On Swift Wings: The Travails of Cygnus
Brett M. Wiens
BW Literature (2019)
Reviewed by Paige Lovitt for Reader Views (12/19)
Brett Wiens is a first-time author and data scientist. He was born and raised in Calgary, Canada where he lives with his wife and two children. His first novel, On Swift Wings, was released in 2019 and he is currently working on his second. He has a degree in Geography and a master’s degree in Geographic Information Systems. A student of the world, he enjoys learning about people, places, culture and history, and has learned to speak several languages to various degrees including English, French, Spanish, Latin, Italian, and American Sign Language.
Hi Brett, thank you for joining us today at Reader Views! Tell us a bit about your book, “On Swift Wings: The Travails of Cygnus.”
Thank you for having me. “On Swift Wings” is a satirical literary fiction novel based on “Gulliver’s Travels” (1726.) The setting and societies are evolved forward 300 years based on their interaction with the eponymous character from the original and are revisited by a modern character with a modern perspective. The satire is updated while the original style and voice of Jonathan Swift are maintained. The main character, Cygnus, unexpectedly visits a place where the humans are feral and the horses are civilized, islands with immortals, necromancers, anti-intellectuals, giants, and tiny people. He learns about their cultures while interacting to various degrees of success with the locals.
It is a complete work that stands on its own but a fan of the original will no doubt recognize a few throwback moments here and there.
What was your inspiration for the story?
I was reading “Gulliver’s Travels” to my newborn son and I realized that while it was a classic, it is a three-hundred-year-old satire. Almost all of the subtext is aged and the average reader doesn’t recognize much of the satirical content. Furthermore, there are some pretty racist passages in the book. I started thinking about what I would do in Gulliver’s position and the more I thought about it the more the ideas began to cement into a coherent thought. I wanted to honour the work of Jonathan Swift while elaborating on my own thoughts and ideas.
When did you first realize you were actually going to write a book?
I always wanted to write a book, and I wrote my entire master’s thesis in a little under a month, so I felt like I could put something together if I stuck to it. When I began, I was really just messing around. I wrote the beginning of the book, erased it, wrote it again, edited it, and repeated this at least a dozen times before I liked what was there. It gave me a bit of a framework, so I started planning and writing in my spare time. I was a quarter through the book before I realized that I wanted to seriously consider writing an entire book. I figured I would write it, submit it to a bunch of publishers, probably get rejected and just give it to some friends. The deeper I got, the more invested I became, and the more interested I was in keeping creative control. I focused on finishing it as a full, high quality book.
How did your background in Geography influence the settings in “On Swift Wings?”
I think it helped and shaped my choices a lot. My background is primarily human geography. I’ve always loved studying history and culture. My education provided a wide breadth of ideas and examples upon which I could draw. My editor, Bobbi, described the setting as “stunningly painted worlds.” I don’t think I could have expressed enough detail without my geography background. It also nearly undermined the entire endeavour. I spent far too much time drawing the maps of the worlds, and pre-determining the political, economic, social, and cultural structures of each island, to a degree that could never be included in a normal novel. I cut a large amount out of the book to reduce the academic geography qualities to be more in line with Jonathan Swift’s style.
What can you tell us about your protagonist, Cygnus? What motivates him, what are his quirks, and what do you think appeals about him most to readers?
Cygnus is a bit of an idealist. He has a very strong personal code that he tries to adhere to in all situations. He values loyalty highly, and demonstrates that loyalty even when it comes at personal cost. He is clever and resourceful but a little inhibited by his own moral ruleset. I hope that I have painted a character that feels fully formed and rich. I believe that what would appeal to readers is that he is a human. He is neither a flawless superhero, nor is he a clownish buffoon that stumbles around accidentally achieving great things or making the world a better place. He is just a normal person in unusual circumstances, which is where the idea for the story really began.
Who is your target audience?
The book is intended for well-educated, critical thinkers. I preserved Jonathan Swift’s style and voice from 1726 as best I could. As a result, the language can be a little meaty. Most people that have read it through have reported that it was interesting and fun, but a difficult read. I designed the book to stand on its own. If you never read the original, you shouldn’t miss much in “On Swift Wings.” If you have, there are a few insider nods, and a few swipes at that work.
