Oyster River Pages: What is your relationship to language, and how does that feed into your work? Do you speak or write or dream or create in more than one language? And if you do, does your multilingualism manifest itself in your work? How?
Caroline Swicegood: Language is so important not just to writing, but our understanding of the world. I'm kind of a "jack of all trades, master of none" learner when it comes to languages—I have a working intermediate knowledge of both Italian and Turkish, but I learned Italian in a classroom and Turkish mostly through immersion (by living in Istanbul), so the way I use both languages is very different, and I recently moved to Germany and am now trying to learn German. I wrote a book set in Italy and have written quite a few nonfiction pieces about living in Turkey, so knowing those languages shows up in my work here and there. But mostly, studying foreign languages has allowed me to see how complex and dynamic language is, how you have to be willing to look at the same idea or sentiment from multiple angles to adequately express it in different languages. Living abroad and trying to learn Turkish has also given me a newfound sympathy for outsiders, which also shows up in my work. I'm not truly multilingual and I don't think I'll ever be proficient enough to be comfortable writing in any language other than English, but studying languages has given me a new appreciation for how words impact both meaning and a sense of belonging.
ORP: What is your favorite under-appreciated work of art?
CS: The book Cane by Jean Toomer, a Harlem Renaissance writer. It was written in the early 1920s and mixes together poetry and vignettes to create a kind of linked-stories-novel-hybrid that's part Southern Gothic and part Northern Modernism. It is absolutely stunning.
ORP: What advice would you give someone who has never been published?
CS: Read as much as you can—both generally, so you can figure out what you like, and also specifically in the venues in which you want to be published so you can see what the editors/publishers are looking for. And when you do start submitting short stories or querying agents, be sure to follow guidelines and proofread your work before sending it. Don't send things until you've gone through a few drafts and have run it by a writer friend or two, and you're pretty sure it's as polished as you can make it.
ORP: What is the first creative piece that made you cry?
CS: I'm sure books or movies made me cry when I was younger, but the first time I remember crying over something I read as an adult was Amy Hempel's short story "The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried." I was 22, riding the metro in Boston on the way to work, got to the end of the story and started tearing up. It was embarrassing to be crying in public but I couldn't help it—the ending is devastating.
ORP: What are you currently working on?
CS: My story published in Oyster River Pages, "A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words," is part of a larger collection of connected short stories and vignettes set in Venice. That collection is currently out at some independent publishers with hopes of being turned into a book, with about half of the stories already published in literary journals. I also have a completed novel manuscript and am searching for an agent for that.
Caroline Swicegood is an American writer and educator currently living in southern Germany; previously, she spent several years living in Istanbul, Turkey. Her fiction has appeared in over a dozen literary journals, including most recently Foliate Oak and Cleaver Magazine, and her nonfiction has appeared in Compose Journal and the Literary Bohemian. Read her story “A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words” from Issue 2.