Over the past four decades, Gladys Swan has published six collections of short stories and two novels, Carnival for the Gods (Vintage Contemporaries Series), and Ghost Dance: A Play of Voices, nominated by LSU Press for the Pen/Faulkner Award. Her short fiction appears in a variety of anthologies and in such literary magazines as the Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Shenandoah, and the Ohio Review. She is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including Prairie Schooner’s Lawrence Foundation Prize for Fiction, and a Tate Prize for Poetry from the Sewanee Review. In addition to receiving multiple fellowships for residencies and retreats in both the visual arts and in writing, she was awarded one of the first Open Fellowships from the Lilly Endowment, for a study of Inuit art and mythology. Swan’s The Tiger’s Eye—A Collection of New and Selected Stories was published by Servinghouse Books in the fall of 2011.
Joyce J. Townsend: What prompted the publication of your latest short story collection at this point in time?
Gladys Swan: The Tiger’s Eye is a milestone of sorts, representing forty years of work in the short story. It serves as a retrospective, a chance to look back and see where I’ve come in this particular genre. I hadn’t read most of the stories for years, so it was interesting to see what has held my attention, what motifs have recurred, what I’ve discovered along the path.
JJT: How were you drawn to the writing life?
Swan: I suppose at heart it’s a matter of temperament and thereby a kind of fate. I was propelled early on by an impulse I didn’t really understand. A need, I think, to define my experience somehow, to discover a way of looking at the world, to find some kind of orientation in a place where I was a stranger. Then it became a fascination with what the imagination could know, a satisfaction in doing the work no matter what, after a long struggle, “a lonely impulse of delight,” to borrow a line from Yeats.
JJT: What moved you from creative writing to the visual arts? Or did it happen the other way around?
Swan: I was drawn to the visual arts as a child. I remember trying to paint a horse and being terribly frustrated when it didn’t come out right. When I got to high school, I took a painting class sponsored by New Mexico Western College. Dorothy McCrae, a wonderful artist and teacher, oversaw the class and came in at various times to work with the student instructor. She put me in touch with my imagination. I didn’t realize how much I owed Dorothy until later.
Although I was also trying to write, and felt great excitement about literature, I took another painting class when I attended New Mexico Western College, and I continued to sketch and paint a little as I went along. As it began to appear that I was never going to get published, I started working in ceramics—making bowls was better than collecting typescript. A pivotal moment for me came when I was awarded a Lilly Endowment Open Fellowship for a project in art and mythology. I went up to Purdue and took every art course I could manage, and then I put all that aside when, all of a sudden, my writing began being published. But I couldn’t stay away: I had spent so much time over the years in art museums that finally I couldn’t stand it any longer—I had to paint.
After I began teaching creative writing at the University of Missouri, I took art classes there. I’ve had some fine teachers along the way, people I still spend time with, to whom I owe a great deal for their support and inspiration, among them Woody Johnson from New Mexico Western College, and Curt Stocking with whom I studied figure-drawing at Purdue. Here in Missouri, Frank Stack, Brooke Cameron, Ben Cameron, and William Berry have been influential, and Robert Friedman and Bede Clark in ceramics.
JJT: In what ways do you see the two creative processes affecting each other?
Swan: The visual arts engage the senses in a different way, perhaps closer to the way the mind works when rational thinking is not imposed on it. You have a flow of images. Art works with those images—words and definitions come later. The process is non-linear. Its language is color, line and mass, pattern and rhythm, light and dark. It offers me a great refreshment to get out of words, and I love playing with color. Attention to the act of seeing makes me observe the world more closely, its lights and shadows, its tones and variations, its people, their expressions and gestures. Art offers a new and continuing opportunity for discovery. I believe that is reflected in my writing.
JJT: Do you find similar patterns between writing and the visual arts emerging for you?
Swan: Patterns there are, and more. I believe that it is very beneficial for an artist to work in another medium, whether it be music or dance, drama or painting. There is no direct equation, but one art form influences the other in interesting and subtle ways. You learn things about form and pattern, rhythm and emphasis. You get another take on how you see the world. Also, when you are learning to work in a different medium, you recognize similarities in the creative process, what stages you have to go through before you reach any kind of mastery.
JJT: When you first started out as an artist and writer, whose work most influenced you?
Swan: Strong influences shaping my mind and imagination came from the writings of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, and the works of Homer and the Greek playwrights. I discovered Jung when his books were first translated: Psychology and Alchemy and Symbols of Transformation. They introduced me to the idea that there was another kind of thinking beyond that of the rational mind, and it was one to be equally valued, with treasures to be gained from it: enrichment from unconscious sources, the potentials for human growth and realization, as well as insight into the dark side of human behavior. Joseph Campbell was especially helpful in locating the patterns and stages of human experience, the truths embodied in mythology. It was helpful to return to origins. Those insights were certainly underscored by Dante, that great psychologist, and the work of Dostoyevski, Conrad and Hawthorne, among others. All the writers mentioned gave me a sense of the heights literature can reach.
