The Shadow of the Lions author asks readers to play amateur detective in his debut novel about a mysterious disappearance at a boys’ boarding school in Virginia.
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Imagine for a moment that your best friend from high school vanished senior year and you never saw him again. Ten years later, you return to that school to teach and have the chance to find out what really happened. Would you take it?
Author Christopher Swann, who serves as English Department chair at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Atlanta, wants readers of his debut novel Shadow of the Lions to ask themselves that question as they follow main character Matthias Glass. In Shadow of the Lions, high school is the prestigious boys’ boarding school of Blackburne, where Matthias’s roommate and best friend Fritz disappeared nine years ago. Fritz ran off into the woods after an argument with Matthias and was never seen or heard from again.
A failed novelist and party boy, Matthias is in need of a fresh start and a paycheck. He accepts a job as an English teacher at Blackburne, but once back on campus Matthias begins to see a darker side of the school—and can’t help but try and uncover what happened to Fritz.
We talked to Christopher Swann about how Donna Tartt’s The Secret History set the bar for blending thriller and literary fiction, his own boarding school experience and what he and Matthias have in common.
EZB: The similarities between Shadow of the Lions and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History are evident. Are you a Tartt fan and, if so, what about The Secret History inspired you?
CS: Thanks for the comparison! The Secret History came out in 1992, just after I graduated from Washington and Lee University, and that novel captures that strong, heady feeling of being young and in college. So, in a sense, The Secret History created a sort of immediate nostalgia for me. I also loved the way the novel blended the genres of thriller and literary fiction; I’ve always been drawn to books and authors that do that. And the quality of the writing overall, at a sentence level, blew me away. So yes, The Secret History is an inspiration. But the source material for Shadow of the Lions is very much its own thing. I didn’t deliberately set out to write a novel like Donna Tartt’s. It’s more that she set a bar for me, and I wanted to see how well I could write my own novel.
EZB: As an English teacher yourself, you and Matthias have a few things in common. What else did you pull from your own life, or other places, to create his character?
CS: After I spent about a decade writing a different novel, which had to do with a broken family and the IRA—things about which I have no firsthand experience or knowledge—my wife said, not unkindly, “Why don’t you write about something you know?” I resisted that advice for a time, in part because I thought my own life would be dull material for a novel, and in part because I enjoy the sheer audacity of fiction writing, the make-it-all-up aspect of it. However, I had the idea for a story set in a boarding school, and I wanted to make the narrator, Matthias, a teacher, but a pretty green one. As a high school English teacher for two decades, I drew on my own experience for that. But I also wanted Matthias to be somewhat flawed—in ways that are different, I hope, from my own personal flaws—and I wanted him to have this secret guilt he was carrying around, because I thought that would be dramatically interesting. And, finally, I’ve always been fascinated with mysteries and detectives, especially characters who are not official or professional detectives. So I dropped Matthias into a situation where his best friend Fritz vanishes and he feels partly to blame, and later has a chance to perhaps uncover some truths about what happened to Fritz.
I did not intend to start looking into Fritz’s disappearance. I’m not a detective or an investigative reporter; I’m a novelist, and novelists are given to flights of imagination, to what-ifs and conjecture and spinning tales. Writing stories is a game I play with myself, an enjoyable one. At least, it used to be. But it isn’t real, not like Fritz’s disappearance was real.” – Chapter Seven
EZB: Matthias starts out as a teacher but quickly becomes a detective as he begins to investigate Fritz’s disappearance. What do you think are the elements of a good mystery, and what did you learn while writing this book?
CS: At first I wanted to write this novel the way I read a novel: I would discover it and figure it out as I went along. That doesn’t work very well for good mysteries, which, when solved, tend to have a logical inevitability to them, where when the mystery is solved you think, “Oh, my God, the nanny did it? That completely surprised me! And yet it makes perfect sense.” Trying to write a mystery on the fly might not make the best sense. On the other hand, you can’t make the solution so obvious that by page 50 the reader has it completely figured out and grows bored. And I don’t like ironclad outlines, because I believe writing is an act of discovery and that the imagination, especially when you hit a wall, can be pretty powerful and inventive.
