An Indies Introduce Q&A With Beth Lincoln

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Beth Lincoln, author of "The Swifts"Beth Lincoln is the author of The Swifts, a Winter/Spring 2023 Indies Introduce Kids selection.

Beth Lincoln is Northern, queer and perpetually hungry. A dilettante if you want to be fancy and a chronic dabbler if you don’t, she writes an eclectic mix of fiction — though her main focus is on middle-grade mystery and grown-up Weird. Lincoln has one degree that says she can read, another that says she can write, and a love of word games, puzzles, linguistic acrobatics, and puns. Her debut children’s novel, The Swifts, which explores themes of self-identity, familial pressure, and murder, earned her a place on the Penguin Random House WriteNow scheme and will be published in January 2023.

Emily Autenrieth of A Seat at the Table Books in Elk Grove, California, served on the panel that selected Lincoln’s debut for Indies Introduce. Of the experience, Autenrieth said, “I finished this truly unputdownable book in a single day after being completely drawn in by the first line. Its deep affection for language and irreverent-yet-loving-approach to its characters endears, while its deliciously suspenseful murder mystery storytline make it perfect for a classroom read-aloud with interactive student sleuthing. It’s also ideal for reluctant readers who need a highly engaging story to pull them in, and for parents who still read aloud to their 6th graders, as I do.”

Here, Lincoln and Autenrieth discuss The Swifts.

Emily Autenrieth: The queer representation in The Swifts is multifaceted and ranges from incidental to pivotal. What is the importance of truly complex, embodied representation for queer and other marginalized people in children’s literature? What do you hope young readers will gain by getting to know your diverse cast of characters?

Beth Lincoln: I knew from the jump that most of the main cast of The Swifts was queer, though how explicitly it’s mentioned on the page varies. I and most of my circle of loved ones are queer, and so it’s natural for me to want to include queer characters, to write about queer relationships, to portray queer anxieties. But part of my motivation was also to redress some of the imbalance in children’s literature. Writers are supposed to reflect the world around us, or at least try to; yet the defaults in children’s literature surrounding who gets written about and who gets left out, who gets villainized and who gets to be the hero, were established long ago by writers at the turn of the last century living at the center of the British colonial project. These texts had a huge impact on our culture, and the work to dismantle their legacy takes continual effort.

Why is this important? Well, one of the things we discuss time and again as children’s writers is how books help to give kids the knowledge, courage and confidence they need to navigate the world. This is impossible without complex, diverse representation. If children are only reading about certain kinds of people and experiences, they’re getting limited information. It’s like reading half a map.

For queer kids specifically, this map is crucial. We still live in a heteronormative, reactionary society. When Shenanigan learns that her cousin Erf is nonbinary, her first reaction is, I didn’t know you were allowed to do that. Queer representation was thin on the ground in the books and media I grew up with, and so much of my late teens and early twenties were spent discovering all the things a person is allowed to do and be. Frankly, I would have liked to have known some of it a lot earlier, and spent that time learning a second language, or going to more parties. Over the course of these books, I want to portray queer experience the way I wish I’d seen it portrayed as a child, the way I see it now as an adult; as joyful, yes, as complicated, yes, but also as just another thing you are allowed to be.

EA: The House, with its capitalized name, deep quirkiness, and very own tombstone, operates as a sort of nonhuman character in the story. How did the House come to life in your imagination?

BL: Everything in The Swifts takes place in one location, so it had to be a heck of a location. It had to reflect the Swifts’ collective identity; since a family is made up of a bunch of contradictory, mismatched people, each with different goals and personalities, I knew the architecture of the House had to be just as haphazard and cobbled together. And I knew it had to be alive. I grew up in an old house, and I always, always felt it was alive. Old houses require constant repair and reassurance. The pipes freeze, the boiler packs in. You find mold in the cupboards and rot in the floorboards and bats in the attic. But the more you work on the house, the deeper you enter into a symbiotic relationship. The House gives you shelter, and warmth, and protection, and in return, you have to maintain it, and soothe it, and put up with its foibles. Swift House has been in the Family for years — how could it not be alive, after all that time?

