The first thing you may want to know about Linda Keir is that… it’s not her real name. In fact, Linda Keir is a pseudonym for two writers, Linda Hull and Keir Graff, whose bio on the book jacket of their new novel, The Swing of Things, specifies that the authors “are married…but not to each other.”
Married or no, the writing duo took a gamble in choosing what could be seen as a controversial topic for their first collaboration. The Swing of Things tells the story of married couple Jayne and Eric, who despite of loving each other and doting on their young daughter, feel that their relationship has become stale.
When Theo and Mia Winters move into the neighborhood and confess to Eric and Jayne that they’re swingers, Jayne begins to consider that perhaps this is what her marriage needs. After laying down some basic ground rules, Eric and Jayne enter the unpredictable world of “The Lifestyle,” not imagining for a minute the tumultuous consequences that their choice will have on their marriage and their family.
In a phone interview, Hull and Graff discuss the intricate world of the swinging lifestyle and how they decided to write a novel about it.
How did your writing career begin?
Hull: I never thought of myself as a author, but I was always a very avid reader as a kid and all the way through school. I wanted to be an English major in college, but my father told me, “You need a job.” So I became an Economics major instead.
It was a horrible career choice, but the second I graduated college I started taking writing classes and tinkering around with writing. I ended up starting in earnest, and I published my first book when my older son was in college. So it took about…a dozen years.
Graff: I was making little books when I was in grade school and I ambitiously started writing a mystery when I was in high school. After that, I was self publishing books at Kinko’s and giving copies to my friends. Writing was something I always wanted to do, but also I had very little notion of how to do it as a living once I got out of college.
I didn’t get my first book deal until I started working as an editorial assistant at Booklist magazine, where I still work today as executive editor. I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to become a writer, I was just always doing it.
Your bio says that you both are married, but not to each other. How did you meet and what prompted the decision to collaborate on a book?
Hull: And are we really swingers, right? (laughs). Just to clarify, we are not. We’re very happily married to other people and we’re great writing partners. We met at a writing conference in 2011 and the big story we tell people is that we were chatting and I mentioned to him that I had come up with this idea to write about swingers.
But I tend to write more dark comedy, and I couldn’t really figure out how to approach it because it seemed like a very serious topic. Keir instead writes fairly serious stuff and he wanted to write more humorous things. But he looked at me and said, “I’ve been wanting to write a book like that.” And this agent who is a friend of ours said “You guys should write this together.”
Graff: I remember that I was blushing furiously even with the thought that this was a topic I wanted to write about, which shows that I’m certainly not capable of being a swinger (laughs). I’ve always done creative collaborations because you find that good stuff happens when people generate ideas together. Not only was it an appealing idea, but to be honest it seemed like the perfect commercial hook: a man and a woman writing a book about swingers.
What followed was a series of conversations over several months, just trying to plot the story, coming up with the characters and trying to make sure we knew that we agreed in matters of tone, theme and plot so we wouldn’t wonder off from the path.
When you’re writing with somebody else, you really have to have a good road map. Linda was in Denver and I was in Chicago, so we would take turns working on the file and doing the edits. She wrote the wife and I wrote the husband so we didn’t worry about constructing sentence by sentence. This helped us bring the voices into harmony.
Hull: I get ideas in very weird ways. The first idea for this book was because some friends of ours moved near Highlands Ranch (Denver), which was considered to be the swinging capital of the U.S. Now my friends are the furthest thing from swingers that you could imagine. I saw the wife about six months after they moved there, and she told me: “Linda, they’re swinging in my neighborhood,” and I thought “Oh my God, that’s a book!”
I thought that it was such a weird reality that you’re so forward in your life that you’re taking turns having sex with the guy that lives up the street. It got more and more fascinating as I did more research about swinging and swingers and it’s something that is actually pretty popular these days.
Graff: I got interested in the subject because I had a read a book called The Lifestyle by Terry Gould, which is a non-fiction exploration about the swinging lifestyle, and then I found the documentary of the same name. I’ve always been interested in sub-cultures like gamblers, pool players and con artists, and to me in some ways, swinging was just another subculture with its own set of rules and codes.
Obviously sex is at the heart of it, but what was really fascinating was the fact that the people involved didn’t match my expectations. The stereotype of swingers is often men with slicked back hair wearing gold chains and women wearing dresses that showed a lot of cleavage or something. And for the most part, they were regular people, generally empty-nesters who look like any one of us. It helped me see them much more objectively.
