Graham Swift

graham swift1 Graham SwiftGraham Swift was born in London, attended Cambridge University and York University and is the author of seven novels, The Sweet-Shop Owner, Shuttlecock, Waterland, Out of This World, Ever After, Last Orders (which was awarded the Booker Prize in 1996), The Light Of Day and a short story collection, Learning to Swim. His writing has won numerous awards and has been translated into twenty-five languages. Graham Swift is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and lives in London with his wife and eventually will begin working on his next novel.

The Light of Day is a story of one day in the life of George Webb, a middle aged, divorced, former police detective who is now a private investigator. In this day we learn of George’s childhood, his marriage, his relationship with his daughter, his police career and his love affair with a convicted and imprisoned murderess. Anthony Quinn in the New York Times opines, "He [Swift] has become a master of word paring and phrase-clipping and scene-whittling and the austerity of style feels like a perfect fit with the voice of his laconic detective."

Robert Birnbaum: I looked over your press portfolio and looked at the review in Publisher’s Weekly—which is, of course, quite favorable.

Graham Swift: I’ve never seen it.

RB: Well, here it is, the forecast, "It’s been nearly seven years since the publication of Last Orders, and an expectant readership may well justify Knopf’s 75,000 first printing. Lovely cover art won’t hurt."

GS: (both laugh)

RB: Here’s the review: "George Webb, a divorced ex-cop and the narrator of this fine novel, works as a private investigator in London (emphasized, because the novel takes place in Wimbledon). Specializing in matrimonial work, blah, blah, blah. Nash, whose client knows the truth of the affair already, … She is just looking for a sign that her husband can love her again."

GS: I am starting to lose it already.

RB: "Webb’s movements on a particular day in November furnish the opportunity to learn about his childhood." I could go on. I look at this and I think that is difficult to write short, to summarize a novel in 300 words.

GS: Well, as I say I haven’t read that before. But I have read similar pieces where the facts and the way the plot works, they got that wrong. And there is not really an excuse for it, is there?

RB: No. But what I was fascinated by was the forecast. This is a reality of the world that you inhabit and toil in. Has it taken seven years to write this novel?

GS: On paper as it were it will seem it will be seven years since the original publication of Last Orders. But the reality is that, well, firstly, my time was taken up by my last book, running around for it. Not a complaint—it was a success. I did a lot of stuff. It was effectively two years. I don’t mean two solid years, two years in which my time was being interrupted so I couldn’t get back.

RB: Then you had that damn award [The Booker Prize].

GS: Exactly. So before I could even sit down and pursue the next novel, find the subject for it, a couple of years had gone by. And then at the other end, of course, there is no reason that the public should be aware of this— I delivered The Light of Day over a year ago. So a year has already gone by since the finishing of that book. The real gap is four years or so, which is still a long time, but it’s about the time that it takes for me.

RB: Why do you think it’s a long time?

GS: I don’t actually think it’s a long time. But I know that several people would.

RB: Your publisher and your agent?

In the end I produce a novel and it is there for the public, it’s there for the reader, and it’s not part of the package that they should know how it was for me as I wrote it…

GS: No, not them. But there are people who think of writers as, every year a new book. And there are such writers, of course. But I am not one of them.

RB: Do you feel any pressure from that?

GS: No I don’t. I don’t set out to see how many books I am going to write. That’s not the object of the exercise. It takes as long as it takes. Another thing that happens is you don’t get it right the first time. You set out and stop and say, "No, that’s not right. I’ll go back to the beginning." That uses up time. But it’s good time. That can be tough, but I think that one of the ways I have, dare I say it, matured as a writer is in the process of saying to myself, "No that is not good enough." And rejecting my own work and in some cases starting again.

RB: Any thoughts on how many people in the world look at their lives this way?

GS: [pause] I would guess not many.

RB: I ask because given that I expect there is a shortfall in understanding who lives their lives in this way.

GS: That may be true too. I am talking to you on how it is. I don’t expect that sort of understanding. In the end I produce a novel and it is there for the public. It is there for the reader and it’s not part of the package that they should know how it was for me as I wrote it…

RB: But they want to.

GS: I know they are interested.

RB: They want to know your shoe size.

GS: But it’s not necessary. Again, it’s not what it’s really all about.

RB: In the Writers on Writing series that the NY Times does, Ann Beattie had voiced the opinion to the effect that writers are overexposed. These days they are tripping all over each other on book tours. Whatever the conclusions to be drawn from that, something that one might consider is it the audience’s hunger for contact with writers and therefore make extraneous information more common or the desire of the writer to get out of that lonely room and meet other sentient beings?

