To celebrate his award winning short story appearing in The Best British Short Stories 2012 (Salt), I welcome Dan Powell to the blog today for a chat about writing in general and short stories in particular.
|Writer Dan Powell|
Dan’s stories have appeared in Spilling Ink Review, Staccato, Neon, Metazen, The View From Here, Friction and Dirty Bristow. His story ‘Half-mown Lawn’ won the 2010 Yeovil Literary Prize for short fiction and is published this month in The Best British Short Stories 2012. Married with three children, Dan teaches part-time while studying for a distance learning MA in Creative Writing. He blogs at danpowellfiction.com
Hi Dan and welcome to WWR.
Hi Nuala, great to be here.
You are a writer, stay-at-home Dad, part-time worker and also an MA in Creative Writing student. You said recently regarding writing ‘I go easy on myself. If there’s no time, there’s no time.’ Happily you are still getting things done. How do you juggle it all?
It’s all down to my brilliant and beautiful wife. Of the two of us, she works full time, affording me the time to pursue my writing when I’m not taking care of the kids. We have two young boys and a baby girl so family time takes up a huge chunk of my week, but the boys are both at school now and my little girl loves nursery, so I usually get two or three mornings a week when I am not working myself to concentrate on my writing. My wife is a teacher and often has to work in the evenings, so I also use that time to do redrafts, update my blog and do submission admin and the like. As you say, it’s a juggling act, but I find, though I have far less time for writing now than I did in my twenties, I do far more with the time I have. The work has a sense of urgency. I rarely struggle over what to write. Time is short, so I just get down to it when I can.
Snap – we’ve 2 boys and a girl as well. Your life mirrors mine too in the time-for-writing sense.
What is your writing process – morning or night; longhand or laptop?
Back in my younger days I wrote mostly at night, but I tend to write best in the mornings now. Those mornings when I am not working I start writing as soon as I get back from dropping my youngest at nursery, a little after 9am and work through to just before 1pm. I take a couple of breaks and slot in doing the washing and other chores when I need to. Mundane tasks like that provide excellent thinking time. Some of my better ideas for where to go next with a story have come while I’ve been hanging out washing or mowing the lawn. If my youngest has an afternoon nap or I have time in the evening, that’s my editing and submitting time.
As for longhand or laptop, my process tends to differ depending on what I’m writing. I have an A4 notebook which I keep purely for writing first drafts of flash fiction in longhand. I find there is something about the slow pace of handwriting something that lends itself to the dense nature of short short stories. Longer short stories and my novel I usually draft in Scrivener, going through a handful of edits before moving into a more traditional word processor for final drafts once I am happy with the overall structure of a piece. My MA novel has so far been drafted entirely on my laptop, but I am planning to tackle at least one section in longhand to purposely slow down my writing and see what happens.
The key thing I have realised about my process is that it is unlikely to ever reach a fixed point. Each time I write a story something new feeds into what I do and older aspects drop away (sometimes to return later, sometimes not). I’ve read a few quotes about how writers don’t learn to write novels, they just learn to write the novel they are currently writing. I feel a little bit like that with all my fiction. Each story requires a slightly different approach.
You live in Germany. Does that country and its flavours ever sneak into your writing?
Though I live in a village Germany, we are part of a fairly large British community within the area. As such I don’t feel I have been as influenced by German culture as I might have been if I was more integrated into the German community.
I know that music is a key feature of your process. Can you tell us a little about that?
Firstly, I listen to music while I write. I have a whole host of music that I have relabelled Writing Music in the genre tab in iTunes. Some is classical stuff, Chopin and Bach being particular favourites. Some is neo classical, Oalfur Arnalds and A Winged Victory for the Sullen feature high on my most played playlist. Bands like Explosions in the Sky and Industries of the Blind make for good background music too. It keeps me focused. If ever I do have trouble starting, I stick on something that I think fits the tone I am going for and start writing, figuring I’ll stop when the album ends. Usually by that time I am up and running and hit loop to keep on writing.
I create playlists for longer stories, with tracks selected for key characters. This aspect of my process started when a creative writing tutor told me he selected a theme song for each of his main characters. I gave that a try and it soon spiralled into my creating ‘soundtracks’ for my works-in-progress.
My MA novel currently has 22 tracks in the list (and growing), all linked to the characters and key times in their lives. I tend to listen to the tracks before embarking on certain sections, to try and get into the right headspace for the character. I find this particularly helpful when returning to the manuscript after some days away.
Some lyrics and song titles find their way into the work as chapter headings. I wrote recently on my blog about how my listening to the Shearwater album Everybody Makes Mistakes had added three songs onto my novel’s playlist. Everybody Makes Mistakes is also a working title for a key chapter in the book from the perspective of my main character’s teenage son.
Who are your favourite short fiction writers and why?
I have so many favourite short fiction authors. Of the masters, I particularly love Chekhov, Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel. Each one of them has broken my heart with a well written line. As for more contemporary authors, Adam Marek routinuely blows me away with the strength of his ideas and the control he shows in crafting his stories. I love David Gaffney’s very short shorts. Nik Perring, Tania Hershman and Sara Crowley have all taken my breath away over the last few years. And, as you know, I am excited to read your new collection later this year.
