In the September 2012 issue of Q&Q, Stacey May Fowles interviews author Susan Swan, one of CanLit’s most devoted activists and mentors, about her latest novel, The Western Light.
In an uncharacteristic bout of poor planning, I frantically arrange to meet Susan Swan in the few days before I travel to the Banff Centre. I’ll be gone for a month-long writing retreat, and am consumed by the anxiety of last-minute errands and deadlines.
After exchanging a few emails, Swan calls me. Her tone is one of accommodating concern: I am to come to her home and drink gin and tonics at 4 p.m. the day before I leave.
When I arrive at her pretty pale-blue house – complete with welcoming white picket fence – in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, the gin is generously poured, as promised. Watching her in her kitchen, I confirm the legend of Swan’s height – what she describes as being a “big” woman – well over six feet with room-filling charm to match. I linger in the front hallway while she arranges a cheese plate, and her grey cat, Cosmo, rubs against my ankles and meows aggressively. Perhaps because of my exhaustion, I get the distinct impression I am being taken care of, a compulsion on Swan’s part that seems more than mere hospitality. As if she has temporarily taken responsibility for my well-being.
That, of course, is Swan’s reputation. An informal poll of industry colleagues reveals that she is, to quote one former publicist, “quite beloved.” Swan has long taken an active role in the well-being of many writers, and is part of an established literary family. Her long-time partner is Patrick Crean, the former publisher at Thomas Allen Publishers, and her daughter is the Transatlantic Literary Agency’s Samantha Haywood.
“I think of my mother as many things besides ‘Mom’: writer first, but also activist, feminist, journalist, and professor, who has mentored and championed lots of writers over the years,” says Haywood. “Her generosity and strength are great inspirations to me, and I’d like to think that many of my interests and skills as a literary agent found their example in her.”
Swan’s role as mentor and teacher, both professionally (she retired from teaching creative writing at York University in 2007) and casually, comes quite naturally to her. “Fame and glory – I guess you’re supposed to want that,” Swan says. “I’d like lots of readers, but the idea of coming in and feeling like I am famous, and you are lesser than me, I find that very boring. And empty.”