The Ecotone Interview with Gladys Swan

Gladys Swan is both a writer and a visual artist. She has published two novels, Carnival for the Gods in the Vintage Contemporaries Series, and Ghost Dance: A Play of Voices, nominated by LSU Press for the PEN Faulkner and PEN West awards. News from the Volcano, a novella and stories, set mostly in New Mexico, was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. The Tiger’s Eye: New & Selected Stories is the most recent of her seven collections of short fiction. Her stories have been selected for various anthologies, including Best of the West. Her fiction has appeared in the Sewanee Review, Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Chelsea, Shenandoah, Ohio Review, New Letters, Southwest Review, Prairie Schooner, Hunger Mountain, Hotel Amerika, and others. Her paintings have been used for the covers of three of her books and for those of other writers as well as for several literary magazines. She has been awarded residencies at Yaddo, the Fundacion Valpariso in Spain, the Chateau de Lavigny in Switzerland, the Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Vermont Studio Center, where she has also been a Guest Writer. Her past students include Thomas E. Kennedy, Susan Dodd, Rick Squiot, and Wally Lamb.

How would you describe yourself as a writer?

For a good many years I just tried to tell the best story I could, thinking the work was pretty realistic. Then my first novel, Carnival for the Gods, turned out to be a comic fantasy, something I never expected to write. I thought my second, set in New Mexico, was just a straightforward realistic novel, but strange elements began to intervene. Finally I realized that I’m not a realist. One reviewer called me “a literalist of the imagination.” A fabulist perhaps. I have always been interested in what can be known through the imagination.

What kind of writer am I? There’s no real label I can apply. As Saul Bellow once said, “I’m not an ornithologist—I’m a bird. A Swan.’ I love bringing in elements of myth and dream, fairy tale and various other elements of the fantastic. Like the wonderful painter Charles Burchfield, I like moving from the realistic to the fantastic, because I think both contribute to the sense of truth. I’ve tried to map out my own relation to the ineffable, and I’m not always sure what I’ve got. I’ve tried to get a story where it wants to go.

After ten books is there anything you’ve learned about writing that makes it easier?

Maybe I have a few more tricks in the bag, and practice and experience count for a lot. But I’m not sure it gets easier. Every piece presents its challenges in terms of form and approach. I’ve usually reached a point in writing a novel where nothing I know will serve and I have to come up with new strategies. I find that exciting. I find it easier than in the past to take risks without knowing where I’ll land or whether anyone will come along with me.

Do you still work the way you described in your essay, “Writing at the Margin” and work on a story for 6 months? Is this a set amount of time you try to work on something or does it depend on the story?

I work pretty much as I always have. I spend a long time on a first paragraph or page, until I’ve got the tone right, jot down notes in longhand, then the try for a first draft. I love the revision process, the chance to discover what is really in the material. I’m not always sure when the piece is finished and often come back to things and revise them. So it could take six months or longer.

Often writers have a fictional territory they’ve staked out like Annie Proulx’s Wyoming, Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia, et cetera. How did New Mexico become your writing territory?

Coming to New Mexico when I was ten, was to experience something like culture shock. It was so different from the flat green stretch of truck farms in the Delaware of my childhood. A dusty mining and ranching town surrounded by mountains, a large Hispanic population, a sense of being in a place where I didn’t belong all made a profound impression on me. I was quite miserable there. I had to leave in order to appreciate and come to love the land and its culture. I may have left New Mexico, but it came with me, the real territory of my imagination, a source of riches I continue to explore. And I keep going back.

Why has the world of Carnival of the Gods inhabited your imagination? I was fascinated to learn of the research you did for this book with the Circus Flora and you mentioned in one interview meeting the Flying Wallendas! Would you say the circus is source material for you somehow?

Oddly enough, I never saw a circus until I was an adult, but the one carnival I went to when I was perhaps six or seven fascinated me no end. And later when we took our kids to circuses and carnivals the fascination deepened. I wanted to travel with a carnival. I was whining to a friend about not being free to do that. She said “Why don’t you create one of your own.” After a good deal of reading and thinking, I came up with Dusty, who wants to create on a grand scale a circus at the heart of the city. The elements of circus and carnival are ancient and continue to exert their power. The Romans held parades with carefully trained wild animals. Acrobats were part of Egyptian ceremonies and funeral rites and their movements go that far back. I think circus and carnival speak to something very deep in the human psyche, to our childhood, to beauty and daring, spectacle and wonder. There’s a tawdry side as well. It is a world unto itself. I greatly admire the performers I met—their dedication to their art, their discipline and tireless practice. They are amazing. Carnival for the Gods set me off, and I’ve spent the last seventeen years completing four other novels based on the original characters. I think I’m about done. It is my major work.

