Readers of this blog are familiar with the lovely Dan Powell, writer and stay-at-home Dad. I interviewed him here back in 2012. I am beyond delighted to welcome Dan back today on his blog tour to celebrate the publication of his début short fiction collection, Looking Out Of Broken Windows, which was shortlisted for the Scott Prize in 2013 and is published by Salt. Dan is a prize winning author whose short fiction has appeared in Carve, Paraxis, Fleeting and The Best British Short Stories 2012. He blogs at danpowellfiction.com and he's on Twitter as @danpowfiction.
Check out Dan's impressive book trailer, above, where artist friends of his provided a glimpse of what the stories in the book might look like as comics.
|Writer Dan Powell|
Dan: These stories are definitely dealing with how the mundane, everyday experience is in fact spectacular. This idea is threaded through the stories but it wasn't something I consciously set out to do. The stories were written over a five year period and each one (with the exception of the three Ultrasound fictions) were written in isolation. When I began to assemble the collection it soon became clear that this idea, of the intensity that sits inside seemingly mundane suburban family life, was something that had been finding its way into many of the stories I was selecting. Looking at them now, in the context of the collection, it seems that I was dealing with the things that go unsaid in those family relationships: the secrets, the lies, the things we let go of and later regret, the spectacular things that happen in life that we take for granted. I suppose that's why so many of the stories, while realist in tone, trip into magical realism at some point. I was trying to bring out those things, show them more starkly against the background of the everyday. I was thrilled when the cover blurb you provided for the book picked up on that aspect of the collection.
N: Your stories often have touches of the surreal. What is the appeal of that to you? Are there writers in that vein that you admire?
D: These surreal or magical realist elements are a way of writing the interior lives of the characters into the foreground of a story without explicitly showing the reader what is happening. It is as the characters interact with these elements that the real emotional arc of the story becomes apparent. So in 'Storm in a Teacup' for example, the storm becomes a crisis in the cafe that actually represents the internal crises of all the characters witnessing the event. The fantasy element becomes a mirror in which the characters can see themselves and, hopefully, one in which the reader will perhaps see something of his or herself.
As for writers I admire in this vein, obviously there is Kafka, but also Chekhov. Many of Anton Chekhov's early short stories have surrealist elements, a fact often ignored in light of his later, classic stories. His story The Exclamation Mark, in which a clerk begins arguing with punctuation, is a favourite of mine. More contemporary authors who have influenced this aspect of my writing would be Aimee Bender, Etgar Keret, and Michel Faber, who's short stories bridge gaps between so many genres.
N: Tell us about the putting together of Looking Out of Broken Windows – what was your approach to fitting the stories together as a book?
D: On the most basic level putting the collection together was simply a matter of selecting the best stories I had written in the last five years or so since I began seriously writing. From a total pool of about seventy or so short and flash fictions, I trimmed things down to just over thirty that I thought might work together. On reading them through again, some for the first time since they had been published in anthologies or journals, the theme of characters looking out at the world through the broken lense of their perspective seemed to be peeking out from almost all of them. All of the twenty-seven stories that ended up in the book have a main character who is struggling to deal with a world that seems to them broken in some way. As the stories progress some characters manage to discover that the fracture is actually in them, some remain trapped in their skewed viewpoint. A few of the stories that failed to make the cut for this collection have been earmarked for the next, the rest will slowly settle to the bottom of my laptop's filing system.
Once I had the stories, I ordered them using a system I nicked from the brilliant Carys Bray. I wrote each title down on a post-it with notes on the characters, themes, point-of-view and tone of each story. Then I stuck the post-its on a cupboard door and, while editing the stories again, I shuffled the stories round on the door until, after a couple of weeks of thinking about them in this way, I had the running order you see in the book. That said, they can and should be read in any order. All the stories were written independently and are more than able to stand on their own two feet.
N: One story in the book is called ‘What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Cancer’, which is a riff on Ray Carver. Do titles come easily to you? Is it a fun part of the process for you?
D: I struggle with titles. As the first thing readers will see of the story. They are key and often, unless it is one of the few stories I have written which spawned from a title phrase, 'Storm in a Teacup' for example, I have no clue what to call something. Part of the fun of writing these 'as yet untitled stories' is working out what they will be called. Late in the writing process, on the penultimate or final draft a title will present itself and I know it is right when it feels like the story has always been called that. ‘What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Cancer’ is unusual in that it is one of those few stories for which I had the title early on but it is one now that I am still not a hundred percent comfortable with. Perhaps that is simply due to the fact that I cribbed it from Raymond Carver and I feel like doing so is a tremendously presumptuous thing to do. The title simply stuck for want of one that better resonates to the reader what the story is about. Sometimes that has to be enough.
