Lisa Lutz: “We’re all complicit in toxic behavior”

An interview with the author of "The Swallows."

Lisa Lutz’s new suspense novel, The Swallows, is a cunning, vicious story about the sexual politics of an East Coast residential prep school, one so highly readable you’re likely to, yes, gulp it down.

The students of Stonebridge Academy are at war over a game a clique of ruling-class boys has been playing for years. The girls are stirred to revenge, but watch out for the adults, so-called, who are likely to make things worse. Lutz is known for her subversively madcap Spellman family novels, but The Swallows is its own rare bird, a grown-up novel about youth, an enjoyable story about a distasteful situation. You will laugh, you’ll cringe. You’ll reconsider sending your kids to boarding school.

I talked to Lutz by email about the origins of the novel, toxic behavior, writing funny, and cover art that keeps giving.

Lori Rader-Day:

Where did this story start for you? An image, a character, etc…?

Lisa Lutz:

It’s all a bit foggy now, but I think the idea came to me around 2014/2015: a gender war in a private school. I knew that it would be sparked by some social/sexual power struggle and that a teacher would further incite the student response. I didn’t have specific characters in mind or know how I would tackle the story until I gave it a few false starts. Eventually, I landed on four narrators, and that felt right to me. I don’t outline extensively before I write. But I do have a vague sense of the emotional arc of the story. I write from that place and work out the structure as I go along. Each book feels like I’ve never done this before and I’m figuring it out as I go along.

Lori Rader-Day:

You wrote The Swallows, a story about female rage, during a pretty intense time. Was writing this book cathartic in any way? Should we all try it?

Lisa Lutz:

It seems like it would, right? Maybe at first it helped channel my rage, but ultimately it just fed the flame. It’s possible that any book I wrote during this time would have turned into the focus of my fury, but I think it might have been better to do something that completely took me away from the world I live in. It might have been a good time to work on a serial killer novel.

Lori Rader-Day:

Were there any stories in the news or other influences out in the crazy world right now getting you worked up to write The Swallows?

Lisa Lutz:

I don’t like outside influences — at least not direct, tangible ones. Certainly, the outside world influences my writing, but I want my brain to be beholden to nothing. That said, I did read up on some private school scandals that started to come to light around 2007 or so. It was mostly to confirm that what happened at Stonebridge Academy could happen in real life. Turns out that much worse has happened and is still happening, yet some people have found the story unrealistic. I have to say, that makes me insane.

Lori Rader-Day:

You have several protagonists telling us the story of what happens at Stonebridge, and they don’t all agree on how to feel about what’s happening there and what to do — or about how things go. Why did you make the choice to tell so many sides to the story?

Lisa Lutz:

The story is really all about point of view. How we’re not seeing things the same way — there’d be no #metoo if the people involved saw things the same way. The Swallows is partly about how we’re all complicit in toxic behavior. Adults share some responsibility, as do the students, male and female.

Lori Rader-Day:

You’re known for your comedic series about the Spellmans, and while The Swallows was called “wickedly funny” by no less than Megan Abbott, it’s not comedy. Compare writing comedy to writing a book like The Swallows for us where does that decision get made? How does your writing process compare, writing one or the other? 

Lisa Lutz:

I like all things I write to have comedic elements. Whether something is considered a comedy or not depends on the how prominent those elements are, the overall tone, and sometimes the reader. Lots of people read and liked all the Spellman books, but didn’t think they were all that funny; some readers found that family deeply disturbing. I have a flexible relationship with humor in my books. I felt like The Swallows needed more humor than, say, The Passenger, because I was dealing with an uncomfortable topic. There will always be people who think humor undercuts the message, that it somehow suggests the story doesn’t have as much depth. Those people are wrong.

Ultimately, I don’t see a huge difference between writing an aggressively comedic novel versus one that uses humor more tactically. No matter what, I’m trying to tell a story that feels meaningful to me.

Lori Rader-Day:

Your cover art is the best I think I’ve ever seen. Authors don’t get much of a say usually — any stories you want to tell about this process for The Swallows?

Lisa Lutz:

I simply adore the book jacket. It’s probably the best book jacket I’ll ever have. I can’t imagine loving one more. I didn’t have any say on the art. I fought for the title, assuming we’d go with a bird, and I had a feeling that would work, but I couldn’t have anticipated what Emily Osbourne, the cover artist, would do. There’s a lot more going on than first meets the eye.

The Swallows
By Lisa Lutz
Ballantine Books
Published August 13, 2019

Lisa Lutz is the New York Times bestselling, Alex Award–winning author of the Spellman Files series, as well as the novels Heads You Lose (with David Hayward), How to Start a Fire, and The Passenger. She was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel (for Curse of the Spellmans). She has also written for film and TV, including HBO’s The Deuce.

Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar® Award-nominated author of Under a Dark Sky, The Day I Died, Little Pretty Things, and The Black Hour. She lives in Chicago, where she co-chairs the mystery readers' conference Murder and Mayhem in Chicago. Her next novel, The Lucky One, is out from Harper Collins in February.

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