Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Q&A with Claire Swinarski



Claire Swinarski is the author of the new novel The Funeral Ladies of Ellerie County. Her other books include the middle grade novel What Happened to Rachel Riley?. She lives in Wisconsin.


Q: What inspired you to write The Funeral Ladies of Ellerie County, and how did you create your characters Esther, Iris, and Cooper?


A: I had recently stumbled upon a community cookbook of my great-grandmother’s and found it fascinating. I had no idea that community cookbooks were so popular as fundraising tools, from the suffrage movement to the abolitionist movement to your average church.


It got my storytelling gears going, and when I sat down to simply write and see what came, Esther’s voice was as clear as a bell. I knew right away that she wasn’t just a random grandmother, but the matriarch of a family, and really the matriarch of a community. 


Cooper had been a character in a middle grade book I’d attempted that didn’t really work. It had been told from the point of view of his sister. But I loved Cooper, and I knew I still wanted to tell his story. Reworking things to be from his perspective was a really enjoyable challenge. 


Once I had Esther and Cooper, Iris came quite easily! She’s a Gen Z freelancer, trying to survive the gig economy while remaining close to her family and her values.


They’re truly three of my favorite characters I’ve ever created, and the way they come together to help Esther was such a joy to write. 


Q: Why did you decide to focus on food in this novel?


A: I love food. Ha! I love to eat it, I love to cook it, and I love to read about it. But I think Midwest cuisine is often looked down upon. Look, is green bean casserole for everyone? No. But it’s delicious! You’re not going to find dill pickle pasta salad at a Michelin star restaurant but you are going to find it on many a Wisconsin patio. 


I think the Midwest has really retained what food is for: for filling us up and tasting delicious and nourishing us for life’s difficulties, many of which you face in head on in a Northwoods town. It’s not just for Pinterest and clout and long New Yorker articles.


We applaud young ingenue chefs who do new things with elderflower and kale but forget that the smartest people in the room about food are probably the ones who’ve been making it for huge groups of people their whole lives: church grandmothers. 


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I knew almost everything. I wasn’t quite sure where Iris would wind up, and I didn’t have a firm grasp on some of the other funeral ladies. But the core of the story was there before I wrote a word. 


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: If I had to really boil down Funeral Ladies to one thorough topic, it’s this: what is love? (Baby don’t hurt me…) What does it tangibly look like to love another person, with your feet on the ground and dirt under your fingernails?


In our modern world where everyone’s scrolling and Venmo-ing and liking and donating to GoFundMes, what does love look like in an analog sense?


I hope readers form their own ideas, views, and opinions on that question. I don’t write books to spoon feed people my worldview; I try and write books that help people meditate on their own. 


And also, just delight. Because hanging with four old ladies in the Northwoods, when the Old-Fashioneds are being poured and the loons are singing from the lake, is honestly my idea of a good time. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve always got my nose in about 8,000 projects—I have a hard time sitting still. But in the nearest future, I’ve got a middle grade book coming out from QuillTree (a HarperCollins imprint) this fall about two former best friends at a theater summer camp. It’s called Take It From the Top and I’m really excited about it! 


I’m also currently writing my first ever historical fiction novel. It’s another middle grade work, and it will be out in 2025 from QuillTree. It takes place in Paris in 1943, and the research has been both exhilarating and exhausting!


I hope to keep writing both middle grade and adult novels. I think great stories span age ranges, and as C.S. Lewis said, “a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Something that’s been on my mind lately is the idea of the Midwestern novel. It’s not nearly as much a thing as California novels or Southern novels (of which I read many!)


But the Midwest is really a unique place, with its own flavor and perspective and muddled history. It’s full of all the things that make great stories: land disputes and salt-of-the-earth people and faith and grit and class tensions.


I really would love to see a renaissance of amazing Midwestern novels on the scene. I hope you’ll join me by starting with Funeral Ladies


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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