Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Wednesday, April 15, 2015: Maximum Shelf: The Book of Speculation


St. Martin's: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

St. Martin's: The Book of Speculations by Erika Swyler

St. Martin's: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

The Book of Speculation

by Erika Swyler

Erika Swyler's debut novel, The Book of Speculation, opens on a precipice: Simon Watson's house teeters, ready to tumble into the sea. "The Long Island Sound is peppered with the remains of homes and lifetimes, all ground to sand in its greedy maw. It is a hunger."

Simon is precariously employed as a librarian, and thus lacks the funds to shore up his family home, from which his family is gone: his mother drowned, his father dead from grief, and his sister, Enola, departed, making her life with a traveling carnival. These days, Simon's community is composed largely of the next-door neighbor, Frank, a longtime friend of Simon's parents; and Frank's daughter, Alice, a library colleague and a reliable constant in Simon's life.

Enola rarely visits, but happens to be on her way home just when Simon receives a strangely apt package in the mail: an antiquarian book dealer, a stranger, has sent him a very old book which he believes has ties to Simon's family history. The bookseller, Martin Churchwarry, bought it as part of a lot at auction, purely on speculation. It is the log book of Peabody's Portable Magic and Miracles, a traveling circus in the 1790s, and contains the name of Simon's grandmother. A librarian with archival experience, Simon is ready to treasure this unexpected gift on several levels, but puzzled by the family connection. Still, it draws him in, and by the time Enola arrives, he is thoroughly absorbed. She is unimpressed with his studies, while her obsession with her own tarot cards seems to be growing.

Simon reads and researches the names he encounters in Peabody's book, calling into service his librarian friends and Martin Churchwarry himself, with whom a strangely easy friendship is established. These efforts yield a disturbing pattern. Simon already knew his mother was a "mermaid": she could hold her breath for many minutes at a time, a trick she taught to her children. This skill notwithstanding, she drowned herself on a 24th of July. Simon did not know, however, that she came from a line of circus-performing mermaids, all drawn to the water, and that they all died by drowning on the 24th of July. In mid-July, as Enola, acting strangely, returns to their home by the sea, Simon fears that time is running out if he hopes to solve this puzzle and save his sister.

Meanwhile, the events of the past simultaneously engage the reader, as chapters alternate between Simon's time and that of Peabody's menagerie. A mystical Russian tarot card reader, an avuncular business-minded circus boss and other colorful characters populate the parallel thread of The Book of Speculation. But in Peabody's world, it is Amos, a mute bastard who plays the "Wild Boy," who will most capture the reader's imagination and compassion.

The strengths of Swyler's novel are many. The atmosphere of storm-tossed Long Island, with a house that threatens to dive into the sea, is at once fully, realistically wrought and fanciful: Is there a curse? Simon pursues the secrets of his family as his life literally falls apart around him, floor, ceiling, foundation and memories crumbling. Likewise, Peabody's peripatetic enterprise evokes the promised "magic and miracles," as well as more prosaic hazards. Each chapter is in itself a small departure into a fantastic, engrossing world. Imagery of woods and animals, small towns and family dynamics are finely drawn; everywhere is the water that frames both stories, from the Long Island Sound that menaces Simon's home and those he loves to the rivers and streams alongside which Peabody travels. Indeed, if this story has a soundtrack, it is the gurgling waters that promise both succor (and ruin) to the mermaids' line.

The Book of Speculation is driven both by character and by plot, as the reader aches for the vulnerable Wild Boy in Peabody's circus and roots for the crooked romances of Simon's time, and wonders, as the story develops, whom to trust. To round out an eccentric cast, Enola brings home a boyfriend from the circus who is covered in tattoos and possesses an electrifying special talent, and Simon explores new ground with Alice, the girl next door. Each of the men and women from both timelines proves multi-faceted and compelling. The overall effect is captivating, as Swyler's delightful, mesmerizing prose keeps the story tripping playfully along through both light and dark moments. As Simon pursues the loose ends and they tie oddly together, Swyler keeps the pressure and the pacing on, as her characters struggle to make connections.

The meandering plot offers many charms: likable, quirky librarians; circus menageries and freak shows; love stories; tarot cards and trickery; mysticism; family secrets; and prickly sibling love--all accompanied by the author's illustrations. [Swyler also painstakingly hand-bound, gilded and aged her manuscript submissions, in imitation of the old book in her story.] In short, The Book of Speculation, like the book at its center, promises to grasp the reader with a supernatural force and not let go. --Julia Jenkins

St. Martin's Press, $26.99, hardcover, 9781250054807

St. Martin's: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler


Erika Swyler: Writing, Binding and the Bath

Erika Swyler is a graduate of New York University. Her short fiction has appeared in WomenArts Quarterly JournalLitro, Anderbo.com and elsewhere. Her writing is featured in the anthology Colonial Comics, and her work as a playwright has received note from the Jane Chambers Award. Born and raised on Long Island's North Shore, Swyler learned to swim before she could walk, and happily spent all her money at traveling carnivals. She blogs and has a baking Tumblr, ieatbutter, with a following of 60,000. Swyler recently moved from Brooklyn back to her hometown, which inspired the setting of The Book of Speculation, her debut novel.

