I love reading debut novels and interviewing authors and I’d been eyeing Claire Swinarski’s What Happens Next since I first heard of it. While I haven’t read any of Claire’s adult non-fiction (she’s written two!), I am subscribed to her newsletter (which I enjoy) and listen to her Making a Middle Grade podcast. The podcast follows her journey through — you guessed it! — making a middle-grade novel. She interviewed both author Janae Marks and her agent Alex Slater among others.
In this interview, Claire and I discuss her debut middle-grade novel, writing about anorexia and ballet, her feelings about chasing dreams, and why sisterhood is so important to her and her book. Her protagonist, Abby is one of my favorites ever, so I asked a lot about her! Enjoy.
Hi Claire! I enjoyed reading your debut novel, What Happens Next. Abby is a clever, engaging narrator and I really loved her entire family. They all felt very real to me. Yet, I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of this story is about Abby’s big sister, Blair. What moved you to write from Abby’s perspective?
I am so glad to hear that, Afoma! It was really important for me to show the impact mental illness can have on an entire family. It’s not just the person with the illness that suffers; it’s really all those who love them — that’s how deep the wounds of diseases like anorexia can go. So while, yes, this book is about a girl with anorexia, it’s really more about a girl whose family is undergoing deep, meaningful growing pains.
I wasn’t a big fan of Professor Lacamoire. Is there a reason why you wanted to include him in this story?
Ha! Believe you me, there are plenty of times I wasn’t a big fan of him either. Professor Lacamoire is selfish, pushy, and egotistical…but he’s also a human with mistakes he’s attempting to make amends for. Some of my favorite characters in books are the ones that are the most flawed. It’s always interesting to me to read about characters whose personalities are jagged, but who are still striving to do good in their own weird way.
The story also goes back and forth, so readers see that although Blair is in rehab for an eating disorder, she used to be an excellent ballet dancer. Did you have any personal experience with ballet or eating disorders? If not, what helped you while researching for this book?
Sadly, my ballet career ended at age four. But I really love ballet — I love watching it, learning about it, and reading about its history. I watched a ton of documentaries about dance, and one of the most helpful ones was First Position, which follows kids who are attempting to become professional ballerinas. They really sacrifice much of their childhood to do so, and it’s an incredible movie.
For anorexia, while that isn’t a part of my particular story, I think almost every woman I’ve ever met has gone through some period of deeply unhealthy food tendencies, including myself. To learn more about the actual disease, I read a lot of books, but also learned from a few women in my life who have undergone residential treatment for an eating disorder.
We also had an anorexia expert comb through the book to make sure the details of Blair’s story fit an anorexia diagnosis. With mental illness, there’s no “one” path or look, which sometimes makes ensuring a story’s “accuracy” difficult. But I’m thankful for that expert’s time and attention to detail — it made me feel much better putting Blair’s story into the world.
I really liked Abby. She talked often about a passion or dream can swallow a person and destroy them, because of what happened to her sister, Blair. As someone who calls herself a dreamer, what do you think about Abby’s sentiments?
I think dreams need to be held in perspective. I’m a huge dreamer — I’ve always dreamed of writing a book, and here we are! But at the same time, it’s important for me to remind myself that I wasn’t put on this earth to be a writer. If I didn’t achieve that dream, I would be okay. Blair needed to realize she wasn’t put on this earth to be a dancer — she was put on this earth to be Blair, however that looked. Abby wasn’t put on this earth to be Blair’s sister — she was put on earth to be Abby, however that looked. Dreams are wonderful; they encourage us to live out our passions and serve the world through our gifts. But they must be held with a loose fist.
I know you always wanted to be an author, but swung into journalism and then podcast hosting. What was your big “aha!” moment when you realized you were ready to re-commit to writing? Did you have one “aha!” moment? Or did many things build up to that realization?
That’s a great question! I suppose, like above, I’ve always held my dreams loosely. I’m a very practical person; I knew I couldn’t graduate college and BOOM, be a full-time author. I actually did mission work in New Orleans and Missouri right after college, and then briefly held a job in marketing, but the whole time I was certainly scribbling away and working towards my goal. I’ve always been committed, but I went full speed ahead when I had my first son and had a desire to find a way I could work from home with him.
Abby’s love for Blair is so achingly sweet, but I also loved watching her relationship with the middle sister, Jade evolve. Do you have sisters? Why did you want sisterhood to play such a big role in this book?
Sisterhood has always been a really important cornerstone of my life. I grew up with a sister, both of my brothers are now married, and my husband has a sister as well. Sibling relationships fascinate me and are fun to write about — in some ways, these are the people you’ll spend the most time with in your entire life, but you didn’t choose them! You have so much in common with sharing a childhood, but may really have nothing in common. These are the people you’d die for but sometimes you want to murder them. So how does that all play out when someone’s having a crisis?
The sister relationships were honestly the easiest part of this book to write, and the most joyful. Writing about fights over clothes or the feeling of being left-out comes very naturally; these things are like a second language to me and anyone with sisters. My editor, Alyssa Miele, is one of four sisters as well, so her handprint is on the McCourt sisters, too!
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I spend most of my time wrangling my two kiddos and trying to sneak in one more chapter of whatever book I’m reading! I also love attempting to perfect my sourdough, going on bike rides with my family, and long coffee dates with friends.
Which middle-grade books have you read and loved recently? I’m always looking for recommendations.
I really enjoyed The Queen Bee and Me by Gillian McDunn — it’s about a middle school friendship triangle, which will always be one of my favorite plots. This has been out for a couple of years now, I believe, but Blended by Sharon M. Draper was on my quarantine reading list and that was splendid as well!
I know you’re hard at work on your second middle-grade book. Can you tell readers what it’s going to be about?
Yes! The Kate In Between, out in May 2021, is about a 12-year-old girl who goes viral for saving her best friend, which gets caught on tape. Except — the girl she saves is actually her former friend, who she recently ditched for a more popular crew. And, um, she was maybe-kinda-sorta the reason the girl risked her life in the first place.
The Kate In Between was actually quite emotionally difficult for me to write; it dives deep into what really makes someone a good friend, a hard lesson I had to learn growing up that I often think about. It’s about the burdens we place on each other as humans to demand perfection, and our unwillingness to accept each other’s brokenness. But it’s also about cancel culture, MLMs, and Trader Joe’s pickle popcorn — ha!
Finally, the real question I need to ask: will there be a second season of Making a Middle-Grade?
Only time will tell! 😉
Thank you so much for your time, Claire!
Afoma, it was a delight — thank you.
Buy What Happens Next by Claire Swinarski
About Claire Swinarski
Claire Swinarski is the author of multiple books, including What Happens Next (coming in 2020 from HarperCollins) and Girl, Arise: A Catholic Feminist’s Invitation to Live Boldly, Love Your Faith, and Change the World. She’s also the founder of the Catholic Feminist Podcast, a top-ranked spirituality podcast with half a million downloads that discusses the intersection between faith and women’s issues. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Seventeen, Milwaukee Magazine, and many other publications. She lives just outside of Milwaukee, WI with her husband and two kids.