An Indies Introduce Q&A with Essie Chambers

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Essie Chambers is the author of Swift River, a Summer/Fall 2024 Indies Introduce season and a June 2024 Indie Next List pick. 

Lisa Swayze of Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, NY, served on the panel that selected Swift River for Indies Introduce.

“In gorgeous and fiery language, Chambers invites us into Diamond Newberry’s world. The only Black person left in Swift River after Pop’s mysterious disappearance. Diamond thinks she stands out for all of the wrong reasons,” said Swayze. “Getting her license will solve one of those problems, but it's also one more thing Diamond and her mother disagree on. As Diamond gains confidence through driving and learns more about the history of her family and Swift River, she begins to imagine something different for herself. Where will that imagination take her now?”

Chambers sat down with Swayze to discuss her debut title.

This is a transcript of their discussion. You can listen to the interview on the ABA podcast, BookED.

Lisa Swayze: Hi, everyone! I'm Lisa Swayze from Buffalo Street Books, Ithaca, New York's cooperative indie bookstore, and I was fortunate to chair the Indies Introduce panel for adult fiction and nonfiction this spring. One of our favorite books across the board was Essie Chambers’ Swift River. So I'm thrilled to be talking with the author today.

One of my co-panelists, Steve Iwanski, from Charter Books in Newport, Rhode Island, said, “A debut novel this assured, confident, and powerful is a rare event, but Swift River proves that Essie Chambers has arrived with the force of a thunderbolt. The world conjured here — a world where the aches, angst, and awkwardness of adolescence mix with the pain of poverty and loss — feels so lived-in and authentic that you can’t help but step inside Diamond’s life. Its portrait of a late 1980s western Massachusetts sundown town is a refreshingly honest addition to the mosaic of American small-town life."

Our author, Essie Chambers earned her MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and has received fellowships from MacDowell, Vermont Studio Center, and Baldwin For The Arts. A former film and television executive, she was a producer on the documentary Descendant which was released by the Obamas’ Higher Ground Production Company and Netflix in 2022. Swift River is her debut novel.

So welcome, Essie —

Essie Chambers: Thank you!

LS: — author of Swift River, a Summer/Fall 2024 Indies Introduce title which, by the way, comes out next week. Don't know when people will hear this, but while we're talking, it's coming out next week.

EC: Oh, great! Yes, good, good, good. Okay. So much love from you guys, it's just been incredible.

LS: Well, I have lots of questions. In Swift River, the town of Swift River is its own character, and provides a vivid and complex setting. How did you come up with the setting, and was there research involved with that?

EC: So, I grew up in Western Massachusetts. Swift River is fictional, but I did grow up in a small town that was a former mill town. It was much more suburban than Swift River. I think there were a lot of towns around me that were more rural that I pulled from — kind of a mash-up of those. But I really understand small-town texture, and that was a lot of fun to write because I lived that. But I did do a ton of research on old mill towns, and how they functioned when the mills were kind of at the center of all life. And then that kind of devastation to a community after that industry leaves, which is what was happening in Swift River. And you know the characters are so haunted in the story by loss. I just really loved the idea of the town itself also being haunted by loss. You know, these giant crumbling factory buildings everywhere you look. So I drew from personal experience, but also did a lot of research.

LS: And I think you can tell both of those things in the reading. It's really great.

EC: Thank you, thank you.

LS: Diamond is such a unique but also very believable character. She stands out in so many ways, some of which she's not happy about. How did her character develop?

EC: Well, thank you for that, first of all. You know, I wrote this book over the course of many years, and there were a lot of different iterations of Diamond.

I think I always knew the basic facts about her: that she was going to be the only person of color in this town, that her family was going to be isolated, and that they would be mourning the loss of this father — that he would be kind of haunting the book. But we're really talking about her voice — she needed to be wise, but believably sixteen, and I wanted her to have a kind of emotional intelligence, but not be too adult. And she needed to grow, but not too much. As I started developing the layers that came from the past, she became clearer. I think really, when she came most sharply into focus for me, was understanding that her voice had to carry a lot of painful stuff and not weigh down the book.

I write with these two post-its on my computer. One says, “Tell the truth,” and the other says, “Make yourself laugh,” and I feel like those two things are at the heart of Diamond's voice. She sees the world through a kind of comedic lens and she tells it like it is.

LS: Yeah, it's great. As Diamond struggles to find her footing and her place in the world, her connection to a long lost aunt provides crucial information about the history of her family and of Swift River. Will you talk to me about how you see family history and American history, and maybe even generational trauma, as important to this book?

