Swan Huntley’s debut novel We Could Be Beautiful is as literary and character-driven as it is a cleverly plotted page-turner. Forty-three-year-old Catherine West grew up with money. Eighty thousand dollars gets directly deposited into her bank account each month from the family trust. She owns an apartment in the West Village and spends her days with her masseuse or shopping for designer clothes. At an art gallery she meets William Stockton, who is rich, handsome, and happens to be an old family friend. As they fall in love and then plan their wedding, Catherine’s mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, faintly remembers sinister things about William’s past, including a letter from a nanny stating, “We cannot trust anyone…”
I found myself completely immersed in the world Huntley created, and not just because I read We Could Be Beautiful while living in Manhattan this summer and surrounded by the types of characters she details perfectly on the page. As scary as it is the narrative felt possible, maybe because Huntley wrote from experience. After receiving her MFA from Columbia University, she lived in a commune in Brooklyn and worked as a nanny for a family in Soho. Today, she lives in Northern California, where she was when I called her for this interview about We Could Be Beautiful.
I live in Los Angeles but spend a lot of time in New York. I think you nailed the voice of a wealthy, young, New York woman. Who is Catherine West to you?
Catherine West is a privileged woman who has everything she wants on the outside and is trying to figure out who she is underneath all that glitter. She is a deeply insecure person. In her upbringing instead of parenting and comfort she was given things. Now she is trying to figure out who she really is and what she really wants.
I saw her as an incredibly flawed character — spoiled, bratty, and careless. She doesn’t make decisions for herself. If I met her on the street I don’t know if I would want to be her best friend, but she was compelling to read and I loved her voice and wit. What were your concerns about writing from Catherine’s POV?
I didn’t have any concerns. I didn’t see her as an unlikable character, so it’s been interesting for me to get that feedback. I personally feel one reason for it is the theme that is addressed in the first couple pages of the book. To some extent Catherine feels that her problems don’t matter in the world as much as other peoples’ because she is seen as this rich person who has everything. Frankly, I think a lot of us just like to hate rich people. I think it’s easy to point at someone who’s very rich and say, Why don’t you go buy yourself a therapist? Or a car? Or some other fix? You can do anything you want. I think it can be hard to feel compassion for these people when we (the rest of us) are dealing with very palpable daily struggles, like having to work to pay our bills, for example.
Who is William Stockton?
I was trying to think of a name that could be both regal and serial killer-ish at the same time. [Laughs] In the back of my mind I was thinking of Sleeping With The Enemy. There’s homage to that film when he listens to Berlioz. I don’t know if you remember that movie but the creepy guy married to Julia Roberts only listens to Berlioz. William actually changed for me over the course of writing this because in the original draft there was a different ending.
The idea for this book came to me while I was working in Soho as a nanny. Before I quit, I wrote this toddler a letter. I think she was eighteen months old when I left, and I felt like I knew her so well. We spent so many long days together. It was a real relationship. I started thinking how weird it would be if in ten or twenty years, we ran into each other at a restaurant. Because I would know so many intimate details about her life but she would have no idea who I was. I thought if there was a letter, like the one I wrote, that contained information that would affect the present, that would be a good idea for a book. Then my task was to figure out what that information might be.
Initially, I had decided a different fate for William. He was still a creepy guy but the reveal at the end was a different reveal. I wasn’t emotionally tied to it, really. It was just the first thing I thought of. I won’t say what it is because it seems so ill-fitting now. When we sent it out every single editor except for one said the ending needed work. For a while, meaning a few days, I was unable to grasp the concept of rewriting an entire ending. I didn’t want to do it. But once I talked to the person who became my editor I understood it actually didn’t make sense for psychological reasons. Then I came up with this other idea, which feels a lot more true to the story and to his character.
Was there something you left out from the original letter when you put it in the book?
[Laughs] No. I was not warning that child of doom to come. Was that your question?
I meant it was a sweet letter and had a really funny voice to it too. I was imagining being the person to get that letter. It made me wonder if there was something you changed to make it more dramatic for the story or if you wrote it that funny to the real child.
The letter that appears in the book, the light-hearted parts of it, which I think is most of the letter, was pretty true to what I actually wrote. But I did not write, “Don’t trust anybody” in my actual letter. And I gave it to her mom to read first.
How did you come up with Stan and Max, the boys who William gives violin lessons to?
Originally, that played into the ending that no longer exists. Now I think it adds a fun little creepy element. It was dark. It was super dark. When everybody was saying the ending wasn’t working, I was like, You’re trying to burn out my dark flame! No!
I was paranoid that they were trying to commercialize me. I didn’t want to be a sell-out. I think that’s something I learned in my MFA program for sure: don’t be a sell-out. When I found out that my publisher was going to be Doubleday I was like, that’s so commercial. Is that bad? [Laughs] Now I’m like, No! It’s great! It took me a second to understand that changing the end wasn’t about being commercial or not commercial. The original ending didn’t make sense psychologically. It wasn’t something a person in William’s situation would actually do. When I understood that, I knew it was right to change it.
I read that you lived on a commune. Was it just cheap living or was there something else about it that made you want to live that way? Was someone there your character Mae?
