The Swing of Things, released today by Lake Union Publishing, was a long time coming. I could make a cheap joke right there, but I’ll resist.
The writing duo of Linda Joffe Hull and Keir Graff, writing under the name Linda Keir, have put years into this work of steamy suburban suspense.
Those looking for the backstory behind this work, check an earlier post (“The Business of Patience”) on the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers website here.
Writers, this is truly a case of never giving up. To put it mildly, they persisted.
Those looking for an idea of what The Swing of Things is about, check this Q & A (below) with Linda and Keir. A full review follows.
Denver-area friends: both Linda and Keir will be at The Tattered Cover (Colfax store) on Wednesday, Sept. 5 for a launch event. 7 PM. Don’t miss it.
Question: So I’ve heard a bit about how each of you, independently, had thought about writing a novel about swingers. True? And then someone who knew that Keir was thinking about the topic heard Linda mention it and put you two together. So, long before you two started working together, what was drawing you to this topic? Why swingers? What did you want to explore and why did it make sense to team up on this project?
Linda: I have some friends who moved down to the suburbs about ten years ago. I ran into the wife about six months after they moved and asked her about the house and how they were enjoying their new community.
“Linda,” she said. “There are swingers in our neighborhood.”
At that moment, a book idea was formed. It wasn’t just the idea of people swapping partners, but doing so within their community. I had visions of wives gossiping about the attributes of each other’s husbands at the neighborhood pool. I thought about all the similarities in not only the houses but the people in such a place and wondered what switching up spouses would really accomplish? I could go on for days which is what made the topic so fertile (if you will) for fiction.
As for teaming up on the project, I sat with the story in my head for a couple of years not knowing quite how I wanted to tell it. My previous books tended to be humorous and I didn’t think of swinging as particularly funny. When I met Keir and an agent friend suggested we coauthor, it occurred to me that dual narratives written by different people could be the perfect way to write a book like this.
Keir: My interest was piqued years and years ago by a book (The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers, by Terry Gould) and a documentary (also called The Lifestyle). A quick bit of research showed me how many Americans had at least dabbled in swinging (quite a few) and also that there were some active swinging spots in Chicago, all of which got me thinking—and not what you’re thinking!
I’ve always been interested in different subcultures, from those inhabited by hoboes and con men and carnies to athletes and politicians, so in one way, swingers were just another subculture I was curious about. But the real hook for me was the discrepancy between the fairly common American fantasies of threesomes and spouse-swapping and even orgies—which, at a passing thought, is pretty titillating—and the reality of swinging as depicted in the sources I used. Simply put, a lot of swingers are (for obvious reasons) empty nesters, so the reality is a bit more gray and paunchy than the fantasy.
Which is not to suggest there’s anything wrong with middle-aged folks having consensual fun! But one scene in particular in the documentary, when swinging is combined with a potluck, made me think I’d write a comedy about swingers . . . but I was never able to get the tone right. Linda’s stroke of genius was saying we should write the book seriously, treating the decision to swing as simply an important marital issue between husband and wife.
Question: I’m wondering if one of the biggest challenges of writing this book was making it seem as natural and ordinary as possible for Eric and Jayne to engage in the swinger’s club—and at the same time give them slightly different reasons for doing so. If they both jumped into that world enthusiastically, without qualms, they might seem less relatable, right? How did you approach their decision-making process?
Linda Keir: Before we wrote the book, we researched the reasons people join The Lifestyle. In many cases, one partner is excited by the idea and the other one more or less goes along with it. We worked pretty hard at giving both of our characters, Eric and Jayne, reasons for wanting and not wanting to take the leap. Jayne’s interest is largely social in that she works full time and feels sidelined. Plus, she’s intrigued by the group leader, Theo. In Eric’s case, he has some guilt he believes will be assuaged. We did engage in a little bit of role reversal by making Jayne the one who proposes they try it—in reality, it’s more often the man.
Question: Would the story have worked, to your way of thinking, if Eric was the breadwinner and Jayne was the stay at home mom? Why did you flip the normal roles?
Linda Keir: It could have worked just as easily, but we would have had to explore the characters’ motivations and desires differently, which wasn’t as interesting to us as writers. The story is a lot about have-it-all culture. In this case, Jayne has the big career along with being a mom while Eric, who is not as ambitious, gets to play a big part in the raising of their daughter and pursue his dreams of playing and producing music. If we’d gone with more traditional gender and sexual roles we would have focused on some of the inherent issues, frustrations, and mores of that—but this felt like it needed to be a different kind of story.
