In Kat Spears’s hilarious and often poignant debut, high school senior Jesse Alderman, or "Sway," as he’s known, could sell hell to a bishop. He also specializes in getting things people want---term papers, a date with the prom queen, fake IDs. He has few close friends and he never EVER lets emotions get in the way. For Jesse, life is simply a series of business transactions.
But when Ken Foster, captain of the football team, leading candidate for homecoming king, and all-around jerk, hires Jesse to help him win the heart of the angelic Bridget Smalley, Jesse finds himself feeling all sorts of things. While following Bridget and learning the intimate details of her life, he falls helplessly in love for the very first time. He also finds himself in an accidental friendship with Bridget’s belligerent and self-pitying younger brother who has cerebral palsy. Suddenly, Jesse is visiting old folks at a nursing home in order to run into Bridget, and offering his time to help the less fortunate, all the while developing a bond with this young man who idolizes him. Could the tin man really have a heart after all?
A Cyrano de Bergerac story with a modern twist, Sway is told from Jesse’s point of view with unapologetic truth and biting humor, his observations about the world around him untempered by empathy or compassion---until Bridget’s presence in his life forces him to confront his quiet devastation over a life-changing event a year earlier and maybe, just maybe, feel something again.
This premise was plenty enough to persuade me to give this a go and what I discovered was not only far from expected but also exactly what I needed.
The story starts off with Jesse aka Sway getting beat up by Ken, the big man on campus, who has issues with Jesse being a little close to his girlfriend. From there we see how things came to this point. See, the term “I’ve got a guy” was tailor-made made for him. Jesse can get you anything you want and make arrangements for anything you need. Nothing is off limits. Jesse doesn’t question the moral rightness of what’s requested. So when Ken asks him to help him get close to a certain popular but quiet girl at school, Bridget, he doesn’t think twice. His only rule is that he doesn’t allow anything to get close to him. The Bridget assignment turns out to be a game changer. Not only does she get close to him, things also get personal.
There’s so much that goes on in Sway, from Jesse’s dealings with his peers at school to other questionable sorts away from it. Some of it is downright uncomfortable, morally questionable and well, illegal too. But here’s the deal with Jesse – while he may be the biggest jerk who’s lacking a much needed filter, he has a keen understanding of human nature and how people think. I found myself being impressed by his observations that are dead on and very matter-of-fact. For example, he has a particular business relationship with a certain dealer who is essentially a loser. However, Jesse glimpses a different side to the guy that wouldn’t have been as obvious to the rest of us.
What makes Sway intriguing is the fact that Jesse's this dichotomous personality that you can’t quite pin down. There are instances when he does things because they are self-serving yet you can't help but admire his business mind and ingenious plans. The guy is resourceful! Later, thanks to Bridget’s influence, he employs a different attitude. It’s a gradual evolution into becoming a different kind of man that’s as surprising to him as it is comical to the reader. By the end of the book, I liked Jesse so much that I was in complete wonderment as to how Spears pulled it off!
Another delightful aspect of the book is his budding friendship with two other characters – Pete, Bridget’s younger brother who’s about as anti-social as Jesse and Mr. Dunkelman, a gentleman at an senior community who pretends to be Jesse’s grandfather. Jesse and Pete have an antagonistic relationship that’s actually good for Pete, while Mr. Dunkelman gives Jesse just as much crap as he gives out. These two hit it off immediately and had me laughing so hard. Here’s an example of the humor and straightforward banter their unlikely friendship develops:
“It’s been a week. You’re not even going to try to talk to him?” Mr. D asked.
“I don’t know, “ he said. “You could try apologizing.”
“Apologize for what?” I asked as I looked up at him with a scowl.
“For being an asshole, “ he said impatiently. “That’s not in dispute, is it? The part about you being an asshole?”
See what I mean? This book is a fantastic read even if it has some somber and dubious moments. Jesse with his complicated but intriguing persona surprised me by becoming one of my favourite characters this year. Sway is simply refreshing with its honesty and brusque language making it one of the best debuts I've read in a long time!
Now for an added bonus, Kat Spears graciously agreed to an interview to talk about Sway. Some of her answers will surprise you. And she'll also share her thoughts on bacon. Keep reading - it's so worth it!
What inspired Sway and the various personalities in the book?
Hoo boy, how much time do you have?
Sway is really the story of a friendship between two boys, Jesse and Pete. I studied a lot of Biblical history in college and found it endlessly fascinating. So,these two characters were inspired by Jesus and St. Peter and the relationship between them as portrayed through the Gospels.
I know. I know. I know what you are going to say. Jesse is a terrible person and Jesus was the son of God and a really cool dude who just wanted us all to be nice to each other. How could I even begin to compare these two people? But there are times when Jesus could be very hard on the people who were close to him, and St. Peter bore the brunt of that on more than one occasion. Eventually, though St. Peter had been a loyal and devoted follower of Jesus, St. Peter did betray Jesus more than once. It was a complicated friendship.
I really liked the idea of retelling that story, albeit with a huge amount of artistic license, as set in a contemporary high school. I didn’t follow the Biblical story to the letter, of course. Just looking at it loosely, Jesse performs a series of “miracles,” pulling off jobs and manipulations like no boy his age should be able to do; Pete becomes his disciple, adopting the bad boy persona. The betrayal in Sway comes from both sides, but I like to imagine that St. Peter felt somewhat betrayed when Jesus told the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer under torture and be killed. See what I mean? Complicated.
Other characters were all inspired by people I have known—some living, some dead. My biggest regret is that Carter was based on a boy I knew in high school and beyond. One conversation between Jesse and Carter was lifted from real life, a conversation he and I had when we were about 18. The person Carter is based on is now deceased, but I like to think he has become immortal through Sway.
