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!
Only 2 more weeks to the Launch Party on Sunday, March 29. Make sure to get your tickets! The party is going to be epic and fantastic, with at least 75 people already confirmed to attend, readings, dance performances and more.
And now for something else super cool: I was interviewed about Gateways by the Spectatorial, the University of Toronto’s publication on fantasy and speculative fiction. Check it out here.
Gateways is a finalist in the BookBzz Prize Writer Contest, and it needs your vote to win!
The finalists were picked by a panel of judges, but the winners are chosen by public vote. Won’t you please help me out by voting here! And please share this post with your friends and contacts – let’s build some overwhelming support!
Gateways, the new novel by Brian Gottheil, is launching in print! There’s going to be a fantastic launch party in Toronto on Sunday, March 29, 2015. If you’re in the area, be sure to get your ticket because you won’t want to miss it. We’re featuring:
*Readings, signings and general shenanigans by the author
*Performances by Toronto’s premier 1920s, 30s and 40s dance company, That Swing!
*Be the first to get the print version of Gateways, at discounted prices
*Dancing with DJ Gabrielle Kern, coming all the way from Montreal!
Click here for full details about time and location, and for tickets.
… And in other news, Gateways has just been named a finalist in the Bookbzz.com Prize Writer Competition! That is a great honour and very exciting. The winners will be decided by public voting throughout the month of February, and announced on March 5. As soon as I find out where and how to vote, I will post that information here. Please vote for me!
When I first published Gateways in e-book format only, one of my cousins complained. “I really want to read your book,” she wrote, “but I spend so much of my days reading a screen.” She went on to say, rather cleverly, that she was certain my novel would be a page-turner but she hoped it would be “literally” a page-turner.
Well, to her and to all other fans of print books, I am finally moving ahead with creating the print version of Gateways and I spent some time this morning converting the book into the correct formatting to be printed. I don’t have a timeline yet on publication of the print version but I’m hoping to have it out early in the new year.
This week, Gateways takes a blog tour! 13 blogs are going to be featuring the novel, some including guest posts and interviews by yours truly. Make sure you check it out, I am very excited. And please support these wonderful bloggers with your traffic.
MJ Schiller – with Guest Post written by me
Authors’ Cafe – with an Interview! Where I publicly tell the story about biking into the Atlantic Ocean!
Christine’s Words – with a Guest Post written by me
What Readers Want – with a Guest Post written by me
The Realm of Fantasy and Fiction – with a Guest Post written by me
… wish me luck! And while you’re at it, enter your own books too!