With his background in musical theater, Ann Arbor, Mich., native Gavriel Savit has spent more time on the stage than behind a writing desk. But he says that as a child he was a “huge” reader, albeit a rather choosy one. “I had trouble reading what I was supposed to,” he admits, preferring to find his way to the books he loved on his own terms. Among the books he counts as being transformative for him as a child and teenager: the Harry Potter series, the work of Brian Jacques, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which Savit calls “so enchanting, variegated, chaotic, and disordered—but also totally unified in spirit.”
Though the stage may be a far cry from a writer’s den, Savit credits his musical theater education at the University of Michigan with teaching him general lessons about being a “respectful, professional artist.” He adds, “Even if you’re waiting on the muse, you still need to answer your emails on time.”
The muse did visit—not while Savit was answering emails but while he was taking phone calls. A few years ago, during a stint at a Mexican restaurant in New York City in between theater gigs, Savit sought an escape from the monotony of taking delivery orders at an uncomfortable desk in the prep kitchen. He let his mind wander.
Savit’s original idea was to write a performance piece about the discovery of an unpublished, fictional Holocaust memoir, but what was initially intended for the stage instead developed into as a fablelike historical tale. Anna and the Swallow Man (Knopf, Jan.) tells the story of a seven-year-old orphan who is taken under the wing of the curious, titular figure as they attempt to escape the Germans in 1939 Poland.
A Mexican restaurant might seem like an unusual setting in which to dream up a Holocaust story, but Savit has long felt a profound connection to what he calls “this giant, communal trauma.” Having grown up in an Orthodox Jewish household, he doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t know about the Holocaust. He says he was also interested in weaving ideas about the “interrogation of memory” and the “boundaries between memories and magic” into the work.
Anna and the Swallow Man came to Savit in bits and pieces, a slow confluence of images. In fact, about a year before he started working at the restaurant, he had a vision of sorts: “Swallow Man walked into my head,” Savit explains. He envisioned a thin man traveling into a village during a rainstorm. What was remarkable about this man was that, despite the downpour, he remained completely dry. Savit puzzled over what sort of person this character might be, with his odd “dignity of remaining dry” in the rain. Also, he wondered, would anyone notice the dryness of the man’s clothes? If so, what sort of person would that be? While an adult might assume the man had been using an umbrella, a child might consider the possibility of magic.
With encouragement from his girlfriend (now his fiancée), Savit focused on the project in earnest, taking it in the direction of a standalone work of fiction, rather than as a performance piece. Working in that format enabled Savit to weave the disparate narrative strands—the Holocaust, an inquisitive child character, and an enigmatic figure who remains dry in the rain—into a single vision. Though Savit did not think specifically about writing the book for children, he did attempt to tap into his own “latent surviving childlike curiosity” in creating the character who would become Anna.
Savit says that when developing early drafts of the novel, he subscribed to Stephen King’s philosophy that one should “write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” Once it was time to open that door, Savit was grateful to find an eager response from Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management, who helped him focus and restructure the book. She suggested early on that Savit shift the narrative from first person to third person, which he feels helped make the story more immediate and less anchored in “the mood of recollection.” When the book was accepted by Knopf, Savit formed a gratifying working partnership with his editor, Erin Clarke, who helped him to further finesse the story of Anna and the Swallow Man.
As with any narrative that unfolds during the Holocaust, there are elements of darkness and uncertainty—qualities that Savit feels “can enrich and challenge readers.” For those who told him they found the story disquieting, he sees this as a valid reaction, noting that the narrative also contains elements of beauty and music.
Savit, who can now count novel writing as part of his repertoire, is currently working on several more projects, which he calls “very exciting.” But for now, he’s still writing with the door closed.