Jesse is not the quintessential hero. He’s prickly and not exactly pc. Were you at all nervous about where he was taking you?
There are parts to Sway that I cringed as I wrote them. The one that really stands out for me is the scene in which Jesse describes the kids Bridget volunteers with at the Siegel Center. Though his delivery comes off as very insensitive, Jesse is really just describing what he sees. He’s brutally honest in his description of their physical disabilities, even mentioning that he finds the drool coming from one boy’s mouth to be revolting. This observation is cruel and unkind, and it makes us dislike Jesse a bit (or a lot).
There are two things at play that make this scene one that was both hard to write, and is now hard to read. One, is that we are socially conditioned to understand that describing people with special needs in the way that Jesse does is wrong. So, even if we were to think about a particular group of people in a certain way—whether you’re speaking of race, physical or intellectual disabilities, gender, religion—most people wouldn’t say it out loud, because most of the time it just isn’t socially acceptable (thank God).
And two, the other thing at play with this scene is that when a person feels really, really terrible—suffers from depression or has withstood tremendous grief—it becomes difficult to feel empathy and compassion for other people. Most of the time, when people are rude or unpleasant or mean, it is just because they themselves are deeply unhappy. So, Jesse, a deeply unhappy person who has closed himself off from feeling anything, can’t really see these kids in the way he should. He should feel guilt and remorse for being insensitive about the way he describes them, but he doesn’t, because he isn’t capable of experiencing those emotions.
Definitely some of the things Jesse says are offensive and make him a hard person to like. But there are a lot of people like that in the world, all fighting their own battles. It’s what makes this planet an interesting place to live.
Did I ever worry that my book would not be publishable, or people would be offended, because it deals with some issues that are not usually explored honestly and openly? Not really. All I did was write was a book that portrayed a high school I knew and understood, portrayed male teenagers in a way that I personally experienced them when I was a teenager myself. They say you should write what you know. The high school in Sway is the high school I knew.
Did I ever worry that people wouldn’t like Jesse (and, I suppose by extension, not like me)? If there is one important lesson it is that you can’t like, or be liked by, everyone in this world. All you can do is try to be nice to people and treat them the way you would like to be treated. Some people will be offended by Jesse, but I can’t help that. Others will appreciate his depth and complexity, and I wrote this book for them.
Did you have a specific message in mind when you wrote Sway?
No, I don’t feel like I really set out to create a message-driven book. These were just people who I got to know inside my head and they acted out the rest. But I have enjoyed reading about the meanings other people have discovered in reading Sway. One of my friends likes to discuss Sway as if it is real literature and not just something kind of funny that I wrote. She analyzes the characters’ personalities and motivations and it is fun to expand their back stories after the fact in conversation with her. I have to be honest, I was always really turned off by message-driven books for young people when I was a teenager so there is nothing I really preach in Sway. Except one point, that Jesse makes more than once, which is that recreational drug use is not the best idea if you want to accomplish good things in life. Smoking pot, drinking alcohol, dropping X—it doesn’t make you a better writer or artist. Quite the contrary. And I’ve lost several people in my life to drug and alcohol abuse, which is a horrible waste.
Which character in the book do you relate to the most or feel a special affinity with?
Jesse most of all. I understand that sense of turning off your feelings because some things are just too horrible to feel. Of course, then you have to let go of the good feelings too.
Jesse has chosen to wall himself off instead of experiencing hurt or regret. In a way, it’s almost…respectable. He doesn’t burden other people with his problems; never asks anyone to do him a favor he isn’t paying for with cash; and he tries to have the strength to navigate the world alone. In Jesse’s words: He’s a survivor. I can respect a survivor.
As you’re working on a story, when do you know that you’ve hit your stride?
Hmmm, I don’t think that I’ve ever hit my stride while writing. In fact, I really hate writing a first draft, getting the bones of a story down on paper. My first drafts always suck. A lot. My real joy is in editing and rewriting. I’ll write a draft, revise it about 100 times, hate it to the point of scrapping it altogether, and then one night I’ll wake up at 3:00 AM and know exactly what to do to make it perfect. It’s always a huge relief when that comes.With Sway I had the friendship between two boys and the characters were there but there was no high stakes, no real tension between them. And then, one day, I had the epiphany to throw in a dash of Cyrano de Bergerac and suddenly I had an underlying, secret conflict and with that a climactic betrayal to make it all work.
Now we’d like to switch gears just because. The BiblioJunkies motto is “books, boys, pie”. That being said …
Is there a book that you enjoy to re-read?
There are many books I read over and over again—open them to my favorite part and relish a little ambush on the stockade in Treasure Island, or the gasoline can scene in Stick, or the detective interviews in Murder on the Orient Express, or the London scenes of Sense and Sensibility. I’m kind of a lazy reader in that way and I always have a hard time meeting a new author to fall in love with. But when I do find an author to fall in love with (ahem, Peter Abrahams, I’m waiting for your call), I fall really hard. I can reread an Echo Falls Mystery by Peter Abrahams over and over. My third child is named after the main character, Ingrid.
Between us three BiblioJunkies, we have several book boyfriends and we love them all. Who’s the ultimate book boyfriend to you?
God, Dallas Winston, of course. The quintessential bad boy with a heart of gold (hello, Jesse Alderman). And Ernest Stickley in Stick. Also a bad boy. And, of course, the perfectly broken and tormented male lead…Batman.
Which dessert describes you best?
Does bacon count as a dessert? If not, it should. I think bacon would describe me best. Salty, not great when it’s too crispy, not really good for you, and always makes a mess to cook, but some people like it enough that they put up with these faults.
Thank you Kat, for joining us and giving us insight into your remarkable debut.
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