Gladys Swan is the author of seven books of fiction, including her collection of stories, News from the Volcano. Her novels include Carnival of the Gods and Ghost Dance: A Play of Voices. Her other story collections are On the Edge of the Desert, Do You Believe on Cabeza de Vaca, Of Memory and Desire, A Visit to Strangers, and A Garden amid Fires. She is also a widely published poet and a painter.
Gladys was kind enough to take time off from a writing residency she was at to answer some of my questions. Below is our conversation:
Michael Aloisi: To start off, I have to ask the questions I ask in all of my interviews, starting with: What made you want to write?
Gladys Swan: I had tried writing poems when I was a kid. But an odd thing set me off. In the eighth grade our gym teacher, who also taught us spelling, had us make up a story using the words we’d studied that week. She read mine to the class, and after that I knew I wanted to be writer. I set to work to write a book of stories and actually sent them to a publisher. There came a form rejection with the question: What shall we do with your manuscript. I never responded. I wish I had those stories now, just to see what I was up to then. I remember that one of them involved a man who kept trying to ride a horse that kept bucking him off–a sort of low-grade “Strawberry Roan.”
MA: When you decided to start writing, did it come naturally to you or did you have to study the craft before you produced anything of quality?
GS: I can’t say that anything has ever come naturally to me. If I’d known how bad the early stuff was, I don’t think I could ever have continued. Mercifully I was spared that knowledge. I didn’t really have the chance to study the craft in a formal way, except for a six-week summer school course with a professor who didn’t do creative writing himself. But he gave me encouragement. I just kept writing and reading and struggling along. Fortunately my husband offered me helpful comments on my work and strong encouragement. I wrote my first good story when I was twenty-nine but could never get it published.
MA: How many things did you write before you published your first work?
GS: Many. I sent my stuff around for seventeen years to over a hundred magazines before I had anything published. Then I had to wait another five years to get anything else in print. When my first collection appeared in the Illinois Short Fiction Series, five of the ten stories had been published, for the most part in small literary magazines, though I did have one in the Virginia Quarterly Review that was listed in the Honor Roll of Best American Short Stories. Several of the stories made the rounds for ten years.
MA: What is your writing process like from start to finish?
GS: Image has always been vital to me; most of my stories and poems are evoked by an image, followed by the effort to find words for the feeling of experience behind it. The challenge has been both joyful and maddening, the prey being so elusive. One of the things that has been necessary to me was to discover the right tone for any story or poem I attempt to write. The first paragraph or page I write over and over until I establish the right “tone.” It is something I can hear inwardly, but also something I feel in the beat of blood, therefore, both sound and rhythm, a physical basis of the language I use. Every word has to be measured against the tone; only then can I continue. And finally that becomes the test of the whole. So the piece has to evolve in its own way. I can’t impose a structure on it beforehand, and I have to wait a while before I know how it will come out.
I love the revision process. The first draft is a mixed bag, what I call the level of “lesser imagination,” mainly because it will contain elements that reflect me at my best, along with language or other elements that don’t match up. I love the sense of discovery that enters into revision. . It allows me to deepen my sense of the material and to spur myself to greater risks. I love that opening, that freedom. Sometimes it takes me forever to get to where the piece wants to go. At times I’ve had the wrong vehicle, and I’ve beaten the track a long time in order to find the right one. I started a novel in my twenties, that went nowhere, and finally it became the novella, Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn over twenty years later. The more it deviated from the initial experience and became an act of imagination, the better it got.
MA: How often do you write?
GS: During the dozen years when I took care of my husband during his illness, my writing time was irregular. There were too many interruptions and distractions. It was hard for me to concentrate. I spent some of time painting and doing ceramics. I’d sometimes work on a poem. Now I’m working in longer stretches.
MA: You are also a painter; in fact you painted the cover of your book, A Garden Amid Fires. Is the creative process in your writing and painting similar? And does one ever inspire the other?
GS: I think the underlying processes are quite similar, only with painting you’re using line and color, form and value as you work on your subject matter. My paintings, at first attempts to render what was in front of my eyes, have come to be meditations on the landscape when I do plein aire painting. I never know when I begin how they will come out. And in the end it is no longer important. What matters is that I leave myself behind and enter the dreaming, open myself to what moves through me. Perhaps this might explain why my paintings have come to waver between the figurative and the abstract at the same time my fiction has moved toward the fabulous.
To finish reading this interview, click: Gladys Swan Interview
Be sure to check out my Creative Writing and Book Publishing pages for great articles on the craft and the industry. And don’t forget to check out my Interviews with Author’s to get a first hand experience of the craft and industry.
To learn about who I am, visit: AuthorMike.com and while you are there make sure to check out AuthorMike Ink Publishing.