Linda Keir, the author of the novel The Swing of Things, is really two people: novelist Linda Joffe Hull and middle-grade author Keir Graff. Graff’s writing career has been multifaceted: As a freelance writer, he once wrote about Dr. Pepper knock-offs. In his first mystery novel, he sought to “deconstruct the mystery” by never solving the mystery. (He soon discovered mystery lovers weren’t really into that.) In the 1990s, he wrote over ten screenplays that garnered interest, but no sales. Finally, he found his groove writing crime novels and middle-grade children’s books. Writing about swinging, however, was a first for him.
His latest book, The Swing of Things, co-authored with Linda Joffe Hull, tells the story of Jayne and Eric Larsen, a suburban couple seeking to spice up their marriage by exploring the swingers’ scene in their neighborhood.
I was intrigued by the novel’s subject matter, and I also wanted to hear about the process of
co-writing a novel over distance. Graff lives in Chicago. Hull lives in Denver. At Chicago’s Writers Workspace, I asked Graff about the experience of writing with a co-author a thousand miles away. We talked about the challenges of writing and selling The Swing of Things, and what happens when a sure-sell doesn’t sell.
The Rumpus: I was intrigued when I heard about this book because you’re a novelist and a children’s book author, so writing about swingers was quite a departure. What should I call you, for the purposes of this interview?
Keir Graff: I’m Keir Graff, and I write with my [writing] partner Linda Joffe Hull as Linda Keir. It’s a sort of an open-secret pseudonym. I’m keeping this book a little bit at arm’s length, because I write for kids. But if someone wants to do a little googling, it’s not going to be hard to figure out.
Rumpus: Let’s start with your current work, The Swing of Things. Your co-writer, Linda Joffe Hull, lives in Colorado. How did you two meet?
Graff: I met Linda in Chicago at the Love Is Murder conference in 2011. I met her on the last night, in the bar. She was on her way out, we met, and she friended me on Facebook. Then we kept running into each other at mystery writers’ conventions.
Rumpus: That’s one of those heartening, “I met them at a writers’ conference” stories. How did your writing partnership come about? And how did you know you would work well together? There’s a difference between some unknown talent saying, “Hey, I want to write a book with you,” and knowing you can work with a solid writer.
Graff: It was really a moment at conference. We were standing in the book-selling room at Bouchercon in St. Louis. I cannot remember how it came up; she might have been telling the story of her friend who moved to a suburb where there is swinging, so she let slip that she kind of wanted to write about swinging but she hadn’t been able to get the tone right, and I said, “That’s weird, because I’m fascinated with the subject, and I couldn’t find the right tone either.” Neither of us—we always state this very clearly—neither of us engage in that lifestyle or have tried it. It would be a better story if we did.
Rumpus: Agreed! I was a little disappointed to hear you weren’t writing from first-person experience. Anyway, continue. It was sort of—
Graff: —it was a meet cute, really! “Oh, you want to write about swingers? Me, too!” We happened to be standing next to an agent and friend of ours, Amy Moore Benson, who said, “You should write about it together!,” we just laughed it off, and there was this moment like, “No that would be too weird,” but as we continued to run into each other and have more conversations, it kind of came up again, and was like, “Why not?” It was a commercially great idea to have a man and a woman writing a book about a man and a woman who swing.
Partly we were interested in the subject, partly we were just curious. I’ve always loved collaboration. It was so exciting, because I love the energy. You feed off other people’s ideas, other people bring great things to the table… all that stuff is very exciting to me. I think, too, we had a silly notion that it might be less work, which is certainly not the case. I think at first we thought, “If we each write half the book, we’ll be done in no time!”
We read each other’s work and determined we both could write.
Rumpus: Probably a good thing to check on.
Graff: Yes. Her work was much more genre-appropriate. She’s a great observer of people. I learned from her books that she’s a very good plotter. We suspected we had complementary strengths, so we decided to go for it.
The Big Bang (her first book), a suburban satire, is funny and very much captures the kind of people we were going to be writing about in The Swing of Things. She knows the type of people we were going to be writing about more than I do. It’s sort of a different world.
Rumpus: Tell me about the research you and Linda did. If neither of you were “in the lifestyle,” as they say, how were you able to write about a group of swingers?
Graff: My research consisted of reading The Lifestyle by Terry Gould and viewing the documentary of the same name, and a lot of Internet searches, everything from articles and blog posts to web pages and actual swingers’ listings. I was amazed to discover how easy it was for poly-curious people to meet up with others, even in the Chicago area! Linda took the research to the next level, actually visiting a swingers’ club (as an observer only) and talking to some of the participants. She’s also been the source of a lot of second- and third-hand anecdotes as she seems to run into a lot more people that are in the lifestyle or know someone who is. The Denver metro area is reputed to be one of the nation’s hot spots, after all!
Rumpus: Tell me more about the writing process, post-research.
Graff: We spent seven to nine months on the phone outlining, because with two authors, we couldn’t just make it up as we went along.
