Three Questions for Claire Swinarski ’13

Claire Swinarski headshot
Photo credit: Mary Clare Lococo Photography

Name: Claire Swinarski

Title: Author of multiple award-winning books for adults and kids

Graduation year and degree: 2013 BA in Journalism and Political Science

From the first day of J202 to writing their last final paper, J-Schoolers do a lot of writing. They write news stories, research papers, advertising campaign books and everything in between. After graduation, many alums continue writing in some form or fashion, including Claire Swinarski, who has taken her writing in a different direction as an author. Her latest book, The Kate In Between, is being released May 18. We caught up with her to hear more about her book and her advice to J-Schoolers who want to do what she does.

1. When it comes to this book, what are you most proud of? 

My newest book, The Kate In Between, is a middle grade novel being published by HarperCollins this May. It’s the story of 12-year-old Kate McAllister, a Madison preteen who goes viral for a heroic act that isn’t exactly how it looks. The book really dives into the complicated dynamic of middle school friendships. It’s easy to brush off problems we faced as kids, but the truth is, our experiences in childhood can really form a lot of our identity and affect us for many years to come. I’m really energized by the way I was able to look at some tough memories and hard moments in my life and transform them into Kate’s story. I think her experience of reckoning with who she really is and what choices she wants to make will be helpful for kids going through the age of social media fame, where one viral video can have a massive impact. Kirkus called it “illuminating” and praised it highly, so I’m really proud of that, too!

2. What’s the best advice you have for a J-School student who wants to do what you do?

Being an author feels like a far away, pie-in-the-sky goal. It’s really not. It comes down to a few main things: discipline, resilience and curiosity.

First of all, anyone who wants to be an author needs to carve out the time to do it. Most writers aren’t working eight hours in a café, wearing a beret and scribbling their hearts out. They’re hustling it out with day jobs and writing in the early morning hours or late evenings. I wrote my first published novel in the mornings before my job as a marketing assistant. I was sending queries to literary agents late at night, after my kiddos had gone to bed. In short, I was working my butt off. Absolutely nothing about the life of an author will be handed to you, and you need to have enough discipline to schedule in time for writing in the margins of your day. No matter how busy you are now, you’re never going to be any less busy — life fills up. It’s about looking at your schedule and deciding on your priorities. Becoming an author was a major priority for me, so I said “no” to many social activities or a solid eight hours of sleep every night. Now, I’m fortunate that writing is my full-time job, but I’m also a part-time stay-at-home mom to three kiddos. Finding time to write still isn’t easy!

Secondly, resilience is key. The first time I applied to the J-School, I actually got denied! I made an appointment with one of the J-School advisors and he helped me see what I needed to do to get accepted the following semester (let’s just say it meant fewer trips to Wando’s and more trips to the library). It was a great lesson for me. As an author, I get rejected constantly. For every “yes” I get, I could probably tell you about at least 30 “no”s. I sent out 100 queries to literary agents and got three offers. My agent couldn’t sell the first book I wrote. And my second novel he shopped around got four offers out of 20 editors it was sent to! I can get a great review one day and an awful one the next. My book can get bought by a foreign publisher one morning and I’ll get denied a marketing opportunity in the afternoon. It’s an absolute roller coaster, and you need a thick skin and heart of iron to make it through with your dignity intact.

Lastly, and probably most importantly for an author, is that you need to have curiosity about the world around you. A lot of times, it’s suggested to “write what you know”. While I think that’s solid advice, I’d tweak it a bit to ask you “write what you love”. I grew up with a fifth grade teacher as a mom, and my house was always filled with rich, imaginative middle grade novels. Writing for kids may not seem as prestigious or fancy-pants as writing for adults, but my children’s books are my favorite things I’ve written. Stories help kids understand and process the world around them in such a unique, enjoyable way, and the fact that I can play a part in that process is something I’m eternally grateful for. So think: what do YOU love? What stories can only YOU tell? What can YOU talk about all day without growing bored? That’s where you’ll find your writing sweet spot.

3. When we say “J-School,” what do you think of?

The freezing cold Vilas classrooms—have they fixed that yet? Ha!

In all seriousness, one of my favorite classes I took during my time at UW was a history of journalism course with the late, great, Professor James Baughman. “Prof Baugh”, as we often called him, made a subject that could feel dry or dull inherently fascinating. It gave me a lot of perspective about the world of writing—that things for writers have always been hard, and that the way we tell stories is always shifting and changing. I was able to do a paper on the history of Seventeen magazine, and it was one of the most enjoyable projects I completed in four years of college. It makes me incredibly sad that future J-Schoolers won’t have the opportunity to learn from Prof Baugh, but I’m so thankful for the semester I got to spend with him.