Probably the writer who influenced me most when I was starting to write short stories was Katherine Anne Porter. Her stories were gems. She set me on the path.
There were a good many artists who inspired me in the visual arts, particularly the Impressionists and early Modernists. Curiously, as my writing has moved more in the direction of the fantastic, my painting has gone more in the direction of the abstract. Klee, Kandinsky, Diebenkorn, and Joan Mitchell have been very important to me lately. In watercolor, John Marin, Charles Burchfield, Georgia O’Keefe, and Keith Crown have influenced me strongly. Keith Crown is an artist who deserves to be better known.
JJT: What has been the best advice you received along the way and, conversely, what was the worst?
Swan: I think the best advice came from Thoreau: “Live in the direction of your dreams.” Maybe the worst advice was embodied in the question an agent asked me with great irritation after she’d read the first fifty pages of Carnival for the Gods, “Can’t you just write a good commercial novel?” From Frank Stack, a well-known underground cartoonist and fine painter, came the statement: “Only you can empower yourself as an artist.” From him, I also learned not to destroy work—always a temptation—until you’ve let it sit around for a while. That way, you have some distance and can make a better judgment about it.
JJT: You’ve written essays, translations, poetry, prose, and various other forms. Do you have a favored format or genre?
Swan: I thought I would live and die a short story writer since I played in that form for so many years. But as I have made other rewarding ventures, I would say that I’m wedded to whatever form I happen to be engaged with at the moment. Each allows a certain kind of emphasis and way to explore. I am guided by an old aesthetic principle: vision dictates form. The materials themselves make the suggestions emerge in the way they require. You have to keep listening. The novel allows a broader reach, and I appreciate its scope: with the chance to develop more characters, to give more time to social and political issues. With poetry, I love the focus on image, the chance to engage all the resources of language, to link them to narrative and song. The essay is rather a late development for me, and I find a satisfaction in exploring a subject through a process of thought. I could say that the short story is my first love, since I keep coming back to it, but I enjoy the excitement of playing with form. There’s an unfinished play still lying in the drawer . . .. And the visual arts—that’s a whole other territory.
JJT: In retrospect, what emerges as major recurring themes in your short fiction throughout your career?
Swan: I think a major preoccupation has been the effort to determine what is meant by “experience.” Flannery O’Connor once said something to the effect that the greatest tragedy is not to have experience. What I think she meant is that there is considerable difference between event and experience. At first I thought that experience meant that something of great magnitude had to occur. Then I discovered that some people have extraordinary things happen to them, but essentially nothing much changes except the addition of a few anecdotes. “We had the experience, but we missed the meaning,” as Eliot notes.
I believe that experience brings about a different perspective, a way of seeing and, for better or worse, a different way of being in the world. It can awaken new potentialities for growth or bring about a shattering of illusions. The subject of experience is complex and takes one into deep mysteries.
JJT: What effect does change of locale have on your writing in terms of both story content and the act of writing?
Swan: Any change of local is like traveling to a foreign country. Some offer strong contrasts in language and people, landscape, and way of life. So whether I’m in Maine or Missouri, New Mexico or France, there is a great deal to take in. Locale has certainly had a great effect on the content of both my novels and my short stories. I left New Mexico at a young age, but in a strong sense, I’ve never left. It has been the primary territory for my imagination although other work is set in places where I’ve spent long and short periods of time. I’ve written half a dozen stories set in Maine, where I have lived for nearly forty summers, taking in the whole ambience of the place, its landscape, the coastal region, Down East, as opposed to the central and western parts, etc. And in Europe where I’ve spent a lot of time—Paris, Florence, Yugoslavia, Greece, Spain—I’ve found stories I need to tell. One of my as-yet unpublished novels has sections set in Copenhagen, Venice, and Prague. In some ways, I’ve gone the route of both James and Hawthorne in considering how the consciousness of an American is influenced from abroad. Certain stories seem to arise from the landscape, and I am in many ways influenced by what is around me for content and for the act of writing. A quiet place near a window that looks out on water and/or woods does very nicely. For a number of summers the landscape in Maine was so compelling I could barely concentrate on anything else. I just wanted to follow the light on water and in the trees—to dream.
JJT: In looking over your work, what discoveries have you made about yourself as a writer?
