The Bookseller caught me off guard. Reminiscent of one of my favorite movies, Sliding Doors, this story follows a woman in 1960s Denver who moves between her reality and an alternate world, and leaves the reader pondering the big question, What if?
By day, it is 1962 and Kitty Miller is a single woman running a bookshop with her friend, Frieda. By night, it is 1963 and Kitty is Katharyn, married to a gentle soul named Lars, and mother to three. It becomes increasingly difficult to discern which scenario is reality, which is the dream.
In The Bookseller, books from the era are mentioned and help to situate the book in the early 1960s: Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, and Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Also relevant to the time period is the talk of mid-century design. Cynthia Swanson is not only an author but a mid-century modern designer. Cynthia has been kind enough to prepare a guest on being both an author and a designer:
Storytelling and Design: How Do They Relate?
In The Bookseller, the main character’s husband Lars is an architect. My choice of profession for Lars was intentional; although I am a writer by trade, I’ve always had a passion for design as well. Writing about a fictional architect reminded me how closely design and storytelling are related.
They both require thinking from another’s point of view. To create an effective plan, designers need to consider how others will use a space. They need to consider their clients’ lifestyles and routines. By the same token, when writing fiction, authors must embed their own mindfulness into characters. Authors need to pretend they’re walking in their characters’ shoes.
In several scenes in The Bookseller, the main character, Kitty – who in her real life is a never-married, childless bookstore owner but in her dream-life is married to Lars and goes by her given name, Katharyn – walks through the home Lars has built for them as if she is seeing it for the first time. Because of this ambiguity, I found myself, early in the writing process, sketching the house’s basic layout. I did this so I could accurately propel Katharyn through the space. I had to ensure that when she turned left down a hallway, she was going in a direction that would get her to another room. I had to think about what she would see when she looked out the picture window in the living room. I needed to know how far away other characters’ voices would sound if they were in the kitchen when Katharyn was in the bedroom.
When done well, both contain only the most essential details. You know those design shows on TV – the ones with “before” and “after” shots? Stunning transformations, right? It’s true that stylish lighting, gleaming countertops, and shiny new fixtures can change a room from disaster to divine space.
But the element that makes the most difference? Lack of clutter. The “before” pictures usually contain the day-to-day clutter of living: piles of papers on every surface, heaps of toys and games (with all their tiny parts) scattered around the floor, clothes jammed in closets and stuffed into dresser drawers that won’t close.
The “after” pictures never show any of that. Good designers provide functional storage solutions. But the real work comes later, from the homeowners – keeping their clutter at bay on an ongoing basis.
The same is true for good writing. Early drafts might contain pages of ultimately unnecessary details. Who cares where the characters went on vacation ten years ago, if it’s not vital to the story? Does it matter if the dress she wore today was blue or green?
In a preliminary draft – at least, for me – there are particulars that can be removed later. I still know these things; keeping them in the back of my mind helps me define who the characters are. But the final draft only needs the details that propel the story forward and provide adequate information for readers to create a picture in their own minds of what the characters and setting look like. As in thoughtful design, in a dexterously-written story, the details are sparse, but each has meaning.
I love how writing The Bookseller allowed me to combine my passions for fiction and design. Just as Lars thought about the elements that would make his and Katharyn’s home both functional and beautiful, I endeavored to do the same in this book. As I put myself into these characters’ shoes, I sought the exact details that would make the story both pleasing and convincing.
I am giving away one copy of The Bookseller (sorry, US residents only). Simply leave a comment. One winner will be chosen at random, Monday, March 9.