GS: Well, all this has happened in my writing life. When I began writing, which is now sometime ago—when I say began, this is long before I was ever published—my sense of the writer then, the world’s sense of the writer then going back a few decades, was essentially of this person you never saw. They might have a photo on the back of the jacket of the book, but they sat somewhere and they wrote and they delivered their books to a publisher who published their book and meanwhile the writer remained where they were and possibly carried on with another book. All that has changed dramatically. And it’s taken some adjusting.

RB: [laughs]

GS: It really has. Because I am not the natural, out-on-the-road kind of writer. That’s not really me. But such is the real world of books now that you have to do some of that. I guess I have adjusted to doing it. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t be sitting here with you now. But I would agree with Anne Beattie that this has been quite a detrimental process in some ways. However it might have helped the public, the readers feel that authors are these invisible people, they are real human beings that they can occasionally see and meet, I think it has cut down, quite seriously sometimes, on the time and concentration of the writer at his or her work.

RB: You are expected to participate in these subsidiary activities as part of your responsibility as a writer. It seems that support systems have improved. Aggressive agents, who sometimes take the places of what editors used to do…

GS: Yeah.

RB: Hot shot PR firms, smart publishers…

GS: Well, I have an agent. I certainly wouldn’t call him aggressive.

RB: He is not Andrew Wylie?

swift3 Graham SwiftGS: No, I can safely say that. He may be aggressive with publishers but I don’t see that. My agent is such a very good friend. He has been my agent for many years. I think what you just said is partly true though the role of the editor…the publisher’s editor has been eroded to the extent that sometimes it is the agent who is the real confidante of the author, the close companion of the author. That is something else that has happened in my writing life and the other thing, damn it, is that publishing itself has changed. When I started out back home there was a long list of publishing houses and imprints. The names are still there, but they have been coalesced into these big conglomerates.

RB: Coalesced. (laughs)

GS: The actual choice of publishers now is more limited. And they are constantly changing anyway.

RB: That is true in England also?

GS: Oh yes.

RB: Equally as in the US?

GS: That’s my suspicion. The things become international anyway. There is a Random House here, there is a Random House UK. I think the one thing that you can say now is that a consistent factor in all this, the factor of which you could say in five years time, they are still going to be basically the same, is the author. In five years time, God willing, I shall still be me. I hope still producing what I produce. I can promise that so far I can. No publisher can make the promise they will still be the same in five years time. No way. Even in a year’s time.

RB: What difference does it make if it’s the editor or the agent who is giving intelligent advice from the writer’s point of view but from the publishing houses it must make a difference that editors have changed their roles and attitudes and allegiances?

GS: I think so. The unfortunate shift is that the marketing departments for the publishing house have become more important than the editorial ones. With some good exceptions. But the whole business is marketing led now in way that it wasn’t twenty or thirty years ago.

RB: It wouldn’t be fair to single out publishers for this development. All businesses seem to be marketing driven.

GS: But you can still say, nonetheless, about publishing that it has this cultural dimension. Of course, it’s commerce. Of course you want to sell books. That is true. It’s legitimate but there is a cultural dimension to it. So why are people in it? Surely they have to recognize that. If it’s just about commerce then sell something else.

RB: [laughs] Yeah, I remember Molly Ivins telling that if you think people are stupid then go into advertising. I was reading something that quoted Samuel Johnson on a diner party he had attended, "A lot of talk and not much conversation." From that observation I was thinking about this character George Webb who spends his time in this novel thinking about the past. Not all of it particularly insightful or profound.

GS: Yes, go on.

RB: Then it struck me that we don’t really think brilliant and original thoughts very much. Most of our thoughts are humdrum and quite ordinary.

