Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in A
House Is a Body?
A: I wrote a draft of the first story in the collection, "Blindness," in 2008, so I think it's safe to say at least a decade. During that time I also wrote many stories that didn't make it into the collection.
Having such a long road to publication was in some ways an
asset, because I had the flexibility to take out the stories that I didn't feel
were as strong as the ones that made it in. It was also helpful in the editing
process since I had enough distance to see the stories clearly, both their
strengths and their flaws.
Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear in the collection?
A: The first and last stories were in those places from the very first iteration of this collection, but the rest shifted around a lot.
I wanted the reader to feel space and lightness between the stories, to feel a resonance between the themes and voices but not a feeling of repetitiveness, so I kept an eye towards the ways the stories spoke to each other, often wanting a contrast between the stories, a feeling of "where are we going next?" My editor helped me with this a lot.
Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "The fallible characters in Swamy’s ravishing book are always falling into something and bravely grasping what they can on their way down in a frenetic attempt to pull themselves back up." What do you think of that description?
A: That review of the collection was extremely gratifying. I wanted to write about people who felt "fallible," who were doing their best in difficult situations, figuring out how to live, even if they were not making the best choices.
I don't think I was trying to make a political point when I wrote the stories—I wrote what I felt drawn to—but when I look back on the collection it feels important to represent the messiness of women's lives in particular.
In the title story, for example, a mother fails her child. I don't know if she's particularly sympathetic, but I wanted to make sure that her decisions felt understandable, that you could see how someone would wind up in the situation that she does.
Q: How was the book's title--also the title of one of the stories--chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The body is a concern, maybe even an obsession in these stories, in all my writing; the consciousness of the body, and the body's connection to the soul.
There are moments when, through the body, through pain or pleasure or beauty or birth or death, we remember that we are more than someone who goes to work and makes dinner for their kid and pays their taxes.
Those moments of piercing through, of numinousness, are what my stories are centered on, and they originate in the body for me.
That said: I owe the title of my collection to my editor at Algonquin, and before that, my editor at The Paris Review for plucking that phrase out of the story and offering it as a possible title—the original, terrible title for the title story was "Tinder."
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on my novel, The Archer, which is forthcoming from Algonquin books next fall. It's set in ‘60s- and ‘70s-era Bombay and centers on a young kathak dancer who is coming of age as an artist, as well as grappling with her relationship to her brilliant, troubled mother.
Like my stories, the novel centers on the experience of the body, the richness of childhood experience and memory, the body as a tool of artistic expression, the body's capacity for pleasure that is central to the experience of being alive.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Maybe I can add that there are many beloved indie bookstores that are struggling to stay afloat right now. Our world as readers will be so much bleaker without these vital spaces! Even if you're not buying my book, please support your wonderful local bookstore this winter, and start your shopping early.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb