Clearly not written in 2023, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita tells the story of a middle-aged man who’s obsessed with a 12-year-old girl.
But while the novel’s story may not have aged well (assuming, of course, you think the man’s behavior was okay in the mid-’50s…), it’s still been one of the most influential novels of the last 100 years.
In her new novel Swanna In Love (paperback, audiobook, Kindle), writer Jennifer Belle flips the script by having a 14-year-old girl trying to seduce a 38-year-old man. But as she explains in the following email interview about it, while Belle loves Lolita, it was not an influence on Swanna. Or, for that matter, on Swanna.
To start, what is Swanna In Love about, and when and where is it set?
Swanna In Love is about a 14-year-old girl who falls in love with a 38-year-old married dad. Her mother picks her up from theater camp and takes her on a road trip from hell to an artist colony in Vermont that doesn’t allow kids. She and her little brother have to sleep in the back of a truck. When she meets this older man, she sees him as her way to get home to New York.
It takes place in 1982, in Vermont, but she is still very much a New Yorker.
Where did you get the idea for Swanna In Love? What inspired it?
Get ready for a long answer. This book started as a flashback in another book I was writing about a literary agent. The flashback was based on something that really happened to me: the road trip part. I was on the bus about to leave theater camp and go home to New York, when I was pulled off the bus and told my mother was going to pick me up. She showed up hours later with a man I had never met, we picked up my little brother at his camp, and then went to a horrible artist colony.
I had always wanted to write that as a book or a screenplay. Every time I started a new book — this is my fifth one — I would want to write about the artist colony. But I just didn’t feel like I could. I tried over and over again but always stopped. No one would want to read about a fourteen year old girl, I thought. I couldn’t remember enough. There wasn’t enough of a story. I would make it a flashback, I decided.
Then, during Covid, a friend of mine gave me a book called True Grit by Charles Portis, which I had never heard of even though it’s only sold seven million copies or something like that. It’s about a fourteen year old girl who avenges the murder of her father by hooking up with a couple of bounty hunters. Something about that book got inside of me and made me think I could do what I had always wanted to do. It was like a shot of courage. It more than inspired me; it made me feel like I had to do it.
I lifted the flashback from the novel I was working on and started again, making it a book in its own rite.
Is there a reason you set it in 1982 as opposed to 1992 or 2002 or 2022? Or, for that matter, 1952 or 1932 or 1902?
Well, to start with, I was fourteen in 1982, and this book is very much based on my life. There were no cellphones, or seat belt laws. This was long before #MeToo or helicopter parents. It was a totally different time.
Also, why did you name her Swanna? I ask because the only thing I could find online named Swanna was a swan-like Pokémon.
For names, I use baby name books, old telephone books, and movie titles. I think I saw the name Swanna on my FaceBook feed. But when you name a character, you have to think about their mother because she’s who’s doing the naming. Her mother is a poet. Very literary. She would pick a literary name for her daughter.
The name is also a reference to “Swann In Love,” which is a section in Remembrance Of Things Past by Marcel Proust.
But now you have me obsessed with that Pokémon card. I’ve gone through every card in my house and we don’t have it so I’ll have to order one. I see one on Ebay for $1.98. I’m going to have to collect them now.
Swanna In Love has been called a reverse Lolita, an inverse Lolita, the other side of Lolita. Do you agree with this assessment?
It wasn’t my intent at all! I do totally agree that it’s an inverse Lolita, but I didn’t realize that until I had finished writing it. I think of Lolita as a very masculine book. It’s written from the point of view of Humbert Humbert, and the only thing we know of Lolita is his fantasy of her. We don’t really know her or what she wants. My book is from the point of view of the girl seducing an older man.
A lot of books influenced Swanna In Love, but not Lolita. Lolita is one of my top ten favorite books of all time, but I didn’t think about it at all while writing this book. In my book, she makes the first moves. We get to know what drives her, her desires. But we only see Dennis through her eyes.
So then if Nabokov is not an influence on Swanna In Love, what writers were? Because, as the press materials for this book say, Swanna knows, “…a thing or two about seduction from Judy Blume…” among other things.
She also would have read other classics like The Sensuous Woman by J. and and The Happy Hooker by Xaviera Hollander. Every book by Judy Blume, the children’s book Eloise, Little Women, Little House On The Prairie, and Gone With The Wind influenced me all through childhood.
How about non-literary influences; was Swanna In Love influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Well, television. ’70s and ’80s sitcoms taught me so much. I think I learned everything I know about writing from I Love Lucy. There are many late-’70s / early-’80s TV references in the book.
And movies. The Squid And The Whale by Noah Baumbach is at the heart of this book. I sobbed through the entire movie the first time I saw it.
There was also a movie called Little Foxes about girls who go to summer camp and have a competition to see who will lose their virginity first. Manhattan by Woody Allen. Movies that could not be made today.
And how about your dog, Scarlett O’Belle? How did your dog influence Swanna In Love? And can I pet her?
Yes, you can pet her but she will jump on you. She’s a rescue. She’s from Georgia so her name is Scarlett O’Belle. (You see it’s a literary name: Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With The Wind.) When you’re a writer with a dog, you write, and then you walk the dog, and then you come back and add all the things you thought of while you were walking. She’s not one of those dogs who sits on your lap while you write or waits patiently under your desk the whole time. I have to get one of those dogs. According to Wisdom Panel she is Labrador Retriever, Pitt Bull, Dachshund, Boxer, Boston Terrier, Rottweiler, Dalmatian, Weimaraner, Samoyed, German Shepherd, and Chihuahua. She looks like a cow. Actually I almost named her Lolita! She has a heart over her right eye. She looks like a cow wearing heart-shaped glasses. Can we just keep talking about my dog?
Don’t you mean…dogs?
Yes! I accidentally just got a new puppy. His name is Papa, named for Hemingway and he also looks a lot like my grandfather. They’re both black and white. I can’t help it. The heart wants what it wants. I have a type!
Scarlett O’Belle, Papa
I would say yes, but their lawyer just sent me a cease and desist letter…
Anyway, you mentioned how much Swanna In Love was influenced by movies and television. But do you think Swanna could work as a movie or TV show?
There is no writer alive who doesn’t think their book would make a great movie. Have you ever interviewed a writer who said otherwise? Yes it would make a great movie or series! I would love Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach to make it.
And who would you want them to cast as Swanna and the other main characters?
I’m the world’s worst casting director, but Swanna and her brother Madding would be played by new unknown actors, and Dennis could be played by cousin Greg from Succession. Many great actresses could play the mom. Someone sexy. Maybe Parker Posey or Gwyneth Paltrow or Scarlett Johansson or Angelina Jolie or Aubrey Plaza. My first book Going Down was optioned 27 times, starting in 1997. It’s funny, some of the actresses who were being considered for the 19 year old main character, could probably be considered for the mother character now.
So, is there anything else you think people might need to know about Swanna In Love?
Well people seem to like it. They’re writing nice things about it. But then the person writes to me privately and says something like, “This book is great but it’s really fucked up.” “It’s really dark and fucked up.” And I’m always a little bit shocked by that.
It took a certain amount of courage to write it, and publish it, and it takes a certain amount of courage to read it I guess.
It’s important to remember that Swanna, while she goes through a lot, never thinks of herself as a victim.
Finally, if people like Swanna In Love, which of your other books would you suggest they check out next?
I think Swanna In Love, could almost be considered a prequel to my first book Going Down. It’s not, it’s different characters, but Swanna is very much like my main character Bennington in Going Down, just five years younger.