Swann just released his third book, “A Fire in the Night,” another compulsive page-turner about a house-fire, a plucky teenage girl, her mysterious uncle, espionage and Afghanistan. Some of the plot takes place in Cashiers, North Carolina. A scanty summation, but to say much more would be a spoiler. His narratives have all the stomach-flipping, switchback curves of a mountain road. Characters are seldom who they seem. Don’t even bother guessing the villain; you will be wrong.
Swann, a 51-year-old literature teacher at Holy Innocents Episcopal School in Sandy Springs, appears to be having a “moment.” “Never Turn Back” was Amazon Editors’ “Pick for best mystery, thriller and suspense.” His name crops up consistently as a finalist for Georgia Author of the Year and the Townsend Prize. His fan base hangs on every word, just as kids did with that first yarn.
“Chris does such a good job of genre-blending,” says author Joshilyn Jackson. “His writing is beautiful, high-brow. But beneath all of that is a propulsive plot with characters who are layered and flawed. And he writes women very well. His female characters are multi-dimensional, and you don’t always find that.”
Born in Asheboro, North Carolina, Swann grew up in Winston-Salem and then moved to Asheville. His family relocated to Atlanta when he was 18. He studied at Washington and Lee, University of Missouri-Columbia and Georgia State University, where he earned a Ph.D. in creative writing. For high school, he attended Woodberry Forest, a boys’ boarding school in Virginia.
He was “very much a preppie,” he says, although “most of my classmates had trust funds, and I didn’t. I wore an Izod shirt instead of the more expensive Polo.”
The author’s formative years come through in his debut novel, set at a boys’ boarding school that is rife with secrets. The author is sensitive to the way young guys bond with each other, whether they are posturing or exposing their vulnerability. It is, among other things, a meditation on friendship.
“Never Turn Back” draws from his experiences as a teacher, and it has some steamy moments, including a sex scene on the school counselor’s couch. He sheepishly reassured the counselor at Holy Innocents that it never happened. “Write what you know,” goes the adage that Swann blithely ignores. “(Expletive) it, it’s fiction,” he says.
His latest book involves Afghanistan and spy-craft — subjects he knew little about before doing his homework. He has considered writing a homicide detective story set in Iraq, another place he has never visited, and in a drawer somewhere is his attempt at what he laughingly calls Irish coastal noir.
A compact man with an air of gentleness, Swann appears to defy the stereotype of the tortured artist.
“I believe art can come from suffering,” he says, “but I don’t think you have to suffer or be unhappy to be creative. I’ve lived a fortunate life. I’m a white, middle-aged male teacher at a private school.” His only fisticuffs involved a scuffle over a cap, and the sole crime he has experienced was the theft of his car stereo. Characters in his books don’t fare so lucky, often ending up in Kafkaesque situations with high stakes.
There is some cognitive dissonance when the mild-mannered Swann is juxtaposed with the violence in his novels.
“I aim for beautifully creepy, haunted, dark writing using characters with a past,” Swann says, “but I won’t do something gratuitous for shock value.”
“Chris is a thoughtful, kind person, which makes him an especially empathic writer,” says author Emily Carpenter. “He’s able to craft complex characters because I think he really cares about them and their dilemmas and flaws. He’s a high school English teacher and has a deep knowledge of and appreciation for a wide range of literature, and I think that informs his novels. They all have that classic, great literature patina to them. They deal with big themes like grief, familial ties and redemption. He doesn’t just knock out a twisty thriller. He examines the deeper issues of humanity.”
In all of Swann’s books, an uncle looms large and unexpectedly tender. “I had some colorful uncles,” Swann says. “Just as you recognize the martinets who represent the ‘Great Santini’ in Pat Conroy’s books, there is always an uncle in mine.”
Even though his work lacks cultural identifiers, Swann was recognized in Southern Living magazine’s Best Southern Books List, and Deep South magazine put him on its summer reading list. Does Swann consider himself a Southern writer?” “I am a writer who happens to be Southern,” he says. “Family and place are important here. It’s a beautiful place with an ugly past that we haven’t been able to reconcile.”
Friends ask him if he will give up teaching now that his books are a hit. “I think even if Steven Spielberg optioned one of my books for the screen, I might continue teaching because I love it so much,” he says.
Up next is his Allman Brothers-inspired story, “Midnight Rider,” in “Trouble No More,” an anthology of crime fiction inspired by Southern rock music and the blues. Published by Down & Out Books, it comes out later this year.
“Crime is a perfect vehicle for any story,” Swann says. “It provides a conflict that can spin out a good story.” And, if done well, redeems a lie.
Christopher Swann. 6:30 p.m. Sept. 16. Hometown Novel Nights, Carnegie Library, 1 LaGrange St., Newnan. 770-683-1347, www.newnancarnegie.com