Saturday Apr 13

Headshot DavidSwann David Swann was born up the street from the novelist Jeanette Winterson, who scared him stiff with spooky stories. Later, he was given the even more frightening task of reporting on Accrington Stanley’s football matches for the local newspaper. After a three-year stint as a journalist in the Netherlands, he returned to England to take an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University, which he passed with Distinction. From 1996 to 1997, he 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 is currently Senior Lecturer in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Chichester, where he teaches modules on fiction, poetry, and screenwriting. Swann’s short stories and poems have been widely published and won many awards, including eight successes at the Bridport Prize and two in the National Poetry Competition. His debut short-story collection, The Last Days of Johnny North, was published by Elastic Press in 2006. In 2013, Swann served as judge for the Bridport Prize’s international flash fiction competition. His flash collection Stronger Faster Shorter was published by Flash International Short-Short Story Press in 2015.

David Swann Interview with Jonathan Cardew

David, thank you so much for joining us at Connotation Press and for contributing four outstanding flash pieces: “Brexit,” “Call Me, Ishmael,” “Security,” and “The Thin Time.”
Flash and Short Story are at a bar. What do they say to each other? Poetry walks in. What’s the conversation like?

Hmmm, nice one… I guess Mr. Flash is the mysterious drinker at the bar who lets slip some snippet about having done a bit of particularly active service in the army. But then he won’t tell you which war he was in, or when. So you get this one tantalising image, but no context. Mr. Short Story would press him for a few details, maybe try to get at least one measly scene out of him. But I guess they’d both have plenty in common, too. So they’d be at peace with each other. Because they’d know they shared something precious – something which that idiot, Mr. Novel, would never understand. Look at him now, blabbing away on the other side of the pub! Does he have to tell the whole bar the story of his life? In real time? Hasn’t anyone ever explained ‘selection’ and ‘mystery’ to him? See, that’s the precious thing Mr. Flash and Mr. Story share: poetry. Which is why they wouldn’t be able to bear it when Mr. Poetry walked in, boasting about line-breaks, and meter, and rhyme. I think they’d probably get their coats and slip out the back door. It’s never nice to be exposed by the real deal!

There’s always one Mr. Novel in the room…
By the way, congratulations on winning the Bridport Flash Fiction Competition 2016! There are plenty of competitions around and publications serving flash fiction. What are your thoughts on the state of flash? What’s floating your flash boat at the moment?

Thank you, Jonathan. Flash is in rude health, isn’t it? It’s probably never been as popular. Personally, I’ve been enjoying lots of individual pieces online, and in magazines like Flash, edited by Asley Chantler and Peter Blair. I like the diversity, the unexpectedness. It’s like listening to a weird music compilation, something like the After Dark CDs, which have floated my boat when I’ve been writing recently. You never quite know what’s coming next. Also, it’s been fun to discover flash sonnets and other given forms, particularly the Fibonacci Flash devised by Bruce Holland Rogers. He’s great. The other thing, I just wrote an article for a book in the States, considering Mary Robison as a flash novelist. I regard her story ‘Yours’ as a holy text. But her novel Why Did I Ever is worth a look. She wrote it as fragments, on small cards, often sitting in cars, when life was dealing her a tough hand. It’s a total one-off, almost exhaustingly brilliant.

You served as writer-in-residence at a prison. What was that experience like?

I’d bore you for hours if I let rip on this one! I wrote a book about my experiences in the jail: The Privilege of Rain. I called it that because I had some odd moments with rain while I was a writer-in-residence. Once, a prisoner laughed when I came in carrying an umbrella during a rainstorm. He told me I’d forgotten how lucky I was to get wet. In British jails, men are pulled from the exercise yard as soon as it rains (as it does very often in Northern England, where I did the job). On another night, I escorted an inmate between wings so he could attend my evening class, and he stared in wonder at the stars. It was the first time he’d been outside in the darkness for seven years. I had many experiences like this, and they haunt me because I think they’re emblems of jail’s mundane strangeness. In prison, lifers acquire certain privileges, based on good behavior. But rain is never one of them. And when I thought about this, it reminded me of many of the privileges in my own life that I had always taken for granted. I started to place a higher value on our freedoms. I thought about all the people in the past who sacrificed their freedom and their lives to win us these privileges. Very few of our rights were freely given. So jail was a place from where I could look back on my life, and see it in a new light. It’s the old Tom Waits line: “Never saw the East Coast until I moved to the West.” Or the advice given by the writer Barry Lopez, that writers should get out of town. I’m glad I did – and also relieved I came back home, unlike most of the men I taught. Because prison is a horrible place. And our society’s attitudes to crime are making it even more horrible – the idea of rehabilitation is almost dead, and jails are now either human warehouses or crime schools. Which means we’re just increasing the problems caused by crime. And I can’t see things getting better under the looming horrors of Brexit and Trump. In jail, you meet many people who were more cruel and brutal than they ever needed to be. And when you hear people on the outside talk about criminals, the same cruelty and brutality is often evident.