EC: Well, yeah, it's a big, great question. You know, family history for Diamond — the connection that you were talking about that she found — it's really at the heart of her personal journey. She is kind of rootless. Her family is very isolated, and her only connection is to her mother and this father that's been missing. So, getting roots — getting rooted in this family history — is what gives her the kind of courage and confidence to make a lot of critical life choices.

But I think for me, I've been thinking a lot about the connection between the two things: family history and American history. There are all kinds of ways that history is recorded, and — particularly if you're part of a marginalized group in this country — oral history is often the only way that our stories are carried and our truths are recorded. And I learned this with the documentary that I made a couple of years ago, too: oral history is not a lesser history. And in that way, family history and telling our family stories, it's so essential, because that's American history. And so with Diamond learning about this really painful part of American history, I think all of it is what feeds her sense of herself, and knowing how she wants to move through the world, to stay or to leave.

LS: We talked about it in your bio, and you just mentioned one of the documentaries you worked on. You already have a career as a documentary filmmaker. So two questions: how does that influence the way you write — which again, you did mention a little bit — and why write a novel?

EC: I think I'm gonna answer the second part first. Writing books was the first thing that I ever wanted to do — and I think I also wanted to be a singer, or DJ, or something like that. I was always pointed in the direction of writing. I studied English in undergrad and I was a journalist briefly. And I just sort of got on this beautiful career path where I was helping other people be creative, and it was just creative enough to prevent me from really pursuing my own dream. But it's not a thing that came out of a later part of my life. It's always been the thing. And this was really about: when am I going to do it? If I die, this will be my greatest regret. That's sort of how I felt about writing.

So it was, really, my first love, but what I was doing while I was not writing was wishing that I could at some point find the space to do it. Before I was a documentary filmmaker, I worked as a creative executive, as a television executive for a teen channel called The N. It was part of the Nickelodeon and Viacom family, and so, just from a content perspective, I really fell in love with telling stories for that age especially, and that had a really big impact on this book.

Telling a story from the point of view of someone who doesn't really have language yet for these big, big feelings that they're experiencing — it's just it's so fun and teenagers are so sort of tragicomic. I really got to tap into all that. So that had a big influence on the actual story, and then I don't know what came first, but I am a very visual writer. Often I will see a scene, or the shape of it, and then I will write to what I'm seeing. And in fact, I think one of the ways that Diamond and Ma — their being tethered to each other — came to me was, I saw them. I saw an image of them standing on the corner of a road. And it's like, who are these people walking in this small town? Just so vulnerable. And so I worked backwards into the image. It's had a profound influence on how I write.

LS: Well, you can tell. I mean, when we talked about the setting and when you talk about seeing that image of the two of them. You can see it in the book, and you can see them.

Sidebar, because it came up: when you talk about writing for this age, one of the things that I thought about is — this is a perspective of a teenager, but it's not a YA book. Did you think about whether it should have been a YA book at any point? Did you think about whether it would be, or were you always writing for an adult audience from that perspective?

EC: It's a good question. I love YA books and I've adapted YA books when I worked in television before. But no, I was always pretty clear that it would be a book for adults. At one point in time there was even a perspective of the father occupying space, but I couldn't crack the voice.

LS: Next book!

EC: Exactly. This is a story about a group of women. Particularly, Diamond is at the center, but there are these other two women who also have voices in this story.

LS: Yeah, it's great. I guess that the final question — I always like to ask this one of authors because it's profound, you know. What do you hope people take away from reading this book?

EC: Oh, so much! I hope they like it. The Diamonds of the world so often don't have a voice. They aren't humanized. And so I think, for readers who are like Diamond, I hope they feel seen, and heard, and respected. And if they're not, I hope that they feel empathy, not pity, but really relate to all the universal issues of belonging and identity and all these things that Diamond grapples with. You know it's funny, the best compliment that I've gotten is this woman who had read it, and she said her life was completely different than Diamond’s, but it felt like she was in Diamond’s skin. That's exactly what I want.

And then, I would say more broadly, I really hope people think about their own family stories and histories, and what home means to them.

LS: Oh, that's so great! Well, anything else you want to add? We're so excited. I can't wait to have it in my store next week and to send it out in our subscription Book Club. The booksellers who read this, we were universally in love with it.

EC: Oh, that means so much to me. Thank you so much. I got to talk to Steve as well. And it’s like meeting superstars. You guys are my superheroes. It's been great talking to you, and it's just such an honor to have gotten the kind of support from this community that I have. So, thank you.

LS: You deserve it. And we are excited to share this book with the rest of the world.

Swift River by Essie Chambers (Simon & Schuster, 9781668027912, Hardcover Fiction, $27.99) On Sale: 6/4/2024

Find out more about the author at

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