GS: That’s certainly an area that I am at home in. I am the kind of writer—it should be pretty obvious—who certainly starts with the ordinary world. The world around the corner, the familiar world. And if there is going to be anything extraordinary, I will find it in that. Of course, there is something extraordinary. There are many extraordinary things. What you just said about how many things are said in a day that are really significant is another question. How many things are thought which are significant but never get said?
In a way, a more tantalizing question. Such is my faith in human nature that I think…

RB: Go easy…

GS: I’ll be cautious. But the saying things and then articulacy you need to say them. I think we often have the thoughts and the feelings and those thoughts and feelings go unsaid because the words don’t immediately come out. In my new novel and in Last Orders, I was in part trying to give a voice—if I can put it like that, to people’s inner thoughts and perceptions. You have to be very careful with this because the language that I the author use must not condescend to the character must not betray where that character was coming from. But I was trying to do that thing of saying, "Well this man or woman might never have actually said that in so many words but they could well have had the thought, the perception that goes with those words.” And George the central character in The Light Of Day is in that situation. That is to say, he would have called himself a not very well educated man. Educated but not very well educated. He says often, "Words were not my thing." He’s a policeman and a detective and thought of himself as a man of action, if anything. Something has happened to him now, which has transformed his life. And transformed his whole perception of the world. And in a way, his sense of words and language. And he is seeing the world anew in this novel and needing to find ways of articulating what he is seeing.

RB: There were two instances in the book that resonated for me. One, when he learns something about his daughter that he hadn’t known before. There is a very flat response, but it’s not like he hasn’t heard what she has told him. You didn’t overplay that scene…

When I started out back home there was a long list of publishing houses and imprints. The names are still there, but they have been coalesced into these big conglomerates.

GS: Let’s focus on that for a moment. The situation is he has had a terrible relationship with his daughter. He’s is now a man in his middle years. His daughter is approaching thirty. When she was young, a teenager, they were at war. It seemed she hated him and he couldn’t do anything about it. And then there is this point later on in life when she finally says to him, "Look, Dad, I’m a lesbian."

RB: She doesn’t actually say that.

GS: She doesn’t put it in that way. He asks, "Is there anyone in your life?" And she says, "As a matter of fact there is. She is called Claire." She is admitting something that she has never admitted before. He never realized. But in a flash he knows there was all that trouble in the past. In a flash he feels guilty because he didn’t know and because if he had he could have understood her. But he understands her right now. And then the next thought that flashes through his head is, "What do I say?" And he’s thinking, "Actually, it’s okay that she said this. It’s not a problem. But if I just say that’s alright she’s going to think that, ‘My God, for years I’ve kept this a secret and I have confessed to him and he’s just saying it’s okay.’ So he thinks, "Should I make a big deal about it? Should I behave like a father might behave in this situation and sort of sound off about it all?" But in the end he just does the right thing. A word of love that gets said. And suddenly this relationship is completely mended.

RB: I have no idea what his wife’s problem was with him? Except she is a lapsed Catholic.

GS: Well, there is an element of that. The break up occurs when his career as a policeman is finished and he gets kicked out of the police for improper police behavior and part of her reaction is really a judgement. She is a pretty judgmental woman. There are plenty of other things leading up to the breakup but this is the last straw for him.

RB: I saw her as a terminally dissatisfied person, but I don’t know what her beef, as we say in America, was with him.

GS: Ah, she is a teacher, so one factor is perhaps that it doesn’t look good for her purposes that she is married to this guy that has been kicked out of his job in this way. But I think there are a whole number of contributing factors. It’s ironic that she is a teacher because the central female character in the novel is also a teacher, although she is no longer a teacher in the sense that she is in prison. But she carries on teaching in one sense because part of the relationship between her and George, her visitor in prison, is a sort of teacher-student relationship. It’s not the primary relationship, but it does work like that.

RB: This may be oblique, but trust me this may get somewhere. The size and shape of the book is interesting to me. If it were a usual book size it would have been a thinner book. As it stands now it is a 320-page book, but it seems to take less time to read than one would expect from a book of such length. Was the book (5” x 7”) designed to make it look larger—perhaps to slow the reader down?

GS: Well, what you said is interesting because another way in which I hope I have progressed as a writer is in the direction of economy and concision in the direction of saying quite a lot in a few words and even then saying it with quite simple words. This is not a wordy book if I can put it like that. I hope if I ever was a wordy writer that I have become a less wordy writer. And my sense of writing, more and more—this is something I have said before—is that what you are dealing with really is what lies beyond the word. The words themselves are not the be all and end all of writing. They are only there to give something, to transmit something. And that’s why often the best words are the least noticeable words, because they are transparent. The feeling comes through. So, in that sense my novels have reduced, fewer words, simpler words. But I hope what lies beyond is always expanding, if I can put it like that.

RB: Here’s what I am getting to. I believe Edgar Allen Poe suggested a novella was a story that one would sit down after dinner and be compelled to finish the reading in one sitting. Did you have any thoughts about whether this story would be best digested in one sitting—especially since this all takes place in one day of George’s life?