Question: Rules. Can we talk about rules? Theo has rules. The individual swingers have rules. Marriages have rules—some unspoken and some not. And then along comes the scene with the Pilgrims and that made me think of The Puritans who arrived about ten years later and set the moral compass for this country and you kind of want to say ‘where exactly did all these rules come from and what purpose are they serving?’ The term swingers suggests a certain sense freedom but it sounds like you might need to carry a rulebook around in some of these groups. Did you run across a lot of rules in your research? Do you have any observations on our monogamy? Does it work? Is monogamy just another a set of artificial rules? Is swinging the same way?
Linda Keir: As it turns out, swinging is extremely rule-based. In researching the book, we read article after article written by people who are active in the lifestyle, most of which stressed the need for open communication between partners and rules of engagement to avoid issues, jealousy, and a variety of unintended consequences. They all stressed that partners have to decide, ahead of time, what they will and will not do. The rules can be a simple as not kissing other people to highly detailed scenarios about what is and isn’t permitted. Swingers maintain that these parameters are necessary to keep jealousy out of the picture.
Neither of us are or have ever been swingers but have learned that these constructs make as much sense to polyamorous people as monogamy does to us. In doing this project I think we have both come to realize that no relationship arrangement is without its challenges and rewards. Monogamy is certainly as much an arrangement as non-monogamy. While the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages in our minds and marriages, we certainly follow our own sets of rules as well.
Question: Were there major discussions between you two on the book’s moral compass? Did you have conversations about the major themes or simply discover the resolution as you wrote?
Linda Keir: We had discussions all the way through, but we actually didn’t agree to start the project together until we realized that our moral compasses were similarly attuned, as were our thoughts on the ultimate outcome for our characters. The story, from the outset, centered around a culture of wanting it all and so many people’s sense that other people are happier and somehow living better, more fulfilled lives.
Question: At one point, Eric realizes he has never thought about the “end game” of getting involved in the group. He wonders if swinging is a virus that will reorder his life. The situation that prompts trouble for Eric and Jayne could have been a number of things—and in fact there are a number of incidents that pile up as things devolve. How hard was it to find the right way to leave Eric and Jayne at story’s end? Are there groups of swingers that last for years and years and years?
Linda Keir: We knew all along that the experiment wasn’t ultimately going to work for Eric and Jayne and we had a pretty good idea about how that would go down. That said, the end of the book required the most editing and rewriting. It was difficult to avoid getting too melodramatic or preachy. While neither of us know of closed groups of swingers that last for years and years, it’s certainly possible that they exist. More common are couples who spend years participating in the lifestyle. While some people’s experiments end badly, if both partners enjoy the arrangement equally, it can work in other cases. The heart of drama is conflict, so we didn’t feel we had much of a story if it ended happily ever after for our characters.
Question: The book is set in Denver—loosely. I mean, there are very, very few references to specific city details. Were you purposely trying to make the setting seem as generic (and all-American universal) as possible? Was the city always specified in earlier drafts or did you decide to declare a “real” backdrop to give it some sense of location?
Linda Keir: We originally wanted the book’s location to be generic because swinging happens everywhere. Our publisher wanted us to set it in a particular city. Urban legend has it that one of the suburban parts of Denver is the swinging capital of the U.S., so Denver it was.
Question: Okay, the sex. How did you decide on the degree of specificity to get into with parts and positions? Given the sheer volume of sex scenes in this book, what did you learn about writing sex scenes that you didn’t know before? Do each of you have favorite writers who you think know how to handle the R-rated sex scenes?
Linda Keir: One of us enjoys writing sex scenes a lot more than the other, which may have something to do with a misspent boyhood reading Penthouse Forum. But we did decide early on that, because the central issue at the heart of this book is sexual exploration, we would have done readers a disservice if we got too Victorian. The sex scenes are challenging to write (sometimes it’s difficult to work out what actors call “blocking”—what goes where) but at the same time kind of exhilarating, just because you don’t want to be nominated for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. We learned to be frank in description while trying to focus on the characters’ emotional states. And Oscar Hijuelos has some wonderfully written dirty stuff in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.
Question: What’s next for you two as a team and what’s next for each of you two as individual writers?
Linda Keir: We have a book coming out in 2019 called Drowning with Others. It’s a marital drama/mystery about prep school sweethearts Ian and Andi Copeland and takes place at boarding school in the 1990s and present day Saint Louis, Missouri. Still in love, Ian and Andi have three delightful children, a thriving business, and are envied by friends and family. They’d have the perfect marriage—if only they didn’t suspect each other of murder.
Linda: I am in the early stages of two projects as Linda Joffe Hull and am working with Keir on a third novel.
Keir: I also write for kids! (I use two different computers, just to make sure I don’t cross-contaminate.) My new kids’ book, The Phantom Tower, is out now, and I’m hard at work on the next one. I’m also editing an anthology of Montana writing (although I live in Chicago now, I’m a native Montanan) that will be published in late 2019. And then there’s that third Linda Keir book . . . and the other dozen books I want to write!