You presented your manuscript in a highly unusual way. How did that work, and what possessed you?

The plot hinges on the idea that a particular old book is such a fascinating object that it could consume someone's life. It felt very important to create that experience for a person reading my manuscript. It was a simple thought: if they connected with the manuscript as an object, it would pave the way for connecting with the story. I had next to zero experience in bookmaking when I decided to bind and age the manuscripts. I might have balked if I'd known from the start how much of my life the project would devour.

Possessed is the right word. While revising, I spent months experimenting, testing stains and hunting down the right material for the cover. I tried other binding methods, but they were either too time intensive, or spectacular failures. Japanese stab stitching was fast, and a great way to make a binding stand out. Production took about a month and a half, with binding being the fastest part. Aging books takes time--drying time. It took two days for a book to cure after being rasped and stained, and another day for gilding. For the better part of a summer my dining room was a mess of drying paper, dust from abused tarot cards, rasps and gold ink. My friends thought I'd lost my mind. I probably had, to a degree, but I'd already sunk a good part of my life into writing the book and I felt it deserved every possible advantage I could give it. If nothing else came of it, I'd at least have an art object. I made 16 manuscripts in all. I held on to two copies.

What were the most and least fun parts of writing this book, or bookmaking?

The worst bookmaking moment was when my favorite drill bit snapped and took a piece of my thumb with it. That was an angry day in the dining room bookbindery. The most fun part? I got to make books! Waxing linen thread is really satisfying. It smells delicious and there's a meditative quality to it. I also got to learn a new skill. I'm happiest when I'm learning.

Trying to evenly balance a dual narrative was the hardest part of writing. The easiest thing a reader can say about a dual narrative is that they prefer one part over the other. It was my mission to make sure that both narratives were treated equally. The whole story had to have a chance. I'd read the narratives together, then separately, then together, and then pull them apart once more. For every one read of a draft a writer might typically do, I'd read anywhere from two to four. The most fun part of writing it? Any scene involving terrible weather. There's some truly awful weather in this book and it was always a joy to write. Bad weather allows you room for scenery chewing.

How much of this story is rooted in history?

I did a good amount of research, particularly for the 1790s portion. I really wanted to know how circus came to America, and what it looked like before P.T. Barnum cast his shadow. I found this little window of time shortly after the Revolutionary War where circus was just beginning to pop up. It was the perfect space to let Peabody and his menagerie breathe. I also think when you're playing with the fantastic, it's helpful to have grounding elements. The Wallendas, Philip Astley, the Joneses, John Bill Ricketts and Mr. Spinacuta are actual figures in circus history. That said, Peabody and his menagerie are entirely imaginary.

Librarians are awesome, aren't they?

Yes! Librarians are flat-out wonderful. Nothing's better than a person who doesn't bat an eye when peppered with questions about curse tablets, circus accidents, tide tables, and if there's any way around a paywall on an article. I may have done that to several librarians. Yes, I know, search engines. Search engines are like opening a fire hydrant. Librarians are far better at helping you find what you're after, even when you don't quite know what that is.

You're from Long Island. What of your childhood is in Simon's?

Napawset is a shameless amalgam of small towns where grew up. It's an interesting place that makes you desperate to leave it, while simultaneously wondering why anyone would ever want to go. As for Simon's childhood, I spent a good deal of mine on the beach with my sister. Thankfully, our relationship is better than Simon and Enola's. We played on the rocks, cooked out on the beach and made ourselves nuisances to the adults around us--like kids. Also, when you grow up on a shore, there's always this odd need to check on the water, to see what it's up to. I think my gift to Simon was that the water was always up to something.

Where does an idea like this come from? Was it born to you whole, or were you working to flesh it out all the way through?

The idea is rooted in that moment we've all had when we stare at our families and think, "Where did you people come from?" That's Simon's narrative, this very practical question. His story also came from wondering about the houses that actually are sliding into the Long Island Sound, who lives in them, and how they got to that point. It was something I had to work out because it began with questions more than characters. The 1790s portion came to me almost fully formed, in about thirty seconds, while taking a bath. I saw Peabody, Amos, Evangeline, the entire menagerie, and how it connected to Simon all at once. It was a seriously great bath. --Julia Jenkins


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