By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jul 18, 2015 at 12:56 PM

What if?

Two simple words, not even 10 letters, that seemingly innocent question has likely haunted every single person that’s walked this planet at some point or another. And it’s a question that fascinates Cynthia Swanson, so much so that she made that idea the cornerstone for her debut novel, "The Bookseller," which tells the story of Kitty Miller, a free-spirited bookstore owner whose pleasant life becomes plagued by dreams of the life that could’ve been had a particular event gone a different way.

The book is set in Denver, where Swanson currently calls home. However, for much of her early childhood and college years, Milwaukee earned that honor, with the author growing up on the East Side and attending school at both UWM and Madison.

She’s on her way back – at least for a brief moment – hosting reading of her debut novel at Boswell Books on Monday, July 20 at 7 p.m. Before she arrives, got a chance to chat with Swanson about her new book, that huge yet tiny question at the heart of it, the similarities between Denver and Milwaukee and, of course, the Harper Lee "Go Set a Watchman" controversy. What really got you into writing?

Cynthia Swanson: I’ve been writing fiction my whole life, ever since I was a kid. I actually was an architecture major in college for my first two years at UWM … but I kept going over to the English department to take creative writing classes (laughs) because I had such a passion for it.

I finally had a professor who set me down – her name was Lynn Kramer; I found that in my old journal. She was a creative writing professor at UWM, and she sat me down one semester and said, "You know, I don’t know how good you are at architecture or design, or what your passion is, but whatever you do, don’t stop writing because you’re really a great writer." That was such a cool thing to hear somebody say; it was so validating. I was 20 years old when that happened. It really got me thinking, and I ended up switching majors and switching to going to school in Madison.

I was always writing fiction. I published a lot of short fiction, and the book is my first published novel. It’s the third one I’ve written.

OMC: What happened with the first two, and how’d they get you to this debut book?

CS: The first one was kind of a 20-something practice novel that definitely belongs in a drawer and should never see the light of day. (laughs) The second one was actually pretty good. I worked on it for a really long time, and I shopped it around to some agents about 13 or 14 years ago, but nothing ever really went anywhere. Then I met my husband, and I got married and had three kids really, really quickly – within four years. And the creative writing just went right out the window; I just didn’t do anything when my kids were little.

When they were six and three, I just one day got the idea for this book. It just kind of came to me, thinking about a character who wasn’t really sure if she belonged in her own life and what that would be like, dreaming about another life and thinking about another life that wasn’t your own. And all of a sudden, it was like, OK, it’s time to start writing fiction again. That’s when I started writing this book, and that was about five years ago.

OMC: Were there any particular influences for your writing for this particular novel – books or movies or anything else?

CS: The book often gets compared to "Sliding Doors" a lot, the Gwyneth Paltrow movie where she gets on the subway and she either gets on or she misses the train or she doesn’t. It’s kind of like that where there’s this one pivotal moment, and it either happens or it doesn’t, and the main character Kitty in my book goes down a different path depending on whether the moment happens or not.

I didn’t start out writing the book thinking, "Oh, I’m going to rewrite ‘Sliding Doors,’" but it sort of has that same idea. That idea just fascinates me, of just those little missed moments – not the big things, but the little things. When you think about it, that moment I had talking to the professor at UWM was sort of those moments that completely changes your life and can change the path you’re on. So I think there’s some of that influence in there; I think stories like that are fascinating, wherever they come from. I kind of collect them. I ask people about them all of the time.

OMC: You set the book several decades in the past – in 1962. Why pick that particular era for this story?

CS: Well, it’s interesting. When I first started writing the book, I had it set in the present day. I got about a quarter of the way in the first draft, and I realized that present day just wasn’t going to work for this story because it has that missed moment. The missed connection happens, and then the character doesn’t find out about it for years and years.

But that wouldn’t happen in the present day because we get information so quickly. Without giving away too much of the story, somebody doesn’t show up, and they’re supposed to be somewhere. That just wouldn’t happen now; if somebody didn’t show up when they were supposed to be somewhere, we would be texting them. We’d be going home and Googling to see if something happened in the news with that person. There’d be all of these ways to instantly get the information; you wouldn’t just let it go. The character Kitty needed information to unfold more slowly, the way it would have in an earlier time.

And then I just have a particular interest and fascination with the 1960s. I live in a mid-century house which we’ve had to, as my husband and I call it, "un-model." (laughs) We’ve taken out the 1990s influences and put it back to the 1960s and 1950s. In design, I love that era, so it just felt right to move it to that particular era. It was really, really fun to research.

OMC: The book is set in Denver, but are there any references or hints of your hometown Milwaukee in there that you were able to sneak in?

CS: I don’t know if I have any references – I thought about that – but actually, I do have one. There’s a street in Denver called Milwaukee Street, and originally I had their house on Milwaukee Street, which would have made sense because the neighborhood where Lars and Katherine live in the dream life the street runs through that neighborhood. I was like, "Oh! Let’s make it Milwaukee Street since it’s my hometown!" But then I realized that I didn’t want to be quite that specific because I give a very specific address, and probably somebody lives at that address. (laughs) And that would not be very nice.

But I do think that, in general, there are a lot of similarities between Denver and Milwaukee. That’s probably one of the reasons why I feel so at home in Denver. It reminds me a lot of Milwaukee. The people are very friendly here, the architecture style is somewhat similar and it kind of has that mix of low density city neighborhoods. I feel very at home here, but this story could’ve easily taken place in Milwaukee because I think a lot of the same movement away from the city that was going on in the ’60s in Denver was also going on in Milwaukee. I do remember that, how the city was really spreading out, and similar things were happening in Denver at the same time.

OMC: I figure I’m talking to an author, so I’d love to ask for your take on the whole Harper Lee "Go Set a Watchman" situation. As an author, what are your thoughts?

CS: You know, I’m keeping an open mind about it and waiting to see how it all plays out. Harper Lee and I happen to share the same publisher, so to that extent, I’ve been working with the people at Harper now for a couple of years, and I have to say that these are lovely people. These are very business-savvy people, obviously, and I don’t think they would’ve done something like this without thinking it through. I’m sure they knew that there would be some backlash, but I think that they would not have taken the stance that they did and not taken the risks that they did without thinking it was worth it – both obviously from a business standpoint but also, I want to hope, from a betterment of the literary world standpoint.

I haven’t read the book yet; I’m actually re-reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" right now because I want to read that first. But I will read "Go Set a Watchman." I do want to read it; I try to keep an open mind about things like that and just take in all the different viewpoints and realize that people come at it from all different angles. That being said, if I had anything that I never wanted published, lesson learned. (laughs) I’m going to make sure that stuff gets destroyed. Make sure that book I talked about that I wrote in my 20s, I guess I should go get rid of that. Because you never know! (laughs)

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.