portrait Gladys Swan

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 106 ~ March, 2006

Gladys Swan is the author of six books of fiction, including her collection of stories News from the Volcano (University of Missouri Press, 2000). Her novels include Carnival of the Gods (Vintage, 1986) and Ghost Dance: A Play of Voices (Louisiana State University Press, 1992), and her story collections are On the Edge of the Desert, (University of Illinois Press, 1980), Do You Believe on Cabeza de Vaca (University of Missouri Press, 1991), Of Memory and Desire (Louisiana State University Press 1989), and A Visit to Strangers (University of Missouri Press, 1996).

She was an associate professor of English at the University of Missouri at Columbia, and also taught Creative Writing at Vermont College.

Her short stories have appeared in several literary journals, including the Beloit Fiction Journal, Green Mountains Review, New Letters, The Ohio Review, Other Voices, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, and Chelsea.

Derek Alger: Image is very important to you in triggering fiction, can you
elaborate a bit?

Photo by Lilian Friman

Gladys Swan: A number of my stories have been triggered by certain images
that hold a compelling and mysterious quality and won’t leave me alone. The
first such instance was a story called “The Peach Tree,” inspired by a tree
in my yard that somehow became connected with the fate of an old woman who
lived next door. After I’d written a number of
stories, I began to see a certain pattern. With “The Old Hotel,” for
instance – an old Victorian outfit near the City of Rocks, in the desert
near a hot springs, miles from any town. People came to bathe in the
springs around the turn of the century, but when, as a kid, I wandered
through its rooms, the hotel had been long in disuse. Years later when I
back, it was gone; only the hot springs remained, to which the rattle snakes
were drawn for the warmth. Somehow the image of the hotel, and then years
later that stretch of empty desert really hit me. I had no idea what was
behind it. I kept writing a description of the
hotel – over and over – then a character appeared, and another. Fifty
pages later, I quit.

I’ve always had an interest in the visual arts as well, and when I
went back to painting, I found that certain images could travel in both
directions. I was working on a series of lithographs, at one point, which I
called “News from the Volcano.” At the same time I was at work on a story
inspired by Shiprock, the core of an ancient volcano in northern New Mexico.
I finally realized that the two had come from the same underlying source. I
changed the title of the story to “News from the Volcano,” because that’s
what it had to be, and it was published together with one of the lithographs
in the Green Mountains Review.
I thought, wow, I’ll try putting together a book, a combination of stories
and paintings both from the same source of image, but not illustrations.
Only it doesn’t work that way – at least for me. As soon as I tried to put
some kind of intellectual intent to the process, it went cold.

DA: You capture such vivid descriptions of the Southwest in your writing, I
think a lot of people would be surprised where you spent your early

GS: Place has always had a strong effect on me, but somehow the ten years I
spent in the East, vivid though some of my childhood experiences are, didn’t
set me up. Delaware never really became my fictional territory. I think
I’ve written one story from that background, in which the location is
totally unimportant. Perhaps because New Mexico was such a contrast to the
flat green little spot I grew up in, it created a set of lasting
impressions. And what I experienced in going there was truly culture shock.
A mining town in the mountains, surrounded by the desert, of which half the
population was Hispanic, speaking a different language – all pretty

DA: Do you remember your first impressions of New Mexico?

GS: I remember my first impressions vividly. In fact, I’ve put them into a
story, “On the Edge of the Desert,” the title story of my first book. I had
a strange sort of vision that I’ve never been able to explain. I saw a
landscape of purple cactus against a purple mountain, but the whole prospect
had such an extraordinary light on it – quite unreal, perhaps you could say
“enchanted.” I don’t know how long the impression lasted, and I’ve never
had quite that experience again.

DA: So, you can take the girl out of New Mexico, but you can’t take New
Mexico out of
the girl?

GS: Quite right. I wasn’t happy growing up in New Mexico – I didn’t fit
in anywhere, and perhaps I needed to leave before I understood what the
place meant to me. I haven’t exhausted the exploration. It really became
fictional territory, even though I didn’t return
for many years. I was almost afraid to go back at all – perhaps the
reality would interfere.
But the opposite happened – it was thrilling to go back. When I hit the
Guadalupe Mountains near Carlsbad after a three day drive and stood out
looking over the landscape – that turquoise sky, the clouds like
battleships, I felt I’d come home. Now I go back every time I can manage

DA: Did you start writing early?

GS: Like many kids I tried writing little poems and stuff, but it was my
eighth grade spelling teacher who sent me on my way. She assigned us the
task of making a story out of the week’s spelling words and then read mine
to the class. After that, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Every time I
think of that I simply want to laugh – what a crazy way to take on a sense
of vocation. For a while I thought it had to do with fame and fortune.
Another laugh.

