About The Author
Born and educated in London, where he still lives, Graham Swift is the author of eight novels, a collection of short stories and an anthology of non-fiction.
His first novel, The Sweet Shop Owner, was published in 1980. This was followed by Shuttlecock (1981), which won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and Learning to Swim(1982), a book of short stories.
In 1983, he was included in Granta magazine's first decennial list of Best Young British Novelists - a stellar group that also included Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie.
© Ekko von Schwichow
This was also the year he published Waterland, which won the David Highan Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. A story of a Fenland brewing dynasty, the lives of eels and the cyclical nature of history, it is widely acknowledged as one of the finest post-war British novels and is regularly featured on the National Curriculum. One contemporary review described it as "so good that whether or not it wins the Booker Prize it is almost of no consequence".
Two further novels followed, Out of This World (1988) and Ever After (1992), before he was finally awarded the Booker Prize in 1996 for Last Orders, later made into a film starring Michael Caine.
Since then he has published two novels, The Light of Day (2003) and Tomorrow (2007) and, most recently, Making an Elephant: Writing from Within (2009), a collection of essays on topics as wide-ranging as his admiration for Isaac Babel, buying a guitar with Kazuo Ishiguro and Ted Hughes' fishing tips; it also features previously unpublished poems.
His most recent novel, Wish You Were Here, (2006) focuses on Jack Luxton, a former farmer who now runs caravan park on the Isle of Wight with his childhood sweetheart, and whose brother fled their father only to be killed in Iraq.
His new book is his first collection of short stories in over 30 years. England and Other Stories looks at the essence of Englishness, both past and present, exploring its many contradictions and predicaments.
The 25 tales tackle the scars of war upon those who survived and those who waited for them, the evolution and fragmentation of national identity, the bonds between friends, between neighbours, between fathers and sons and between husbands and wives.
He delves beneath the surface to reveal the unspoken and the unsayable, he exposes the violent and lustful urges. He talks of national pride and shame, of ordinary lives in extraordinary times, of the remarkable nestling quietly amid the mundane, of the people that surround us every day, of ourselves.
In our exclusive interview, Graham talks about how his own Englishness makes him feel like both an insider and an outsider, how abandoning the short story for novels all those years ago took him by surprise and why words are not the most important thing in literature.
Questions & Answers
This is the first collection of short stories you've published since Learning to Swim back in 1982. Why did decide to return to the form after so many years?
It wasn't a decision, it just happened. Short stories were what I began my writing career with. That was fine by me, I was happy writing them. I didn't see them as stepping stones to something else, and that's still true -- I think the short story is a great form in itself. Nonetheless, one day I started writing a novel. Then I wrote another, then another. Rather to my surprise, I became a novelist, even to the extent of feeling vaguely guilty at having deserted the short story. Each time I finished a novel I'd think: Wouldn't it be good to spend some time writing stories again. But, with one or two isolated exceptions, the stories just didn't happen - until very recently. It was a great thrill to return to them, but the big difference this time was that I soon felt, as the stories kept coming, that they were contributing to some single whole, indeed a single book. All the stories in England are new, but none has been published before, so the book isn't like the typical collection of stories in which a writer might gather together stories written over a long period of time and previously published separately elsewhere. Each story can be read entirely individually, but I hope they do combine into a single enterprise, the nature of which is suggested by the title.
You took great care in choosing the orders in which the stories are presented. Is there a conceptual journey you have in mind for readers?
My answer links with my previous one. Yes, I gave a lot of thought to the order in which the stories appear. I wanted it to be the sequence that would best serve reading the book as a whole. People who've already read the book have told me that it works in that way: that one story somehow flows into another, that there are echoes across them, that the whole experience is even rather like reading a novel. Of course I can't dictate to readers how they read the book. They must be at liberty to dip in randomly, as they might with any volume of stories, but the order of the stories on the contents page certainly isn't random. 'Conceptual journey' anyway sounds horribly dry and intellectual. I'd prefer 'emotional journey'. The book embraces a great variety of human predicaments. People have generally reacted to it on a 'it made me laugh, it made me cry' basis.
The collection concludes with the title story, which looks at how the English perceive other English people from different backgrounds. How do you feel that disparate configurations of Englishness have affected our ability to define our national identity?
