enjoy it. If they feel fooled and tricked, or they didn't get they didn't understand till the very end. Oh, this is what happened. Okay, that's fine. You've got me. I mean, you read a mystery, you're kind of you're like, Okay, you're gonna fool me? Are you going to give me the answer? Are you going to wrap this up in a way that that is satisfactory? So.


Cindy Burnett 09:17

Well, and every reader is different, too. So I mean, things, certain books will resonate more with different people depending on their experiences or what's happening to them. But so when you start out, what comes first for you the plot or the characters?


Chris Swann 09:30

Hmm, every books different. My first book, Shadow of the Lions, is set in a boarding school in Virginia. I went to boarding school, and my wife actually said, Why don't you write after I spent years writing some a different book about something I hadn't knew nothing about? She said, Why don't you try writing something, you know, and I resisted that because I thought it would be boring, but I was also scared. There are a lot of books set in boarding schools or in college. I've taught some of them and I thought how am I going to do that? Once I kind of got over myself, I realized that that setting is intriguing enough to people. And you could, you could do almost anything in that sort of setting. It's also contained. You put 400 teenage boys or girls, in my case was boys, on a hill in rural Virginia, and they have to live there eight, nine months out of the year, there's going to be drama whether or not there's a mystery or a crime or not. So for that, I got the, I got the setting and I figured out the kind of story I wanted to tell. For Never Turned Back, it was in large part, that event I mentioned to you, what would have happened if that had taken a wrong turn. Once I come up with the idea of the setting, then I go immediately to coming up with a character because that's what people, that's what people read stories for. When I was a kid my grandfather gave me this enormous book. It was the collected stories of Sherlock Holmes, like all four novels and all 52 short stories, I think is the number. And I read all of them over and over. And I remember wondering why am I reading this again? Because I already know what's going to happen. That's because I like Sherlock Holmes. I like Dr. Watson, you like the characters. I like seeing their camaraderie, and I like seeing how Watson didn't, Watson's not stupid. He's pretty smart in the books anyway. But if he couldn't figure it out, then I didn't feel so bad when I couldn't figure it out. I like characters, I like trying to make interesting characters that are at least somewhat realistic and who make mistakes, because a perfect character is boring. But if you find a character who's maybe wants to do the right thing, but does it the wrong way, or isn't sure how to do the right thing, and struggles with that? I think that's what most good stories come down to. We root for the character. We want to see the character win, or at least you know, not lose.


Cindy Burnett 11:41

I think that's true. And I think those type of characters resonate more with readers because no human is perfect. And so it's, you know, you don't want to read about a perfect person, it doesn't seem realistic. And then also, you know, just maybe it makes you think more about what you yourself do wrong. So I definitely think that that's right.


Chris Swann 11:59

Correct. I don't remember who said it. I've heard it from a lot of different sources. I'm not sure where I first heard it. But the idea of the villain, or your antagonist, the villain doesn't think he or she is a villain. Usually. I mean, yes, there's some who like to be bad, and they don't care, someone like the Joker from the Batman movies. But most villains, they're the hero in their own story. They, they have reasons for what they're doing. And not to, not to justify what they do depends on what they do with it. What kind of a villain are they? I mentioned in Never Turn Back, Ethan's got an Uncle Gavin, who's, who's shady. He's not a serial killer. He dances on the wrong side of the law. I won't say much more about him. Why would someone do that? A lot of people commit crime out of desperation. Or it's impulse one-time thing? What would lead you to be, if you want to call it a career criminal, why would you do that? It's not going to be a simple answer. For many people, oh, you're just because you're evil. And then the story when you have an antagonist, what is it about that person that makes them do that? So I like trying to write characters who, like I said, come across, at least somewhat realistically. They fit into the story, that make sense in the story, but you either root for them, or you don't want them to win, but you understand them, they're not cartoons. They're not like a James Bond villain who wants to rule the world, like no one, you know, no one wants to rule the world. Have you seen our world? Would you want to be in charge of the planet? But they want to get the girl or they want to rob the bank. So trying to come up with people who you can empathize with, if not sympathize with them, and follow them and see what happens.


Cindy Burnett 13:39

Understand their backstory and the circumstances that brought them to where they are.


Chris Swann 13:44

Yeah, to some extent, that's harder, it's harder to do with villains. I think, because you don't want to do you don't want to do too much of that. Unless you're writing a story where you want to make it confusing. Like who is the bad guy? You know, I teach Frankenstein. And I don't write science fiction like Frankenstein. But that's you know, everyone said, Oh, the creature that Dr. Frankenstein makes is the monster. Well, Dr. Frankenstein creates this living being out of dead bodies. And it's enormous, it's grotesque, and it's horrible looking. And then he is terrified by it, and he abandons it. It's basically like abandoning an infant. My students are always horrified at how badly he treats it and then no one and it just want it just wants to be loved. And no one wants to love an eight foot tall, grotesque looking stitched together creature, and so it learns how to hate but that made an impact on me and like, okay, Who's the man who was the bad guy here?