GS: If someone sat down and started it and didn’t get up again until they finished that’s fine by me. There is no obligation to read the book in that way.

RB: [laughs]

GS: But if they did that that’s fine. I guess I Iike to feel that I can have it both ways. That I have written the kind of book which might affect the reader like that, which would be read in one sitting and that would be fine. But at the same time a book that can be slowly digested and certainly a book, whether it was read the first time at a single sitting or not could be reread with increasing satisfaction. Or reward or whatever.

RB: I, as I would suppose of other readers, would aspire to reread books but one of the inhibitors is that there are so many new books. I just read Robert Stone’s new novel twice because I felt distracted the first reading. Which got me to thinking about how much I got out of the books I have read the one time.

GS: It’s tricky isn’t it? The very notion of reading a book at one sitting and reading a book quickly can be misconstrued. It’s like saying it won’t take you very long. It won’t take up a lot of your time. It will be an undemanding thing. That’s hardly what a serious novelist wants. You want to make demands. You want something, which is full of real nourishment. But it is very hard in these days to reread. I think the book culture is for the quick thing. For the one off thing. So there is no modern contemporary equivalent of the classic book, which is there on the shelf constantly to be re-read.

RB: Actually, I have picked out two. I try to reread one of two Garcia Marquez’ novels every year, either One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in Time of Cholera. It’s an arbitrary choice but not less rewarding because of that. What will happen to libraries?

GS: Libraries have gone into a sad state of decay in my country. It’s funny, I seem to be deploring all these sad changes but again when I started writing, libraries were good places to be. Pretty well supported by public funds, which they no longer are. Libraries were even places where there was a market for new publications. A serious novelist would expect to have so many copies in libraries and now for obvious reasons that’s all changed. The whole communication of books has changed.

RB: There is a persistent, gnawing kind of anxiety that is expressed by books such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 that we will come to a place and time where there will be no books. But yet there are always signs of hope and you being the optimist about humanity…

swift2 Graham SwiftGS: Well, I am an optimist in many ways and even an optimist about the book. There is now the resurrection of the book. People are often saying the book is finished. Other things will take its place. Actually, look around, the book is still very much there. There are bookstores, still. There are readers. There are people who want this experience that only sitting with a book can give. It’s the experience I write for. It’s a wonderful, personal, private kind of chemistry which occurs between you and the pages of the book, and it’s a very free thing because as we all know every reader reads the book in their own way. They have an experience, which is defined for them. And nothing else really gives that. It’s why—as much as I love going to the cinema—I always think that the movies, the screen is a smaller than the page because what you get on the screen it may be marvelous but the screen is saying, "This is it." Everyone sitting out there is going to see this and see the same thing. Seeing whatever actor it is playing the character and so on. How different that is when you read a book. I actually, when I am writing I don’t have a very strong visual impression of my characters. If you say what’s George like in the Light Of Day? I don’t think I could answer that. And that’s partly because I want to leave…

RB: Sarah wears black cashmere.

GS: Yeah, but that’s clothing. She doesn’t wear that in prison either. But it’s up top the reader to imagine how the character looks.

RB: Well, the end of the literature and the end of civilization and the end of this and that are certainly preoccupations of … but I can’t help but thinking that the literary universe is of a fixed size. It doesn’t get smaller and it doesn’t expand…and the anxiety that comes about its existence is about it competing with every thing else that is getting larger. Growth is a sign of success; thus we want the literary culture to grow as a validation of its importance.

GS: Literary culture is pretty damn old. It has grown. It is what it is and has reached its maturity and is maintaining its maturity and doesn’t need to do something to carry on being what it is.

RB: Perhaps it is the anxiety of the marketing departments?

GS: It may well be.

RB: I asked about the notion of reading at one sitting is about the notion that his novel takes place in one day but is a meditation on George Webb’s life. At that point the idea of one day became meaningless. I found the story to be very full of time.

GS: It is. Yes, it does certainly follow the course of a single day. I do that quite in detail and quite intimately. Almost hour by hour. But that single day, that present day is a hinge on which so much else I hung. Rather typically, I would say, for my kind of narrative. I constantly move around in times—what I naturally do. It’s what we naturally do. On any given day, any present day. How many memories will we have in the course of that day? How many other things in our life will, mentally at least, even if we are not entirely conscious of it feature for us on any given day, our whole life is there, on any given day. That’s the way it works.

RB: Did you feel required to read detective novels?

GS: No, no…

RB: Is it an arbitrary matter that he is a detective?