EA: Each member of the Family Swift is named when their parents point at random to a word in the Family Dictionary. Much is made of each name’s meaning, but their applicability runs the gamut; for example, Fortissimo can’t help but shout, while Gumshoe is an extremely inept detective. How do names stand in for the concept of fate in this book, and how does this story speak to the nature versus nurture debate?

BL: What Shenanigan learns over the course of the novel — spoiler — is that the accuracy of this belief is totally ambiguous. I’m honestly not sure myself. To avoid a headache, I think of it like astrology, which I don’t believe in at all and yet believe in completely. When you tell another person your star sign, they nod knowingly and say, ah, of course, because of those traits that you have. They will do this regardless of whether you tell the truth or lie. They will focus on the aspects of the sign that fit you, and ignore the bits that don’t; or else, they’ll focus on the parts of you that fit your sign, and dismiss the parts of you that don’t.

This same phenomenon is often encountered within families. Sometimes people are assigned roles within the family unit that they did not ask for or want. These roles can come with expectation and pressure, and they can be hard to break out of; how often is a person’s genuine change and growth ignored by their family in favour of an earlier version of them? How often does this happen to kids, teens, adults over the course of their lives? The reader is free to decide how much of the Swift’s naming is down to predetermination, and how much of it is down to willful misinterpretation and Family pressure.

But maybe I’m saying all this because I’m an Aquarius.

EA: The Swifts feels like an ode to the joy of language in many ways. Not only are names given outsized weight, but every sentence of your book seems to savor the power of the written word. For example, instead of saying, as another writer might, “Felicity was near the end of her tether,” you write, “Felicity closed her eyes. Somewhere, very near now, was the end of her tether.” What experiences in your life helped you fall in love with the power and potential of clever writing?

BL: I’ve always been fascinated by how language works because I have always had such a visceral emotional reaction to it. I was the kid blubbering over character deaths at dinner, or laughing so hard during Quiet Reading Time that I got a headache and had to go home. I wanted to know why reading made me feel this way. Why do certain words, in a certain order, make us laugh? The phrase “I paid an arm and a leg” elicits a different reaction than, “I paid an arm and a kidney” — why?

It turns out that trying to understand how language works is fun. For me, writing is play. It’s chucking a bunch of words at a wall and seeing what sticks. It’s photographing a sentence at its best angle. It’s building a spaceship out of Legos, then taking it apart and using the bricks to build a dinosaur, then taking it apart and using the bricks to build a joke. I’m always trying to amuse myself, because the minute it stops being fun is the minute I can no longer do it. I want to replicate the surprise and delight I feel reading the work of people I admire — like Terry Pratchett, who is the master of taking a perfectly good and honest sentence and shaking it ‘til it says the same thing, only sideways — and I want to do that forever. I suppose that means I want to give children headaches and make them cry, for which I can only apologise.

EA: Shenanigan is such a delightful and relatable main character. She’s also not someone most adults would consider a role model — and I wouldn’t want her to be any different. What is the value of having wild card personalities at the front and center of books for young people?

BL: When someone says ‘role model’, I often wonder what they mean. Unfortunately I’m going to be a parody of myself here, and get into the definitions of those two words.

A role is, amongst other things, an assigned place in an organization, play, or society. A model is an example to be copied or imitated. A model can also be a smaller, less complex version of something else, like a model airplane.

I think that making someone a role model shrinks them. It means ignoring all of their flaws and complexities and petty grudges and bad habits, and reducing them to whatever positive traits they represent. Doing so removes their permission to make mistakes, which removes their permission to be a person, which removes all the things about them that are actually interesting. A model airplane can’t break down, but it also can’t fly.

Children, I’ve been told, are just small people. Most people would prefer to read about another person who is flawed and difficult and who makes mistakes, than an automaton who is right all the time and never goes to bed late. What a relief it is, to read about imperfect people! What a relief to learn you can be selfish and annoying occasionally, and the world won’t end. Shenanigan, when push comes to shove, tries to do good, not be good. Personally, I think that’s more important.

The Swifts by Beth Lincoln (Dutton Books for Young Readers, 9780593533239, Hardcover Middle Grade, $17.99) On Sale: 2/7/2023.

Find out more about the author on her Twitter account @bethatintervals.

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