One of the ironies or implications of the title - England and Other Stories - is that England itself might be a 'story', a made-up idea, beside which the reality is very different and hard to pin down. Certain aspects of the physical country persist, but there's no doubt that England has become less homogenous and definable over the years. My twenty-five stories bear witness to this. It could be said that they're are all 'pieces of England', but it might equally be said that they're all different Englands. They reflect, honestly and sympathetically I hope, that England is a mixture - several feature characters whose roots are outside England: Asian, Caribbean, Cypriot, Polish, Irish. But they also reflect the fact that England, small country as it is, is still inherently diverse - Hampshire is different from Yorkshire - or that it can be alien to itself. There are still people in England who've never been to London or who must anyway regard London as another country. And of course, before now, English people have taken issue with themselves. One of the stories, 'Haematology', is about the Civil War.
The title story perhaps most intensely and graphically combines all these things, since it's as much about the foreignness of a north-country person in the west country as about the foreignness of a person of Caribbean origin in England. It's, less directly, about the colonisation of the countryside by rich metropolitans and about England's own colonial past. And it's about one man's vivid discovery that he doesn't really know what England is. All of this is closely bound up with language, with voice. It's an unsettling story perhaps, but I hope a humane and funny one. One of its subjects is comedy, and it's not the only story of which this could be said. I hope there's comedy throughout the book.
I'd add that though I'm thoroughly English myself, as a writer I've always tended to approach my own country as if I'm both an insider and an outsider, I see it as a stranger might see it, or I look for the strangeness in it. I want of course to depict, evoke, celebrate the external world, but I'm primarily drawn to that mysterious stuff that goes on inside us, the stuff we're made of, so there's another irony to my book: it may be about England, but it's perhaps principally about that inner territory we all occupy that has no borders except those of the human frame.
The lingering effects of war on both those who went to fight and those waiting at home, broached in stories such as 'Was She the Only One?' and 'Fusilli' explore a theme that has recurred in your writing, especially in the novels Out of This World and Wish You Were Here. Do you feel that a post-war psyche still exists in England?
I've already mentioned that one of the stories is about England against England, the Civil War. There are stories that relate to other specific wars, but there's anyway a fair amount of violence, emotional or physical - I think there's quite a lot of it submerged, not so far, beneath the 'green and pleasant land'. 'Post-war' is a phrase that implies the Second World War. As the generation with direct memory dies out and as new generations grow up, that phrase will have less meaning and currency. But the truth is that the human species is a potentially warlike one - just look around at the world. My last novel, Wish You Were Here, was about two English brothers, both once intimately attached to the land, one now an ex-farmer, one a dead soldier. Peace and war.
Like Jack Luxton, the protagonist of Wish You Were Here, there are quite a number of characters here who are relatively inarticulate, or at least not given to volubility. Do you feel that we need to focus on the internal and unspoken to get to the heart of any character?
I think this links with what I say about the territory of 'the human frame'. I strongly believe that there's more to people than what they say or show or, sometimes, even know. I'm drawn to inarticulacy because I think a large part of life - the life inside us - goes largely unarticulated. How many people walk around thinking: No one knows my story, no one knows what's inside me? So it's one of the functions of fiction to break the silence, say the unsaid, tell the stories that don't get told. In another sense, and this may seem a contradiction, I think articulacy in writing is not necessarily about words. Words are there to transmit things, not an end in themselves. What really matters is what lies beneath and beyond the words. It's one of our measures of great literature that it somehow gets words to vibrate to things for which most of us don't have words, and even the most articulate of us, before certain things, can be lost for words. But it's not the words that matter - they might be very ordinary words - it's the vibration.
Wish You Were Here reflects on the consequences for ordinary people of contemporary issues, the conflict in Iraq and the difficulties faced by farming communities. Is this a political novel or do they simply form a context for the issues Jack and Ellie face?
I don't think the either-or of the question really applies. I don't write political novels in the sense of writing with a political agenda and my primary interest is in the messy, uncategorizable stuff of personal life and in what might be called 'the stuff we have inside us'. And I also simply want to tell a story. But, equally, I've always been interested in how the 'small world' of our personal lives connects or doesn't connect with the 'big world' of historical and communal forces. Once you enter that area, there's a political dimension. You'd hardly call Jack a 'political creature' and most of his dealings in the novel are of an acutely personal kind, but he's not totally blind to the fact that he's also dealing, intimately and personally, with the consequences of his country's foreign policy or to the need to look into his own conscience about it. There's a passage in the novel where he reflects, clumsily, on what it means to be a 'citizen' - to be a citizen in the particular distressing circumstances he has to confront. That's the beginning of politics.
In locating Jack and Ellie's new life in a seaside caravan park, you've returned to the liminal zone between land and water that served you so well in Last Orders, Waterland and 'Cliffedge' [a short story in Learning to Swim]. Why do you think you've been drawn to writing about such locations?