What story do you love? (You know the one that begs to be re-read over and over.)
My favourite short story has to be Grief by Anton Chekhov. The title is often translated as Misery, but Rosamund Bartlett in her excellent translation of Chekhov’s early work, The Exclamation Mark, used the title Grief which I think is far more fitting. It is the story of Iona Potapov a cabby working with his horse and carriage in the St Petersburg night. He has recently lost his son and is desperate to talk about his loss with whomever will listen but his customers simply don’t care. The story builds to a sadly beautiful scene which I will not spoil here by attempting to describe it.
As a reader I love being swept along by the black comedy and the deep tragedy of the story. As a writer I am in awe of both Chekhov’s skill in telling this tale and the fact that this was one of his earliest stories to show his mastery, its publication coming right at the beginning of the period in which Chekhov transformed himself from a throwaway writer of comic trifles into the master of the short form we are are familiar with today. The story can be read free online, but I urge your readers to seek out the Bartlett translated collection, The Exclamation Mark, for an excellent contemporary translation.
You are a novelist as well as a short fiction writer. Do you find a crossover of themes between the two, or does each stand alone for you?
I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a novelist just yet, maybe when I’ve finished the book, but I do find certain themes permeate my work. My stories tend to involve births or deaths. It’s not that I consciously set out to do this, but my subconscious certainly seems to gravitate toward the themes of family, marriage and loss. Probably not all that surprising as I became a father shortly after the death of my own. His absence is very much present to me at times.
My MA novel is a bit of a departure (I hope) as it focuses on a single, horribly violent act that affects the cast in different ways. That said I am finding as I begin to get deeper into the story, that the act itself is almost sidelined by the relationships going on around it, particularly those of the father, mother and son in the centre of the maelstrom. And grief seems to be seeping through in the loss of people important to my married couple in their backstories.
What one piece of advice would you offer beginning writers?
I’d probably paraphrase Ira Glass’s excellent advice on storytelling:
Read really good writing. It’s the only way to get good yourself. Work out how others are doing the things you like then start writing. Only don’t expect to be as good as the stuff you are reading right away. That will take time and many. many words on the page. But that’s okay. Keep writing and you’ll keep getting better.
I wish someone had told me that when I was younger. That I wasn’t expected to write perfect prose in first draft. I spent much too much of my early writing life comparing my first draft efforts to the polished prose of the authors I love and, of course, coming off worse. I stopped writing for a long time thinking my work was crap. It took me a while to get it through my head that everyone’s first drafts are crap.
Are you putting together a short story collection?
I am in the process of assembling my stories into a collection to submit. My plan is to take my time with it and include only those stories I am happiest with, the ones that best reflect where I started and where I am now. The interesting thing doing this is seeing the threads that link stories written at vastly different times and about vastly different subjects. Also, trying to come up with a title for a collection is a job in itself. Hopefully, not too many years from now, I’ll be celebrating the publication of my first collection.
Thanks a million for stopping by, Dan. I look forward to reading The Best British Short Stories 2012 very soon. Best of luck with all your writing endeavours.
Thanks for having me Nuala. It’s been a pleasure.
You can buy the book here. It is edited by Nicholas Royle.
Lovely interview - thanks Dan, and Nuala - I love it when writers say they're more driven after having children - it's so true for me.
Fab interview! I'm particularly interested in what Dan has to say about music. Theoretically it sounds like a great device for triggering mood, memory etc. I write in silence. I suppose I'm concerned that I'll get distracted by the music. For general listening I'm a hip hop fan and lyrics are what I zone in on - I'd hate to have that kind of voice spill over into the writing. Shameful to admit I've never got along with classical music but I can see how music/writing could be an excellent marriage. I may have to experiment.
Oh, and big thanks for the shout out, Dan.
Rachel - true for me too. It becomes more urgent.
Yes, Sara, I know what you mean. I listen to music a bit when constructing/writing novels (music of the era). Otherwise, I prefer silence.
Lovely interview. I completely get what you mean about the juggling and how time and writing becomes more urgent. V. interesting re the music - I listen to Bach as well a lot and at times particular songs that trigger a sense of something but actually picking songs to match characters is fascinating! Thanks Dan and Nuala!
I really enjoyed this interview. It is so refreshing to read of other writers juggling the care of small children and writing. I fantastise about the long mornings I will have to write once I get ours off to school! Some day...
Thanks to both of you, Dan and Nuala. :)
@Rachel - being driven to write becomes an absolute necessity once you have kids, doesn't it?
@Sara - There's some great stuff out there to write to that isn't classical. Explosions in the Sky and Stars of the Lid are well worth a look. I can't write to anything with lyrics though - other peoples words get in the way.
@shaunag - I don't so much pick the tracks as when listening to music, I'll hear a song that makes me think of my character and it goes on the playlist, and then it informs how I write the character from there, be it in mood or an action or idea that I develop. I suppose you could say the songs present themselves.
@Doireann - I hope you mornings writing are as productive as mine once you get there. It's a great feeling to have an hour or two to really focus with everyone out of the house. Love my kids to bits, but I am so grateful for the space to write when they are off doing their thing at school/nursery.
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