Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my absolute pleasure today to welcome David Swann, an author whose work I’ve admired for a long while. David teaches modules in fiction, poetry, and screenwriting at the University of Chichester, and he has given very generous responses and writing advice –I learned a lot from them, and I hope it would be of help to anyone who reads the interview. I’ve highlighted the parts I liked best in blue.
1. At what age did you start writing fiction? What prompted you?
There’s a line by the singer Tom Waits — “Never saw the East Coast / Until I moved to the West.” In my late 20s, I lived in Amsterdam, doing a mad range of jobs, and in my spare time I was surprised to find myself writing stories, most of which were about life across the water in Britain. I guess I had to leave home to see it more clearly, as Tom suggests. Eventually I wanted to organise this unexpected word-splurge, and discover if it was any good, so I signed up for an MA at Lancaster University in England, and came back. It was very good for my writing, but, lately, during these grey, insular Brexit days, I often wish I’d stayed away.
2. What are your preoccupations as a writer? Which of your stories/ collections would you recommend to a reader who has never come across your work?
- I’m interested in those moments when ordinary life suddenly seems strange. The French call it ‘jamais vu’, the opposite of ‘deja vu’ — when it feels like you’ve never ever seen an ordinary thing before. I used to get it a lot with my Mum’s cat. Raymond Carver talks about suddenly realising that an old pair of boots are a bit mad. I like the intensity of those moments — ‘spots of time’, as Wordsworth calls them. It seems I’m interested in the complexities of love, grief, class, work, power, freedom, bullying, resistance, play, etc. — especially in the lives of people struggling at society’s fringes. But that sounds really abstract. One of the challenges for a fiction writer is to find concrete situations that act as stages for individual characters, so that you can dramatise issues, and give them faces and flesh. Otherwise, you’d be better off writing philosophy or sociology, disciplines that require a more abstract approach.
- Some questions that preoccupy me: How do we choose to spend our precious time? What forces limit those choices? How free can people be, even in jail? Why do some make their freedom into a jail? And some use their freedom to imprison others? Why are we more cruel (or kind) than we need to be? How much pain (or joy) can a person bear? ‘Who makes the Nazis?’ (as a punk group called The Fall asked). Why do so many people in the world seem incapable of empathy?
- But I usually want these serious things to sit next to funny things, maybe because one of the characters is pompous, quirky, deluded, eccentric, or too busy, or self-absorbed, or whatever. If people don’t laugh when reading my work, I usually feel like I’ve gone wrong. But it’s a fiddly job — because juxtapositions can jar. Still, that’s the aim. To stay on the tightrope.
- My favourite writing strikes me as having the effect that a funeral can have — one minute you’re crying your eyes out, and the next someone’s telling an hilarious story about the person who died. Life’s like that, I think: humour, terror and sadness cheek by jowl. The writer Simon Brett says writers shouldn’t ask, “Wouldn’t it be funny if A,B, C, D, happened?” Instead, he says it’s better to ask: “Wouldn’t it be tragic if it weren’t funny if A, B, C, D happened?”
- My books are all with small presses, but sometimes available via Amazon’s evil empire: ‘The Last Days of Johnny North’ (Elastic Press, 2006), ‘The Privilege of Rain’ (Waterloo Press, 2010), ‘Stronger Faster Shorter’ (Flash: The International Short-Short Story Press, 2015), ‘Gratitude on the Coast of Death’ (coming soon from Waterloo Press). You can sample my flashes online at here and here (Vol 3, no. 2). And from late August, here.
3. What makes a successful piece of flash fiction? Other than length, is there a difference between short story and flash fiction? How does flash fiction relate to/ compare with poetry?
- Flash and poetry are connected by the need to say the maximum in the minimum of space (without crowding the page).
- But poetry uses the line-break, and flash has to make do with plain old sentences.
- Poetry doesn’t always need narrative (although some does) — but I think flash ought to be story-based. Otherwise, it’s heading out into the territory of prose-poetry, where imagery and language take over from narrative. And that’s a different beast.