I lived in a commune in Brooklyn in Fort Greene, yes. I was living there when I wrote the book. There was no one in our house who was like Mae, but she could’ve moved in at any time. For me, it was circumstance. I met someone who lived there at a residency and the timing was right. And, yes, the cheap living was a big draw. Turns out there’s this whole underground commune circuit that happens in New York and elsewhere. It’s a wonderful thing, especially if you’re in a big, expensive city, to be able to live affordably. And it also affords you a sense of family, which is nice in a place that can feel easily lonely. The other communes I’ve heard about in Brooklyn run on various degrees of seriousness. Some want everybody in the house to be politically minded. Some want only vegans, or vegetarians. Our house was on the laid back side of the spectrum. We didn’t buy meat collectively, but it was allowed to be in the fridge. And not every single person had an activist cause, though most of us did. Living in a commune also meant doing chores and having house meetings. We all had to belong to the Park Slope Food Co-op. I don’t know if you’ve been there, but in order to shop there, you have to work there. We would trade shopping shifts so once every seven weeks we would go and shop for seven people, which was enormously stressful. If you’ve been to that place then you know what I mean.
Was We Could Be Beautiful your MFA thesis project?
No. For my thesis I wrote a different novel. I turned in pages of that novel for the two semesters of workshops leading up to the turning in of the thesis itself. I would go to talks at school and at bookstores where these authors would say they had to write like seven books before they got published. They had all these novels in the proverbial drawer. It almost made me angry. I felt so emotional about it. I was like, No way is that going to be me. [Laughs] Long story short – that became me.
I had my thesis conference and the people who read it were excited about it, but when I sent it out the feedback was all the same. These are interesting characters, but not much happens – that was the feedback. So I abandoned that project. I could see it wasn’t going work, although I couldn’t see why at the time. Then I wrote another book and sent that out. I felt like I was getting closer. I had a great meeting with someone who said he wanted to work with me. After that meeting I remember this moment walking down Fifth Avenue where I felt like I had made it! I made the changes he recommended, and then I didn’t hear from him. And didn’t hear from him. And didn’t hear from him. If you don’t hear from someone, it’s a no. Everything but yes means no. That’s the life lesson I took away from it: everything but yes means no. Eventually, he said it wasn’t going to work out and his feedback was the same – nothing really happens in this story.
By the time I wrote this book I was kind of pissed off. I decided I was going to write a book where stuff happens. In writing this book I was teaching myself how to write a story with a plot.
That makes a writer like me feel much better. My first novel, my MFA thesis, is in the proverbial drawer. After I finished a draft of my second novel I felt like I did this! I’m awesome! But now I’m getting feedback from an editor and thinking, wait, maybe I suck. [Laughs]
Oh my god, keep going! Now I’m starting something new so I recently went back and reread my other books thinking I might resurrect them and immediately I could see what was wrong. They’re not working. It’s nice to have that clarity now.
Did you outline?
So this was my big ah-ha moment with this book. I had not outlined the first two novels that I wrote. I just went with it. I had a vague plan but didn’t outline. With this book I didn’t say to myself I’m going to outline now. At some point, I just found myself taping little pieces to a board. And that turned out to be the smartest thing that I have maybe ever done. I didn’t stick to the plot points exactly, of course, but I could glance at it and know where I was going.
Did you workshop this book or did you write it all on your own?
I sent it to a couple of friends after I wrote it. That includes literary friends and pedestrian friends – people who have no literary background, and who I imagine being the women who might walk into a bookstore to buy this book. Those people give completely different feedback, and it’s useful stuff. Sometimes the literary friends overlook the things that the pedestrians see. I feel bad calling them pedestrians. I should come up with a better word for them.
Stacey D’Erasmo blurbed this book. She delivered a lecture at Bread Loaf last summer that blew my mind. What was it like working with her at Columbia?
She was wonderful. She was my thesis workshop person. I had her for two workshops, so both semesters in the final year. She is like blow-me-away-smart. And she’s such a good critic. She gave me wise advice about the book that I was writing at the time. I think a really important part about going to an MFA program – and probably the main reason I went – was to surround myself with people who were saying, “You go girl!” It was basically like paying a lot of money to have someone say, “You can do this!” She did that for me. She was very supportive.
Where did you go to undergrad?
I went to Eckerd College, which was random, because it was in Florida. I grew up in San Diego and was like one of two people from California who went to that school, but I really loved it. Dennis Lehane had gone there and they had a creative writing program. Dennis Lehane was one of my teachers in undergrad and that was a big deal for me because it was the first time I’d ever met a real writer. I took two classes with him. He was great at breaking it down. He said a lot of the things they didn’t say in my MFA program. I remember the first day of class he was like, most of you are not going to be writers, just so you know. [Laughs]
What are you working on next?
I actually just sold my second book! In it the women are in their late forties, so I might just be an old lady in my heart. It’s called The Goddesses. I’m not sure when it comes out yet. I’m still editing it. It’s set in Kona, on the Big Island, where I’ve spent a lot of time. A woman moves to Hawaii for a year to save her marriage. Her husband has just cheated on her. She befriends her yoga teacher. The yoga teacher has just survived breast cancer, and in an effort to avoid more bad karma, she and her new friend (the wife) set out on a mission to do good deeds. It’s sort of about the selfish nature of selfless acts.