Wednesday, February 15, 2012

An interview and a giveaway with Swati Avasthi, author of Split

If my New Year’s resolution for 2012 had been to read only good books, certainly my year couldn’t have kicked off any better. The first book I happened to pick up, Split by Swati Avasthi, was a full 5-star and one I won’t easily forget. If you want to know why, read my review here.
So it’s not hard to imagine how thrilled I am that we, your Nocturnal Librarians, actually got the chance to interview Swati herself.
Split, first published by Knopf in 2010 in hardback, just got recently published in its paperback edition by Ember. To celebrate this event, Swati, Maja and I have decided to give you the chance to win a copy of the book. Actually, make that two. Swati will be giving away one copy to US residents only, while we will send internationally! Before you read, just be aware that there are some mild spoilers ahead, but they're clearly tagged.

A blurb of the book, taken from Swati’s website:

“16‐year‐old Jace Witherspoon arrives at the doorstep of his estranged brother Christian with a re‐landscaped face (courtesy of his father's fist), $3.84, and a secret.He tries to move on, going for new friends, a new school, and a new job, but all his changes can’t make him forget what he left behind. His mother is still trapped with his dad. And his ex‐girlfriend is keeping his secret – for now.
Turns out there are some things you can’t just walk away from.
After you’ve said enough, after you’ve made the split – how do you begin to live again?”

Are Jace and Christian - but especially their relationship - based on real-life people?

Neither is, nor is their relationship. They are two kids whom I imagined might come out of an abusive household. When I was coordinating a domestic violence legal clinic, I learned pretty quickly that victims are quite different in their personalities and in their responses to abuse. So, it was important to me that Jace and Christian be different even though their histories are nearly identical.Their relationship was simply what happened when I put the two of them together and then stepped quietly into the background, typing as fast as I could to keep up.

The thing that struck me most about Split - which is probably the reason why I loved it so much - is how well and thoroughly I connected with Jace, the main character, how I felt frustrated when he's frustrated, helpless when he's helpless, struggling when he's struggling. It's the empathy I talked about in my review which, I believe, is no small feat for an author to evoke in a reader merely with words. I was particularly impressed by how you, Swati, put me into a teen boy's head (I am a 35 y.o. woman after all). This got me to thinking about how there are not that many female authors which actually succeed in writing a good and believable male POV. You are one of them.
What are the challenges of doing that? What made you decide for a male POV? How did you put yourself into a teen boy's head?

Thank you! My stories generally start from “what if?”s. In this case, I wondered what it would be like to grow up with your father – the man you most admired in the world, whom you imitated before you had any understanding of right or wrong – what if his version of manhood involved violence and control? The question evolved from my work in the clinic. Once, I interviewed a woman who had her children with her -- a girl and boy. The boy was particularly cute; his tooth was loose and he would wriggle it with his tongue – proud of this step toward adulthood. Once his mother began telling me about an incident that was getting increasingly violent, I asked her if she’d like an intern to look after her kids. She said no, they had seen it.

At first, I thought of the girl and what that would do to her relationships as a woman. But then I wondered: in 10 years, would I be sitting across from this boy’s girlfriend?
I am frustrated by how abuse is portrayed as a woman’s problem, even though, most often, men are the ones who are generating the problem. Men have the clearest line to ending abuse. Still, as a society, we tend not to deal with that, and in doing so we inadvertently excuse the behaviour and blame the victim when we ask “why does she stay?” instead of “why is he hitting her?” By casting domestic violence as a woman’s problem, we make it hard for boys to talk about abuse. We make it “unmanly.” So, I really wanted to make this a boy’s story.

As to the voice – well, it’s interesting that you bring up empathy with this question. I believe that our imagination allows us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes – allows us to develop empathy. The more times you put on those shoes, the better you get to know the person, the voice, the thoughts. So I spent a lot of time in Jace’s shoes. I practiced by doing a bunch of character exercises that were geared toward developing Jace’s voice, primarily asking him questions and listening for his answers and pretending to be him, i.e., method acting. (My theater background helped out there). And I read a lot of books (or rather reading a few books again and again) where the protagonists’ voices sounded authentic to me. But this answer sounds much more methodical than the process actually was. The process was more like throwing darts at a board while blind-folded – some of the exercises helped, some were – well… dumb. You never really know which exercises will light a fire and which will just send up smoke.