Swan: My first novel, Carnival for the Gods, was a complete surprise to me. A writer friend once told me I should try writing comedy, and I just laughed. I had no thought of moving toward the fantastic. I thought I was a realist, of a serious disposition at that. Then I ended up writing a comic fantasy about a small circus/carnival and the adventures they have in a mythical territory: the Seven Cities of Cibola, supposedly with roof tops of gold, such as the Spaniards were looking for when they came north to New Mexico. They didn’t find it, but I did, inventing the cities as I went along—my first discovery that I wasn’t a realist. I had to wrestle with the half-hatched insight that my supposed “real bent” was heading in a direction I hadn’t banked on.
JJT: You mentioned being surprised at how the circus has become a preoccupation of yours.
Swan: At first I was fascinated by carnivals, and I wanted to write about one. I thought I’d like to travel with a carnival, but at the time it was not possible. I was whining to a friend about this state of affairs, and she said, “Why don’t you invent one?” So I did—the result was Carnival for the Gods, a combination circus and carnival. I thought I was finished with that particular world, but ten years later I found myself making notes for a series of other novels, based on characters from the first. They were born of reading and imagination, but by the time I got to the fourth of the series, I had a strong desire to see a circus firsthand. I called up David and Laura Balding, the producers of the Circus Flora in St. Louis, told them what I wanted to do and asked if I could be on hand. They invited me to meet with them. I didn’t want to be just a spectator, so they gave me something to do. I ended up pulling the back curtain for all their performances in St. Louis that season, thereby seeing what went on backstage. Later they invited me to do the same during their season in Phoenix, so I went out there as well.
It was a wonderful experience. I spent time meeting and talking to various performers—the Flying Walendas, the Cossack riders, the clowns, the expert juggler they had, Flora-the-elephant’s handler, and others. Being with that group of dedicated artists was a real education. I learned things I could never have learned otherwise and gained an appreciation for them beyond what I already had. In the Arizona performance, I was given a small part: wearing a cloak and monster face, I had to run into the ring with two other performers, all of us carrying various signs which we waved in front of the crowd. Mine said, “Don’t talk to the animals.”
I thought I had finished the sequence with the fourth novel, Down to Earth, but another character, Amazing Grace, had to have her story told as well. I’m in the midst of that novel now—Dancing with Snakes.
The whole experience was so important to me that it affected more than the novels I’ve been working on. I wrote a long poem entitled, “The Dream of Circus,” and gave a copy to the performers. “The Dream of Circus” was published in the Sewanee Review and awarded their Tate Prize for Poetry.
JJT: Have your short stories followed the same trajectory into fantasy?
Swan: My short fiction pretty much kept its feet on the ground until I came to The Tiger’s Eye, inspired when I heard about a man who held conversations with a tiger in England’s Bristol Zoo. Recent stories have moved more and more in unexpected directions. My work has as its basis actual events, which take off from there towards other dimensions.
Perhaps I have simply fulfilled a certain suggestion in my work that I recorded a number of years ago: “My stories seem to be a kind of dreaming awake. Impressions float along the surface of consciousness in a coherent but diffuse manner—the thinking is associative, digressive, imagistic. The event becomes a cluster of impressions that work the same way an image or symbol does in a poem. The cumulative effect of these images is a meaning that is hinted at but not stated. There is change, usually the coming of awareness. I suppose that my stories are the reflection of a singularly untidy mind—there is an order in my work, arising from diffuseness, not imposed on it.”
I think that probably characterizes a good deal of what I’ve done and why perhaps, under the influence of Yeats and Stevens, Bachelard, Toni Morrison, Garcia Marquez and others, I’ve been exploring what kind of knowledge can be apprehended through the imagination.
JJT: How would you challenge writing students to better their craft?
Swan: Mainly to read and learn from really good work, and to explore the tradition to reach a sense of where they came from. Though it’s important to read one’s contemporaries, I think it’s a mistake to spend all one’s time with them. A lot of books speak only to a particular moment and then become dated. Of course if your aim is simply to produce a best seller, that’s another matter and takes some study of what seems to be important to the culture at a given time.
JJT: What moods, thoughts, and impressions do you hope your stories leave with readers?
Swan: A writer creates a world, whether it’s Bernard Malamud’s Lower Ease Side or Flannery O’Conner’s Georgia, and the reader is being invited to enter it, meet the inhabitants, enter their experience with its predicaments and opportunities. All good writers speak to a dimension of our experience and illuminate it in some way. Malamud and O’Connor explore the implications of a certain religious identity; Philip Roth goes to great depths in presenting characters entwined in the political and social realities at certain moments of our history. We have Nadine Gordimer’s South Africa, and so forth. All of them give us a sense of the triumphs and deficiencies of the human condition.
