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A weekly look at creativity, arts, and culture in southwest Michigan, hosted by Zinta Aistars.Fridays in Morning Edition at 7:50am and at 4:20pm during All Things Considered.

Art Beat: How To Walk On Water

John Balbach

In her debut story collection, How to Walk on Water (New American Press, 2020), Rachel Swearingen has a knack for finding the unexpected perspective.

She then brings alive an experience for readers that will haunt them long after they’ve finished the book. It’s a collection of nine stories written over ten years, many while she was a graduate student at Western Michigan University.

A conversation with Rachel Swearingen

“When I was putting the collection together, I was pulling out stories, and then I noticed there were stories that were in conversation with each other,” Swearingen says, referring to a theme of strong but damaged women in her stories.

Swearingen says she was inspired by her professor: author and doctoral dissertation advisor Jaimy Gordon at WMU.

Credit New American Press
New American Press

“She was one of the first who gave me permission to be myself,” Swearingen says. “Before that, I was writing these sort of strange stories that didn’t always go over well and I was always trying to tamp that down. But that’s what Jaimy loved about my work, so I was able to champion that rather than repress it.”

The new story collection won the New American Press Fiction Prize in 2018. Swearingen’s stories and essays have also appeared in VICE, The Missouri Review, The Kenyon Review, Off Assignment, Agni, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere.

Swearingen received the 2015 Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Fiction; a 2012 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award; and the 2011 Mississippi Review Prize in Fiction. In 2019, she was named one of thirty Writers to Watch by the Guild Literary Complex. She holds a BA from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, a PhD from Western Michigan University, and teaches at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.

Swearingen says she is now at work on a novel.

“For many years, all I wanted to do was write novels,” she says. “I started writing in my 20s, and my novels would go on and on. But in school, it’s very hard to workshop a novel, so I learned a lot by writing short stories about plotting and characterization, and so now I’m comfortable in short stories, but I’ve gone back to working on novels.”

Listen to WMUK's Art Beat every Friday at 7:50 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.

Zinta Aistars is our resident book expert. She started interviewing authors and artists for our Arts & More program in 2011.
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