Cindy Burnett 14:35

I had never read Frankenstein when I was growing up. And my daughter, who's now a sophomore in college, read it, I think either freshman or sophomore year. And I ended up reading it along with her because I thought you know, that's a story I should know. And I was the same way. I was just horrified because you always think of Frankenstein's monster, as the person that's going to be the or the entity that's going to be the bad character, but then actually, really, it isn't that way at all. Well, while we're on this subject of books. Why don't you tell me what you've read recently that you really like.


Chris Swann 15:04

Brian Panowich is a friend of mine, and I've read all three of his recent books. Bull Mountain was the first, then Like Lions. His most recent was Hard Cash Valley. Noir is the word that keeps coming up in a lot of descriptions of thrillers. I think he gets described as a rural or Appalachian noir. That's a little too reductive. He writes really great stories and make you turn the page but with characters that come with characters who are real and that you can invest it in. So Hard Cash Valley is his most recent one. Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby. That's a story with a black protagonist in rural Virginia. And turns out he's a, is a mechanic, but he also you realize he's a really, really good driver. And he has used those skills as a getaway driver for criminals. And he's trying to kind of retire from that. And he, of course, he's learned back into one more job, and all the consequences that brings.


Cindy Burnett 16:03

I'm dying to get to that one. I have the galley. And I still just haven't had a chance to read it yet. But I just keep hearing such good things. It's high on my list.


Chris Swann 16:11

It's great. And again, it's a, I've heard Mr. Cosby, Shawn, I've heard him talk a few times, on doing author gigs and online. And now he's writing about a world that people don't really write about that. If you're going to write about crime, they tend to crimes almost always in cities. He's writing about crime, and like rural Virginia, like in small town, Virginia, and his protagonist, and a lot of the characters are black. And he said, so that's because I grew up in a small town in Virginia, because I love being from the south. I'm also aware that as a black man, my life is a little bit different than it might be if I were white. And his characters know that too. And so that's sort of fascinating. That's that's another thing I think I like about crime novels is you can have this propulsive story. But you have to have these characters you care about. The stories don't always end up being just about the crime, you learn a lot about the society they're in. So anyway, his, his book's great. David Joy, When These Mountains Burn, that's his latest. He's from western North Carolina, where my family's from. His books are great, they're tragic. And they can be bleak. But there's always something beautiful and redemptive in them. And I'm waiting for the new Tana French book. I've read everything she's written. So she's my thing, my favorite of hers is Faithful Place. But her newest one comes, I think her newest one actually drops the same day that my book drops, which is perhaps slightly unfortunate. But the nice thing about books is that people don't tend to just buy one. I learned that pretty early on with the other novel. It's while you want your book to do well, it's not like a zero sum game. It's not like oh, someone buys your book, but you know, oh, why don't they buying mine? The vast majority of writers are not like that. Thank God, a great community.


Cindy Burnett 17:50

I work very part time at a mystery bookstore here in Houston. And I find that someone will come in for, say, your book, and then you know, they'll start talking and then next thing they know they leave with four other stories. So I agree actually think that sometimes it's nice when they come out close in time, especially, you know, both in the same genre. Because you're most likely maybe going to each pick up other readers from from your stories.


Chris Swann 18:13

I love indie bookstores, and I have, it's kind of where I live in Atlanta, the ones that are that weren't nearby, that they were very close to us. They folded a while ago. And we have good indie bookstores in Atlanta. They're just a little bit far out. From where from the Sandy Springs, the Buckhead area. In Atlanta, if you don't know you just have to drive. It's only like five miles to five, six miles away. But with traffic that's almost like saying why don't you just drive to South Carolina? I mean, that's how that's how Atlantans sort of treat it. So I was in an indie bookstore a few years ago when Shadow of the Lions came out, waiting to do a reading in the back and a customer came in and went to the bookseller and said, Hi, I'm looking for something like Gone Girl, but a little less dark. And with characters I might actually like. And I started laughing and a couple aisles over overhearing this and the bookseller, she didn't miss a beat. She thought for a couple seconds said okay, I've got three books for you. Come on. And I thought right then that is why we need indie bookstores, right there. Because I've gone to a big box bookstore, and some of them are great. Sometimes the staff know what they're talking about. But I've been others they're like Gone Girl, who wrote that? Then I'm like you're googling I could Google them. You know, nevermind. So thank you for doing anything, anything you're doing with indie bookstores, thank you because we need those places. And I know that they need our they need our patronage, patronage now more than ever.


Cindy Burnett 19:41

Nothing beats an indie bookstore. So you know, and just the knowledge and the interest and you know, just supporting a local business. I completely agree. So well, I thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate your joining me today on the Thoughts from a Page Podcast, and it has been a delight to talk with you, Chris.


Chris Swann 19:58

Ahh, you too Cindy. Thank you so much. I enjoyed it.


Cindy Burnett 20:04

Thank you so much for listening to my podcast. If you like this episode, and I hope you did, please follow me on Instagram at @thoughtsfromapage, tell all of your friends about the podcast and rate it wherever you listen to your podcasts. I would really appreciate it. Chris's book can be purchased at Murder by the Book where I work part time, and the link is in the show notes. I hope to see you next time.