When Random House told us months ago that they were really excited about a new novelist named Gavriel Savit and his first book, Anna and the Swallow Man, we were intrigued. When they said, “If you liked The Book Thief, you’ll love this,” we were skeptical. That’s quite a comparison. Could it possibly be true?
In a word: yes. Historical fiction with a hint of magical realism, the story follows a young girl named Anna, who lives in Kraków, Poland, in 1939. After her father disappears into German custody, Anna has no one to turn to — until she meets the mysterious Swallow Man. Savit’s novel does share many elements with The Book Thief — the historical European setting, a young female protagonist, gorgeous prose — although to compare the two isn’t quite fair to either. The Book Thief is a gregarious and sprawling novel; when you finish it, you want to tell someone about it immediately. Anna and the Swallow Man is a different beast: tightly focused, full of stillnesses and razor sharp observations. When you close the book, you may find yourself sitting still for some time, lost in thought.
Gavriel Savit will be at Parnassus Books next Monday, February 8 at 6:30 to read from Anna and the Swallow Man, autograph books, and sign copies for our February shipment of ParnassusNext subscription boxes. Meanwhile, our manager of books for young readers, Stephanie Appell, interviewed the writer of this must-read story.
Tell me how Anna and the Swallow Man came to be. Did it start with a classic flash-of-inspiration moment? If not, how did it emerge?
GS: There were certainly a lot of little moments of inspiration, but I don’t think an entire book is ever really conceived in a single moment. For me, a multitude of ideas begin to tickle the brain, almost like a sneeze, until I can’t handle it anymore and I start to write. Some of those ideas make the transition to the page, some of them don’t.
The impression of the Swallow Man as a character came first, and relatively all-at-once: someone who uses every resource at his disposal — rational, irrational, or even magical — in order to remain in control of his situation and survive. The beauty of ambiguity is something I’ve been chewing on for years. Things just sort of assemble themselves.
I’d venture to say you’re going to hear the research question a lot. The characters’ experiences here feel so lived-in — their everyday existence of cold, hunger, and survival rings very true — and the narrator’s insights into what’s happening in the bigger picture help, too. What was your research like for this book?
GS: I think my background as an actor contributes a lot to the sort of tactile nature of my writing. I’m always asking myself as I go, OK, what does this look like? What does this feel like? What does this sound like? For me, those sorts of sensory experiences are what draw me into a situation. They’re the stuff of memory, to be certain, and they’re the kind of thing that everyone has access to. The second you describe a tactile sensation that a reader recognizes, you’ve established a connection that predates the reading of the novel, which helps to root the experience.
In larger terms, I think there are two important phases to research: If you’re writing in the specifically-located past, you have to understand the wider dynamics (political, social, economic, artistic) that are current in the period to which you’re referring, but this understanding is best when it’s sort of gestural. You can’t get too caught up in portraying, you know, the specifics of Socialist Realism in the mid-20th century– if you do, you’re no longer writing a novel, you’re writing a textbook. That said, if you don’t know that Socialist Realism exists, then your setting is impoverished, not only because it existed, but because there are going to be readers who know about it.
The second phase of the research is something that’s gotten much easier in the Internet age. When you’re drafting, you’ll have a notion of some detail you’d like to include, and you’ll realize you’re not quite certain about the specifics. What’s the physical layout of Kraków? What foods were included in Soviet military rations? This is information available to the industrious, and from my perspective, it’s invaluable. Specificity is the path to resonance.
Books and reading play an important role for Anna, even if, at times, their significance is their absence. What about for you when you were growing up? Was there a book that had an impact on you the way Anna’s book of myths did for her?
GS: Oh, man: everything. I was a big reader as a kid– lots of mass market sci-fi/fantasy paperbacks. Certainly there were some formative things for me: I played games of Peter Pan constantly, my father read the entire Tolkien oeuvre to me before bed over the course of quite some time, and my godmother of blessed memory (to whom the book is dedicated) gave me Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when I was 11, and that sort of latched right onto my brain stem. I’m a real child of fantasy, over here.
Why write books for young people?
GS: I don’t, particularly. I write books for humans. I just don’t exclude young people from the category of humans, which is something of a mystifying tendency to me.
Anna and the Swallow Man is your first book. What are your hopes for it as it is released out into the world of readers?
GS: I hope that people read it, and selfishly, I hope that people see what I’m pointing at.
When I first started doing interviews in support of this book, my fiancée pointed out to me that I have a little bit of a conversational tic — I frequently finish a proposition with a proverbial, “Y’know what I mean?” which is not terribly authoritative. Her point was that I ought to limit the deployment of that little phrase, and she’s probably right, but I think the impulse also speaks to what we set out to do as authors: we see something in the universe, something interesting and complex, challenging, magical, perhaps even horrible, and we want to point at it, describe it, wrap it up in words and hand it on to others.
I know, of course, that now the book is going out into the world, it has its own, second life, and I no longer get to dictate what it says to people. Furthermore, I know it’s, in some ways, a bit of a challenging book; uncertainty is uncomfortable to a lot of people, as are, quite understandably, the atrocities of the Holocaust.
All the same, if you’re asking– I hope people will know what I mean.
* * *