Speaking of Brexit, we loved it in today’s issue. Can you write us a haiku titled Brexit?

No, but I’ll do one based on that hideous newspaper picture of Farage standing around like a scrap that had fallen off Trump’s stomach in front of the golden door inside the Dark Tower:

The Golden Dawn of Nigel Farage

When he stood inside
Midas’s palace, we cried:
‘Touch him, Trump! Touch him!’

And another one called:


If you must utter
his name, rhyme it with marriage,
and curse the divorce.

‘Call Me, Ishmael’ is one of the best flashes I’ve read in a while. I loved the description of the gym hall turned exam room, the squeaking shoes, and oversized clock. What role does place play in your fiction writing?

Thank you, Jonathan – that means a lot. I start from place, not only in writing, but in life generally. When it comes to writing, if I get the place down on the page accurately enough, I’m usually fairly confident a character will step out of the setting, a bit like Omar Sharif does in that long, long scene in the film Lawrence of Arabia, when he slowly emerges out of the desert haze. Place works in other ways, too. I’ve got a bit of wanderlust in me, and am often on the move. I once heard the writer and comedian Rob Newman say he felt more awake in new places like Mexico, and I understand that. Personally, I’m more energized by nature than I am by urban places. So those are the places I seek out, and go hiking in, especially places that are stripped down to the rock and the bone. I like places where you sweat out a lot of conscious stuff while you’re walking – and maybe enter a deeper creative level, one closer to the dream world. Crete has been fertile ground for me, and New Mexico. Also, some small Atlantic islands in the Canaries and the Azores, and weird bits of the old Eastern Bloc in Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia, also the Australian Outback. In some of those places, you find these tiny, impossible blossoms growing out of the bare rock. I love that. It seems like a symbol for something! I don’t always write about those places I’ve mentioned, but I can often write when I’m in them, and they also nurture my imagination when I call them up as memories. DH Lawrence said something sat up in his soul and “started to attend” when he was living in the mountains near Taos, New Mexico – and I loved it when I read that!

Interesting stuff. Taos is indeed a very special place.
Your stories have a strong visual element, almost filmic in their set up. Tell us about one of your favorite films, and why you love it.

I studied Film for my first degree, and have always loved the cinema. All those red curtains in English cinemas, and the darkness. The sense you’re separated from everyday life, under a spell. I think it’s the closest I get to religion. My very first film was Peter Pan and I ran screaming from the building. It overwhelmed me: the darkness, the colour, the size of the screen… I guess I love arty films most, but I always admire good narrative storytelling because I know from painful experience how hard it is to organize a skillful story, and then to hide all the hard work. My favourite film of all time is probably Days of Heaven, Terrence Malick’s second film. I’ve watched it over and over, and I understand why some people hate it – maybe its beauty is empty, and I’m sure the story’s a bit of a mess. But I love its flaws, and the voice-over and the music. And the imagery is astounding. Those flowing grasslands. Wow, wheat can look nice on a big screen! There are also B Movies to consider, films made by mavericks, especially when they’re operating under severe restraints. Something like Dark Star, John Carpenter’s first film. It’s cheap, and hilarious, and stupid, and poetic. It’s set on an inter-stellar spaceship that’s falling to bits, and one of the astronauts has been in space so long he can’t remember his own name. The captain’s dead but has been put on ice, and can still somehow offer advice to his crew of useless slackers. But there’s a talking atom bomb on board, too – and a weird loner who sits up in a glass bubble on the ship’s roof, looking out for some meteors that are as green as the light on Daisy’s bay in The Great Gatsby. I always like loners in outer-space. Of all the NASA lads, my favourite was the astronaut who circled the dark side of the moon while Armstrong was getting all the daylight and glory down below!

What projects are you working on at the moment?

I’m trying to finish two long-gestating collections: a book of conventional-length short stories, and one of poems. Also, a PhD on prison and creativity. The sooner I can clear the decks, the better – because I’m keen to get back to the novel I started a few years ago, but haven’t had time for while the PhD has been throttling me!

Thank you so much, David, for your wicked stories! I know our readers are going to enjoy these.

Thank you, Jonathan. It was an honour to be asked. Good luck with all of your own projects!


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