PLA author spotlight

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Author Bryan Reardon will be signing books at the Brodart booth (#700) during this year’s Philadelphia PLA conference. Reardon’s sophomore novel, The Real Michael Swann, follows the suspenseful aftermath of a terrorist attack on American soil and its impact on a suburban family. We talked to Bryan about his inspiration for the new novel.

You said in a recent tweet that you “have always believed that the call of the artist is to exact change without anyone realizing it.” What kind of change do you think Finding Jake encouraged in readers?

Reading is such an individual experience. Give ten authors the same concept to write about and they will write ten very different stories. Although not as drastic, if you give ten readers the same book, the takeaway will vary among readers and can be very different from the message the author intended in the first place.

The easy answer to this question would be that a book about a school shooting might further open a dialogue about what I consider the most tragic disease eating away at our society. Whether we talk about guns or bullies or even the pressure that we put on our children, when facing this horror, we need to look it in the eye and open our mouths to utter the most basic truth: We allow our children to be murdered in their schools. As adults, is there any greater failure?

The arts provide a unique avenue toward change as they are meant to entertain. The more entertaining the book, the greater the audience it may reach. The challenge comes in addressing important issues without losing an audience. If themes are too obtuse, it can become a lecture. Too subtle, and they can be missed. Although, more than anything, I'm thankful if someone simply reads the book. More so if they enjoy it. My deepest truth is that I yearn to hear that someone reads it and sees something just a little differently afterward.

Finding Jake featured parallels between your life and that of your characters. What kind of parallels exist in The Real Michael Swann?

When I wrote Finding Jake, I certainly drew on aspects of my life—being a stay-at-home dad and an introvert. Those two facets predated the plot. As the story formed, the characters needed to do certain things, act certain ways, at certain times for it to work. So they are not at all real people. However, I tend to pepper real situations in to flesh the characters out. And this has led to unintended consequences. I know of at least two people that barely speak to me now. Ironically, I thought of neither when writing the novel.

For The Real Michael Swann, the core of the story comes from real-life influences. One afternoon, my wife and I stood in the Acela lounge at Penn Station in New York City and watched our train delay grow longer and longer. No trains were getting in or out of the station and the crowd grew so quickly that I felt a sudden and very real danger. I watched a man place his bag down and walk away from it. I grabbed my wife's hand and said, "We have to get out of here!" She just looked at me and shook her head. She's been married to a fiction writer for a long time. Needless to say, we stayed at the station. And I worked the incident into my next book.

What inspired The Real Michael Swann, and what do you most hope readers will take away from spending time with it?

I find that, for me, the stories that make it into a completed manuscript seem to be inspired in threes. For Finding Jake, it was stay-at-home dad, introversion, and a school shooting. For The Real Michael Swann, it was a strong and relatable female protagonist, the erosion of the American Dream, and the incident at Penn Station. When I came up with the idea of the attack on Penn Station, I couldn't get it out of my head. But it was no novel. At the same time, as someone in their mid-forties living in suburbia, I watched as so many friends and neighbors lost their jobs due to corporate downsizing. One company hit close to home. My father had worked there for over thirty years. It took care of him and my family, even through hard times. I thought this company invincible, immutable. But I watched as an activist investor tore it apart.

At the same time, Julia Swann entered the picture. She was born from my experiences talking about Rachel, Jake’s mother in Finding Jake. She grew out of a determination and need to capture the life of someone so different from me, but so similar at the same time. And, when I put her into the mix with the other two pieces, the manuscript nearly wrote itself.

When it comes to what I most hope readers will take away from the book, I hesitate answering. I do believe that a novel is a window into a world, maybe some fantastic place that can't be visited any other way. Or maybe a place that we see every day. A place so familiar that it becomes obscured by its very nature. For me, I seem to be boring deeper and deeper into what seems like an idyllic, perfect world. But if it is, why aren't people happier?

What are some of your earliest memories of visiting the library? How do you view libraries today? What do you most enjoy about interacting with librarians today?

Just thinking about libraries is like traveling through time. I close my eyes and sit in my middle school library, reading Watership Down, unable to put it down. Then I am dropped off at the local public library, spending the day there by myself working on a research project, surrounded by strangers and feeling so at peace. A blink later, I'm riding the elevator to the fifth floor of the Theodore Hesburgh Library at the University of Notre Dame, sitting at the same desk night after night, working harder than I ever had before. All have something in common, a feeling of belonging. A sense of community that nothing can duplicate.

I love libraries and librarians. Publishing is a hard business. After the release of Finding Jake, I believed I had allies in all the librarians I met. Often, that feeling helped carry me through some of the tougher times, the times when insecurity can seem to erase words from the page before they can even be written. To this day, I feel very grateful.

How has visiting libraries and meeting your fans impacted your creative process?

I had an event soon after Finding Jake came out at the library in Wilmington, Delaware, my hometown. My mother, in her excitement, reached out to my high school English teacher. To my immense surprise, she showed up that night. For a second, I thought that maybe I had been a better student than I thought. But then she caught me in the hallway and said, "I remember your class. It had some real talent. I could have seen a couple of them writing a book [she even named names] . . . just not you." In her defense, I tended to do better in math class.

Maybe that interaction points out what I have found to be the truth of writing: You can always improve. Sometimes it is great to hear a reader say that they loved the book. Confidence is certainly important. But true improvement comes from the other side. When someone throws a thoughtful critique your way. Growth blooms from those words more than any others. The opportunity to come out into the community and meet people that love books, particularly in library settings, has provided me with more education than any class I have ever taken.

What are you most looking forward to about this year's TLA conference?

This year's TLA conference will be my first time out and about since I started to write The Real Michael Swann. This profession can be so cloistered, which I love, but I cherish the interaction that comes when a book nears release. And I feel like I couldn't be starting in a better, safer place. Libraries are a community of people who love books as much as I do. And who share that love with everyone, no matter who they are or where they live or what they think.

Stop by Booth #700 to meet Bryan Friday, March 23 at 9:30a.m.