Cynthia Swanson writes literary suspense, often using historical settings. Her debut novel, “The Bookseller,” was a New York Times bestseller, and her second novel, “The Glass Forest,” was noted in Forbes as one of “Five Novels with a Remarkably Strong Sense of Place.” She lives with her family de ella in Denver. Find her de ella at cynthiaswansonauthor.com.
Swanson’s short story, “Pieces of Everyone, Everywhere” is included in the anthology, “Denver Noir,” that she also edited and which will be available from New York-based Akashic Books starting May 3. The Akashic Noir series includes more than 100 volumes set in cities and settings all over the world — from Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) to Zagreb (Croatia).
Swanson recently sat down with SunLit editor Kevin Simpson to talk about the genre, the project and how her own piece of it came to life.
For those who may not be familiar with the genre, tell us about noir.
The traditional noir tends to be like, gumshoe detective, somebody solving a crime, and it’s usually some guy who’s got that traditional look of a detective. And we do have a few of those stories in “Denver Noir.”
But I’ve actually broadened the definition and what I’ve been using to describe it is dark and morally ambiguous. So that gives the authors a lot more leeway. If they’re not mystery writers or detective writers, there’s still a lot of material, because it’s really about the human condition. I think all of us have some part of us that’s morally ambiguous. We all like to think we’re the good person. Even the bad guys think they’re the good guys, right?
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
Kevin Simpson: How did you come to be involved with Akashic’s noir series? Are you already familiar with it?
Cynthia Swanson: I was actually not familiar with the series, surprisingly. But they realized that it was sort of a gaping hole that they didn’t have a “Denver Noir.” They’d had some proposals from potential publishers over the years, but just nothing that really captured them. So they looked around and my name came up as a possibility.
They said they wanted 14 authors for this – they told me you can be one or not, it’s up to you – and we’d like to see a variety of writers, some mystery-suspense writers but also some authors who read a little bit more literary. And then we’d like to have people from a variety of different backgrounds, some well-established authors as well as some emerging authors.
Once you had a list and got it OK’d by the publisher, how did you proceed?
We got it rolling in October, November of 2020 and the next thing I did was reach out to all those contributors. I do have a story in there so it’s 13 plus me, so I reached out to those 13. And two of them could not do it because of time constraints. So then I had to find two more. And then as we got into the process, two had to back out because of time constraints. So out of the original group, there’s 10 of us and then four more that were added later on.
Did you look at previous editions of the noir series to prepare for the work ahead?
I did go check out a whole bunch of them from the library and read through some of them and paged through others. I checked out Milwaukee, which is my hometown, and read it cover to cover, which was kind of fun to do because I know that place. I was trying to figure out a sense of how people were going about the editing and going about the choosing of the authors that they had in their collections.
So when you’re assembling this group of authors, are you thinking in geographic terms, that you want to identify each author with a specific place?
The said to submit what you think is probably a good guess of where that author might set the story because we want to get a sense of what it will look like and make sure we’re covering a broad range of neighborhoods in the city. I went and looked and Denver has somewhere around 60 official neighborhoods. So obviously, we weren’t going to cover all of them in 14 stories, but we wanted to make sure that we’re covering some pretty major ones, as well as some that people might be like, I didn’t even know about that little neighborhood tucked there. They said it was all right if we went a little bit into the suburbs as long as we’re kind of basically in the city, so we do have Aurora and Lakewood.
So let’s talk about some of the contributors and how you pitched it to them. The first name that jumped out at me was Peter Heller. He’s got a huge following. Tell us about approaching him and his reaction to him.
I was a little nervous about approaching him. I’ve met him a couple times, but he’s obviously much more well known than I am and I thought, well, you know, hopefully he’ll say yes, because they do like to have a couple of those anchor authors that are familiar names. So I just sent him an email and he said yes, and I was shocked and pleased that he did. The stories have to be 3,000 to 6,000 words, so he sent me back an email that said, “Three thousand words by March? Yeah, I can do that.” So that was a really good start.
How about some of the emerging authors? How did you find them and did some of them surprise you?
They totally surprised me. One of them would be Amy Drayer, who did this story called “No Gods,” which I absolutely loved. She came from the book project at Lighthouse writers, so that’s how I knew about her. And I looked up her novel de ella that she had out and read the beginning of it and I thought, “Yeah, ella she’d be a good fit.”
