‘I Want You More’ Traps a Lesbian Ghostwriter in a Manor With a Devious Food Network Star

In 2018, Swan Huntley wrote an essay for this website that remains one of my favorite things we’ve ever published. I related to it, how it described so well that youthful vulnerability to people who loved us enough, but never all the way, how as kids you are so “open to being molded, pouring ourselves into different vessels to see how it feels.” I wish I’d left that openness behind in my youth, but some of us never really do.

Swan Huntley’s new novel, I Want You More, is the story of an adult who hasn’t. Zara, a ghostwriter who’s father has recently died, takes a job writing the autobiography of Jane Bailey, star of the wildly popular cooking show 30 Bucks Top. Jane invites Zara to live with her at her East Hampton estate for the summer so they can really, truly, get to know each other. A romantic connection develops and Zara begins pouring herself into Jane’s mold — from wearing her clothes to following her diet and workout routine. But something more sinister lurks beneath Jane’s shiny surface and Zara finds herself trapped in something she didn’t see coming.

I Want You More is Swan’s fourth novel, after We Could Be Beautiful (2016), The Goddesses (2017), and Getting Clean With Stevie Green (2022). She also wrote the illustrated gift book, The Bad Mood Book, in 2023, and has a second illustrated book coming out on June 11th, You’re Grounded: An Anti-Self-Help Book to Calm You the F*ck Down. In addition to the aforementioned essay, she recently wrote 25 Things About Being Chronically Single for Autostraddle, has written several pieces at Go Magazine, and publishes myriad doodles on her instagram account. So I went to Swan’s apartment in Los Feliz and we discussed all of these topics and more.

"i want you more" by swan huntley

“What if I was trapped in a house with someone? Who could that person be? How could things devolve?”

Riese: How’d you get the idea for this book?

Swan: I was ghostwriting the memoirs of a Real Housewife of New York City and during the process she said to me, and I quote, “You’re coming to my manor October 21.”

I thought, (a) I would rather sleep in a box, and (b) that’s a good idea for a book.

Riese: So you didn’t go to her manor?

Swan: No. It was the height of the pandemic.

Riese: You weren’t at all thinking it could be a really good manor?

Swan: I didn’t care about the manor. But I did start to wonder, “What if I was trapped in a house with someone? Who could that person be? How could things devolve?” I was influenced by The War of the Roses, a movie that I love. Which is about being stuck in a house with someone you love who is also trying to kill you. Single White Female was an influence too.

Riese: Yes, I love thrillers so I was so glad you wrote one with a queer protagonist — are there authors whose thrillers that you like or that inspired you?

Swan: I read some thrillers before writing this. I like Tana French. Dennis Lehane, who was my college teacher, is really smart on a language level and is great at creating suspense. I re-read Stephen King’s Misery before. It’s too long and surprisingly slow, but King draws characters well.

Riese: Your books The Goddesses and We Could Be Beautiful have a bit of that thriller element as well — what draws you to that genre?

Swan: Thrillers are fun to write because you’re always trying to figure out how to create suspense for the reader. Information needs to be eked out slowly and thoughtfully so that people want to keep reading.

Riese: So there’s also a consistent theme in this book, your first two, and the essay you wrote for us in 2018 — of getting so wrapped up in somebody else’s magnetic personality that you lose yourself, just merging your hopes and dreams into somebody else’s. Why do you think this is a theme you keep returning to?

Swan: I don’t really think a lot about the “why” when I’m writing. I don’t analyze, I just try to step out of the way and write whatever comes into my head. Then I read it later and a lot of the time, I’m like…Oh I guess that’s what this book is really about. I think my first book could be re-titled Swan’s Fear Of Intimacy and the second could be re-titled That Dark Yoga Teacher Swan Became Enamored With When She Was Seventeen. My 2018 essay was about her, too. Back to your point, though, yes, all my books are about a character who encounters a sketchy antagonist who changes the course of their life. Why is that? Maybe subconsciously, I want to be saved by a person or some other external thing. I have a long history of doing that. I’ve been sober for 13 years, so I’ve thrown everything imaginable into the hole in my soul. Alcohol, drugs, nicotine, other people. Basically everything. And I think my healing in the last couple of years has been to look inside rather than look outside. I mean, I think we’re all trying to do this.

