iant man-eating butterflies, you ask? What does that have to do with a teenage girl who is trying to deal with severe anxiety? This is the magic of Young Adult (YA) science fiction and fantasy. Authors take true-to-life characters whom you probably recognize in your own life and place them in extraordinary circumstances, where they are still teenagers trying to figure out their world and rise to the challenges.
Jennifer D. Lyle, author of Swarm, is joining the ranks of J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Rick Riordan, and James Dashner. If you love young adult novels, you will fall in love with Shur and her brothers and friends as they survive an attack from butterfly-like creatures that “swarm” the world, looking for prey. Shur may be an unlikely heroine in a crisis situation—it’s established early on that she has anxiety “episodes,” and everyone is extremely worried about her in this survival situation. But as Jennifer discusses below, this helps her more than anyone could ever imagine, and isn’t that amazing? Jennifer has taken a challenge for many youth and adults, and she shows us how it can empower and help in a crisis situation. This is why I loved Swarm. Jennifer writes refreshing realistic characters in this world she has created. She will be one to watch.
Let’s hear what she has to say about writing her book, launching a debut novel, and words of inspiration for all authors out there.
WOW: Thank you for talking with us, Jennifer. Let’s start with your fantastic and thrilling YA, Swarm. Where did you get the idea for the species that terrifies the world, but specifically our protagonist, Shur, her brothers, and their friends?
Jennifer: Swarm started ages ago with a dream of butterflies causing the apocalypse via the dust on their wings, but I was never able to get past that initial thought. Years later, I had a dream where an enormous moth was crawling (harmlessly) up my leg and had an ah-ha moment!
As far as Shur goes—who’s better in a crisis than someone who’s always in crisis mode? At least, that’s been my own personal experience (as someone with anxiety). I wanted Shur to be surrounded by people she really cared about, and who cared about her back, but I didn’t want her to be a superheroine who could jump into action to easily save the day. I also didn’t want her to act like an adult—to take the place of her mom—but rather to use the tools she had to do what needed doing, even if she wasn’t yet aware that her anxiety could be used as a tool. It was important for the others to not take her seriously at first—if they didn’t appreciate her quirks before the crisis, it was definitely going to take a minute for them to get on board.
Anxiety is so often treated as (and can be) crippling, but it really can be useful in some situations. So, when it came to a caretaker responsible for the survival of her family (on the heels of the loss of her father), I wanted someone who would absolutely think of everything that could go wrong and plan for it.
Terrible Charlie and Little are based on my Amazon parrot and my nephew, respectively. I got a kick out of the idea of having to take care of a living being that absolutely does not care what’s going on around it, but still demands feeding (Charlie) and does not appreciate the effort in the least. For Little, I too often read small child characters who don’t act like real little kids—demanding, hilarious, monstrous when overtired. While being trapped with her friends and twin made sense, those circumstances alone were too easy. It felt more authentic to me to have these additional components for Shur to deal with.
WOW: How cool that you had an idea that percolated until a strange dream led you to this book idea. Thank you, too, for sharing with us about your anxiety and how you are using it as one of Shur’s strengths in this book. What an empowering take! One way to describe this novel is as a survival YA read. Did you pay attention to tropes when writing your story?
Jennifer: I definitely had my influences! I knew which tropes I wanted to keep and which ones I wanted to avoid. The sense of isolation, constant danger around every corner, no place being truly safe—these were all things I could see serving my characters and, by extension, the story’s tension. I’ve been obsessed with cordyceps infections since reading The Girl with All the Gifts and watching Fortitude. So, I loved the idea of something sort of zombie-like driven by nature and unpredictable from species to species.
There were a few tropes I tried to avoid. Starvation was a big one (that’s why Shur is constantly cooking, she’ll have read all the YA survival books almost as instruction manuals). I feel like I’ve read that a million times, from scrounging unripe berries to cracking open the last mystery can in the cupboard. Another was finding true love. I did want to have the potential for romance, but I don’t realistically think Shur would be in a place to fall in love at that particular moment. It would be the furthest thing from her mind. Finally, I didn’t want to introduce a backstabber into the house. That’s something I see in a lot of great books, but not something I wanted to do here—they’re a cohesive unit from start to end, and I didn’t want real betrayal factoring into that.
“That she’s able to come to terms with her anxiety vs. ‘cure’ it by the end is what that storyline is really about. Her anxiety is part of her, and it serves a purpose. Maybe she’ll work through it with time, and maybe it’ll always be there, but it’s nothing for her to be ashamed of. It can be a strength.”
WOW: That’s what I think makes a great book—some tropes are there for readers who enjoy those stories, but then you put your unique spin on it and what works for your characters! Another point that our readers could really learn from is the masterful way you handle four characters who are at the center of this—two males and two females. How did you work on their characters to stay distinct during their sheltering-in-place, especially at the beginning of the novel?
Jennifer: I tend to think of my characters as real people. I like to do some initial character studies to understand their unique motivations before I start to write them. Once a character’s traits and behaviors are established, it’s easier to think of the things they would say, how they’d react to certain stimuli, how they’d be under extreme pressure.
Understanding who my characters are (and why they are that way) from the start was the key to keeping them realistic all the way through. There’s always a core to a person—who they are when you strip everything else away—but that core grows differently depending on stimuli. I think of it like a plant—if the soil is acidic, the flowers will be a different color. If it’s only getting light from one direction, it will grow in that direction. Characters are like that—you need their growth, their journey, to make sense organically, and that means understanding who they are from the very beginning. So, when you subject them to different stimuli, say being trapped in a house with killer butterflies outside and a child who will not stop singing “Let it Go” on repeat, their responses should feel authentic.
