Home Atlanta News Author Christopher Swann digs into a lethal “hot mess” in “Never Go Home”

Author Christopher Swann digs into a lethal “hot mess” in “Never Go Home”

by Atlanta Business Journal

In his three previous novels of literary suspense, Christopher Swann writes from the point of view of an affable, slightly hapless everyman who gets caught up in ever-spiraling life-or-death circumstances. Think Alfred Hitchcock, for the post-#MeToo era. 

A different kind of character emerged in his second novel, Never Turn Back, and she resonated with readers, who clamored for more. Susannah Faulkner is a vaguely Sapphic and charmingly lethal “hot mess” to root for. A trauma survivor motivated by vengeance, she narrates his latest, Never Go Home, while cheerfully meting out mayhem, and wisecracks, to various gangbangers in a storyline paced like a rush of amphetamine. It is all-consuming and perfect for a beach read or a long plane ride. Expect even more from “Suzie” in the future — just don’t cross her. 

Swann earned a Ph.D. in creative writing from Georgia State University. He has been a Townsend Prize finalist, longlisted for the Southern Book Prize, and received the Georgia Author of the Year award in 2022. Never Go Home is his fourth novel.

We caught up with Swann, who teaches at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Atlanta, to talk about his whirlwind of a writing career. 

ArtsATL: How did you get into this woman’s offbeat head?

Christopher Swann: Suzie Faulkner first appears as a ten-year-old girl in Never Turn Back, my second novel and the first of the Faulkner Family thriller series. The very first scene I wrote with her was a family dinner, and Suzie was supposed to eat her peas. In my head, Suzie said, “Nah.” I said, “I’m the author, you’re eating the peas.” Suzie smiled and said, “Fine.” On the page, she ate the peas. And the scene died. It just died. I couldn’t make anything happen. So I said to Suzie, “Okay, you don’t have to eat the peas.” And she said, “Thank you.” Once I wrote the scene with Suzie refusing the peas, the writing went smoothly.

Suzie is the polar opposite of me in many ways, so for me she is a lot of fun to write. I tend to be diplomatic and don’t like conflict. Suzie struggles with her filter and doesn’t give a rat’s behind who you are or what you think, and she also has no problem using violence if she thinks it’s justified. If I’m writing a scene with Suzie in it and I’m not sure what to do, I turn the scene over to her.

I’m also very aware that, as a middle-aged straight guy, I have to take care writing a 20-something woman who is . . . let’s call her sexually fluid. There’s been a serious debate for a few years now in the LGBTQ+ community about “bisexual” and “pansexual” and the differences between the two terms, and as Suzie doesn’t label herself, I won’t, either. But I feel very strongly that I have to write Suzie as a woman, not a “boy with boobs,” if that makes sense — I have to imagine the world through her eyes, not through a thinly veiled version of my own eyes. Writing Suzie is a deliberate choice and a challenge, one I enjoy taking.

ArtsATL: Your well-rounded characters navigate such serpentine, loop-de-loop plots. What is more important to you — character or plot? How do they serve each other?

Swann: If you can write a character that readers like, or connect with, or at least want to follow to see what the character does next and what happens to him or her, then you can write any kind of story you like. Plot is largely about what the character does and how the character reacts. There are only a handful of different plots in the world, but every human being is unique, so I think character is most important.

However, plot is a close second, especially when it comes to thrillers or suspense or crime stories. In creative writing programs, I was taught how to write good sentences and create compelling characters on the page, but I remember a classmate — a very good writer who I admired — complaining that she needed to get her characters off the couch. They sat and talked a lot in her fiction, and it was all good, but she felt she had to make them go do something. I’ve always like writing stories where things happen. It doesn’t have to involve someone with a gun, and I can overthink and overcomplicate things, but characters need to do something.

Christopher Swann
Swann is the English department chair at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School. (Photo by Kathy Ferrell Swann)

ArtsATL: Do you use outlines?

Swann: I like stories that contain mysteries, and I found out writing my first book that at some point, a writer needs to know where he or she is going. Poorly written mysteries tend to be either really obvious (the butler did it) or to have solutions that are completely out of left field (aliens did it). I need to have enough of a rough outline of where I want the story to go, with certain scenes along the way, so I have some direction. But I don’t want to outline too much because then I’m afraid I’d give away the solution to the mystery too early. I try to trust my characters and think about what they would do.

ArtsATL: The Stone Mountain scenes evoke Hitchcock’s use of Mount Rushmore. How does the city of Atlanta inform and inspire your work?

Swann: I moved to Atlanta in 1988, and I still remember the first time I drove down I-85 into the city. I was 18 and had traveled and been to New York City and Washington, D.C. and Bermuda. But when I first saw the Atlanta city skyline — and the five or six lanes of traffic on I-85 — I was both intimidated and excited. Atlanta is a sprawling city. It has a small, tight grid of streets downtown, but a road map of the rest of the metro area looks like a plate of spaghetti noodles.

Aside from the traffic, I truly enjoy Atlanta. The city is really a collection of lots of neighborhoods. Never Go Home is set entirely in Atlanta. Sandy Springs, Buckhead, Midtown, Doraville, the industrial parks near Six Flags, and Stone Mountain are all significant settings in the novel. The climax is set on Stone Mountain. Uncle Gavin’s bar Ronan’s is located where Eleventh Street Pub is in Midtown. 

Suzie Faulkner first appears as a 10-year-old girl in Swann’s novel “Never Turn Back.”

ArtsATL: Who or what are some of your influences? Was Susannah Faulkner inspired at all by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? 

Swann: When I was 12 or 13, my grandfather gave me a collection of every Sherlock Holmes story, all four novels and every short story, and I inhaled them. That’s a big reason for my interest in and love for mysteries, but also for characters. It’s the characters of Holmes and Watson that keep us coming back, not the plots. The Hound of the Baskervilles is outstanding.

I read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy of crime novels, including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but I didn’t consciously model Suzie on Lisbeth Salander. I’m smiling as I say this, because Publishers Weekly just posted their review of Never Go Home and wrote in part, “Lisbeth Salander fans will relish Suzie’s pitiless approach to obtaining justice.” Lisbeth did pave the way for someone like Suzie, for sure. But my female badass role models would be Sigourney Weaver from Aliens and Linda Hamilton from Terminator 2: Judgment Day. And I have a lot of strong women in my life, especially my wife, Kathy.

ArtsATL: You’re a preppie, seemingly mild-mannered teacher, but you write these ripping case studies in badassery. “Never Go Home” involves the Sureños-13, a Mexican prison gang. How much research do you do on these gritty demimondes? 

Swann: The internet is a wonderful thing. I researched gangs in Atlanta and came across the Sureños online. They formed in prisons in California decades ago, declaring allegiance to the Mexican Mafia (which did not actually originate in Mexico and is 100 percent a U.S. criminal prison organization). Many gangs call themselves Sureños and even fight each other, except in prison, where they band together for protection and loyalty to the Mexican Mafia. They run drugs and are known to be violent, and they’ve established a foothold in Atlanta. But they aren’t centrally organized, and so each gang is pretty independent. They seemed like a convenient set of antagonists for Suzie to have to deal with.

Aside from gangs, I often use Google Maps to scout locations for scenes and to make sure someone local who might read the scene would feel it’s believable. I also look up all sorts of firearms information, explosives ordnance, martial-arts moves … like many writers, I hope no one takes a close look at my internet search history.

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Candice Dyer’s work has appeared in Atlanta magazine, Garden and GunGeorgia Trend and other publications. She is the author of Street Singers, Soul Shakers, Rebels with a Cause: Music from Macon.

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