I agree that I keep coming back to the seaside. There's a piece in my non-fiction book Making an Elephant which is all about this and called 'I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside', which was one of the epigraphs for Last Orders. There are two aspects to it. I think we're all drawn to the seaside, or to the coast generally, out of a rather primal urge: to be at the very edge of our natural habitat, contemplating this other element that isn't ours and which we know can be hostile. But of course we're also classically drawn to the seaside to indulge our sense of play and pleasure, to be on holiday, to shed our normal workaday selves, and this has spawned a whole, wonderful lore of seaside trivia.
The extraordinary thing is that the two urges, the elemental and the frivolous, can exist side by side. I've always been drawn to regions of ambiguity and precariousness (those titles, 'Waterland', 'Cliffedge', tell you everything), to regions where lines of inner as well as outer geography can suddenly, perhaps catastrophically, be crossed. Graham Greene liked to quote Browning's line: "Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things". But with the seaside you get this extra ironical, genial level - the sense of fun and vulgarity, life as comedy (and I think there's comedy in Wish You Were Here). The whole gamut of human responses seems to be there.
In previous novels, your characters have often been trapped in lives that leave them hobbled by regrets, such as Willy Chapman's pragmatic marriage in The Sweet Shop Owner or the Cricks' being trapped by history in Waterland. Was Jack's decision to move on from farming the only way to escape a forlorn destiny in Wish You Were Here?
I don't think it was the only way. After all, his own brother escapes by joining the army. But it's the way that happens in my story. And in my story Jack is given the particular opportunity for a new life that comes via Ellie. I don't, incidentally, see my characters as trapped. They're dealing as best they can with what life has brought them and with their own innate traits of character. If that's to be trapped, then we're all trapped.
Jack recognises his own intellectual limitations, wryly considering his place on a scale that includes cows and caravans; does the simpler vocabulary of this novel reflect Jack's relative inarticulacy?
It's not quite that straightforward. I hope my novel, as all novels should be, is a highly articulate thing. But, yes, I had to be careful that the vocabulary didn't stray too far beyond Jack's mental range. Unusually for me, the novel is written in the third person. Its 'voice' isn't Jack's, even though it might sometimes seem that it is. I think I wanted it to be the kind of third person that's so intimately close to the character that it almost melts into the first person. Nonetheless it's third person and this allows for a degree of stepping outside Jack (and other characters) and commenting upon them.
For me this was largely a matter of instinct. One thing - one of the most important things - a novel can do is give articulacy to the thoughts and feelings characters might have, but might not necessarily be able to articulate verbally themselves. It's a very delicate art to get this right, to be subjective and objective at the same time, but always with complete respect for your character.
Your previous book, Tomorrow, also focussed on a character, Paula, constantly turning over events of the past in her mind, albeit over the course of one sleepless night. Did the experience of writing that book help you hone the presentation of Jack's thought processes in Wish You Were Here?
Not really, or not that I'm aware of, though it's just occurred to me that both novels begin in a bedroom. And, if I think again, one thing they have in common is humour - the most overlooked aspect of my writing. There's humour on many pages of both Tomorrow and Wish You Were Here. But the characters and the 'worlds' of the two novels are completely different. Jack is a 'failed' farmer, Paula a successful art dealer. Tomorrow is set in an affluent suburb of London and has a metropolitan background. Wish You Were Here is set in rural England. London is scarcely mentioned. Paula is highly educated and - to return to the last question - articulate, so the novel can employ an appropriate vocabulary. And it's written in the first person. In Tomorrow there's a history of love and happiness, in Wish You Were Here there's a history (with a few fragile exceptions) of unhappiness.
I'd like to feel that the two novels show I can do different things, but what they share is firstly the closeness I want to establish with the principal characters and secondly the fact that both characters are, in very different ways, on a brink. Jack sits with a loaded shotgun on the bed behind him. We don't know why. Paula is on a much less violent brink - a brink that may even prove not to be a brink at all - nonetheless it has far-reaching implications. One of the things Wish You Were Here is quite plainly about is loss. Paula might be said to have everything - but not quite. So Tomorrow is about the fear of loss. It's much easier perhaps to sympathize with an underdog like Jack than with the outwardly successful. But I personally feel for them both, for their different kinds of vulnerability, I love them both. Incidentally, the seaside features significantly in Tomorrow too.
From your first book, The Sweet Shop Owner, many of your principal characters have had largely mundane lives and vocations. Have you always intended to give them an 'everyman' aspect?
I think I may have partly answered this with the last two questions. 'Everyman' is a rather tricky label. It could hardly apply to Paula. In my now nine novels I've dealt with a range of main characters from shopkeepers to history teachers, to private detectives, art dealers and, now, dairy farmers. But I think my aim is always to get to the core human stuff, the life-and-death stuff we all share. Jack as a farmer may connect very obviously with basic, earthy and animal things, but Paula is confronting the basics of biology. Life and death, life and birth.