WOW: Definitely. Your take on writing characters in a novel is one we can all learn from, no matter what we are writing. One more question about the book: You gave Shur, the main protagonist, an internal struggle with her anxiety as well as the external struggle with the swarm. Why was it important to explore both stories? How does this add depth to the novel and did you know from the beginning of writing that she would deal with anxiety attacks?
Jennifer: I think it was important from the beginning to acknowledge that this is a person who has had serious struggles with her mental health because something really dreadful happened to her through no fault of her own, and that it’s impacted her entire way of existing. When the story starts, she’s already a mess because her anxiety has her on the edge of fight-or-flight all the time. She’s perpetually waiting for the next shoe to drop.
I could have had a more neurotypical character, but the idea of already having anxiety about everything, then having that paranoia absolutely justified, made perfect sense to me. If you don’t have to pass through the “I cannot believe this is happening to me” phase and instead go directly to “OK, how do I handle this?” it’s a little easier to transition to a new normal.
The way that Shur processes information and deals with disaster is what gets her friends and family through the crisis. At first, no one really takes their situation (or her reaction) seriously except her—it takes them awhile to figure out that she’s right to panic. That she’s able to come to terms with her anxiety vs “cure” it by the end is what that storyline is really about. Her anxiety is part of her, and it serves a purpose. Maybe she’ll work through it with time, and maybe it’ll always be there, but it’s nothing for her to be ashamed of. It can be a strength.
WOW: Yes, I think this is really a strength of this book. I think readers will be able to relate to Shur and your characters as they survive. Let’s look at a few other aspects of launching your first book into the world! What have you been doing to prepare for your book launch?
Jennifer: Mostly panicking and trying not to compulsively check Goodreads. Seriously, the marketing team at Sourcebooks is amazing, and they’ve been doing all the heavy lifting. From my side, I’m mostly updating my socials and bracing for the big day!
WOW: So glad to hear you have marketing support, and this means that our readers can add Swarm to their bookshelves on Goodreads. What is the one thing you are really looking forward to once the book is released on November 7?
Jennifer: I’m hoping to walk into a bookstore and see Swarm on a shelf. It’s simple, but it’ll be surreal! I’ve wanted to be a published author since I was barely into double digits, so for that to happen will blow my mind a little bit. My sister, to whom the book is dedicated, is really into audiobooks, so I know what she’s really looking forward to is asking Alexa to read my book to her.
WOW: Ha! I love it. That’s the greatest. What advice do you have for authors who are marketing their first book or their fifteenth?
Jennifer: Ask me again once I get through this first one! Seriously, I’ve found myself thrust into the world of social media, setting up presences on Instagram and Threads, creating a website, and answering lots of questions on Goodreads. My goal is to be accessible to my readers and to build anticipation for my next book(s)! My advice would be, put yourself out there and interact with your readers. Find out what they liked and didn’t about your current work. But, like with all criticism, have a thick skin. Not everyone will love you, and that’s OK.
WOW: This is great advice, especially for YA authors. Teens will love this and your authenticity, but they can also be SO honest. I know—I have a seventh grader who will be thirteen at the end of October. What’s next for you? Is there a sequel or another YA book in the same genre?
Jennifer: As of right now, there’s no sequel in the works for Swarm, although I’d love to revisit that world someday. I’ve been obsessed with folk horror for a while now, so my next book will be in that genre, keeping with the YA audience. Similar to Swarm, the latest story has an underlying theme of isolation, but my readers will find my new MC and her predicament very different from Shur and her butterflies.
“The first hard thing to understand is that writing isn’t romantic—it’s hard work. It takes commitment and ruthlessness. You have to be prepared to write a terrible first draft.”
WOW: Awesome! I just followed you on Goodreads, so I can’t wait to see what’s in store. For those members of our community who are reading this at home and wondering: Will this ever be me? What is some advice you have for them?
Jennifer: Of course it will be you! This isn’t my first novel, or even my second. I started writing fan fiction as a kid (before I knew there was a name for what I was doing) and slowly worked up to writing novels. The first hard thing to understand is that writing isn’t romantic—it’s hard work. It takes commitment and ruthlessness. You have to be prepared to write a terrible first draft. Seriously. It’s easier to edit and revise something that exists in the world than it is to keep rewriting and revising the same chapter over and over to get the words just right. Do outlines—pantsing works for some people, but mostly it doesn’t work. Invest in a program like Scrivener that helps you with character sketches and blocking out chapters. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that success is impossible or that no one is interested in what you’re writing. Invest in professional feedback for your query letter. Be prepared to write more than one book. Read a lot. And don’t ever give up.
WOW: Yes to all this! Thank you. We all know that listening to each other, as writers, is so important. No one understands writers like another writer. Any closing thoughts?
Jennifer: I’d love for your readers to find me on Goodreads and to ask me any questions they want answered! I’m on Threads, Instagram, and X (the artist formerly known as Twitter) @jenniferdlyle and at jenniferdlyle.com. And thank you so much for the interview!
WOW: Thank you, Jennifer! We wish you much success!
Readers, we hope you will connect with Jennifer in one of the ways she mentions above. We are lucky to get her perspective on so many writing and book marketing aspects as a debut novelist. And I hope you love Swarm as much as I did.
Margo L. Dill is an author, editor, and publisher in St. Louis, Missouri. She started Editor-911 Books, a small traditional publisher, in 2020, and has been a published author of children’s and YA books since 2012. When she is not busy with her publishing company, she spends her day writing mostly about agriculture for a marketing agency and parenting her 13-year-old daughter and 4-year-old dog, Sudsi! Find out more at www.editor-911.com.