N: Here’s the cruel question that most writers hate – how often do stories (or story ideas) come to you, and what sparks them?
D: Ideas hit me all the time. Not all of them make it into a story but I note everything down in one of my many notebooks; I have a notebook on my bedside, one on my desk, one in the glove compartment of my car, one in my man-bag, one in the pocket of my raincoat even. If an idea keeps knocking on the door of my brain, long after it's been jotted in a notebook, that's when I know I have a story. As for where the ideas come from, I've been gifted ideas from lines in poems, song lyrics, unusual artwork or photographs, news stories, things my kids have said or done, stuff I've seen or done at work. The key thing is to be open to stuff and let it in. I think that's the key to finding ideas, being open to little things going on around you, making connections between them and running with that tiny germ of an idea until it is many, many words in something like the best order. I feel very lucky that I have more ideas than could possibly write. I might get frustrated at times with my own slow pace but at least I am never stuck for something to put on paper.
N: What are your thoughts on the ‘write what you know’ diktat?
D: I don't often know a great deal about the world or situation of my characters when I begin writing a story. In fact, my process involves, in the first draft anyway, telling myself the story, with subsequent drafts and edits geared towards telling it better. I like the sense of discovery inherent in working this way and hopefully it gives the story life for the reader.
As for research, as writers we can easily fill in the gaps in what we know to make sure the worlds and characters we are creating are authentic. This side of writing is simpler perhaps than it has ever been. I don't think that writers should be limited by this idea of writing only what we know. I am not a woman, but I have received praise for my writing from a female perspective. Believable, engaging fiction, for me, is less about facts but rather about writing from some sort of emotional truth. You have to write what you know to be emotionally true. Often I don't consciously know why something must happen in a particular way in a story until long after it is finished, it just feels right when I am writing. So yeah, getting facts straight and knowing your subject inside out is important, but as far as that rule goes, for me it should read, write what feels true, regardless of whether it is or not.
N: I heard the supreme Canadian novelist and short story writer Alistair MacLeod say this: ‘In order to write you have to have language and you have to have leisure. You have to have a place to sit.’ Naturally, you have language. But do you have the other two things?
D: I am very lucky in that I have, for the first time, a study all of my own in which to work. It is a tiny room, just big enough to house a desk and a bookcase. I have to move the chair across in order to open the door, but it has everything I need to write crammed inside and a door that shuts out the world. It also has a cracking view of the Lincolnshire countryside.
As for leisure. I am able to write most evenings and on the two days a week that my daughter is in nursery, if I am not called in to cover classes in local schools, I am able to write all day. This does not happen often but I am always grateful when it does. Taking care of three young children and working part time, I am always struggling to find time to write. It is often hard to find a moment to work on my fiction, but the upside is that I have not yet suffered from writers' block. I simply don't have the time to. If a free hour presents itself then I have to make the most of it. Lack of time is a great motivator and I use my time more productively now than I did back in my younger days when free time grew on trees.
N: Has your writing changed since you moved back to the UK from Germany? Has your writing life improved in any way?
D: Since coming back to the UK, setting is becoming a much more important aspect of my work. I have already set a short story here in Lincolnshire, as well as another couple in Highcliffe on the south coast of England, where I've holidayed a few times with my family. Lincolnshire has also become a key setting in the final third of my novel in progress.
As far as improving my writing life, I can write anywhere, but moving back has already allowed me to accept numerous offers to appear at Literary Festivals and take part in writing events. In February this year I took part in the Book It! Oxted Literary Festival short story panel alongside Alison MacLeod, Vanessa Gebbie and Tom Vowler; a fantastic line-up for my first festival experience. Later this year I will be reading at Lincoln Inspired and leading a writing workshop at the Wolds Words festival, both brilliant local Lincolnshire events aimed at promoting the literary arts and supporting writers in the community. In a couple of weeks I will be attending the Willesden Herald short story prize results evening in London and in June I will be reading at the London Short Story Festival. All these things would have been impossible if I were still living in Germany.
On a personal note, after seven years of living overseas, it is great to be back home. I only realised just how much I had missed the UK once we finally came back.
Thanks so much, Dan, for stopping by on your virtual tour. Wishing you tons of well-deserved luck with this book.
Readers, Dan is giving away a signed copy of Looking Out of Broken Windows to one reader of the blog tour; he will post to anywhere in the world. To enter the draw just leave a comment on this post or any of the other LOoBW blog tour posts appearing across the internet during March 2014 or Like the Looking Out of Broken Windows Facebook page for a chance to win. The names of all commenters will be put in the hat for the draw which will take place on April 6th.