To me, this book is a highly dramatized version of what happens when a woman who is struggling to know herself gets into a relationship. It’s easy to get subsumed by another person’s wants when you don’t know what you want. Zara, when we meet her, is searching for an identity. She’s vulnerable. She’s in a perfect position to be swept up into somebody’s identity – and then she meets Jane.

Riese: I think that’s part of what I loved about this book and the others, is how well it describes that process of kind of filling yourself with someone else. The small details — adopting what they eat, what they wear, which can be harmless or even cute, but then it can get out of control. And also rationalizing a psychologically unsettling relationship because it’s helping your life in some specific way that also is part of how that person controls you. It’s easy for Zara to justify the situation because look at her! She’s working out, she’s eating great food, her body is in peak shape! I was in this relationship once that had become toxic and bananas, but I’d also never written more or better, so I was like… maybe it’s not that bad??? The bigger question is: What are we willing to sacrifice of ourselves to achieve our goals?

Swan: Right, and the degree to which you’re susceptible to that is contingent upon how vulnerable you are. I killed Zara’s dad off in the beginning so that she’d be extra vulnerable.

Riese: Yeah, also I liked that her Dad was dead. I don’t like it when people have living Dads in books, because then I’m jealous that their Dad is alive and mine isn’t.

Swan: That was taken from real life — my Dad died recently. Recently? It has actually been five years, which is crazy.

Riese: Did you have an urge to write about what it felt like to lose your dad?

Swan: Again, I try not to analyze my reasons for doing things. I just do them. I don’t write about him extensively in this book. But I have written a lot about him in the memoir I’m working on now. People can read that next summer.

“When I was a kid, writing was my way of processing what was happening around me, and to feel less alone.”

Riese: To switch gears for a minute — what has your life as a writer been like? You got an MFA, and then you started writing your first novel after that?

Swan: I always wanted to be a writer. From the time I was very young. I’d try to get my little friends to write books with me, and then my Mom gave me a journal when I was nine and I got so interested in recording everything. Even in the act of writing something down, you’re writing a story. You’re choosing what to record and what to leave out. Even if it’s just you who’s going to read it later, you’re still telling you how to feel. When I was a kid, writing was my way of processing what was happening around me, and to feel less alone. I got an undergrad degree in creative writing, took a couple of years off, and then I got an MFA. I was always like, “I’m writing books. That’s it. That’s what I’m doing.”

Riese: Was it easy to get your first book published?

Swan: Well, I wrote two books before the one that got published got published.

Riese: What happened to those books?

Swan: I wrote one as my thesis for grad school. The thesis advisors were like, “Yeah, great.” I sent it out to agents and all of them said, “You’re a really good writer, but nothing happens in this book.” And I was like, “Oh my god.” And then I wrote another book and everybody said, “This is really great, but nothing happens in this book.” But there was one agent who said, “If you change these 17 billion things, I will consider repping you.” So I changed all the things and emailed him and he basically didn’t remember who I was. By the time I wrote We Could Be Beautiful, I was so pissed off.

Riese: I feel like that’s where I’m at right now — abandoning my first novel and starting a new one but I wanna be sure to think about plot more this time, not just characters and being a good writer.

Swan: Right, you’ve gotta give them a reason to turn the page. What ended up happening was that I outlined We Could Be Beautiful. A very simple outline, not an in-depth outline, but I understood where I was going.

Riese: Is there anything that you feel like you were naive about that you understand now about publishing that you didn’t understand when you started?

Swan: You have to be really proactive. When it gets to the public-facing part of the process, it’s useful to do as much as you can yourself.

How Do You Put Together a Writing Career?

Riese: How have you put together your career as a writer? How do you balance your time, paying gigs, passion projects, get everything done?

