David SwannBy Sarah Hutchings
This interview with David Swann by Julie Singleton was first published on The Deckchair website on 18/04/2010.
How did you get your first break?
I won prizes in fiction and poetry competitions run by Littlewood Arc and the Bridport Prize. This success gave me a bit of much-needed confidence.
Could you describe your working day.
Not really, sorry. I’m terrible when it comes to routines. My writing has to be combined with a fairly full-on teaching job involving loads of marking, so I write when I can find the time, in strange fits and spurts. Sometimes the writing is just there in your fingers at the start of the day. Other times, you have to go and find it by taking a long walk or staring at a cat or a pigeon or something stupid like that. I never seem to be able to predict which path I’ll have to take. I wish it was a more predictable process, but maybe it isn’t supposed to be.
How does an idea become a book?
Hard work. The hardest work you can imagine. Work that’s often very lonely and dispiriting. Work that requires you to make sacrifices and to take risks with introspection. Work that you’ll sometimes do anything to avoid.
What are your favourite opening lines of a novel?
“Call me Ishmael” from Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ takes some beating. As well as setting up mythic resonances, it makes you wonder who the guy really is and why he doesn’t want us to know. I also really like “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K” from Kafka’s ‘Trial’, just because it sets things in motion so early, and because the uneasiness and the paranoia are right there from the first moment. It creates a lot of energy.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
At one level, guilt’s a waste of time. Our pleasures are so fleeting, why waste time regretting them? On the other hand, any sensible person should surely stop now and again to wonder why the world’s becoming this unequal. If I have a guilty pleasure, it’s to do with enjoying so many luxuries in this version of Capitalism we’ve created, particularly when the system depends upon massive amounts of suffering in the lives of others.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Anyone who’d agree not to discuss property prices in a loud voice. And Stan Laurel.
Do you always finish reading a book you’ve started?
I try to, but I often wish I hadn’t bothered. When you’re reading a bad book, it’s sometimes a torment to imagine all the great ones you’re ignoring. One of my old friends, an academic called Dave Hesmondhalgh, recently calculated the number of books he can expect to get through if he lives a normal life span. I think I must have suppressed the figure he came up with because it was scary to think how many brilliant books I’ll not have time to read!
Which book do you wish you’d written?
Thousands of the buggers, especially those modern classics that many people seem to love returning to and reading again. Books that become guides and friends. Say, ‘The Great Gatsby’. Or ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Catcher in the Rye’. I would also have loved to have written some of Tolstoy’s novellas and short stories. In fact, I’m probably most envious of the Russian greats: Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gogol. Everything you could ever want to experience in fiction is there in those books. Also, some 20th Century Russian literature – Platonov’s ‘Soul’, Grossman’s ‘Life and Fate’. Books don’t really come any better than those two. And I bet I’ll think of loads more as soon as I finish talking to you. ‘Independent People’ by Halldor Laxness, for instance.Or ‘The Collected Stories of Tobias Wolff.’ Or ‘Postcards’ by E Annie Proulx. Or…
If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to have done?
Any job where you can potter about and do a bit of whistling, and choose your own hours. I’ve always loved the idea of being a gentleman publisher. I’m not actually sure what one of those is, but I imagine it involves living in a massive house with a waterwheel and occasionally tinkering about with an ancient printing press to produce slender volumes of woodcuts. I’d quite like to get away with wearing a posh hat while I was working too, although I’m not sure if Northerners are allowed to do that.
Describe your perfect day.
Perfect days are warm and simple. They should start, after a great sleep, with a bucket of yoghourt on a Cretan harbour-side and end with plenty of stars in the night sky. At some point, you should make sure you lie in the grass with your lover. Tootling off for a walk is probably a good thing too, but make sure there’s a good anthology of poems in your backpack, and a glass of wine to come back to. Elsewhere, Blackburn Rovers need to be winning a football match, and there ought to be no bombings anywhere on the planet. Also, Van Morrison should release a new album that’s as good as ‘Veedon Fleece’. Plus, I agree with that old Auden line about Heaven needing to have a bit of disused mining machinery in it. And there should be something good to look forward to tomorrow.
What keeps you awake at night?
Why did you choose to live in Brighton and Hove and what keeps you here?
I was sick of being poor in a hectic part of London. My partner and I used to live in Amsterdam, and Brighton was the nearest equivalent we could find in England, being a bit liberal and relaxed. Now we stay here because of friends and work, but both of us have a yearning to live near some mountains. The South Downs are quite nice, but the County Council should build them up a bit higher.
How does living here inspire your work?
It inspires me in the sense that I always seem to write about places where I’m not living. So I use Brighton to give my imagination a bit of distance from the places I write about. As soon as we move away from Brighton, I’m sure I’ll start to long for it. And that’s when I’ll probably start to write about it. Welcome to the life of the professional malcontent!
This page was amended on 14/01/2012