And there’s Francelia Belton, the president of (the mystery writing group) Sisters in Crime Colorado, but I’d never met her. She wrote “Dreaming of Ella,” which is set in Five Points. She’s been fun to work with. And then DL Cordero is another one who I didn’t know. DL is around in the writing and the arts community but he was not somebody that I knew. I thought DL did a fantastic story about Auraria and researched that history of what happened to the Chicano families there in the ’70s and also turned it into a spooky story at the same time.
One of the “Denver Noir” contributors is also a Colorado Sun contributor. A. Alan Brooks, who writes the “What’d I Miss?” comic strip for us and has done graphic novels as well, has a graphic story – the only one in the collection. How did you approach dealing with that art form, as an editor?
I didn’t know anything about it. And so when he said yes, I did a little research into how to edit or understand comics and found a few books on the subject. I ran those by Alan because he also teaches this subject.
It was an interesting process working with him. He was the first one to jump on and give me a draft really early on, in December 2020, partly because the way that process works is he had to have his script down before he did any of the artwork for this story. So he sent me a script, and then once we had that fairly solid he sent me some thumbnails of what he thought the panels would look like. And we talked about those a little bit.
And then he actually ended up tweaking the script a little bit based on those thumbnails and went back and forth on a few things and then he put together the completed panels. He was done by January 2021.
Did you give all of the writers any specific instruction about how they needed to adhere to a sense of place, or just let them approach it as they saw fit?
They had to commit to their neighborhood. So if they wanted some place different from what I guessed at, we had to make sure that that was going to work, making sure that we were covering a wide range of the city. So there was a little bit of back and forth and to make sure that everybody was in a good spot. And then they knew their story had to be at least based there.
So tell us about your own experience writing with a strong sense of place, and why that’s so appealing.
I just think of setting as another character in a story or a novel. I think it’s just as important as character. As a reader I find it really unnerving when any piece of fiction is set in sort of a big, could-be-anywhere location. Maybe it’s just how my brain works, a little bit creative and a little bit concrete. But I do like that concreteness. And I love research. Research is one of my favorite parts of writing.
Most of my settings are places that I’m pretty familiar with, but there’s still a lot of details about a setting that you can continue to research and make sure that you’re nailing it as best you possibly, possibly can. So to me, that’s the thrilling part of writing fiction.
We’re fortunate enough to excerpt your entire story in SunLit. “Pieces of Everyone, Everywhere” is a pretty evocative title, to say the least, and it’s based on the history of Denver’s Cheesman Park being built on a cemetery. Tell me how you came to this story.
I think a lot of people know that Cheesman was built on a cemetery, mostly a paupers’ cemetery, back in the 1870s through 1890s. I knew that about Cheesman, but I didn’t know a lot of the history of it, and I was actually researching it because it comes up in my novel that I’m working on right now.
There was a point in the 1890s where the city decided they wanted to beautify that area because there were a lot of mansions popping up, it was becoming a much more wealthy neighborhood as the city expanded out from the city center. And none of these people in the mansions wanted to be looking down on the paupers’ cemetery. So they exhumed all the graves, they notified people and said if you have relatives, get them out of there, and so some people did. But anybody who had just been abandoned, the city had to get them all out.
And I thought OK, how much creepier could that be? So that was the germ of writing that story and talking about that through a grave digger’s experience.
Was your lead character, the young woman who arrives in Denver and takes the job exhuming bodies, based on an actual figure from history?
The mortuary that hired everybody, that’s authentic. I sort of ran under the assumption that they would have had to hire a bunch of workers to do this. And they would have probably found people by just posting notices around town and putting it in newspapers, and just getting any old person who had the muscle and the willingness to do it.
Then I just sort of let my imagination go. I wanted it to be somebody who was new to Denver and was not particularly comfortable with this city yet, and wasn’t sure how they were gonna fit into this world. So it was kind of a weaving of that character’s story along with the history.
Finally, I just wanted to ask you, having done this project, if you feel like there are other Colorado locations that might lend themselves to the noir treatment.
Absolutely. You know, I think you could do a full volume of Rocky Mountain noir, and could cover a wide range of the mountain towns. I’m not sure you could do a whole volume set around any one of the towns up there because there are so many of them and they’re fairly small. But they don’t have a “Rocky Mountain Noir.”