Wish You Were Here is set in two quintessentially English locations, Devon farmland and an unglamorous Isle of Wight resort. You've set previous books in places such as the Fens [Waterland], Kent [Last Orders] and London's quiet suburbs [The Sweet Shop Owner, The Light of Day, Tomorrow]. Do you feel you've been considering the idea of what it means to be English in your writing?
This has never been a conscious intention, but, yes, my writing reflects my own country and what it means to belong to it. I think this is almost inevitable with any writer who has his or her indigenous roots. My writing reflects England and Englishness just as a French writer's work would reflect France and Frenchness. On the other hand, though I have a real affection for aspects of my country, I like also to step outside it, to see it, as it were, with a stranger's eye. I did this in Waterland by choosing a very peculiar part of England as its setting, a sort of foreign country within my own country. Wish You Were Here clearly explores the attachment to land in a direct, primitive sense - the kind of attachment that is lost to an increasingly cosmopolitan world but is nonetheless, where it still exists, capable of breaking hearts.
But I think it's also abundantly clear that my novel takes a very complex and questioning view of things when 'land' and 'country' merge into the idea of nationhood and into the idea of things being done, supposedly, in the name of or 'for' one's country. That's why it's not just a novel about farmers, it's about soldiers and war. England is naturally what I start with, it's what's on my doorstep, and it's what perhaps I'll keep coming back to. But I've said many times that I believe that the local is the route, the entrance way to the universal. I don't think my work would 'translate' - in any sense, not just the linguistic one - if it was just about England. Yet I don't think it would translate, either, if it wasn't about England.
In your essay, 'Santa's Clinic' [published in Making an Elephant], you describe fiction as "a kind of inoculation, a vaccine, preserving us from such plagues as reality can breed. But, like all true vaccines, it will work only if it contains a measure of the plague itself, a tincture of the thing it comforts". Do you think this belief is as important for a reader in engaging with a story as it is for a writer in telling it?
That reprinted piece was in fact written a long time ago. I'm not sure I'd entirely go along with the inoculation idea now, it's a little too neat. But there's some substance to it. Literature has the mysterious capacity to present us, by imaginative proxy, with experiences that strengthen us or expand our understanding, even though actually to undergo those experiences might damage us, even destroy us. Think of how tragedy can be uplifting. To answer your specific question, I think it's a process - rather than a belief - which both writer and reader can engage in, though not necessarily consciously at all.
Wish You Were Here is a book that rewards patient reading , reflecting Jack's own stolidity of thought. Are you expecting a different response from critics who spend time digesting the book rather than reviewers writing to deadlines?
The response that really matters is the response of readers and that's usually invisible. It might be best to avoid all speculation about critics and reviewers -- I'm not even sure if they're two separate species these days. The demands of journalism and the demands of the novel aren't always compatible, though over recent years I think there's been, a gradual confusing of the roles of journalism and fiction. They're actually very different. A novel is both a public, published thing, yet peculiarly private. There's no limit to the degree of intimacy you can put into a novel, to the rawness and nakedness with which you can present human behaviour and emotion. Critics and reviewers always have their clothes on. They're concerned to a greater or lesser degree with how they look. The writer and the reader can easily be naked with each other, their relationship is private, intimate, unseen. Not so the reviewer and the writer. And, yes, the reviewer has to be quick. A novel, by definition, isn't quick. It's a thing of maybe several hundred pages, it takes its time and it can embrace in its narrative long periods of historical time. When you read a novel there's a way in which you live with it, you take it into your own life. Good novels stay with us even when they're over and we may even wish to read them again. The quick, the thumbnail sketch of a novel is almost a contradiction in terms, but it's exactly what most newspaper reviewers are required to produce.
In an interview with identitytheory.com in 2003, you stated that "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." You also expressed concern that "marketing departments for the publishing house have become more important than the editorial ones". Do you feel that the power of storytelling is still driving the book world or are literature and business too much at odds for publishing to serve either sufficiently well?
Did I say all that? I don't remember! It's a question of priorities, of things being in the right order. I absolutely believe that the power of storytelling -- it's such a basic human force -- will carry the day. There's nothing wrong with marketing departments that are there to assist in the process of getting the story to the reader. Editorial departments perform much the same function at an earlier stage. Everything goes wrong when marketing departments - or editorial departments - start to prescribe what stories they, and the public, should have. Then originality gets ignored or abused and the public's intelligence gets insulted, and there's enough of that around already.