GS: Well, it’s not entirely arbitrary. George was there before he was anything else. He is a human being before he is anything else. The evolution of his character involved him being other things than being a detective. I won’t say what he was but there were earlier stages where George is not a detective. And then a moment came somehow that I knew that he had to be a detective. And that moment was not a moment when I said to myself, "Oh now I am going to write a detective story. Or now I am going to do that sort of thing which is done many times." Nor did I say to myself I want to play around with the genre of the detective story of the murder mystery. Why the hell should I do that? So, it’s a novel. It’s a serious grown up novel, which has a detective as its main character.

RB: One of the trade publications in their 200-word capsule review suggested that the title was a bow to the noirish aspects of the novels of the ’30s and ’40s.

GS: I wish someone could tell me. Maybe you can. What does ‘noir’ mean, let alone ‘noirish’? What does ‘noir’ mean?

RB: [laughs]

GS: I am afraid it really doesn’t mean anything. I know it’s French for ‘black’. But when people say ‘noir’ that is not exactly what they mean. It’s a label word and it’s bandied about and God’s truth I don’t know what it means.

RB: Well as long as we are talking about a word that is normally affiliated with cinema, I don’t share your feeling about the limitations of film. There is lots implicit and loaded into films. I can think of so many scenes that are just physical gestures by an actor that I think require some interpretation.

GS: I am a bit biased, and I half agree with you. One thing that often happens in cinema when it works is this thing of the little, the minimal thing giving a lot, particularly close-ups. A shot of a character’s eyes. All you need sometimes is to see the close up of the eyes of the character or the face of the character, not doing much at all. Given the right context you fill it in, the audience fills in what is going on behind the eyes, as it were. So that’s the sort of parallel reverse of something you get with the novel. But I still stick with the novel in the end.

RB: [laugh] I’m glad you said you were biased. Would you be troubled if I read something that I didn’t understand?

GS: Go ahead. Maybe I won’t understand it either.

RB: "No matter what we do no matter how bad. If we are found to be corrupt. Even if we do the worst thing ever. Even if we do what we never thought was in us to do and kill another person. Even if that other person was once the person for whom we are holding out a net." I just couldn’t get my mind around that.

GS: Ah well. It comes from something before in a chapter. I can’t really say any more than that. It’s the end of a chapter and the effect of those words depends on things that have come before.

RB: Tricky. Challenging.

GS: [both laugh]

RB: That does speak to the quality of one’s first reading. How do you know when your story is finished?

GS: By some sort of gut instinct, basically. I guess you could say a book is never finished. You could always fiddle around with it until doomsday. Little tiny touches. You sort of know instinctively that it’s now done and it’s rarely from a moment of, "Aha, today I finished it." It’s not like that, but it dawns on you that it’s that.

RB: In The Light of Day were you starting with one present day as the container for the story?

There are people who want this experience that only sitting with a book can give. It’s the experience I write for. It’s a wonderful, personal, private kind of chemistry which occurs between you and the pages of the book, and it’s a very free thing because as we all know every reader reads the book in their own way.

GS: No I didn’t. I can’t remember at what point that decision came but it was a very positive point and a very constructive point. Realizing that there could be this single day that was the hinge for lots of other things. And this after all is something I have done before because Last Orders had a similar structure. There is a single present day and it is a special day involving a journey in that novel. And that too acts as a sort of focus for a lot of other stuff and a lot of going back in time.

RB: I was tempted to say that would seem to make the task of finishing the story easier.

GS: It starts in morning with George’s arrival at his office just like any ordinary day although this isn’t quite an ordinary day. And it finishes technically with him returning to his office and a passage of hours in between. But a passage of a whole lot of other stuff too.

RB: And so you finish the first draft and then what happens?

GS: First, I don’t think there is anything as distinct as a draft. That’s to say the whole thing from start to finish, even in a rudimentary form but complete nonetheless. I think my drafts are more messy and chaotic things where I might have written some stuff which will be pretty much like the final thing but a lot won’t be anything close to the final thing, which I have to discard and rewrite. I would say I probably wrote two and even three times as much as what you got in the finished book, to get to what you have in the finished book. But not necessarily in the form of complete recognizable drafts,

RB: At what point does someone else see it?

GS: Very, very late. Almost the point at which I think I have got it, I’ve finished, is the point at which I can contemplate showing it to someone else. And that someone else will be my wife first and then one or two people in the trade as it were. I guess those things go together. For me at least, it’s a strange paradox, I can spend this time with this something that I am the only person who knows about it but with the object of lots of people knowing about it, in the end. And there has to be a moment where you move from one state to the other.