Did Circus Flora give you a job to do or were you more of an observer only? Was there anything surprising about the experience itself?

I didn’t want to be just a spectator when I was with the Circus Flora, so I asked for a job to do. I got to pull the back curtain for the all the performances that season when The Circus Flora was in St. Louis. I got to see all that went on the chute, and I got to meet the performers. I learned a great deal from the performers and with my heart in mouth watched Tino Wallenda (of The Flying Wallendas) save himself from a terrible fall when his unicycle didn’t connect properly with the wire as he was coming in to the platform. “Don’t let that unicycle fall,” he yelled, as he was hanging on to the wire.

Some of your stories like the title story, The Tiger’s Eye, have the feel of a kind of parable to them. Do you consider yourself religious? Do you feel there is a religious or spiritual basis to your work?

Actually “The Tiger’s Eye” is a “true” story: that is, I learned of a man who used to visit the Bristol Zoo in England and who had conversations with a tiger. The tiger had a keeper it didn’t like; it was ailing, and when it died it ‘came to’ his friend. His wife told me the story. I was so intrigued with it, I had to take it on. What I’m saying is that with this and other work, I’ve wandered into territories beyond my knowledge or understanding. So his experience became mine in a sense, by way of story. I hesitate to use the word ‘religious’ because I’m not sure what it means. I certainly experience—I think every day—a sense of awe and wonder in the face of the mystery we all take part in.

In your essay “Writing at the Margin” you wrote about your fear of your husband’s criticism of your work. I think most writers fear this to one degree or another. I think it can be a great catalyst but too much fear and it can be crippling to a young writer. What do you feel is the best way to criticize a student’s work?

The other side of the vulnerability to criticism is the passionate desire to do something really good and to be admired for it—to feel validated. Making art is a very doubt-ridden business. My husband and I found a good way of working together, and that became the basis of how I teach creative writing. Instead of making suggestions—which most of the time I couldn’t follow—he would say, “If you’re trying to do such-and-so, it’s not working.” Then I’d try to figure out another way of doing things. Or “This character is rather a blank.” Then I’d have to try another approach. In looking at the work of beginning writers, I think it’s good to point up the strengths of the piece and then identify what needs to be strengthened. If someone is really on the wrong track, he needs to know.

Another strong influence on my teaching approach came from my figure-drawing teacher at Pudue, Curt Stocking. He didn’t care what approach you took—I remember that one student did a pastel of a green breast with an American flag emblazoned on it, which he accepted. His concern was that you fully realized the image, whether you used line or contrasting masses or chose a particular perspective. And he critiqued it from that standpoint. I’ve tried to do that with my students, to consider the work as a totality and consider what would allow it to be fully realized.

You studied literature as an undergrad and took an MA, but didn’t do an MFA. Was this ever a consideration for you in the ’50s? What do you think about the value of an MFA on a young writer’s work? The model has been criticized for causing students to churn out “the workshop story,” as a money-making scheme, and for ruining American literature. What do you think the role of an MFA should be?

I would have been glad to have an MFA. It might have saved me a good deal of trial and error. There is a good deal to be said for learning the craft, serving an apprenticeship. We learn first by imitation. MFA programs were few and far between in the when I was coming along, I was helping support my husband through grad school. Then I was teaching and trying to be a mother. I’m not really able to judge the merits of having the degree. Sometimes I think I would have been unteachable and simply had to slog through on my own.

Has being a visual artist affected your writing or writing style? How are the aesthetic considerations of image similar or different in painting as opposed to writing? You seem to combine the two in stories like “The Orange Bird.”

