The Swifts is technically not Beth Lincoln’s authorial debut. As a child she penned a “thinly veiled rewrite” of the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter from The Hobbit, which was published in the parish magazine of her small village outside Durham in northern England. Perhaps it foreshadowed the author’s love for wordplay.
In her debut novel The Swifts: A Dictionary of Scoundrels (Dutton), an eccentric family bequeaths each newborn with a name from the dictionary that the child is intended to live up to, which turns out to be a bit of a conundrum for young Shenanigan Swift. Released in February, The Swifts became an immediate bestseller and has now been sold in 14 territories.
Always a precocious reader, Lincoln says she was “very big into fantasy” books as a kid, but she also read the classics in a collection left to her by her grandfather. “I was the weird, nerdy kid reading A Study in Scarlet at age nine.”
As an undergraduate, she would give herself exercises to develop her writing chops, and it was around this time that Shenanigan came into being. She was just “riffing” with characters and scenes, with no story yet. She liked the concept of characters with the terrible curse of having received a name out of a dictionary.
While in graduate school, Lincoln pursued the concept further, writing five chapters of what would later become The Swifts for her dissertation. There wasn’t a plot at the time. Rather, she says, she’d ask herself, “What would be a fun scene to write? I’ll write that and then come up with an excuse for it.”
Fun was, and still is, at the center of her writing. “I won’t do something I find boring,” she says. “You have to entertain yourself before you can entertain others.”
Lincoln, who is queer, submitted the chapters to WriteNow, Penguin UK’s mentoring program aimed at nurturing talent in underrepresented communities. Out of around 2,500 submissions, she landed in a pool of 12 selected to be paired with an editor to develop a project. While attending a workshop for the longlist candidates, she ended up seated near Puffin editor Ben Horslen, who fell in love with the project and promised to read it, even if she wasn’t chosen for the program. She was selected, and he later became her U.K. editor (she works with Dutton publisher Julie Strauss-Gabel in the U.S.). Even before they officially worked together, Horslen provided “invaluable” input and mentorship, and she credits the experience with helping her to discover what she’s capable of as a writer.
Once Lincoln had sold the book, her attitude was, “This may be the only chance I get: I’m going to shove in absolutely everything that I love and find interesting,” she says. The “chaos and energy” she brought to the first book is part of what she loves most about it, and it’s often mentioned by readers as what makes the book so engaging.
She did get another chance, and is now working on a second Swifts book. It features main characters Shenanigan and Felicity as they visit Paris, encounter the French branch of the Swift family, and get caught up in a series of art-related heists. “There are a lot of inter-family tensions and it’s a lot of fun,” Lincoln says. She has a contract in place for a third Swifts book, as well.
While The Swifts is a bestseller and received several starred reviews, it’s the feedback from young readers that means the most to Lincoln, she says. At school visits, she leads students in activities, picking dictionary words and making up wild characters that would have those words as a name. “I love hanging out with kids,” she says.
Lincoln’s early success with The Swifts has offered her “the greatest joy,” she says. “It’s given me time, it’s given me security, and it’s given me a feeling that I have the rest of my career to think about what I want to write next, and after that, and after that.”
Joanne O’Sullivan is a journalist, author, and editor in Asheville, N.C.