Quill and Quire

Mary Swan

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Southern Ontario gothic

Ontario writer Mary Swan is getting a second chance at a U.S. readership this spring, as the American firm Henry Holt releases Swan’s debut novel, The Boys in the Trees. Though the book looks to be quintessential CanLit in both subject and style, it has no Canadian publisher – Holt distributor H.B. Fenn and Company will distribute the novel here.

But then, Swan has always drawn more notice south of the border, beginning when her short story “The Deep” (first published in The Malahat Review) won the 2001 O. Henry Award. “It was very interesting, actually,” says Swan. “The first thing here that came out about the O. Henry – it might have even been something in Quill & Quire – mentioned that I didn’t have an agent or anything. I didn’t hear anything from anyone in Canada.”

Not that there was complete lack of interest. The small press Porcupine’s Quill did publish The Deep as a standalone novella in 2002 and followed it up a year later with Emma’s Hands, a short-story collection. In the U.S., though, Swan signed with Random House, which issued the same work in a single volume, The Deep and Other Stories, in 2003.

Swan says Random declined to publish a follow-up, and her American agent, Dorian Karchmar at William Morris, placed The Boys in the Trees with Holt. And as for Canadian rights? “Holt very much wanted North American rights and committed to publishing aggressively in Canada, so we did not feel the need to break out those rights,” said Karchmar in an e-mail.

Holt is bringing the novel out in an original trade paper edition – “a new old idea,” in the words of her editor there, Jack Macrae. It’s an attempt to lure readers who might be disinclined to splurge on a pricey hardcover by a relative unknown, and it’s the first in a planned trade-paper-original imprint for Holt. And in Canada especially, where consumers have already been price-conscious thanks to the
exchange rate controversy, the move could pay off. (At Q&Q’s press time, Fenn’s publicity plans for the book were still “a work in progress,” but according to publicist Vimala Jeevanandam, they were to include a launch in Guelph, Ontario, and a reading at Harbourfront in Toronto. Swan is also scheduled to appear at the Halifax International Writers’ Festival in early April.)

While a Canadian publisher remains elusive, Swan has made no effort to hide the novel’s Canadian content. Set at the turn of the 20th century in small-town Ontario, The Boys in the Trees is inspired by a sensational footnote in the history of Guelph, where Swan lives – she came across the story by chance when she was working in the reference department at the University of Guelph library in 2002. (Swan stopped working there in favour of writing full-time three years ago.) “It was in 1888 or 1889,” she says. “There was a man who killed his wife and daughters and then took off to Toronto trying to kill his son, who was living there, and [the father] was arrested and brought back and executed in Guelph.”

The tragedy of Swan’s fictional Heath family is told in multiple voices, representing several people in the community. “When I started thinking about it, I started thinking about a small town and how interconnected everyone is and how events like that impact on everyone in some way,” says Swan. “Those kinds of events reverberate.”

Karchmar, who received the manuscript for The Boys in the Trees about 18 months ago, was instantly smitten. “I sent the book out in a very careful way to a specific group of editors,” she says. “All I wanted to do was find an editor and a house that would share that vision.” One of those editors was Macrae, who saw an early manuscript and made some suggestions. A revised version landed on his desk in October 2006, and he ended up buying the book. “I had such a great feeling after talking to him and hearing some suggestions that he made and the way he sort of got things,” says Swan of Macrae. “That made the decision for [going with] Holt pretty easy.” Macrae, for his part, appreciates that the novel is free of what he calls “heavy breathing,” or self-conscious authorial devices. “There’s a fierce, terrible beauty in what she’s done here,” he says.

Written over the course of about four years – it was initially supposed to be a short story – The Boys in the Trees required Swan to research some of the more macabre elements of Ontario’s history. In particular, the brutal practice of public executions – which some might find hard to even imagine at present. “Rather than just thinking of cowboy movies with somebody on a horse under a tree,” she laughs, “I had to really know how [public execution] actually worked.”