Interview with David Swann
Flash Fiction Award Judge
July – October 2017

David Swann’s flash fiction collection Stronger Faster Shorter was published in 2015. In 2016 he won the Bridport Flash Fiction Competition, his eighth success in a Prize that he judged in 2013. His other publications include The Privilege of Rain (based on his experiences as a Writer in Residence in jail, and shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award) and The Last Days of Johnny North, a collection of his prize winning short fiction. He is currently Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Chichester, where he teaches modules on fiction, poetry, and screenwriting. His ambition is to ride downhill in a bath.

  • You have written and published flash fiction regularly since the 1990s. How have you seen the form developing during this century?

I’ve always been one of those annoying John Peel-style types, who likes bands until everybody else likes them, so I’m pleased to say that flash isn’t yet filling stadiums. But it’s definitely enjoying a boom. When I first started reading and writing flash in the mid-1990s, its main enthusiasts were a few cool liberal American students. Now it’s got much wider appeal. That’s the main change, I think. So there’s a track to follow, and you can, at least, entertain vague hopes of getting published. Imagine that! In the mid-1990s, your best bet was to go out with your flash onto some wasteland and shout it at pigeons.

  • Which writers of flash fiction do you currently admire?

I wish I could write as freely and daringly as Sean Lovelace. Even when I don’t get his stuff, I feel this thrill just staring at the page. I go back in amazement to Caroline Forche’s ‘The Colonel’. And Mary Robison, especially her story ‘Yours’, and flash novel, Why Did I Ever – works of genius. Mainly, I encounter flash in anthologies, so I admire what Ash Chantler and Pete Blair are doing with Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, combining new and experienced writers. I love the humour in David Gaffney’s stuff, too. He makes it look so easy. And in the 1990s when I was starting out, I was wild about Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Very short fiction, leaving lots of story in the gaps. Denis died this week, still in his 60s. It feels like a friend has died. A friend, or Gandalf. How’s the planet supposed to cope without Denis Johnson on it?

  • You are also a widely published poet. Would you say that flash fiction is a close cousin of poetry?

I would, yes. Let’s take Caroline Forche’s ‘The Colonel’. Is it a poem, or a flash? It’s been published as both. But who cares what it is, as long as it gives you goose-bumps? I think of flash as ‘the third space’, perched somewhere between fiction and poetry. It’s a hospital for writers like me whose prose is too poetic, and whose poems are too prosey.

  • Do you have a favourite piece from your collection Stronger, Faster, Shorter, which is reviewed on this site by flash fiction writer Jeanette Sheppard?

Most writers are a bit weird about their own work, aren’t they? Usually I just go on writing new stuff, trying to forget past embarrassments, hoping I’ll finally manage something decent. But I’ve a soft spot for ‘Butlins with Books’. Live, it usually works quite well because I can pull daft faces.

  • Have you a further collection on the go for readers to look forward to?

The next book will be a collection of poems. It’s called Gratitude on the Coast of Death, due in Autumn, 2017, from Waterloo Press. After that, I need to finish a book of more conventional-length stories that has been gestating slowly. But I’m busy with a flash book too, The Children’s Golden Treasury of Drizzle, which will feature cartoons by my friend Bob Nancollis, and look like a 1950s kids’ book, except with more bad weather and violent anti-Brexit rants.

  • You won the Bridport Flash Fiction Prize yourself in 2016 with your wonderful flash fiction piece ‘Drought’ and you were also highly commended in the Bridport prize short story category in the same year with your short story ‘The War Against the Monsters’. What do you think is the value of entering writing competitions?

It’s the democracy of anonymity. All too often in publishing, I’ve experienced class barriers. In the faceless world of competitions, all that counts is the work.

  • You’ve been quoted as agreeing with the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti that literature is the ‘shortest distance between two humans’. Can you say a bit more about that and how that statement influences your writing?

I recalled this quotation a lot while working as a teacher in prison. The lifers were usually suspicious of each other, with good reason. You need to keep your guard up in a place like that, because words can get you killed. But something happened when we wrote and read together. People shared things. They took emotional risks, and some of the barriers came down. I found it extremely moving. I just read a nice online interview this morning with A.L. Kennedy where she said we need to be kind with each other because there’s so little time. It made me think about literature and its role in kindness. It made me wish Donald Trump had been taught to read.

  • Finally, what for you makes a winning flash fiction piece?

If I feel it on my skin, that’ll do for me. So: emotional intelligence, I guess. But also: compression that doesn’t feel compressed. Use of every single millimetre, but the retention of space. Motion and change, combined with something eternal and static. An economy with language that doesn’t remind me of Government austerity. I’m keen on dogs, too. Flashes with dogs.

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