Bonnie Tsui: Author Spotlight

Bonnie Tsui, author of the new book Why We Swim, shares the patience required to write a book about living people and why she chose the publisher she did.
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Bonnie Tsui, author of the new book Why We Swim, shares the patience required to write a book about living people and why she chose the publisher she did.

Bonnie Tsui

Bonnie Tsui (c) Lynsay Skiba

Name (byline): Bonnie Tsui

Literary agent (if one): Danielle Svetcov, Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary

Book title: Why We Swim

Publisher: Algonquin Books

Expected release date: April 14, 2020

Genre/category: Nonfiction

Elevator pitch for the book (1-2 sentence pitch): A cultural and scientific exploration of our human relationship with water and swimming

Previous titles (if any) by the author: American Chinatown

What prompted you to write this book?

There are so many books about running, from the mechanics of it to the evolutionary biology of it—I think about Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run as the gold standard for a narrative book that tells a great yarn, and also a larger story about our human relationship with something essential. I’m a lifelong swimmer—my parents met in a swimming pool in Hong Kong!—and I wanted that kind of a book about swimming. I wanted to create a really interesting read with compelling characters that worked on a story level and also engaged at the 30,000-foot level with ideas that were big and satisfying.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process? 

Holy smokes yes. I thought about the book for years—I wrote an essay about swimming six years ago that people really responded to, and I thought, OK, maybe this is something I’ll really try to do. I started gathering intriguing stories about swimming about five years ago, in a back-burner sort of way, but I had a lot of trouble figuring out the structure and organizing principle of the book. It wasn’t until three years ago that a really smart editor friend of mine looked at the material I’d collected and said, Why don’t you just call it something like Why We Swim? And then all the pieces fell into place—the stories fell into five different ways of answering that question: for survival, well-being, community, competition, flow. My agent sold the book on proposal a few months later, and then I started reporting and writing in earnest. And here we are.

[Read our previous author spotlight with Maisy Card here.]

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title? 

I learned from my previous experience with American Chinatown that I didn’t want to be with a big publishing house. I didn’t want to be one of a thousand books coming out in the same month, fighting for air and then forgotten. I wanted a more intimate working relationship with an editor and publishing team, so I went with Algonquin. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I have been astounded every day by how amazing and engaged the team is, every step of the way, and how much they love books, on a personal, human level. I adore everyone there.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book? 

Waiting is not easy, and this book taught me how important it is to be patient. There’s a central character in the book who was a real wild card, in that for the longest time I wasn’t sure if I’d get to talk with or meet with him. We wrote to each other for a year before I finally flew to Iceland to see him in person. Up until the day we met, I wasn’t sure he would agree to it. I’m very glad he did.

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What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

A sense of immersion and wonder. And the desire—even if you don’t think of yourself as a swimmer!—to get in the water.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Books are hard and they take an obscenely long time (even my seven-year-old knows this by now!). But if you find that you can’t stop thinking about a particular book idea, even on your downtime and in your dreams, it’s time to write it.

Why We Swim | Bonnie Tsui

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