Once I decided to write about Matthias and his vanished friend, and the effect that Fritz’s vanishing would have on Matthias in the years to follow, I had two questions to answer. The first was, what really happened to Fritz—how did he vanish, and why? The next question was, will Matthias find out? Once I had the answers to those two questions, they became my lighthouses—I could wander around in the story and figure out some of the other plot-related events, but those two answers guided everything.
I also think that mysteries aren’t just about the plot. You have to care about the characters, too. And I thought it would be interesting to have Matthias play detective. He isn’t bound by the conventions or ethics that an actual detective would be. At the same time, he doesn’t really know what he’s doing, either, and so he flails around a bit. But failure is actually good. That’s how we learn and grow. And I think that happens to Matthias.
The dew-beaded bricks muffled my footsteps as I walked to Huber Hall the morning of my first day of teaching. The Hill was shrouded in a wet fog from the river that made the walkways and the Lawn glisten in the dawning, pearl-gray light.” – Chapter Five
EZB: Atmosphere and setting are a big part of this novel. Is Blackburne based on any real place, and why did you choose Virginia as the location for the school? Also, did you use a map or anything like that to keep all the halls and school buildings straight?
CS: I attended Woodberry Forest, an all-boys boarding school in Virginia, about 25 minutes outside of Charlottesville. Woodberry is a fantastic school, and that experience had a tremendous impact on me. I am the person I am today, in large part, due to my experiences at Woodberry. Other students and graduates of Woodberry will recognize a lot of things in my novel, although Blackburne is a fictional place. Basically I took the best parts of Woodberry and gave them to Blackburne, and the bad parts of Blackburne I made up. There are a lot of Easter eggs for Woodberry folks in my novel, especially for my classmates. I also attended college in Virginia, so in all I spent eight pretty fundamental years in Virginia. The Woodberry campus served as a template for Blackburne, although I moved some buildings around and changed the names and so forth. I did not draw a map, although later I thought about drawing one for the reader. But in the end I didn’t think it was necessary.
EZB: Patti Callahan Henry said “Shadow of the Lions explores the timeless complexity of deep friendship.” What do you think it means to be a good friend, and how does that concept change from boyhood to adulthood?
CS: I’m reading Patti’s newest book right now, The Bookshop at Water’s End, and it strikes me how much Patti writes about friendship, and how well she does it. I write in my book how boarding school students can form intense, long-lasting friendships. At Woodberry, I had the same roommate for three years, and we are close friends to this day. He and I are older now, with a little more weight and, at least in my case, a lot less hair than when we first met. But we have this great history between us that we can draw on. We also can act like fools with all of our in-jokes, especially when we get together with a third classmate and friend in town.
The very idea of friendship fascinates me. How and why do we make friends? Why do some friendships last, and some fade? Children seem to make friends rather easily, sometimes startlingly quickly. It becomes more complicated when you are an adult. It also becomes harder to maintain friendships as you get older. Marriage can be an early hurdle, especially if one friend is married and another is not. Parenthood is another hurdle, as children take a lot of time and energy to raise. I read somewhere that older men, particularly widowers, often find difficulty in maintaining old friendships and in creating new ones.
But good friends, I think, weather all sorts of storms. Really good friends can reconnect rather easily, even if years have passed since they’ve last seen one another. Loyalty is important in friendship, as are honesty and empathy and a shared common experience. Friends do drift apart, true, even those you had when you were young and thought would be your friends forever. But there is something romantic about friendship. I don’t mean romantic as in love, but as in mysterious and powerful. Everybody needs a friend, and yet it is hard to explain why one set of people became friends and another set didn’t. The friends we make when we are younger, particularly in adolescence, exert a real pull on us, and those are relationships that can outlast school, careers, even marriages.
In my novel, I wanted to see how Matthias would react to the disappearance of his best friend and what kind of effect that disappearance would have on Matthias’ life. Imagine your best friend from high school vanishes, and years later you learn you might be able to find out what happened to that friend. What would you do? That’s one of the central questions that drives my novel.
Christopher Swann headshot by Kathy Ferrell Swann.