The Story Behind the Story, Part 1
As we gear up for the release of SWING OUT OF THE BLUE, I thought you might be interested in how we got here. Here is part 1 of “The Story Behind the Story”, a short-ish series on the making of the novel. I expect I’ll write more “making of” posts beyond this little series, too … so many stories to share!
I learned to swing dance as a first-year student at Queen’s University, but it wasn’t until my third year that dancing transformed from a hobby into a passion. Over Labour Day weekend in 2004, I travelled with a group of Queen’s Swing Club (QSC) dancers to a four-day, five-night lindy hop extravaganza called Swing Out New Hampshire. The event was held at a children’s overnight camp nestled by a lake in the idyllic White Mountains. I found parts of the experience overwhelming: dance lessons all day, swing music all night, sleeping in cabins with 12 or 14 other dancers, and living, eating and breathing the lindy hop. But I emerged from the camp hooked on dancing in a way that I hadn’t been before.
During the 7-hour drive back to Kingston, Ontario, the QSC vice president talked me into joining the club executive for the 2004-2005 school year. After a year of dancing intensively, planning events and acting as an ambassador for new dancers, I wanted nothing more than to write a swing dance novel.
I first put fingers to keyboard while I was home in Toronto for the 2005 summer vacation. I worked selling shoes during the daytimes, and I spent Tuesday nights at Alleycatz, a midtown jazz bar that hosted a weekly swing night. Christopher Plock led the band, and one of the regulars in attendance was an up-and-coming jazz vocalist. During his set each week, Chris would call, “Sophia!” and she would sing a number or two with the band. She had a gorgeous, deep jazz voice that just melted you. (My protagonist’s inability to sing, a trait I added more than a decade later for plot reasons, was not at all a reflection on her namesake!) I also recall Sophia being fun and gracious as a dancer, the few times I actually worked up the courage to ask her.
As I typed the first pages of a novel that would follow the student executive of a fictionalized Queen’s Swing Club, I conceived of four central characters. Andy was the protagonist, Zack his best friend and roommate, and Rhea the enthusiastic newcomer. Sophia was the primary female character, but since I was a naïve 20-year-old boy at the time, she functioned as little more than a love interest. Still, I had always intended Sophia to contrast Rhea’s eagerness and excitement. Sophia was more worldly, her demeanour more polished. She was genuine and caring, but she wouldn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. A touch of melancholy lurked behind her smiles.
I hadn’t yet diagnosed Sophia with depression, probably because I hadn’t yet diagnosed myself.
Back in Kingston that September, a roommate asked about my summer, and I mentioned how much happier I was than the year before.
“Were you depressed or something?” he asked.
I honestly hadn’t thought about it that way. Throughout high school and university, I had classified time periods as “happy” and “not happy”, but until my roommate asked that flippant question, I had never applied the “D-word” to my experiences. It cast my stretches of unhappiness in a new and not entirely comfortable light.
Meanwhile, the novel petered out. The problem, I discovered, is that swing dancing is too happy, providing none of the dramatic tension required for a good novel. The petty politics of student clubs would hardly sustain the story, and the last thing I wanted was to write a typical dance story in which an underdog perseveres to win a competition. Not only is that plot overdone, but its competitive ethos is antithetical to everything lindy hop is about.
Lindy hop is joy, community, connection. In Harlem in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, it was danced in homes and nightclubs and ballrooms, not at opera houses or academies. Oh, it was a dance of pain, too: at times an escape from, and at times an expression of, the hardships that African-Americans regularly endured. Lindy hop, like the jazz music that inspired it, was born of discrimination and struggle, and difficult yet necessary conversations are happening in today’s mostly non-Black lindy hop communities about whether our love for the dance represents appreciation or appropriation, and how we can once again centre Black voices and support Black artists. But while contests always had a place in lindy hop culture, the dance was never about “winning”. There was never a belief that only a few top talents could “make it”. Lindy hop was social and communal. And, while the dance was centred in African-American culture, those Harlem ballrooms were among the very few desegregated spaces of the jazz era. As Frankie Manning, a pioneer of the lindy hop in the 1920s and 30s and a champion of its worldwide expansion in the 1980s and 90s, would say, at the Savoy it didn’t matter if you were Black or white, as long as you could dance.
Anything I wrote needed to capture that spirit. No petty politics: dance needed to be joy and healing. No elite competitions: in this story, learning the knickerbocker, the most basic of aerials, would rate as success. All well and good; but what such plotline could possibly deliver a novel’s worth of dramatic tension?
So, I gave up, turned the two chapters I’d already written into a short story, and tried to let it go, but I couldn’t. The characters had captured my imagination. They had a story to tell.
Continue to Part 2!