One of the things that I found out was that when swingers get together for a night of wife-swapping one imagines them having sex all night, but that isn’t really the case. These are middle-aged adults that don’t have the stamina to do that, so they talk about the food they brought or the snacks. That made me want to write about it in a more humorous fashion, but not cruel or unkind.
Linda was the one that accurately pointed out that this was a serious novel about marriage, a couple who is crisis and are trying to fix things. And that was the key to it, because that’s the reason a lot of people are drawn to the lifestyle. A sort of having it all, a great sex life, a great marriage, and the question we had to answer was if our characters could accomplish that.
Do you think there will be readers that relate to Eric and Jayne?
Hull: I got a call from a friend of mine the other day who was at one of our book signings and he said, “Ok I’m done with your book and I want to know if it has caused any spats between couples.” Apparently my friend had a huge fight with his wife because he mentioned it sounded like fun and she told him that they could get a divorce and he could go have his fun. So the answer is yes, the book is causing discussions.
Keir doesn’t like to read reviews, but I do because I like to see how our book filters through people. I read one review that said that the book was so true, that swinging ruined marriages and it had ruined this person’s relationship. It was very clear that she had suffered.
Graff: A friend of mine who is also a writer read an early draft, and said that he felt that we were too hard on our characters, that the message was a little moralistic. But like the review Linda mentioned, you can have many different reactions.
Our editor said, for example, that the book spoke to her because of challenges she had experienced strictly on a relationship level, which was great to hear. Because yes, there’s sex, but we didn’t want the book to be limited to just that perception.
What was the most difficult part of writing this novel?
Graff: I think that in the very beginning it was a challenge for different reasons. Linda said that she felt very exposed in sharing her first rough drafts with me, and I definitely felt the same way about sharing the first sex scene I wrote. But I really have to stretch a little bit to find something that was really hard or difficult because it has been a great partnership.
I think the real challenge was living in different time zones and different cities. We both have families and just finding the right time to work together has been hard. But professionally, it hasn’t been a challenge.
Hull: We had a perfect writing relationship and get along really well. Something about our backgrounds make us have a similar view of things, we share the same work ethics. I think Keir is a much better atmospheric and descriptive writer than I am and can write much faster than I can. But we were able to check our egos at the door and just have a good writing partnership.
Were the secondary characters, Mia and Theo, more difficult to write than Jayne and Eric?
Graff: That’s an interesting question. For me, Mia was somewhat difficult to get inside her head. Her role in her marriage with Theo was only clarified in the final draft of the novel, and for the reader it’s only revealed at a very late stage. I don’t think it hurt being in Mia and Theo’s head because they certainly are aloof and enigmatic. They don’t make themselves available to Eric and Jayne, although they pretend that they do.
Hull: Mia was a challenge, but Jayne is a character that is wound up so tight that it’s hard to get easily into her head. She’s undoubtedly obsessed with Theo, her whole motivation for swinging is not to have sex with a lot of other people but rather an excuse to be able to have sex with Theo. She wants permission. How much does Jayne reveal to herself or how well does she know herself? I was never really sure, and that was a challenge.
The ending leaves a lot of questions. Was this the conclusion you envisioned all along?
Hull: Yes, that was going to be the ending all along. I think that sometimes there are unexpected consequences for the things that we do and our behaviors and this is not moralizing, it’s a fact. But we did dial back certain things a bit.
What are your future projects? Another novel together?
Graff: Our next book is wrapped up and it will be published tentatively in August of 2019. We wrote it in 7 months, which was not easy but less of a challenge than we had anticipated.
Hull: The book is called Drowning with Others. It’s the story of a couple, Andy and Ian, that meet in 9th grade at a boarding school outside Chicago. They get married, and they’re together for twenty years and have three kids.
The only rift in their relationship is something that happened in their senior year, when Andy falls in love with her poetry teacher and breaks up with Ian. She begins what she believes is a secret affair with this teacher, who one day just disappears.
Twenty years later, Andy and Ian’s daughter is a senior at the same school, and the teacher’s remains are suddenly found at a nearby lake. Andy and Ian then begin to suspect that their whole marriage has been based on a lie.
Their daughter’s journalism class class begins investigating what could have happened, so this couple starts their own investigation together and separately to find the truth before their daughter and her class do. There’s hardly any sex scenes in this one though (laughs).