Meet the First WISC Fellow-in-Residence: An Interview with Kristin Swenson
Kristin Swenson is the Women’s International Study Center’s inaugural Fellow-in-Residence as well as the first WISC Sallie Bingham Fellow. She is the author of Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time, Living through Pain: Psalms and the Search for Wholeness and What is Religious Studies?: A Journey of Inquiry (with Esther R. Nelson). She is a Visiting Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and was a former Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she was a tenured faculty member for 15 years.
Born and raised in Duluth, Minnesota as one of the “frozen chosen,” Kristin attended St. Olaf College — a small, liberal arts Lutheran college. After graduation, she earned her Masters and Ph.D. degrees at Boston University in the history and literature of ancient Israel. Kristin loves stories, solitude, and the company of animals both domestic and wild. She also adores her friends, family and colleagues, and loves hanging out with them; having thought-provoking, late-night talks; and meeting new mutual friends. She is currently engaged in the evolution of her writing to the realm of historical fiction, where she says “fact and fiction dance together in truth's arena.”
INTERVIEW WITH KRISTIN SWENSON:
WISC: Did you enjoy writing as a child or young adult?
KS: I did write a bit as a kid, but I mostly I read... and read... and read.
WISC: Which writers inspire you?
KS: Oh, gosh. Pretty much all writers inspire me – from the people responsible for generating, collecting, editing, and finalizing biblical texts (my academic specialty) to the writers of today who craft stories that in some peculiarly mysterious way wriggle into our minds with challenge, comfort, insight, and wonder.
WISC: You spent 15 years as a faculty member with tenure at Virginia Commonwealth University, and are currently a Visiting Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Tell us what is most challenging and most rewarding as a professor at a major university.
KS: My academic specialty in the history and literature of ancient Israel – religious studies, in general – granted to me an incredible privilege. To watch students accept the invitation to learn and often to think in new ways about some of the most influential and important things to us as human beings is thrilling. I also learned a tremendous amount from them. I loved teaching, and I loved writing. I also appreciated the opportunity to shape higher education, despite all that committee work. But I resigned. A couple of years after earning tenure, I married and moved to a new town (to Charlottesville from Richmond). I commuted for one year and then resigned. I now write full-time, though I am as you noted affiliated with both VCU and UVA.
WISC: You are now devoting most of your time to writing. Please share with us your typical day in your life as a full-time author.
KS: I took this professional change from tenured professor to full-time writer (and the support of an amazing spouse) as an opportunity to write in ways that I hadn't in academia – fiction, in my case, and a stage play (though I have a couple of nonfiction projects on the burners, too). Exactly what I do each day varies; but I do treat my writing as a job, going to work in the mornings whether or not I “feel inspired.” Oh, and I walk. A lot.
WISC: You are currently working on writing a 4-part series on the story of Amytis, the widow of Nebuchadnezzar, the aunt of Cyrus the Great, and a crucial figure in Cyrus' conquest of Babylon and the liberation of the Jews from exile. How did you find out about her, and what inspired you to write her story?
KS: As a student of the ancient Near East, I became enamored of Cyrus II (the Great) because of his reputation for enlightened leadership and for his role in supporting nascent Judaism and the development of the Bible. But as I dug for the kind of information that makes a ripping biography, I came up short. We actually know precious little about Cyrus. But I dug for years, investigating anything even remotely related to him – from ancient Babylonian temple records to the clothing of Iranian horsemen, from the tattoos of steppe tribes to geological studies of Pasargad. In the process, I met some incredible women. Again, explicit information is hard to come by – the sources are few and they don’t all agree. But with all of the information that I’d gathered, intriguing connections between fragments of information began to come together into quite a story. Front and center is Amytis, widow of Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus’ aunt and second wife at the time of Cyrus’ famous conquest of Babylon and liberation of the Jews from exile. That woman, with her abiding love for the mountain home of her youth, her loves and losses and evolving wisdom has become the main character for what I think of as this epic, ancient Persian soap opera.
WISC: What clothing designers do you wear? Just kidding. Do you experience gender bias in publishing or in other facets of your work? If so, how do you navigate those challenges?
KS: Clothes! Love ‘em. To answer that part of your question seriously: I'm trying very hard to live without a huge first-world footprint, and one delightful way to reduce is by buying clothes from consignment stores. Santa Fe has some great ones, by the way! But to answer your real, serious question: I am incredibly lucky to have been born when and where I was. Thank you to all those people who have worked for women’s rights and continue to speak up on issues concerning reproductive rights, competitive salaries, and a place at the table. I have still encountered bias along the way. But who doesn’t? In truth, I am probably my own worst enemy in ways that continue to be sadly more common for women than for men, as a recent article on the “confidence gap” between men and women notes (Atlantic Monthly link here). Fessing up: I have terrible confidence. The way that I manage that (if I manage it at all) is to try not to worry too much what I think of myself, but simply to try to act, to do. I’m always hoping that my next work will be better.
WISC: What ideas do you have for both women and men to better enable, recognize, and promote the accomplishments of women?
KS: Exactly that – enable, recognize, and promote! I see a bumper sticker in WISC's future... Organizations such as WISC are leading the way. Lead on.