I hope that my fiction does the same, that it touches some aspect of a reader’s experience and leaves the reader with a sense of recognition and aesthetic satisfaction, a feeling of having been somewhere and that the trip was worth it. I’d like to leave behind a sense that there’s a language different from the Newspeak that we meet on a daily basis, that there is a sensual and emotional depth to our experience, a dreaming self that is worthy of our attention. That within us are ways of valuing our experience that the culture doesn’t emphasize.
JJT: Do you prefer working in certain environments, surrounded by talisman-type objects, say, or wearing certain clothing?
Swan: I like to work alone in a quiet place. Except on one occasion, I’ve not gone in for talismans or particular behavior, but that one occasion was quite extraordinary. I was in Prague, in 1988, right when everyone was celebrating the election of Vazclav Havel. Except for foreign tourists, the square had been deserted before. Now there were crowds on Wencelas Square, and music everywhere, of all kinds. I went on an excursion with a woman who wanted to show me her village, which she hadn’t been back to for years. I didn’t know this when we started off through the fields, but finally it was clear that we were lost; she didn’t know the way. After walking a stretch, we finally came to an abandoned quarry, with translucent stones of various colors in the ground—black, green transparent, pink, blue. It was a great discovery. We went around like a couple of kids gathering them up. I took home a bagful.
I was working on a novel that had to do with an American woman who comes to an understanding of the suffering of Europeans during the Hitler-Stalin era, and each morning I’d make an arrangement of the stones, working with them until the pattern satisfied me. Only then could I begin work on the book. Sometimes, I left the stones where they were for several days, but then I’d have to make another arrangement. I did this until the book was finished. Then I put them away, and that was that.
JJT: How do you usually edit your work?
Swan: I write draft after draft and after it’s fine-tuned, I may send it to a friend to read. Then I consider any suggestions and go back to it.
JJT: You’ve said that except for a six-week class in creative writing, you learned the craft through practice, and by reading. What would be your advice to someone who is considering an MFA-type program?
Swan: There are many good programs, with some excellent writers and teachers, so I think it’s a matter of defining your priorities and going after the program that best provides for you. Do you need financial support, for instance, and how much? Do you want to spend a winter navel-deep in snow, or do you have a liking for mountains or the desert? These things figure in along with everything else. What happens to the graduates of a particular program? Can they earn a living? I think you learn as much from your colleagues as you do from your instructors. Finally, whether you’re in a program or doing the job on your own, you have to educate yourself. I didn’t come through any formal training program and I didn’t know any writers. If the choice had been open, I’d have done things differently. On my own, I was a very slow learner, and perhaps a degree might have saved me from some mistakes, might have let me make better use of my time. Sometimes, though, I think I might have been unteachable.
JJT: What’s next for you? Are there as-yet-unexplored aspects of your work that you have a yen to discover?
Swan: My major work has been the sequence of five novels, beginning with Carnival for the Gods. I hope to complete the final one this summer. I might like to do a series of poems with paintings or even music. I have a strong yearning to do something with music, but I’m not sure I can get everything into one lifetime.
JJT: Where does the bulk of your work stand in relation to contemporary culture and politics?
Swan: For the most part I haven’t taken a political stance, except in Ceremony of Innocence, a novel that is yet to be published, although one section of it appeared in the Beloit Fiction Journal and another section in The Literary Review. Ceremony of Innocence is an attempt to explore the fragmentation of personality that occurs under despotism. But I do consider my work strongly political in that a writer can’t avoid revealing the values she stands for and which, because they affect the individual, affect the society, the polis. There is a strong connection to the natural world implicit in my work. I see nature as the basis for all value. A feeling that there is an underlying order that needs our respect if we’re not to be destroyed. I think a value system has to grow out of the recognition that we are a part of nature and deeply connected to all life. We’re doing terrible things at the moment, beginning with our food, the chemicals we use, the willingness to sacrifice the landscape and the purity of air and water to mining interests and oil production, as well as to untrammeled development. I deplore the waste embodied in our endless consumerism, our worship of money—the triumph of the Ayn Rand philosophy. At what price are we producing a generation of technical experts and financial wizards? What kind of mental and spiritual life are we creating with our devouring need to be entertained by sit-coms, reality shows, sports heroes, rock stars, and the like—so many passive entertainments? Although we have great energy and tremendous human potential, these are the things I find deeply troubling. I feel that life is the great miracle, terribly precious, and I’m strongly in favor of what will foster it. I hope that is revealed in my work.
Joyce J. Townsend holds a Master’s in Social Services Administration from Case Western Reserve University. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals and newspapers. In 2009 she received a fellowship from the Elizabeth George Foundation for a novel. A chronicle of her family’s involvement in the alternative school movement of the 1960s and 70s appears in Three Rs and the Other F Word—FREEDOM! (Excerpts appear on WebdelSol.) She narrates for The National Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and is a regular reviewer for the Library Journal.