RB: I am aware that you have friends that are writers. And I imagine you associate with them and such.

GS: Yup, I now know and number among my friends quite a few writers. This another irony or paradox because certainly there was a time when I wrote without knowing a single other writer and indeed I did that for many years. So there I was, out in the cold, as it were and then gradually I did meet other writers and became good friends with some of them. I think when I get together with them they would say the same thing, I am sure, writing itself is probably the last topic to come up. We respect what each one of does enough to not say, "What are you working on now? How’s it going?" that sort of thing. You can probably get the signals anyway, but we talk about anything else but.

RB: What happens if a friend writes a book you just can’t abide?

GS: I think I would have the courage to say that. I never had to say that so bluntly. I might say, "I couldn’t get on with this one like I got on with the last one." Or something like that. Again that works reciprocally. It would be surprising if someone read several of your books and felt equally about each one of them. Not just a friend but any reader. Different books please different people.

RB: Someone quoted me Gertrude Stein’s idea that artists should never be criticized. I would think taking bad reviews and less than glowing commentaries must be hard.

GS: Well we are all human; we would all prefer to have nice things said about us than not so nice things. I care less and less what the critics and reviewers say. Partly because I have gotten used to that process. I have gotten used to the process, which is a pretty brief one. You publish a book and then for a little while it will be in the papers and people will say things about it but it is a little while—a few weeks. And that’s behind you and the book is out there in the real world as it were, and it will find readers and that’s what matters. So it’s a transient experience anyway. I know what I am doing. I know the worth of what I am doing. If people don’t get it, well, too bad. [chuckles]

RB: Well, there are reviewers and there are critics like Michael Dirda and Jonathan Yardley and Gail Caldwell and James Wood who take a broader more contextual view. Do you pay attention to those writers?

GS: I am not terribly up on what comments I have had a part from things I knew about before I came here. I read some of it, I don’t make it a job to read everything that is said.

RB: I’m distinguishing reviewers from critics and get your sense of whether they perform a service and whether the criticism is well argued and thought out and knowledgeable?

GS: That is or should or could be a useful distinction—reviewing and criticism. There is a lot of reviewing and you could say there is not a lot of real criticism. A lot of reviewers aren’t really critics in the sense that that is their professional activity. There people doing that job because they got picked to do it that week, that sort of thing. The consistent sort of regular critic is not actually a very common thing these days. Perhaps there should be more of that. But then even if you have a regular critic, the danger is they might occupy a position and get very important about it at the expense of certain intellectual freedoms. It’s not a perfect world.

RB: It would seem that more book coverage is better.

GS: Well, it often said that there is no such thing as bad publicity. I wonder. People who say that are often publicists. [both laugh]

RB: Yeah, there are there are these celebrities who do awful things and continue in the limelight. In any case, what is next for you?

swift4 Graham SwiftGS: When I am through with the current touring—I’m in North America now and there are going to be a number of translations of The Light of Day, starting this Fall. I am going to have to do more of this at home or in Europe. But when I am on the other side of that it will be back to the novel writing. I hope. There is something—I was going to say fermenting, but that might be too strong a word, but there is something getting on up there at the moment. So when I can, I’ll sit down and put it to the test.

RB: I get the sense that you approach working on a book from start to finish. That is to say, that you could be working on it now on planes and trains or wherever.

GS: In a sense there is no reason, but if you were me I think you’d know …I’m certainly not that kind of writer. I can’t do more than one thing at one time. I’m afraid that while I’m traveling like this I’m not being very creative. [chuckles]

RB: Do you listen to music when you write?

GS: Not when I write. But I do certainly listen to music and I think music informs my writing. I don’t mean any particular music. I just think I have a musical feeling for things even though my business is words and narrative. A lot of the things that occur in music also occur and work in storytelling. Things like rhythm and timing and pacing and so on. And I am a very emotional writer. Music is obviously an emotional language. When I say I am an emotional writer I don’t mean that I am constantly tearing my hair out sitting in my room, although I can get like that. I am guided by emotions. My sense of the shape of what I am doing is guided by emotion. It is not an intellectual presence. It has very much to do with feeling and in the end I want to write things that people feel and if someone says to me, "I was moved by what you did, I was gripped, I was compelled by what you did." That means much more than someone saying, "Oh I did like that description on page 37." Emotion is central.

RB: Good.

GS: Thank you.

© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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