Swan: I’ve always put my own work first. I’ve had a bunch of bad jobs, the types of jobs where you just don’t want to stay for longer than six months, so you can’t get comfortable.

When I was younger, I lived in a cooperative house in Fort Greene, which was really cheap, and I was working as a nanny, and I quit that job and got a subletter and went to a residency in Chicago, and then on to Hawaii where my Dad lived to bang out We Could Be Beautiful. That’s historically what I’ve done. I get a job, I quit, I leave, I work very intensely for a period of time.

Riese: Do you prefer having gigs that are writing related, or do you feel like you learn stuff that helps you when you’re writing from doing jobs that aren’t writing?

Swan: It’s been a while since I’ve had a non-writing job, but it seems fun to do something random and different. I went to Erewhon a few weeks ago and I was like, “Should I work at Erewhon?” My friend said, “You will last for two hours.” But my first job was at Whole Foods, as a bagger, so I’m qualified.

Riese: Oh, nice.

Swan: Yeah, it could be a homecoming.

Riese: Right. You could just go back to your roots, which is expensive organic avocados.

Swan: Yeah.

“I also am like a baby. I eat four things.”

Riese: So speaking of food, what made you want to make Jane a food celebrity?

Swan: I think I made her a food celebrity because I didn’t want to make her a Real Housewife. And I grew up watching the Food Network religiously. That was always on in my house.

Riese: Why?

Swan: I don’t know.

Riese: Do you like to cook?

Swan: No, not at all.

Riese: Do you like to eat?

Swan: Yeah, but I like to assemble. I just throw some stuff in a bowl. I also am like a baby. I eat four things.

Riese: What are the four things?

Swan: Beans, greens, bananas, and rice cakes. I mean, there are more things, but I like bland simple food. But back to Food Network, I can remember Giada De Laurentiis telling me that before you cut a lemon, you should roll it around so it gets softer, easier to cut. These personalities were just imprinted on my brain. When I write, whatever’s in my head comes out. So that’s what’s happened here. People say, “Write what you know.” I just assume that whatever I know will present itself at the right time.

Riese: It’s a weird adage also because a lot of writers just write? I’ve had a million jobs but since turning 30 or so it’s just been writing in some capacity so I struggle to give jobs to adults that are not “writer.”

Swan: Oh, yeah. No offense, but this is actually very annoying to me. Why can’t fiction writers come up with a more inventive job than “writer”? There are so many jobs in the world!

Riese: You did just write a book about a writer.

Swan: That’s true. I did that because ghostwriting fed perfectly into the themes of self-awareness and the stories we tell ourselves and where those two things intersect. When I ghostwrite, what’s interesting is that sometimes the client feels you have not captured their voice when you feel you have. Or they know you’ve captured their voice, but their voice isn’t what they want to present to their fans. They want to present a persona.

Riese: Yeah. That dissonance between the stories we tell about ourselves and how they come off to others, how we construct the narrative of our lives now, strategically picking parts of the past that fit into your current self-mythology.

Swan: Yeah and I think Jane is smart. She’s a cunning person, and she understands what it means to be a public person. The narrative she’s crafting for her fans is what matters to her. What really happened matters less.

“A couple of years ago, my career took a turn into the illustration space.”

Riese: How did it happen that you have two books coming out at the same time?

Swan: A couple of years ago, my career took a turn into the illustration space. I write these gift books now, and I love it. The first one came out last summer. It’s called The Bad Mood Book. It’s a journal-style interactive book that features me as a cartoon bird-person. The new one is called You’re Grounded: An Anti Self-Help Book to Calm You the F*ck Down. In it, I take the reader through some ideas about how to get grounded in a way that’s hopefully not cloying.

Riese: Do you like working in that space? Has it been successful?

Swan: I don’t know. How are we measuring “success”? If we’re talking about the number of books sold, all I can say is that it’s all about publicity. Which brings us back to the importance of being proactive.