Another interesting point you explored in this book is how people are never 100% good or a 100% bad either. You’ve planted doubts into readers’ heads by asking them to consider why one does act like he does, even an abuser.
Has this idea originated from your working experience in the clinic?

Primarily it is because I don’t believe anyone is 100% bad or 100% good. To parapharse Jane Resh Thomas, my colleague at Hamline University’s MFA in writing for children’s and young adults, it is a sin to lie to children about the world we live in. And we don’t live in a world that is 100% dark or a world that is 100% light.
Abusers don’t see themselves as 100% evil. And their victims don’t see them that way either. So for my money, writing a story about abuse where one person is percei
ved as 100% evil is inauthentic—it is telling kids lies.

From some reviews around the blogosphere I got the impression that some people were expecting to learn more about the father through interactions between him and his sons, but these were few and far between. Is there a reason why the father remains in the background most of the time?

First let me say, I’m really thrilled that people wanted to understand more. Part of an author’s job is to inspire others’ imaginations and questions – to keep ‘em wanting more. I hope that SPLIT can do that.

I chose to keep Walter (Jace’s dad) in the background because it wasn’t Walter’s story. This was Jace’s story and how Walter became who he is… well, Jace never saw that. Jace just had to deal with the ramifications of his parents’ choices. That was the story I was trying to tell. What do we do when we are born in a crappy situation that we had not instigated?

However, there are subtle hints about Walter and Jennifer. The garage scene was meant to answer the perennial question: why does she stay? (SPOILER: You might notice that Jennifer touches the scar on her hand right before she says that she can’t leave Walter.) And I very, very subtly alluded to the stories Jace knows about Walter’s history (SPOILER: When Jace hits Lauren he flashes into the future and describes some scenes that are pretty specific – cutting off her hair when she flirts with someone, which is something his father has done. Then he narrates something like: I can see it like it has happened already. It has happened already, just not to us. Which was meant to imply that Walter was on this path as a young man and that Jace is following in his footsteps. In other words, Walter’s story is Jace’s story, except that Walter never had a Christian in his life.)

My goal was to draw out the starting point and the ending point for Walter and let the reader’s imagination do the rest because, after all, most of us know that abuse escalates over the years, that the abuser gets increasingly out of control and the situations become increasingly violent.

I can’t help noticing how nice and spot-on the hardback cover is (I’m very partial to that edition, what can I do). Did you have a role in the choosing of the cover or was this just a lucky coincidence? Who designed it?

The marketers and my editor at Knopf are the smart people with their spot-on interpretations. They contracted Heads of State to design the hardback cover (the one with the keys and the faces). They actually designed three covers that Knopf chose from. My editor was kind enough to show me all the candidates for both the hardback and paperback, but authors rarely choose their covers and I’m no different. I feel lucky that they chose the ones I liked the most for both covers.

What can you tell us about Chasing Shadows, your next book, which will be published in 2013 by Knopf?

I just drafted a blurb for it. I’m sure I’ll tighten it – but here we go:

Before: 18 year olds Corey, Holly, and Savitri turn Chicago concrete and asphalt into a Freerunner's jungle gym, ricocheting off walls, scaling buildings, and even leaping from rooftop to rooftop. But acting like a superhero doesn't make you one.

After: Holly and Savitri try to move on. But sometimes -- when a killer can't be found, when reality keeps sliding out of reach -- sometimes moving on isn't an option. How do you hang on to what was? How do you hold onto a shadow? Part prose, part graphic novel, CHASING SHADOWS is about how far we stretch for our friends.

Thanks so much for hosting me and for the great questions!

And thanks to Swati for being such a great writer and for this fantastic interview. If you want to know more about her, you should visit her website here.