DA: You’ve always been multi-dimensional when it comes to the arts,
particularly with
writing and painting.

GS: I thought I would live and die a short story writer. Then my stories
started getting longer, and I leapt into a novel. It was a short story
writer’s failure to write a novel, and I
have no desire to publish it, though two parts of it were published as short
stories. Then
I wrote another novel that I have no desire to publish. My first published
novel is a kind
of cosmic fantasy, nothing I ever expected to write. In fact, through it I
discovered that my fiction has its roots in the fantastic, and all along I’d
been under the mistaken impression
I was a realist. I’ve written several novels since then – I really love
the form. And surprisingly, I’ve been writing a fair amount of poetry in
recent years. I love playing
with form.

DA: You taught for a number of years, how did this influence your approach
to writing?

GS: For most of my career, I taught literature – I came to teach creative
writing in mid-career. Teaching literature really gave me an education,
especially since I taught in a
small liberal arts college, where we were encouraged by generalists. So I
taught at one time or another Introduction to Poetry and Fiction; a course
in Great Books that began with Homer and ended with Doestoyevski; modern
fiction; modern poetry; Greek literature in
translation; and Romantic and Victorian poetry. Other things too. I can’t
think of anything better for a writer than to read the books that have
formed our cultural heritage. Too many people read only their
contemporaries. There’s hardly a day that I don’t think of something from
Dante or Homer or Shakespeare – or a line of poetry from Yeats or Wallace
Stevens. There’s a long list of people who’ve formed my mind. I got to
know them by having to read them carefully enough to be able to teach them.
I enjoyed teaching creative writing as well. Looking at work from the
inside, trying to understand the process, the structure has certainly been a
strong force in shaping my own work.

DA: Specifically, I know you’ve taught `Shaping and Structuring Your
Story.’ How important is an understanding of the craft of fiction writing?

GS: Craft is the basis of everything, whether it be laying tile or
performing surgery, or writing a story. Some have the impression that since
they speak the language and have heard or read stories, they’ll immediately
know how to write one. An unfortunate illusion.
Just as you have to know something about form and composition and color to
create a painting, you have to know about narrative structure and tone and
point of view – all that
makes up the craft of fiction. In a certain sense it may be true, as some
people insist, that you can’t teach creative writing. There are elements of
talent and vision that each of us brings to the process that you don’t get
in a classroom. But there are techniques that can be taught, and the more
you have a hold on them, the more you’re able to transcend them.
Otherwise you’re hamstrung.

DA: You’ve been involved in The Taos Writing Salon, which is described as a
“cross-disciplinary writing adventure.

GS: My particular part of it I call “Heightening Imagination – Drawing and
Writing from the Image.” Imagination comes from the word image, and my aim
is to put people in touch with images that are important to them, that can
become the source of creative work. It’s an approach I’ve developed from my
experience as both writer and painter. And the results can be quite
surprising. People recover things long forgotten but that have a real
impact on them.

Drawing them, getting them first without words, puts you on the most
immediate contact with the image, begins the flow, you might say. Then you
can go any direction you want – poem, story, play. Or a painting. It
works equally well for artists and writers, and anyone else who wants to
play. I can remember one student I came upon in a graduate writing
workshop, where his instructor told me he was not doing all that well. In
my session, he didn’t get to the writing part at all; he just kept working
on a drawing. It was a beauty. And when he showed it around, my urge was
to tell him, “Get out of here and go to art school.”

The part of the mind not immediately available to us, the unconscious,
is a treasure house. When you can tap into it, you have riches at your

DA: What have you been up to lately and where are you now?

GS: Though I had no expectation of going back to the world of Carnival of
the Gods, one day I found myself making notes for what has come to be three
more novels, taking up some of the characters in the first. It’s now The
Carnival 4. Early on, I got interested in circus and carnival. The first
three books were written from imagination and reading. Then it seemed to me
I ought to know what a circus was really like. So I called up the producer
of the Circus Flora, a fine small circus in St. Louis and asked him if I
could come and hang around, but not just be a spectator. So I spent a
couple weeks pulling the back curtain
for all the performances. Then I went out to Arizona with them for their
winter gig. It was a great experience; I met some wonderful, thoroughly
interesting people – the Flying Wallendas, the Ukrainians from a Cossack
riding act, a couple of wonderful clowns. All
very dedicated people. The sequence is now finished. All that remains is
to get someone to publish it. I have a couple more novels I want to write,
a book of poems to finish, plus another story collection in which the
fantastic element takes over.