This is the conclusion of a two part interview, to read part one, click: Gladys Swan Interview
Michael Aloisi: You known for your poetry as well. Out of the arts you work in, is there one that you favor the most or do they all mean different things to you?
Gladys Swan: I’m a much younger painter and potter than I am a writer, so I haven’t steeped in the visual arts as much. I love them all for different reasons. The love of color took me to painting–that had its early beginnings in high school, and when I reached the point of feeling I’d never publish my work, I turned to ceramics. A bowl or two seemed more useful than a drawer full of typescript. I love the tactility of clay; I love to play in three-dimensional form. Actually, it is quite wonderful to play with form. I appreciate the intensity of poetry, the challenge of bringing something into focus and taking it to the depths. Poetry gives me the opportunity to handle subjects and approaches that that wouldn’t work in fiction. I’ve spent most of my effort writing fiction, perhaps because most of my strength lies there, but each of the arts offers me something I truly value. I’d be a musician too, if there were world enough and time.
I think painting has made me look at the world with clearer eyes, greater appreciation of the mystery of thing. It has made me concentrate on the effects of light; the way colors play with one another. Some people have told me that the visual element is strong in my fiction, and that pleases me. I’ve written a number of poems and a couple of stories that have to do with art or artists, so it is an important subject for me. And I’m sure that the various arts affect my sense of form, my aesthetic responses. It’s not a clear equation, but I know the influences are there
MA: What inspires you to keep writing as the years go by?
GS: It’s quite simply a way of life. Most of my major work is still unpublished, and I don’t know if that will change. But it is my work, what I do.
MA: Recently you teamed up with Serving House Books, what made you want to work with them?
GS: It gave me a chance to put together a book consisting of the first chapters of the four novels that constitute The Carnival 4. The first, Carnival for the Gods, appeared long ago in the Vintage Contemporaries Series. Then I spent a good many years writing three other novels taking forward the experience of certain characters that appeared in the first: the second, Small Wonder, is about the midget; The Dream Seekers, takes up the Kid’s search for a kind of El Dorado; and finally Down to Earth, comes back to Alta, the protagonist of the first and her return to the circus. These three novels are as yet unpublished. I wanted to give whoever is interested a preview. There’s also a poem, “The Dream of Circus,” I wrote out my experience with the Circus Flora in St. Louis. The cover is one of my paintings. So I’ve had a good time with it.
MA: You have been writing for a few decades, how have you say how your work has developed and changed as a result?
GS: At first I had no idea what I was doing. I just tried to tell the best story I could. I considered myself a realist. The first inkling that something else was afoot came with a story I wrote around 1980, “The Tiger’s Eye,” about a man who held conversations with a tiger. The story moved toward the fabulous, and in fact has been included in an anthology of fabulist fiction, but it was based on a real experience. Then I wrote Carnival for the Gods, a kind of comic fantasy. That I would write anything verging on the comic or entering the realm of the fantastic was a source of astonishment to me. With my second novel, Ghost Dance: A Play of Voices, I thought things were going back to normal, but then the novel took a strange turn, and I realized I was not, after all, a realist. Even with the short story, I find myself moving in that direction. The collection I’ve just finished is called Ghostly Interludes. Though I wrote some poetry in the late seventies, it got no real encouragement. But I returned to it in the Nineties and have published various poems since then.
When I began, I didn’t know what my real concerns were as a writer, my vision, if I may use that word. But as I’ve come along, I see that it has a lot to do with the question of what experience is and what can be known through the imagination. The Carnival sequence also has a lot to do, I believe, with the renewal of energies. For a long time the main focus of the culture has been on the realistic. I remember some years back that Granta featured a couple of issues of “Dirty Realism,” with the comment that this was the one really valid approach to fiction; the rest was frills and falderal. I think that’s a great misunderstanding of what fiction can do, a very narrow vision of the kind of truth it offers.
MA: You have numerous short story collections published, what draws you to short fiction and how does your approach to it differ from your longer work?
GS: I started with the short story because I had no sense of the strategies for writing a novel. And I found the form very satisfying. Still do. I like its compression and all the things you can do in spite of it. Gradually, as my stories got longer, I began to see the potential of the novel form. I wanted to go beyond the compass of the short story.
MA: If you could only recommend one of your written works to a reader, what would you suggest they read? Carnival for the Gods.
GS: When I wrote it, it contained everything I knew, and introduced all sorts of things I didn’t know. Maybe that’s why I’ve had to write the three other novels.
MA: What is your best advice for young writers?
GS: Read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. He says it better than anybody I know.
MA: What can your readers expect from you next?
GS: I have put together my first poetry collection, and a new collection of stories. I’m finishing up a book of essays, and I’m working on a novel called Dancing with Snakes. Perhaps one of those will find its way into print.
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