MFA alumna Swati Avasthi elevates the young adult novel
Swati Avasthi (MFA 2010) immigrated with her parents to Albuquerque from India when she was one. By five, she knew she wanted to be a writer. "I read Little House in the Big Woods, and I wanted to be just like Laura," she explains, laughing, in an interview in Lind Hall. "Which I now think is hysterical. She was a pioneer! I'm an immigrant."
Let's leave aside the question of whether those two nouns are closer than they appear. The little Swati wrote and wrote until, at 16, she realized, she says, "Oh God, I'm going to have to make money." And there the tale took a circuitous turn into theater, in which she majored at the University of Chicago and made a living afterward, and then into the law. Working for her masters in criminal justice at night, she spent three years coordinating a domestic violence legal clinic. She moved with her husband to Minneapolis after getting a scholarship to the University of Minnesota Law School.
"Then I found out I was pregnant," Avasthi says with a smile. "I took a two-year leave of absence, thinking I'd go back . . . ." And she started writing again. Another baby came. Law school was still out. "I spent five years writing from nine at night until one in the morning on a fantasy novel . . . that is awful." She makes a face. "It's the novel I learned to write on."
When the youngest child went to kindergarten, it looked like law school was finally in the works. Avasthi was on her computer applying to do the LSAT, when the phone rang. She had won a Loft Mentor Series award, in which emerging Minnesota writers work intensively with nationally acclaimed writers. "It was one of those great moments in life," she says. "I went, 'Okay, I'm not doing this JD after all.'"
Instead she wrote a novel about a young man named Jace, a smart, passionate, and sarcastic 16-year-old who gets kicked out of the family home after finally hitting his abusive father. Split, which was published by Knopf in her third year in the MFA program, is surprising in all sorts of ways, not least the sure adolescent tone of the protagonist. Avasthi has no brothers, only sisters. She got into the part, she says, by walking around the house acting in character. As she noted on writer Holly Cupala's blog, "Once I went grocery shopping as Jace. I came home with Oreos and Fritos. My kids were so grateful."
The theater training was not in vain. Nor the legal experience. Avasthi has described how the seed of the story came from an interview at her legal clinic, in which a mother detailed harrowing abuse while her boy and girl listened alongside her. Asked if they should leave, the woman shrugged and explained that they were present for the violence. "What surprised me was that I was mad at the mom," Avasthi relates. "And I was pretty ashamed of that. I knew better than to blame the victims. But it wasn't really until that moment that I understood how debilitating abuse was, that we can't protect our kids.
"I kept thinking about what it would be like for the boy, what it would be like to have a role model that no one would want to be like. I feel like the mapping of voice for girls as a victim has been pretty well done. Ultimately abuse affects boys too, and I don't really like the fact that as a society we frame domestic violence as a women's issue."
Avasthi came to the Creative Writing Program with a draft of Split, hoping to work with novelists and story writers Charles Baxter and Julie Schumacher (Minnesota Book Award winner for younger reader novel Black Box). Professor Schumacher's final recommendation for Split was to cut 50 pages, which at the time felt drastic. Now she credits Schumacher for teaching her how to dig to the story's essential core.
Professor Baxter's role was less direct but just as integral. "A story I'd been working on was too imitative of a specific graphic novel story," she remembers. "When I realized that, I put it aside. Then I was sitting in Charlie's class, and one of the things he talks about a lot is this concept of making it a problem for the story and not with the story. And I thought, 'What if I gave this problem, of the story being trite, to my character?' Which then brought in this whole idea of using the graphic novel within the text. She loves graphic novels, so she likes to think of herself within one. That was the impetus for the second novel."
Bidden, as it is provisionally titled, has been submitted to Knopf. Professor Schumacher claims it's even better than Split. In a delightful bit of historical revision, the second novel includes a character from Avasthi's shelved fantasy novel. "He's been recycled," she reveals with a wide grin.
But why two books now in the young adult fiction mode? "I think that plot has become a dirty word in adult literary fiction," she notes carefully. "I think that that sacrifices readers. Good YA is really story driven. I started reading YA when my kids were little." She laughs. "They're so much easier to read.
"The first YA book I happened to pick up was Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, which has won every award and is this incredibly groundbreaking book. And I just fell into it!"
Shades of another Minnesota immigrant who wrote "juveniles," yes, Laura Ingalls Wilder.