As for the giveaway, here are the rules: ONE copy to US residents (sent by Swati, she said you get to choose if you want the hardback or the paperback and it will be personalized!), ONE copy sent by us internationally (wherever the Book Depository ships). As per usual, the more you spread the word about us and the book, the more entry points you get. You MUST be a blog follower to enter the giveaway (and don’t think we won’t check). Just fill out the Rafflecopter below.

Good luck to all!


  1. Thank you for the great giveaway! :) I'd love to read the book, after reading so many positive reviews. :)

  2. Amazing interview! It's always so interesting to hear from the author, especially when it's a book you loved so much. I have yet to read Split, but practically everyone I know who has read it, has been blown away by the story. I'm really looking forward to it! Thanks so much for the awesome giveaway. :)

  3. I love the interview! I still haven't read Split but reading the interview somehow gave me an idea what to expect from Split (apart from review, of course) and how much her experiences in her work contributed to the development of the story. I can say that I am really looking forward to reading this. Thank you so much for this giveaway, Lisa! :D

  4. I didn't read the whole interview because I don't want to see spoilers (even mild ones) but just the fact that you guys are so enthusiastic about this book makes it more interesting for me. It's already on my wishlist and I look forward to reading it. :)

  5. Wow, what an incredible interview you guys. I love what she says about people not being 100% good or bad. That's something that I feel like a lot of authors who write about domestic violence really miss out on. I am definitely going to read this book now!

  6. Fabulous review. Really makes me want to hurry up and pick this one up. :)

  7. I'm even more excited to read this, after re-reading Lisa's wonderful review and this amazing interview! thanks so much for the giveaway! :)

  8. This one looks AWESOME!!

    I love it when you can identify with the hero, and feel everything they feel, and especially when they're neither all good nor all evil.

  9. I remember your review on Split Lisa! This was a great interview. It love reading the author's thoughts on the book. This is definitely one I want to check out!

  10. I'm so happy to see Split getting more attention. I read the hardback when it came out and just bought the paperback. Both covers capture the novel but in different ways.

    I love this book and adore Swati.

  11. I am interested to know that the author got some of her inspiration from a legal clinic at which she worked. During one of my legal internships, I spent tons of time with teens who were truants, emancipated (or in the process of becoming emancipated) youths, and just tons of teenagers in the judicial system. Every single one of them had a story and in the right hands, I'm sure many of their stories could become wonderful and very real books. The quote about not lying to children is perfect. So many people have loved this book but I hope it gets into the hands of those who can identify with it most.

    As for me, I seriously need to get my act together and read it. I've been excited about it for ages and my "I'm going to read it soon!" act is getting old. Maybe I'll win one of these copies? ;-)

  12. I know, right??? It feels like 2012 is exploding with how many amazing books are coming out! x)

    And this is an amazing interview too! I've never heard of this book before, but it sounds exactly like the perfect, intense, and totally touching read that will be perfect for reading whenever I want to immerse myself in an incredibly moving story. And I just loved reading how Swati felt about the book -- her answers were so thoughtful and complex! :)

    Loved this interview, you guys! <3 Can't wait to read this book now!

  13. Yay! I've been meaning to read this and now here's my chance for a free copy! Awesome :)

  14. Oops I didn't put where I'm from on the entry thing. I'm from the US if it's not too late. Sorry.

  15. Awesome giveaway. I have yet to read this. Thank you guys. :)

  16. I've heard great things about this book! All my goodread friends gave 4-5 stars for this book. Seems like a must-read! Thanks for the giveaway!

  17. Emily, of course it's not too late. Good luck!

  18. I can't wait to read this one, it looks like a great read. Thanks for the opportunity to win this novel! :)

  19. Thank you ! This sounds like a good read!

  20. Just dropping by to remind the Rafflecopter to pick me;-)

  21. Rafflecopter should definitely pick Flann for par condicio. I got picked twice at her site :D

  22. This is such an awesome giveaway, Maja! And amazing interview. <3 I've wanted this book for a long time. The story just seems like the kind I'd love to read! :)

  23. *fingers crossed*

    For me, of course.



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