Rumpus: Nuts and bolts, please. How did you construct an outline across distance?
Graff: We used Word files in Dropbox. We don’t use track changes because we do so many revisions of each other’s work, and track changes just gets gnarly. We’ll put bold-face notes to each other when we want to change something.
We spoke on the phone frequently for all that time, two to three times a week—evenings, weekends, sometimes during my lunch hour at work, and we went over the outline, again and again and again, before we did any writing.
Rumpus: How many pages did the outline total?
Graff: Fifty pages.
Rumpus: Would you recommend outlining to fiction writers?
Graff: I’m a firm believer in outlining. In part because the one time I tried to write a novel without any kind of outline, I got fifty thousand words in, and that’s where that novel remains. I have not returned to that novel.
My outlines vary. I used to outline on index cards, like screenwriters do, put them up on the wall, because you can move things around, you can color-code scenes. That sort of helps you get a sense of how it’s flowing. Most recently, my outline has been a screenplay-style treatment that I use to sell the book, and then I work from that, because it lays out all the scenes, just in shorthand form.[For The Swing of Things] this was really an outline-outline, with Section One, Section Two, etc. We numbered the scenes, and they would break into these particular chapters. We knew right away we were going to alternate points of view, between the husband and the wife—I was writing the husband, she was writing the wife. That was important, because we couldn’t conceive of how we would write every line together. It just wouldn’t work.
After we had the outline, it was time to start drafting. Linda says that that was worse for her than sharing a (written) sex scene with me. Her first drafts are very stream-of-consciousness and very rough; she just goes over them again and again and again. And I have the freelancer mentality that I’m trying to create clean copy, right off the bat, mostly because I have no time to write. I have about an hour to write, weekdays. Weekends, I have a little more, so I trained myself somewhere along the way to write pretty polished first drafts, which she told me she found intimidating. I think it’s just a different process. I might write really clean first drafts, but if I run into problems with my story, I have problems fixing it, whereas she’s very intuitive, like, “What if this happens here?”
Rumpus: I imagine that’s one of the benefits of having a writing partner.
Graff: There’s so many benefits like that. You have a built-in sounding board all the time. If you’re having a bad day, there’s somebody to pick you up a little bit—we definitely took turns doing that for each other. We psyched each other up, we talked each other out of trees, we commiserated. We helped each other solve problems.
Rumpus: From start to finish—from when you agreed to work together to publication date, how long was that?
Graff: Six years.
Rumpus: It seems most writers these days aren’t willing to wait even two years to get a book sold. But for two successful, well-established writers like yourself and Linda, the writing and publishing process takes time. Tell me about the selling process and any obstacles along the way.
Graff: When I met Linda, I was between books and between agents. She said, “This is amazing synchronicity, my agent might be perfect for you because he represents mostly adult fiction, but he also has a few very successful middle-grade authors.” And that was exactly what I needed, because I do both. Josh Getzler, who was her agent and is now my agent, was really excited about the book I was writing with Linda. He was very in-the-loop during our writing process, he read drafts, he helped us shape it, and when we were ready to go, he did what every writer dreams of. He took it to top editors at top houses and said, “This is going to be something big, and you’re going to want to get in on this.” Linda and I were daring to believe, “Could this be it? Could this be the big one?” Then they all passed.
Rumpus: Were you given any indication as to why every editor passed?
Graff: We heard lots of different things—you always look for commonalities to find, “What’s the problem with it?” One very respected editor said “I’m afraid I may sound like a prude but it’s just not for me.” You want to work with someone who is passionate about it, who is a fan, who wants to do the book. We heard other people say other things, like, “It’s too long,” “It’s too short,” “I don’t like the third act,” but the recurring theme was, “We don’t know where it fits on the [bookstore] shelf.” Sex was so central to the theme of the book—swinging—that they couldn’t get their heads around it.
We did another round of submissions. We had somebody say, “If you make it more domestic-suspense, I think I can sell it.”
Rumpus: This is what you called “Gone Girl-ing” the manuscript.
Graff: We thought that was a revision we could see trying. We did a whole revision for this person and they couldn’t sell it, and they were unsuccessful, and that was a real gut-punch.
Rumpus: How long did that revision take?
Graff: Around five months or so, ballpark. It was a significant rewrite. All in all, this book went through a half-dozen serious drafts.
Rumpus: What difficulties did you run into writing with a partner?
Graff: We write at different speeds, which was a challenge at times. I write quickly, and Linda has always written more slowly. I think she would say in the past she might get blocked, but I wouldn’t want to write too far ahead of her in the outline. We wanted to be close to each other in the timeline so we would have the same momentum, but it didn’t always work out.
Rumpus: You and Linda have already written a second book together. Tell me a little about it. Is “swinging” your brand now?
Graff: [Laughs] We’re thinking “marriage” is our brand now. Our second book, which also features a married couple, has almost no sex in it. In fact, Linda wrote a sex scene, and our editor took it out because she thought it was gratuitous.
Photograph of Keir Graff © Zachary James Johnston.