- A longer story will have more space to explore character and plot, and perhaps a longer timeframe.
- In my opinion, the aim of all writing, whether prose or poetry, is to move the reader, to tears or to laughter, to a new point of understanding or emotion.
- I read somewhere that, beneath all art, there is one simple urge — to remind us all how weird and wonderful (and sometimes terrifying) it is to be alive. To nudge a reader, and whisper, ‘Isn’t it strange?’
- … although Chekhov said the purpose was to tap a happy person on the shoulder and ask them to consider misfortunes that they’ve been lucky enough to avoid (for now)...
4. Which authors and poets have been your biggest influences?
- Too many, too various! I was once advised to read all the Faulkner I could stomach and then wash it out of my system with loads of Hemingway. It’s advice I’ve continued to follow, by reading a funny book after a serious one, prose after poetry, sci-fi after realism, non-fiction after novels, a strange one after a straighforward one, a wordy one after a spare one, etc.
- Some of my all-time favourites: Emily Bronte, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Frost, Gogol, Homer, Kafka, Lawrence (especially his shorter stuff, and poems), Melville, Orwell, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Tolstoy, Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
- I really like chancing upon story collections — it reminds me of that secret, culty feeling I got as a snobby teenager when I discovered a cool new wave single on green vinyl. Some faves: Charles D’Ambrosio, Kevin Barry, Arthur Bradford, Junot Diaz, Anthony Doerr, Aleksandar Hemon, Denis Johnson (his collection ‘Jesus’ Son’ turned me onto flash in the first place), Jhumpa Lahiri, Rebecca Lee, Andre Mangeot, Josip Novakovich, Z.Z. Packer, Annie Proulx, George Saunders, Jim Shepard, Wells Tower, Tobias Wolff, and lots more.
- Tons of other writers, including: Brian Aldiss, Sherwood Anderson, Margaret Atwood, Pat Barker, Elizabeth Bishop, Roberto Bolano, Stanley Elkin, Vasily Grossman, Joseph Heller, Tony Hoagland, Ted Hughes, James Kelman, Halldor Laxness, Flann O’Brien, Flannery O’Connor, Tony Parker, Andrei Platanov, Alan Sillitoe, Ken Smith, Colin Thubron, Miriam Toews, Anne Tyler, Stephanie Vaughn, Kurt Vonnegut…
5. Could you name five flash fiction/ short story authors we should all check out?
- So many good writers to choose from, I can’t narrow it down to five! Jonathan Cardew, David Gaffney, Vanessa Gebbie, Tania Hershman, Jim Heynen, Sean Lovelace, Meg Pokrass, Dan Rhodes, Mary Robison (especially her story, ‘Yours’ and her amazing flash novel, ‘Why Did I Ever’), Robert Scottelaro, Tim Stevenson, Nancy Stohlman, Meg Tuite, Kit De Waal.
- Talking of flash novels, check out Bath Flash Fiction Competition in the UK, run by Jude Higgins. Jude has put out some great collections of flash novellas, e.g. the brilliant ‘How to Make a Window Snake’ (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2017), edited by Meg Pokrass, featuring three beautiful pieces by Charmaine Wilkerson, Joanna Campbell, and Ingrid Jendrzejewski.
- Work by the editor Meg Pokrass, features in ‘My Very End of the Universe’, a collection of flash-novellas from the wonderful Rose Metal Press, who’ve also included some helpful essays on flash in the book.
- For stand-alone flashes, I recommend ‘Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine’ (Chester University, UK), edited by Ash ‘the Flash’ Chantler and Peter Blair.
- And anthologies put together by Calum Kerr, who’s a mover and shaker in National Flash Fiction Day.
- And any of the ‘Sudden’ or ‘Flash’ collections edited by the holy trinity of Shapard, Thomas, and Hazuka.
6. You’ve won many prestigious awards for your flash fiction, and judged various competitions. What writing advice would you give someone submitting to these?