Riese: Is that tiring? I remember growing up like, we heard about all these writers who were recluses, J.D. Salinger never talked to anyone! Now we’re adults in a new era when reclusivity is not an option. How has that been for you? You post a lot!

Swan: So I recently had a change of heart about this. Up until now, I’ve been really ambivalent about social media. I am a total analog person. I’m not a tech person. As an example, after I finally figured out how to burn a CD, I made one for my friend and she was like, “We’re not doing this anymore.”

Riese: I was printing out MapQuest instructions for years after everyone else switched to GPS. People were like, “You can just look it up on your phone,” and I was like, “I don’t know about that.”

Swan: I remember when we started texting. I was like, “This is a waste of time.” Also, it really was a waste of time because you had to press the number so many times to get one letter. Anyway, I was ambivalent about social media. But now I’ve accepted that this is the world in which we live. Everyone has their own little TV channel, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I try to make it fun for myself. For a long time, before I started putting my drawings on Instagram, I didn’t understand how to use the little square. Other writers have a lot of pics of their computers with beautiful vistas in the background. And that’s cool, but it’s just not my vibe.

Riese: Right, with like, a little mug.

Swan: Right, a mug that says ‘WRITING IS GREAT!” It’s highly curated. When I posted my first little doodle, I was like, Oh, this is how I should be using this square. And it got me to use a part of my creative brain that I wasn’t really using. I’ve come to understand that a different part of my voice comes out depending on the form in which I’m working. There’s my non-fiction voice, my fiction voice, my drawing voice, and they’re all me, but they’re all slightly different. it’s fun to be doing more than one thing. I think it’s very difficult, or it was for me, to only be writing novels because I’m fast and the publishing industry is slow.

But that “loving yourself” thing is the final frontier.

Riese: So when you’re writing these books, they’re sort of like self-help-ish type books, right? How do you see that compared to the sort of incidental self-help that comes from reading fiction? In terms of what people might take away from it?

Swan: If it helps somebody, cool. If somebody doesn’t like it, fine. Everybody is viewing everything through their own lens, so-

Riese: But you must have that instinct to have some idea of what you think people could be doing better in their lives to feel better, right, because you’re writing these other books. Do you ever feel like that comes through in fiction?

Swan: I think I always have a character who’s sort of searching. I mean, all of my books are a conversation with myself.

Riese: Do you take your own advice?

Swan: Sometimes. I think the trick is consistency with a lot of stuff. Like, I’ll meditate for a little while, then I’ll fall off. Now, my life is pretty healthy. I’ve gotten the exterior stuff in order. But that “loving yourself” thing is the final frontier.

Riese: Yeah, yeah. My therapist gave me an assignment to write down things I love about myself and then share it in therapy, and it’s so annoying. It’s the worst assignment she’s ever given me.

Swan: I like that. That’s sweet.

Riese: I’ve just always relied on external validation so much that I’m like, I don’t really know. The idea that people are supposed to find confidence in themselves without any outside validation or assurance — to me, that’s confusing.

Swan: I get confused when I compare myself to other people. Because alone, I feel confident and good and whatever, but then when I start doing the compare and despair thing, and that’s when I feel bad. Sometimes I think that’s one of the reasons that I spend so much time alone — I’m fearful of getting caught up in somebody else’s wake. And I know that if I’m alone, I’ll follow my gut. So, right now, I’m trying to outsource less. Not everybody needs to hear about every issue, and some of them I can just keep to myself.

Riese: Terrifying.

Swan: Back to your question about helping people – I think what I’m doing right now in my nonfiction is potentially helpful because it’s deeply personal. People want to be told the truth. That’s what we connect to.

Riese: What are your hopes for this book?

Swan: My hope is that enough people are entertained by it. It’s a queer story, but it’s not about being queer. I want all sorts of people to read it. And I would, of course, love to have it optioned. I think it would be fun to rewrite as a series or a movie.

Riese: Okay, I will manifest that!

Buy I Want You More today.

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Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 3212 articles for us.

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