Linda Joffe Hull’s website
Keir Graff’s website
The Swing of Things is about sex, group sex, marriage, independence, bonds, freedom, routines, temptation, lust, boredom, reality, and fantasy all balled up in one taut tale told from two distinctly different perspectives—husband and wife.
The novel reminded me of that classic New Yorker cartoon of the couple getting married. Mid first-kiss at the altar, the groom is thinking, “Tim and Betty” while the bride is thinking, “Betty and Tim.” The title of the cartoon: Trouble Ahead.
Linda Keir—the joint writing team of Linda Joffe Hull and Keir Graff—takes us deep inside the heads of this suburban Denver couple, stay-at-home dad Eric and breadwinning attorney Jayne. Hull wrote the Jayne sections and Graff handled Eric’s perspective. Among the treats in the skillfully paced novel is seeing the same events from dueling points of view.
The book starts with the routines of “date night,” which includes well-rehearsed and somewhat monotonous, to Jayne, sexual routines. Jayne scolds herself for being ungrateful about Eric’s attentions and the predictable order of, um, activities. The couple is pondering a second child so six-year-old Sophie won’t grow up without a sibling. Jayne’s mid-romp thoughts are cluttered with her own self-analysis and wondering what’s missing from their alleged bliss. It’s pretty clear something is off; Jayne is frustrated with many things about their life together, right down to the painful degree of deliberation with which Eric spreads goat cheese on a cracker.
Eric, meanwhile, knows that child number two will extend his career as house spouse. Maybe good, maybe not. Besides watching out for Sophie, Eric earns beer money by teaching “acne-spotted high-school boys how to play guitar” and he gigs once a month with his band, The Cadillac Ranchers.
And then along comes Mia and Theo. After a casual potluck for the parents of first-graders there is an “unexpected” way to end the party. Only the “cool kids” are left at the party so a pitcher of mojitos appears and suddenly there is a skinny dip in the backyard pool. The spontaneous decision to shed clothes and jump in the pool puts a jolt into Eric and Jayne’s relationship. Soon, they find themselves being invited, after careful screening, to swing.
The response to the invitation—and how Eric and Jayne dance around and negotiate with each other (and think through their personal concerns and desires)—is judiciously prolonged. Without leaving town or changing much else about their routines and work, they are suddenly strangers in a strange land. And they can have a piece of it if they wish. Goodbye vanilla, hello spice. For Jayne, the temptation is powerful. “Nothing in her life—not her job, not Eric’s predictable underemployment, and especially not their pretty home with its pleasant but wholly unremarkable backyard, complete with potted pansies and a Little Tikes plastic playhouse, offered anything to get truly excited about.”
And we’re off. Complications abound. Complicated relationships abound. There is jealousy. There are secrets, private yearnings, and new connections. There is a messy complication with Jayne’s professional life and a case involving fraud at a church. Yeah, trouble ahead. Changing partners regularly with the swingers prompts Eric and Jayne to reconsider their own values, upbringings, and moral codes. The swingers have their own strict rules (at least, on the surface) and now the temptation is to break some of the group boundaries as well. And given that Eric is now sleeping with women other than his wife, he wonders, what’s the difference in extending his circle of lovers to the fetching Bridget, a waitress with the “agreeably loose-limbed stride” who gives Eric ample attention when his band plays its monthly gig? Jayne, meanwhile, realizes she can pursue her own personal preference for a certain guy under the cover of the private club of tumbling, groping bodies.
All the bedroom action is starkly contrasted with the management of daily household life and Sophie’s needs, a burden that mostly falls to Eric. But even a field trip to the zoo encounters a display of mating giraffes. But of course.
Getting into the groove with the swingers, Eric and Jayne have discovered a place to disappear, to be themselves. Or have they? Eric and Jayne push the boundaries of the new world they have discovered and as they both realize, in their own ways, that they hadn’t given a thought to the possibility of ulterior motives or to the idea that swinging might define their “very existence” and infuse every other aspect of their lives. Just because there are rules doesn’t mean there is control. And just because they taste a certain kind of freedom doesn’t mean the outside world can be kept completely at bay, that there won’t be some kind of emotional debt come due.
Packed with sharp observations about suburban life and a gripping page-turner of its own for many reasons, including an unexpected mid-swing jolt of genuine suspense, The Swing of Things zips along (and unzips along, ahem) on the strength of its three-dimensional characters. The writing required genuine empathy, given the challenge of making husband and wife sympathetic and recognizable as they balance personal desires with the needs of the family unit. There are many pages of graphic sex. But at the core of the story are two human beings making their way in the world who decide to challenge routine and shatter the looming, dreaded sense of deadendness. They wonder about the bargains they have already cut with the world and wonder if it’s too late to try something new. Their search is real and the resulting entanglements, of all kinds, are equally visceral and painfully real.