- Follow the specific rules of that contest.
- A good title will catch a tired eye. So will a good first line and a satisfying final line. But don’t force any of these things!
- Have a look at the judge’s biography, so that you can see how his/her tastes align with or differ from yours. This may not always be necessary — because taste isn’t everything (despite popular misconceptions). But it can’t do any harm!
- Does the story take place “upon a time”? i.e. is there a narrative? Is something interesting and/or important in motion during the story? Does something change over the course of the story?
- Julio Ortega said that stories require the following: “a dominant action… what is shown or said happens in time… [and]… the very rule of any story—the breaking of a code.”
- Is there an interesting character?
- Is there at least one image in the piece that flashes on the reader’s eye, or engages another sense at a deep level? Does this image connect with the flash’s underlying theme?
- Have you left a space on the page for the reader? Or is the story still carrying ‘Sub-Titles for the Thick’ (the poet Ian Duhig’s brilliant term for telling at the expense of showing)?
- Has the story earned its abstractions by snapping off concrete bits of the material world and stitching them into the fabric of the flash?
- Similarly, does the story earn its big ideas, or is it ‘grandstanding’? (Having said that, most good art takes risks — so there can be a fine line between brilliance and pretension.)
- Does the story make use of what Rose Tremain calls the ‘hope-dread axis’ (or fear and desire, as I often think of it)?
- Avoid twist-endings, unless they’re absolutely ace.
- As well as twist-endings, be wary of loading all of the story’s significance into the conclusion, so that the ending becomes too heavy and/or melodramatic, and snaps like a branch bearing too much fruit.
- Generally, aim to end with a twang, not a bang!
- Treat the reader as being three times more intelligent than you, but ten times busier, i.e. they’ll get your story, but you need to do the work!
- Before sending it off, ask if the piece should leave home dressed as a flash — or whether you’ve decked out a poem in flash clothing, or chopped the legs off a pair of trousers that really fit the lanky limbs of a longer story.
- Presentation. Be courteous and kind to your reader’s eye. Avoid unnecessary typographical gimmicks. Proof-read for spelling, lay-out, and grammar. A judge would look bad if s/he chose a story littered with silly errors — above all, never make a judge look bad! One tip I was taught as an editor: read work backwards, so that words fall out of their groove, and you see what is really on the page rather than what you expect to be there.
- Try to really hear your piece. Read all your work aloud, both to yourself and to others. Also, ask a friend to read the piece to you.
- Ignore all these suggestions if you’re a genius!
7. Would you agree with the line of thought that flash fiction is easier to read, given our fast lifestyles? Is a collection of good flash fiction easier to read than a good novel?
It depends. Reading a good, big novel is like being a guest at a huge wedding in a strange, diverse family — it offers many moods and emotions, and it’s full of many different kinds of people, food, and activities. That can seem intimidating when we first step in, but the longer we stay at the wedding, the easier it becomes to find a comfortable place and to understand the wedding’s flow, and to appreciate its ‘rules’ and variety. So we gain in confidence and understanding and enjoyment as we progress. In other words, a good novel teaches us how to read it, and it rewards us for the effort. In some ways, a book of flash fiction demands even more of its readers. With flash collections, it’s more like you’re speed-dating during a banquet, but the only dish is anchovies! These tiny wee anchovies taste good, but you have to eat them for pudding as well as starters. Meanwhile, each new speed-dating partner requires a new burst of effort and attention, so it’s exciting, but you have to do a lot of work, and it’s hard to settle in, and you may feel like you’re never really benefiting from the effort put in at the start. Plus, the anchovies could become a problem if you keep inserting them into your face!
- The best way to become original is to steep yourself in other people’s work. Writing requires audacity, so we need to temper that with our reading, which gives us humility and perspective.
- Read the classics and read trash. Read to learn, and read for pleasure.
- Read fast, for the flow — and read slowly, to absorb technique.
- But don’t read so much that you forget to live! My favourite writers have balanced experience and reading.