How long did it take you to write “On Swift Wings?”
I started writing “On Swift Wings” about five years ago. I have two small children, a full-time job, and a life, so I wrote the book in my spare time. A fun fact: I actually wrote most of the book on my phone. I bought a little blue-tooth fold-out keyboard so that I could write while on the train, at lunch, or any time I found a few minutes to myself. At the beginning of 2019, I really buckled down in the evenings and wrote for a couple hours at a time to get the first draft finished. This meant that when editing, I had to stitch up quite a few bits that didn’t quite line up, or overlapped that I forgot I did in previous writings several weeks prior.
What was the most challenging part of your story in terms of research?
Three things come to mind for different reasons. One of the most difficult research areas were the Huhuneems. I am not a huge fan of horses. I have nothing against them and I have many friends who love horses, I like them ok, but I don’t know a whole lot about them. When writing that section of the book, I didn’t want to say anything that couldn’t be realistic (of a civilized, conscious horse.) That was challenging, since I knew so little in the first place.
The second is the original source material. One of the rules I put in place for myself was that immutable changes were not allowed. For instance, if the Yahoos were black-skinned in the original, they had to be the same in my story. They couldn’t magically change to another skin type. An island can’t be somewhere in the South Pacific in the first book, and then a town in Europe in my own. This meant that I read and re-read “Gulliver’s Travels” dozens of times to ensure that I didn’t violate this primary directive.
The third was researching the historic figures for Glubdubdrib. I polled my friends and family and asked who they would like to meet, then I researched each one in detail trying to find things that either weren’t well known, or were commonly mistaken. I also had to make sure that I didn’t get some unquestionable material wrong. I hope that I was successful, I haven’t heard otherwise since publishing. It is a work of fiction, but where facts are presented, I intended them to be true and faithful.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book?
The most surprising things have been all the other stuff around publishing a book. Particularly how difficult and expensive it is for a first-time author. For four years, I spent nothing except my time in writing the novel. When I got to the point where I had finished, read, and edited it several times, that was when the costs started piling up. Editing, formatting, book cover, advertising, web page… what began as a fun, free way to express myself quickly accrued some significant expense. Totally worth it, but a surprise to me nonetheless.
What is one thing you wish you knew when you started out?
The importance of reviews. I didn’t really do the math in my head right about how important reviews are to a new novelist. I put the book out there, I researched costs, tried to value it fairly and sold a bunch to friends and family. I then tried to advertise on Facebook and Amazon. I got no impact from that investment and I realized later that I had no reviews of the book. Nobody was going to spend money on a book they hadn’t heard of, by an unknown author, about which nobody has anything good to say. I foolishly thought that my book would be good enough that the right person might read it, and tell the right audience, and it would catch on. I didn’t think this through. I’m trying to gain back ground now. I am encouraging people wherever possible to leave reviews. It is really the only way I can think of to get my book out there. I’ve donated dozens of copies to libraries and schools. More than anything else, I just want people to read the book and think about what I’ve said. If I earn nothing from the book from here on out, that would be fine.
What do you like to read and which authors have inspired your own work as a writer?
I like to read classics. Dickens, Tolstoy, Swift, etc. I’m particularly attracted to challenging works that are well established. Obviously, my first novel being based on Jonathan Swift is pretty heavily inspired by his work and style.
I also take a lot of inspiration from the most important writer in my life, R.A. Salvatore. I had nearly stopped reading recreationally by Jr. High but I stumbled upon The Legacy and got hooked. I read everything he put out and then spread out into the rest of the Forgotten Realms. I thought that if I ever did write a book, it would be in that genre, but while I enjoyed reading them, it wasn’t really a match for my writing style.
Being an author is a full-time job these days. What do you enjoy most about the process?
I really like it as an outlet for my thoughts and ideas. There is a permanence of thought to writing that I find very appealing. I enjoy crafting the idea and refining it. I think about it all the time and when I figure out how to solve a riddle that is stumping me, it is most enjoyable. I don’t like taking shortcuts, so when I think up what I feel is a clever way to advance the plot it is a feeling of mild euphoria.
It really is a full-time job. I try to post regularly to my blog at www.brettwiens.com, I think about my writing at night, I work on it whenever I can. Hopefully all this effort will make a difference in the world some day.