The visual arts have had a profound influence. One of my teachers said, “You’ll never see the world again with the same eyes.” Quite true. You become a witness to light and shadow, the way they play on the world of objects and people. Looking becomes meditation. Images inspire most of my writing, whether poetry or fiction. They have a numinous quality that goads me into exploring their significance. In painting, the expression takes the form of color and contrast, mass and line as you try to create the image out of what you perceive. But here, too, you’re in search of something essential. Much of my work now is abstract. I start playing with color and try to allow the image to emerge through the act of painting. Often I have no idea where things are going, but at some point I learn what I’m about. Although you approach the image differently whether in words or paint, or music or dance, for that matter, I would say that the image points toward an aesthetic and emotional response to the experience that underlies the work.

Why did you start writing? Was your family supportive?

I started writing because I was under the illusion that it made one important, led to wealth and fame. It all started in the 8th grade when my spelling teacher, who assigned us a story to write using all the week’s spelling words. She read my story to the class. I got most of my support from my high school English teacher and from my husband.

I know you taught fiction workshops at Vermont College and the University of Missouri-Columbia. Did teaching writing change your perspective as a writer?

I learned a tremendous amount from my colleagues and students. Except for a summer class in college, I had no background in creative writing. I had to become articulate about the way the elements of fiction create the totality and to be clear about what did and did not work. Teaching forces you to do that. I certainly learned a good deal about technique in relation to my own work

In my own work I try to inform my work with what feels right. I want a painting or a story to form a totality of which each part is essential to the whole. I want it to have variety and interest and speak to our condition, to be satisfying on some aesthetic level. I want it to be authentic and to have passion behind it. I realize that these notions are quite abstract, but that’s the best I can do. I try for what one writer called, maybe John Gardener, called “the beautiful economy of means as it pushes toward the limits of form and color.”

Much has been written about how writers can tap into their unconscious for creative purposes and the creative process. What can you tell struggling writers about how to go about this?

I was an avid reader of fairy tales before I discovered their value to depth psychology. I read Jung and Joseph Campbell and others because they suited my temperament and made me aware of other regions of the psyche. Heinrich Zimmer’s The King and the Corpse was a revelation. But I think that if you do art you are opening yourself to the deeper regions of the mind. Meditation and long walks without a cell phone can help. Being open to what the unconscious has to offer is perhaps the first step, and not, as one writer put it, closing the contract with consciousness too early.

Nabokov said, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” and while I wouldn’t call you a minimalist, there is a compactness to your style although that is in contrast to a Fabulist element in your writing. Do you see yourself as a certain kind of writer? Does a writer have an advantage selling her work if she can describe herself as a Dirty Realist, Chick Lit, Mystery writer or what have you? Have you been tempted to do this to interest an editor in your work? Does it behoove a writer to do this these days?

If you’re out for commercial success, that’s one kind of path, and the demand of the marketplace take precedence. I’m not counting those works that reach commercial success in their unpredictable fashion. I think there is always good work being produced, and also piles of rubbish.

I’m sure it would be an advantage to find a label or category for one’s work because it can be made to appeal more easily to an established audience. I think the marketing people must get the fidgets when they don’t quite know what they’re dealing with. But there are those writers who don’t fit categories and would be much constrained if they had to.

What writers inspired you as a young writer? What motivates you to continue to write these days?

It was stories by Katherine Anne Porter, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Eudora Welty that first taught me that language held symbolic overtones. I was motivated to find a language that was more personal than what I perceived as “public” language. I love Mark Twain’s language, a real American language—and pure poetry. I loved the work of Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow. Then the foundations—Homer, Greek tragedy, Dante, and Shakespeare.

In recent years I’ve read a good deal of the work of colleagues and poet friends. I admire the work of Leslie Ullman and Baron Wormser, Mark Cox, Mary Ruefle, Alice Friman, Ingred Wendt, and Dale Kushner, among others. I keep returning to the work of Wallace Stevens and W.B. Yeats.

I’ve earned almost no money as a writer and my work is not widely known. What motivates me? I find the creative process deeply fulfilling. It requires my deepest wit and greatest resources.

Who do you enjoy reading now?

A lot of foreign writers or writers of different cultural or racial backgrounds who have had to adjust to the challenges of American life. Most recently I’ve greatly admired The Return of Felix Nogara and The Cigar Roller by Pablo Medina.

What can your readers expect from you next?

Well, I’ve spent the last seventeen years working on four novels that are a sequel to Carnival for the Gods and take the characters into further adventures. So it’s now The Carnival Quintet. I’ve finished a book for kids, Volcano Island, a volume of poetry, The Dream of Circus, and I’m just about finished with a new story collection.