- Expect to work at a job while writing — not many people live purely from their fiction!
- But — and this is very hard, as I know from experience — try not to let the day-job kill your creativity. Keep going, even when it’s very hard. “A professional is an amateur who never gave up”, as the saying goes. In Hisham Matar’s memoir, ‘The Return’, Hisham keeps going by remembering his dearly-missed father’s mantra: “Work and survive.”
- Freshness. Sports stars are afraid of “paralysis by analysis”. In other words, the cricket player has over-thought his/her batting action, and can’t do it naturally anymore. Whatever allows you to feel fresh while you write, do it.
- I use lots of stuff to get me in the mood for writing, and to forget the writing after I’ve done it: sport, Zen, hiking, reading, jogging, cooking, sleeping, gardening, idleness, mindless domestic chores, walking, lying down, staring at moving objects or features of nature, people-watching, foreign travel, eavesdropping, etc., etc… Of course, these things all have the potential to distract us, if we’re not careful… but they can also allow us to enter that weird trance where the best creativity happens — and to find the distance that makes us strangers to our own work (which is necessary when editing).
- I heard the England cricketer Stuart Broad say that he needs to do lots of analytical work before and after Test Matches, but that, during the heat of the game itself, he trusts his “core feeling”. I saw a parallel there between writing and cricket (as I too often do!).
- Love what you do, and try to get better at it. This isn’t as easy as it sounds — because love can interfere with vision and judgment. One of the hard things about writing is that we need two contradictory skills: to go in as deep as possible while writing and to come out a long way before and afterwards. Otherwise, we’re missing out on the intensity we need to write our early drafts and the distance we require when editing.
- While you’re working and surviving, keep patiently trying to learn. Hundreds of years ago, Chaucer said: “The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne.” Accept that. Remember, during your lowest moments, that the agony of learning is one important way in which we renew our imaginations and retain freshness. It’s also how we get better, and improve our mistakes (we’ll still make mistakes — but they’ll be better ones, hopefully!).
- Inevitably, there is rejection in the life of a writer. Learn to deal with it. My successful students never take rejection personally. A tip: ‘disappointment’ literally means ‘removed from office’. But the only person who can remove a writer from the office is him or herself!
- Therefore, a rejection ought to be seen as the rejection of a specific draft, not of the writer’ body and soul. As the writer, you and you alone have the power to decide whether you continue writing or not! Don’t kid yourself that the rejection slip made the decision.
- Enjoy the process and the product, but remember that the process is really what it’s all about because the act of writing is where the magic happens and where you will spend most of your precious time. The writing itself is the reward.
- Writing is part of life, not separate from it. Without our lives, we would have no writing. The activities of writing and chopping an onion are equally sacred. I didn’t know that when I was younger. I still sometimes forget it now.
David Swann was Writer in Residence at H.M.P. Nottingham Prison. A book based on his experiences in the jail, ‘The Privilege of Rain’ (Waterloo Press, 2010), was shortlisted for The Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. He teaches modules in fiction, poetry, and screenwriting at University of Chichester. His short stories and poems have been widely published and won many awards, including seven successes at the Bridport Prize and two in The National Poetry Competition. He is now hard at work on a trilogy of novels and other writing projects. Find out more about him here.
Are you a reader, a writer, or both? Do you read or write flash fiction? Have you read David Swann’s work before? As a reader or writer, do you have questions, or need writing advice for David? What are the difficulties you face while writing flash fiction?
This post was written for the IWSG. Thanks to Alex J. Cavanaugh for organizing and hosting the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (IWSG) every month!My effort is bring in the expertise of authors and publishing professionals which might be helpful for all IWSG writers.
Go to the IWSG site to check out the other participants. In this group we writers share tips, self-doubt, insecurities, and of course, discuss the process of writing. If you’re a writer and a blogger, go join rightaway! Co-hosts this month are: Stephen Tremp, Pat Garcia, Angela Wooldridge, Victoria Marie Lees, and Madeline Mora-Summonte!
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