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
The most difficult part is transitioning from planning to writing. I get stuck in the weeds overthinking things. I can plan forever, but once I start writing, I realize that there are things that I planned that simply aren’t consistent with the characters I’m developing and I have to modify the plot to accommodate the actual people and how they would really behave. I’m right at this stage with my second novel right now. I’ve toyed with writing, but I still have new plans and ideas and some style choices to go.
Describe how you felt when you first held a copy of your novel in your hands.
That was a pretty cool day. I knew it was coming, and it came right when I expected it. I opened the box and quickly checked that the cover was right, the inside appeared to be my words and the formatting looked good. I got my wife to take my picture, and you might notice me in that picture with a goofy smile. It is a really intense feeling of accomplishment seeing the physical manifestation of four years of work come together the way I hoped.
I have described it as my baby but it is nothing like holding my child for the first time. Not that you asked, but that is an entirely different, much more intense feeling, but it was pretty incredible to hold my book for the first time nonetheless.
Do you see your novel as a standalone or as parts of a series?
I hope that I’ll be able to follow through on making it a part of a series, with each book capable of standing on its own. I have some pretty aspirational goals in mind right now. I don’t know that they will all happen, but as I’ve already said, I have been working on the second novel, which is intersectional with the first. It might best be described as a spin-off focusing on my favourite character and island from “On Swift Wings.”
How does your family support your writing career?
Lots of ways. My kids have been my sounding boards while I wrote the book. They didn’t know they were doing it, but I read it to them out loud and used that to help me do some self-editing. My wife has been a more conscious rock to bounce ideas off of. She has also provided feedback on the difficulty and style. She was one of the first people to read the book and helped me shape the book as I worked on it. My dad bought copies for all of his friends and put it in his little library and my Grampa John read each draft copy I sent him. I don’t think I could have done it without all the support they have provided. Every time I got down on myself, feeling like there wasn’t a point, or it wasn’t going anywhere, my friends and family have provided me with little pushes that have helped me go forward again. If my books ever catch on, it will be because they had my back when I needed them.
What do you like to do outside of writing? What are some of your other passions?
I have a family with two children, 5 and 2. I spend most of my time not at work with them. At work I’m a data scientist, which is a pretty dynamic field with plenty to learn. I experiment with code and create visualizations for sports data. I play soccer and hockey (and any other sport when I can.) When I have time, l play strategy games on my computer. Learning is another big passion. I have learned several languages and am keen to pick up a few more. I follow world events closely, and try to experience as much of the world as I can.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, as a writer or regarding life in general?
Without doubt, the best piece of advice that I have ever gotten was from my dad. I was not enjoying my studies in engineering but was not willing to quit for fear that I might be thought less of as a failure. My biggest fear is letting people down. It doesn’t matter if I’m letting down friends, family, strangers or myself. I wanted to prove that I could be an engineer, even if I hated it. He told me that no matter what they would love me and that I shouldn’t let something positive be my prison. I’m paraphrasing, but this thought has meant a lot to me. You don’t have to do something just because you can if it makes you feel bad.
What advice can you give to aspiring authors?
Just do it. I’ve talked to a few people who are surprised that I was able to write this. Make the time and space when you can and actually write some words down. It only starts to happen when you do it. You can think about it forever, just find the way to start and it can all go from there. I deleted all the games off my phone to help me focus, I wrote it on my phone because that was the only device available during my spare time. Don’t make excuses, make time. If you want to write a book, just do it.
Where can readers connect with you on social media?
I try to keep a blog up-to-date at https://www.brettwiens.com, I can also be contacted through https://www.facebook.com/BW.Literature/ and I’m on Twitter https://twitter.com/brettwiens , though I hardly use it at the moment if people start communicating with me there, I’ll respond. I’d really love to hear your thoughts!
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I really hope that readers give my book a shot (and an honest review.) I love feedback, whether positive or constructive… Less enthusiastic about straight up insults. It is a challenging read to be sure, but hopefully by the end you’ll feel your time was well-spent and you will have been entertained. I look forward to seeing some comments and questions.
Brett, thank you so much for joining us today at Reader Views. It’s been a pleasure learning more about you and your work!
Thank you for the interview.
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