2 March 2015

Author Q&A Session #36: With Mary Swan

Good morning and good afternoon folks,
Welcome to an all new author interview session where we have Mary Swan- the Canadian award winner short story writer and novelist, who is here to talk about her new book, My Ghosts, her short story, The Deep, her journey as an author, and many other tid-bits about her life. Read along to know more about this talented writer.

Read the review of My Ghosts here

Me: Hello and welcome to my blog, Mary. Congratulations on your new book, My Ghosts. Can you please share with us the story behind your book, My Ghosts?

Mary: My Ghosts begins in 1879, with a group of siblings, and ends in something close to the present day. As it moves through time, it follows the stories of some of those original characters and their descendants. Along the way there are births and marriages and deaths, wars and infidelities and secrets, so in some ways it's a family saga, though not a conventional one. There are also ghosts, of course, but it's not a horror story. Mostly the ghosts are the kind that haunt - or at least trail behind all of us. People and events from the past, and choices and mistakes we've made.

Me: What inspired you to spin such a story like My Ghosts?

Mary: The whole process of writing and where ideas come from remains pretty mysterious to me, and I'm fine with that. Usually any book or short story happens when various things I've been thinking about somehow come together, and that was the case with My Ghosts too. The book is divided into three sections, each with three parts, and for a long time I'd been thinking about triads in music - chords with three separate notes that become richer when played together - and thinking about trying to do something similar with fiction. I should also tell you that one wall of my office is covered with old, framed family photos, most from the 19th century, so I always work with those ancestors looking down on me. I suppose I was also thinking about the things that pass down in families - not just physical characteristics, although those can be startling, but also stories and memories and other intangible things. And about all that is lost, as time passes, and what we can piece together from the threads that are left.

Me: How did you research for the purpose of spinning so many family histories in your book, My Ghosts?

Mary: My Ghosts is not about my own family, but a few of the details are things I came across when I was, for another reason, looking into my family history a little bit. There were a number of telegraph operators, for example, and there was also a devastating fire. As for the rest - I love to find out about things, which is probably why I was so happy working in a library for many years - so I read and read and read about theories of time, about the telegraph and other inventions, about women's lives and education, early movies, the world wars - you get the idea. I mostly looked at books and diaries and magazines from whatever time period, and though most of what I read doesn't come directly into the book, I think it's important, when writing about the past, to try to have some overall understanding of what the world was like, the way people thought and felt. Sometimes exactly like we do and sometimes very differently.

Me: Tell us one trait of your primary characters, Clare- the beginning one, Clare-the ending one, that intrigues you the most.

Mary: I'm going to cheat a little, because I can't narrow down to one characteristic, but I'm glad you asked about the two Clares and the way they sort of bookend My Ghosts. The first Clare is about 16 when we first meet her, in 1879, and one of the problems she's facing is her future - how she's going to make a living at a time when options for women were limited, particularly for someone like Clare who is intelligent and intellectually curious, but poor. The other problem for this Clare is that she quite literally doesn't know who she is, who her parents are, although she comes to see that isn't, perhaps, the most important thing. The last section of the book, Wish You Were Here, belongs to a modern Clare, a descendant of the original family. She's much luckier, in one way, because of the time she lives in and the freedoms she has, but at the same time she is also trying to understand how she fits into her life, puzzling over identity and coming to terms with things in her own past. There is irony in how little this Clare knows or cares about her actual family history, but the reader does know it, and can see the threads and connections and things that have shaped her, just as her own experiences and choices have.

Me: Your debut book, The Deep and Other Stories won the prestigious O.Henry Award in the year 2001. What you your initial reaction when you first heard the news?

Mary: That's easy - complete astonishment! I didn't know anything about it until I got a phone call one evening, and as well as bringing me a first book deal and some attention at the time, it was a great confidence booster.

Me: How will you describe your journey so far as an author? And was it always your one true dream to be an author?

Mary: I guess I've been writing seriously since I was in my early twenties, and though it can be a torment, I don't feel that it's something I have a choice about. It's an essential part of who I am, and what I do.

Me: Describe your normal writing day. And what do you do to get away from the stress of a long day's work?

Mary: I have to start working first thing in the morning, before too much of the day catches hold of me. How long I spend at my desk depends on what I'm working on, or what stage it's at, but as with most writers, I assume, there's no off-and-on switch, always something running along beneath everything I'm doing. I often find that a long walk is a cure for almost everything.

Me: Do you have any other passion besides writing?

Mary: I wish I could say drawing and painting and playing music, but I can't do any of those things. When I'm not writing then I spend a lot of time reading, and of course just hanging out with family and friends.

Me: What's next up on your writing sleeves? Please tell us briefly about it.

Mary: I'm working on short stories at the moment, and thinking about a couple of different bigger projects, but I'm afraid nothing I can be any more specific about!

Me: Thanks so much Mary for sparing time to have this interview on my blog. I wish you luck in all your future endeavors.

Mary: Thank-you, Aditi - very nice to meet you online!

Mary's Bio:

Mary Swan grew up in Southwestern Ontario and graduated from York University. She published her first short stories in the early 1970s and spent a number of years wandering and travelling, returning to settle in Guelph, Ontario in 1982. Mary worked for many years in the reference department of the University of Guelph library, while continuing to write and publish fiction. Her novella, ‘The Deep’, won the Malahat Review novella contest in 2000, and the 2001 O. Henry award for short fiction.
The Deep was published in 2002, followed by a collection of short stories, Emma’s Hands, in 2003. The novella and most of these stories were also published in the U.S. as The Deep and Other Stories, a New York Times Notable Book in 2003, and by Granta in the U.K.
In 2005 Mary left the University of Guelph library to write full-time and her novel, The Boys in the Trees, was published by Henry Holt in 2008. It was shortlisted for both the Giller Prize and the Amazon First Novel Award, and is now available from Vintage Canada. Mary’s new novel, My Ghosts, will be published by Knopf Canada in September, 2013.

 Visit her website


  1. Oh wow, My Ghosts is a book which certainly spans quite a few years! I love the cover of it though, and it sounds like a promising read. Great interview!

  2. Yes, it's a great book which is a family saga of 150 years! It is amazing. Do get a chance to read the book!


Thanks for your feedback!